The Girl in the Bomb Shelterby Andrea Simantov July 29, 2015
Hundreds of young people have stayed in our home for Shabbat or holidays over the years, but one young woman has remained vivid in my memory. Unceremoniously, we called her “The Girl in the Bomb Shelter.” A cousin to a visiting yeshiva boy, Taryn appeared in the middle of the night. Apparently, halfway through a teen-tour, she’d had a falling-out and was told that if she could find a safe place until her parentally-approved flight departed, she could leave the group.
A cab dropped her off at midnight and I had no space for this bedraggled, dreadlocked girl. With my own children, a nephew and two lone-soldiers sleeping, I tossed a futon into the overstuffed safe-room. She seemed content to sleep among cartons of Passover dishes, duffel bags filled with clothing for charity and shelves that groaned beneath obsolete textbooks and broken fans.
Each night she pulled shut the weighty door of the airless shelter and emerged after we’d been up for hours. Showing no signs of leaving, the Girl in the Bomb Shelter even added a few of her own items to the family shopping list. She said little but her views of Judaism and Jewish identity felt foreign to our Orthodox lifestyle. We invited her to come to synagogue and loaned her a skirt. She was respectful and seemed to enjoy the services. Finally, she left for America.
Seven years later, she returned, teaching English in a poor southern community. I’d seen on Facebook that she was active in streams of Judaism that make me uncomfortable and I did not reach out to her. Still, she called several times and, finally, we met for dinner.
I almost choked on a falafel ball when she told me that I was the reason she’d returned to Israel.
“You told me that it was alright if I accidently turned on a light on Shabbos or put a dish in the wrong sink. Until then, I’d felt like an outsider when I wanted ‘in’.”
The Jewish groups with which she was aligning herself were open and embracing. Shamefully, I was fully aware that my Orthodox synagogue would not offer a fuzzy, warm greeting to outsiders. A truthseeker to her core, Taryn yearned for a spirituality that was absent in these groups and celebrated every exception and none of the rules she ached to know. And despite my selective amnesia, she remembered that she trusted me.
I asked Taryn if she wanted to learn together in the remaining weeks of her stay. She agreed and consequently, I went to great efforts so as to relearn much of what I’d loved on the journey toward Torah observance.
The lesson immediately morphed into an exploration of gratitude. Sharing some elemental thoughts, I described our day as beginning with a canvas; a lovely blank sheet of prepared muslin, pulled tautly across a frame. When we open our eyes anew each day, we are exhorted to understand that this gift called “life” is to be used carefully. With figurative paintbrush in hand, it is up to us to create a piece either haphazardly or with care. It is our choice to “paint” despair and/or anger or to splash the naked square with love, friendship, concern for strangers and kindness toward family. Upon retiring at night, will we deem that day’s “art” a masterpiece or disaster? Gratitude is the understanding that regardless of what our contribution to the world that day, with the help of Heaven, we’ll be issued a fresh canvas the following morning. What an expression of unconditional love! Teaching our children gratitude is the first life-lesson and a first step in creating a kinder, holier world.
Can a passing comment alter a life? If not for her tenacious spirit, Taryn’s quest for authenticity might have waned and died. The challenge of answering her questions resulted in both of us embarking on a path toward a deeper understanding of our eternal birthright. The first leg of a journey may be no more complex than a word, a meal, an open house or a forgiving heart.
Or, perhaps it takes only a bed in the bomb shelter.