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The Words Trapped in her Throat
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They weren’t really stuck, the words she kept repeating. They flowed. Only she was trapped, her needle scratching the same groove, the record never advancing. She’d get to a point, the one where her family had come to the United States and landed in Plymouth.
“On the Mayflower?” I asked. Encouraging. Nodding.
“Oh no, not the Mayflower. But they settled in Plymouth. The Jewish Pilgrims, that’s what they were called. The first Jews. The Jewish Pilgrims.” She looked up. “Do I know you? What’s your name?”
“Simi. Simi Monheit.” I told her. Again.
“Simi. That’s nice. How come I never met you before?”
“You have. You just have.”
“It’s nice that you came. I wasn’t expecting you. Why are you here?”
The same question I’d been asking myself. After my father died and then, shortly after that when I was laid off from my soul-crushing IT job, I’d given myself all kinds of pep talks. It was time for me to woman up after all my years of complaining about the idiocy of office bureaucracy, the mindlessness of web-development, the soullessness of IT. Here was my chance to Make A Difference. To Give Back. But, I missed the structure of a work day, the ease of knowing where and at whom to vent all my frustrations, the righteousness of my moral and superior indignation.
Now what?
I stumbled into a low investment volunteer gig at a nearby retirement community. I could (easily) lead a monthly Friday afternoon Shabbat service. It’s not as if I didn’t have a wealth of the extremely specific skills required for that, my years (and years) of religious training could finally be put to some use, especially as my personal practice was diminishing if not all together disappeared.
And I did experience that satisfying sense of self-gratification that comes from performing a good deed, especially when it’s a public service. And it was only once a month. Volunteer-light. Good person easy.
When Covid landed, the services were cancelled and I was fine with that too. But then, with vaccines and masks, they decided to allow limited visits on a one-on-one basis. And I couldn’t admit to myself, or anyone else, that I’m not that good a person. So, I packed my bag with my books, candlesticks, challah, grape juice, and in honor of the New Year, (5782), apples and honey and went into the fray.
The exact fray being that the people with whom I’d be visiting were in the Memory Care Unit. They had never attended the service where we read aloud, sang songs, and exchanged stories, stories that I made sure never ventured into anything political. As an apology for my inability to carry a tune, I printed out those pages, sweet, benign, sometimes poignant stories that might inspire conversation. Finding the right story was the most demanding aspect of this entire endeavor.
But now the administration was trying to meet the needs of those most in need, and had reached out to me. I was nervous. Inadequate to the job. Unclear what the expectations were. But I schlepped my bags and wore my smile and told myself, it’s only an hour.
And here I was, listening to this story about Jewish Pilgrims on Plymouth Rock. And telling this lady my name. Many times. They moved to New York, they moved to California. And then we rewound back to Plymouth Rock. And my name.
And somewhere along the way I was telling her where my family was from. How I came to be there. How I’d grown up in an Orthodox home, a first generation American. Sharing our shared history. And she smiled. And began, “My family landed on Plymouth Rock. They were the Jewish Pilgrims. The first Jews. Do I know you?”
I offered her an apple slice dipped in honey. I poured a cup of grape-juice and recited the Bracha over the wine. Her eyes lit up. “I haven’t heard that in a very long time. Thank you. Thank you so much. What did you say your name was?”
I told her my name. Again. She smiled. So did I.

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