Jersey City PATH station, around 1 in the morning, Sunday, a few years back. It’s quiet down in the subway — small groups of tired visitors chat as they wait for the train back to Manhattan.
A young man comes flying down the stairs, sooty-faced, wild-eyed and disheveled. “Is there a Jew here?” he asks anxiously. Nobody pays attention. My Jewish companions look down at their feet. In those five seconds I take to make a decision, my mind races: “If I say I’m Jewish, will he stab or shoot me — or is there a Jew somewhere who needs another Jew?” I can’t ignore him, I have to trust him, and I’m fiercely curious.
“I’m Jewish,” I say. He thrusts out a clenched fist, opening his hand to reveal a tiny metal Torah. “Here, take this,” he says. “I’m renovating a house and found this behind a wall.” I’m stunned and thrilled. I tell him I’m very grateful that he’s gone so far out of his way at this crazy hour to find a Jew.
The Torah is a girl’s bracelet charm, I think, or more likely a pendant. Timeworn and nicked, it is a brownish-gold color, decorated with a Star of David, an eyelet on top. I picture the girl, some 50 or 60 years ago, frantically looking behind her bureau, around her room, under the bed, seeking the Torah that her grandmother had given her. Or maybe she didn’t even realize it was missing. Or perhaps she flung it away — a defiant act of assimilation or anger. Does she think of it now?
I carry the little Torah around with me all the time. It’s my lucky charm, even though I don’t believe in lucky charms — one of my many paradoxical opinions. It’s more important to me than my own childhood collection of golden Jewish jewelry, tucked away in a closet. It’s a symbol of my still-growing pride and outspokenness about being Jewish, and a confirmation that the world is tilted toward goodness. It’s a symbol of my ever-evolving relationship to Judaism, of the slow withering away of a determined atheist from the age of 8. It’s the symbol of a doubter’s tears, listening to my son’s bar mitzvah class singing, “It’s the Tree of Life to those who hold fast to it.”
I wish I could tell you that amazingly I met the girl who lost her tiny Torah. It would make a good ending: The two of us meet in a women’s Midrash class — she tells me her story, I tell her mine. About how we lost our Torahs and how we got them back.
Judith Sokoloff is the editor of Na’amat Woman.