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Night I Impressed the Maid

4.1Illustration: Denis Shifrin

My first teacher was my father.

When I turned three, he knew it was time for him to teach me to recite the "Shema and V'Ahavta" as my bedtime prayer. He would sit by my bed, night after night, and say out loud, in Ashkenazic pronunciation, the words for me to learn by heart. After all, it was his duty as a father to teach "these words" to his children. I was the first born, and so the paternal mitzvah was new and exciting for him.

What made the memorization difficult for a three-year old was that I didn't understand any of the words and that I could not yet read either the English or the Hebrew alphabet. My father instinctively knew that I would learn through constant repetition. After all, "v'shinantam l'vanecha" means literally going over it again and again orally.

Every night after my father left the room, I would rehearse the words in my mind until I fell asleep. It seemed like forever that I tried and tried but could not say the whole thing all the way through.

Then, one night, finally and unexpectedly, I recited the whole Shema from "Shema Yisrael" to "uvisharecha." This was the first textual learning achievement in my life!

I just had to declaim the Shema again to someone else, and immediately.

My parents had gone out for the evening and had the cleaning woman, Martha, stay late to babysit for me and my infant younger brother. Martha was a Bible reading, church going, black woman who often did extra favors for my parents.

I got out of my bed and, wearing my one-piece pajamas with the built-in feet, padded down the stairs to the living room.

Martha was sitting in an easy chair reading her Bible by the light of the floor lamp by her side. "I can say the Shema," I announced, bursting with pride. "Want to hear it?" Martha kindly said, "Yes," not caring that I got out of bed and came downstairs.

She listened patiently while I once again recited the entire Shema paragraph, fluently and correctly. She didn't understand a word, but, then again, neither did I. But, I think that Martha sensed that this moment was something special and holy. A little Jewish boy, related to all her favorite biblical characters, was reciting something in the original language of the Bible.

Maybe it was for this moment that my father taught me the Shema. It was to make me part of the mind and heart of the Jewish people and to become for Martha a junior "light unto the nations." 

 

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Friday, 25 September 2020

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