I met Elijah the Prophet in Phoenix.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that he showed up – it was Passover, after all – but at age 12 I had sat through enough Seders to know that the prophet we opened the door for after dinner didn’t make a habit of appearing in the flesh. Mostly, I thought of Elijah as the Jewish version of Santa Claus: a sweet entertainment for gullible children. The Ghost, if you will, of Seders Past.
So I wasn’t expecting much of a show that night, at the Arizona resort where non-observant families like mine could spend their Passovers adventuring at the Grand Canyon, catching a Suns game and jeeping atop the red mesas. In fact, I expected to spend my evening bored to tears as my father retold a story I’d heard a hundred times. The only thing keeping me in my chair that night was the promise of the five-star dinner I knew would eventually come.
We trudged through the rigmarole and ate our fabulous gourmet meal until we were stuffed to the seams. We searched for the Afikomen, and after I found it we prepared to open the door for Elijah. Everyone stood, singing a song of welcome, but as my brother pulled the door open, everyone froze. What I saw sent a shiver through me.
In the doorway stood a round, jolly man with a bushy beard and wearing full Chassidic garb: black jacket and tzitzit swinging, and hat askew, as if he’d just blown in on the desert wind. We stared at him as he waddled into the room.
Maybe there was a Jewish Santa Claus after all.
“Gut Yontif!” he said, his voice a bubbly giggle. “I’m Itzik.”
We were silent.
“I’m the hotel mashgiach,” he said, identifying himself as the person who ensures the kitchen is kosher. “I just wanted to make sure everything was good for you here.” His high-pitched English was a curious garble of Israeli and Brooklyn accents, with a dash of the Old Country for good measure.
“Everything is wonderful,” Dad said. “We just thought you were…we just opened the door for Elijah the Prophet and you were standing there.”
Itzik made a strange whispering sound, Psshhh…as if to say, “How holy is that?” and burst into laughter.
Itzik was an "ultra-Orthodox" Jew, and my experience had shown that his type would be quick to judge us for our lack of observance.
Okay, so the prophet hadn’t magically come back to life. We all laughed the tension away. But I was still on guard. Ghost or no, Itzik was still an "ultra-Orthodox" Jew, and my experience had shown that his type would be quick to judge us for our lack of observance. I had spent my childhood studying in an Orthodox school where I was the only Conservative kid in my class. My treif (non-kosher) lunches and secular lifestyle was not exactly a good fit. If I wasn’t good enough for them, chances were I wouldn’t be good enough for this Itzik — who by now we’d learned was Rabbi Itzik — either.
After a few minutes of chatting, Itzik made to leave. “You’re my last table. I have to start my Seder now, before it gets too late.”
“By yourself?” Dad asked.
“You shouldn’t have a Seder alone. Come join us.”
My father, fired up by prospect of a bona-fide Chassid at his Seder table, scrambled to get Rabbi Itzik a chair.
“But you’re almost finished,” Itzik demurred. “I need to have Seder from the beginning.”
“Then we’ll start again,” Dad replied.
It was already 11 o’clock! I’d sat through one Seder already; I’d even extended myself to read a paragraph or two aloud from the Haggadah. There was no way I was doing it twice in the same night.
But that was exactly what happened. Horrified, I looked on as Dad ushered Itzik into a seat and flipped his Haggadah back to the beginning. They sang, they drank, they told stories deep into the night, while the rest of us fell asleep across rows of dining room chairs.
At three in the morning, when my mother woke me to return to our room, their second Seder was still going strong.
I took one last look at my father and his new friend sitting catty-corner at the table, engrossed in their Haggadahs. They were in their own world, I saw, when Dad didn’t even look up to say goodnight.
Cinderella at the Bat Mitzvah
After our Passover escapade, we returned to New Jersey and life as usual. Preparations for my bat mitzvah were in full swing. Dad taught me how to lead the Shabbat services and read from the Torah while Mom ironed out the details for my big bash: color schemes, catering menus and, of course, The Dress: a white, poofy-sleeved concoction that screamed “Cinderella!”
A black-hatted Chassid was an anomaly in our suburb, but he made himself right at home.
During those months, Rabbi Itzik took his place as a quirky supporting character in our family folklore. He would come to visit us from Brooklyn with plastic containers of shmaltz, chicken fat, which he smeared with delight over challah and crackers. As he ate with gusto, he would chuckle at our horrified faces and wave off admonitions about watching his weight. A black-hatted Chassid was an anomaly in our suburb, but he made himself right at home in our kitchen. We couldn’t help but welcome him; he was such a character, with his ready smile and twinkling eyes, constantly late, but always with an entertaining reason for being so. Eventually, the Brooklyn trappings fell away from view and all we saw was Itzik.
And yet, I waited for him to look askance at our modern clothing or lack of attention to Jewish law. I suspected eventually he would start snooping around our drawers and poke his head in our fridge to discern our level of kashrut. I waited for the day he would shake his finger in our faces and tell us we were doomed if we didn’t observe the Sabbath. But that day never came.
My bat mitzvah day finally arrived. The affair was a smashing success — and I had the mountains of presents to prove it.
When Itzik arrived at the party (hours late, of course) the festivities were already winding down. Bidding goodbye to the last of my guests, I went to him, with my hand stretched out.. I was pulled up short when he didn’t reach back.
He would not touch me.
