One day a little old woman in black Hassidic garb approached me at the Western Wall. In one hand she held a pushka and in the other, proffered a peacock-fan array of laminated cards, imprinted with various Torah teachings and lines from Psalms.
I gave a shekel but declined the gift, explaining that I had a hard enough time as it was, remembering to take proper care of all the stray bits of Torah drifting around inside my purse.
“So this one,” she encouraged me with her gray eyes. “Ze tov meod (It’s very good).”
She pulled one out of her collection with something in English, in large capital letters, and slipped it into my hand.
“No thanks,” I apologized, returning the card to its owner and glancing at my watch. The bus would be leaving in 10 minutes.
The woman regarded me with an expression of kind curiosity. What could make a nice observant American lady decline to accept such a benign message? “Why not?” she inquired gently.
I opened my mouth to speak, but words didn’t come. How could I explain to a Jewish soul such as hers, born and raised in the holy city of Jerusalem, about Miss McElroy? For with those two words, my high school gym teacher had just been roused from her decades of hibernation deep inside my brain, and here she was now, stepping forth — as brightly military and peppy as ever — to pontificate sweetly about the importance of push-ups, good citizenship, girls’ soccer, and wiping that frown off your face. How to explain that back in the days when giants roamed the suburbs, Miss McElroy (whose name has been changed to protect the guilty — a line I once read in a story by Naomi Lobl) was the sort of grownup who is constitutionally incapable of passing by a gloomy teenager without conducting a verbal break-in, knocking down all the fragile walls around the child’s subterranean hideout. (Irrational joy was also a criminal offense, but other teachers had that beat covered.) Every day between periods 3 and 4, as we students changed classes and I made my way down the hall from Algebra to Ancient History, there she’d be standing, blonde and sunny, perky Miss McElroy. Spiritually speaking, she was as bouncy as a basketball.
From my present perspective, I realize she meant well. She was just doing her part to make the world safe for democracy, and it wasn’t her fault I was so hunkered down in my morose adolescent loneliness and self-consciousness, that being accosted by a missionary of happiness only served to deepen my gloom. It certainly did nothing to dispel my sense of isolation. Oh, how embarrassing, when it was I whom she targeted! Compared to her, I felt like a teenage monster of mourning.
On board the bus, I gazed out absentmindedly at my fellow Jews as they emerged after davening at the Kotel. Here I was at the holiest place on earth, light years away from high school. I didn’t have to go to gym class. I didn’t have to finish my Algebra homework. I should have just taken that card and taken it to heart, for goodness sakes. Maybe it was just what I needed to hear today — the message meant, and sent, for me.
I was contemplating the foolishness of letting the past block out my experience of the present — the gloomy monster rides again! — when whom do you suppose I caught sight of in her Mea Shearim cape and black headscarf — with her soft grey eyes and her modest gait, boarding the bus just before it pulled away from the curb? Lickity-split I was at her side, and of course she was glad that I’d changed my mind. Sitting back down, I read the words again.
I thought of The Laughter Therapist, a poem by Relli Wieselthier, in which a group of women sit around thinking about the various troubles in their lives, and reciting in unison, “Ha ha ha, he he he. Ha ha ha, ho ho ho.”
So I thought about Iran’s nuclear capability, and smiled. I thought of the dishes in my sink, and smiled.
I thought of the bathroom’s broken plumbing, and smiled, and of the apartment I’d wanted that someone else bought.
I thought of my lost laptop, and smiled. (The experiment didn’t work, I noticed, if it was a grin-and-bear-it sort of affair. I had to actually lift up the corners of my mouth like a smiley-face sticker.)
I thought of the paycheck that hadn’t yet arrived, and of the pain in my neck, and smiled. I thought how much I missed my family in America, and smiled.
I thought of my sister, whom we’d lost long ago.
I thought of the traffic jam we were sitting in, and smiled, and how I had to pick up some things at the supermarket, and smiled.
Outside the windows, a crow sat on a tree, and flapped off into the cloudy white sky as the light changed. I smiled.
A cat jumped out of a garbage can, startling a woman with a baby carriage.
I turned the card over and found more, written on the back.
The Value of a Smile
A smile costs nothing, but gives much. It reaches those who receive, without making poorer those who give. It takes but a moment, but the memory sometimes lasts a lifetime.
None is so rich or mighty that he can get along without it, and no one is so poor but that he cannot be made richer by it.
A smile creates happiness in the home, fosters goodwill in business, and is the countersign of friendship. It brings rest to the weary, cheer to the discouraged. A smile is sunshine to the sad, and is Nature’s best antidote to trouble.
Yet it cannot be bought, begged, borrowed or stolen. For it is of no value to anyone until given away. Some people are too tired to give you a smile. Give them one of yours, as no one needs a smile as much as he who has no more to give.
I thought of Miss McElroy, and thanked her for being my teacher.
“Keep smiling!” she ordered.
I sort of cringed, but smiled, and she smiled back.
This article originally appeared in Ami Magazine.