Suddenly, the true import of the day struck me, full-force. I was a woman now, according to Jewish law, and off-limits to men to whom I was not related. The sense of transition from one stage of life to another resonated with me more deeply in that moment than any other throughout my bat mitzvah celebration. I had cradled the Torah in my arms and amassed a thick wad of checks, but only now was I shaken by real grief at the loss of my childhood. At the same time, I felt a keen sense of hope and anticipation about my future as a grown woman. Without saying a word, Rabbi Itzik had woken me up.
A Real Princess
Some time later, Rabbi Itzik was marrying off his daughter. I was surprised we’d been invited to the wedding in Brooklyn; I didn’t think we were the kind of friends Rabbi Itzik would want to advertise having. Our appearance at the wedding — most likely, a drab affair in a mildewy hall with prehistoric wallpaper — would probably be as welcome as a tuberculosis patient in a sterilized lab. But despite my misgivings, I tagged along with my parents, curiosity outweighing the dread.
We arrived in the middle of the Kabbalat Panim, the pre-ceremony cocktail hour, where at least a thousand guests had come to greet the bride. From the first moment, it was like entering a foreign country: a sea of black hats and expensive-looking wigs, an animated buzz of thick New York accents sprinkled with Yiddish. Whereas I had anticipated walking into a room full of sneers, our arrival barely caused a first glance, let alone a second.
When I saw her, my breath stopped. This was a real princess.
Hungry for some glamour, I scanned the room for the bride. When I finally saw her, my breath stopped. Dewy and pink-cheeked, she smiled graciously at her guests from a high-backed, wicker chair. Her dress was a simple white, high-necked and long-sleeved, and she brimmed with an ethereal glow that reached me from across the room.
Forget Cinderella; this was a real princess.
As my parents brought me up to say hello to her, I could barely speak. It was like meeting a movie star. She smiled into my eyes and told me how happy she was that we were there. Although we had never met before, I could see she meant it.
Everyone poured out to the street for the chuppah, the wedding ceremony. At every other wedding I’d been to, people were silent during the ceremony, but that evening, the street buzzed with small talk. As the bride circled her groom seven times, two women swapped kugel recipes and argued over where to find the best price for a whole chicken. I jumped at the ecstatic chorus of “Mazel Tov!” as her new husband stepped on a glass to mark the end of the ceremony.
The reception was wild, the room thrumming with electricity. Every guest danced with joy as if they themselves had stood under the chuppah. Peeking through the mechitza from the women’s side, I saw a swell of men dancing in circles, circles within circles, eyes squeezed shut in what looked like a hypnotic state. Somehow I found my father in the crowd, his arms thrown around the shoulders of men I didn’t know, his red face slick with sweat. There was an abandon in him I had never seen before. My father, I realized, was happy.
Riding home, images from the evening played over and over again in my head: The swarm of people, the glowing bride, the kind hellos and wishes of Mazel Tov. There had been no finger-pointing or whispers behind palms, only smiles of welcome. I fell asleep to the echo of music, the lights along the Lincoln Tunnel throwing shadows across my face.
Searching for Answers
Over the next decade, life evolved for all of us. My memories of Brooklyn quickly faded as I launched onto the treadmill of high school and college, fueled by a desire to make my mark. I traveled the world, lived in exotic cities, worked at some of the world’s most influential companies. And yet, a longing followed me wherever I went, a need for something deeper than the bells and whistles of modern life. I tried it all — New Age Philosophy, Eastern Religions, Transcendental Meditation — but instead of answers, I just found more questions. Once in a while, memories of my friend Itzik and his world would resurface, and I would wonder if they knew something I didn’t. Then I would bat those thoughts away like a mosquito. I could stand on my head and spout mantras for hours, but those Orthodox Jews were nuts.
And yet, my travels eventually landed me in Jerusalem.
As an alumna of birthright Israel, I’d been invited to study at a seminary for a few weeks. I knew nothing about the school, its philosophy or where it was located, but it didn’t matter; the trip was basically free. Which is how I found myself standing in one of the city’s most haredi neighborhoods, wearing pants and a t-shirt.
Was it possible by assuming these people were judging me, that maybe I was judging them?
Amidst black-hatted men and long-skirted, hair-covered women, I stuck out like a sore thumb. A few of the women gave me the up-down while the men didn’t look at me at all. It was awkward, uncomfortable, even terrifying: I was sure a tribunal would be formed on the spot to have me stoned in front of the seminary. I couldn’t stand it; I was grabbing a cab back to airport and going home now.
But something stopped me: Memories of a long-ago wedding, the smiles, the dancing. And of Itzik, with his funny stories and the love he always showed us, just because.
Was it possible, by assuming these people were judging me, that maybe, just maybe, I was judging them? If Itzik could have accepted me just as I was, there might be a chance that someone in this seminary would do the same.
It was just a few weeks.
I gathered my strength and walked in.
It was a beautiful occasion filled with family and friends, delicious food and words of Torah. Of course, it was no surprise that Itzik arrived just as everyone was leaving, something about ending up in Long Island when he should have been in Teaneck. And yet, it was just as it should have been, the way it was at my bat mitzvah, when he’d shown me the true meaning of being a Bat Yisrael, at my wedding, where he’d come to greet me while I sat in my own bedekin chair, and now today, celebrating the brit milah (circumcision) of my first child.
With his bright smile and happy laughter, Rabbi Itzik had come right on time.