More than enough

At that moment, as my Passover tablemates and I grinned wildly at one another, it dawned on me. “More than enough” is a theme that runs throughout Judaism; even Hanukkah has it: the lamp oil was only supposed to last a single night but it lasted for eight. Hence, the menorah’s eight lights. The goal is to help us understand not only that we have enough, but that we are enough.

Because the forces that rob us of freedom are just as likely to come from within, from our own thoughts and beliefs that prevent us from living fully. Many of us are imprisoned by the feelings of fear and anger we haul around as a birthright, the sensation of somehow falling short, which can provoke us to act in a myriad of destructive ways—aggressive actions, compulsive thinking, addictive behavior—that temporarily alleviate the suffering by blotting out our demeaning dialogue until they lose that power and become a private punishment, a prison built for us by us. In this sense, the most radical religious undertaking is to work past these difficult and universal feelings to free ourselves from the confines imposed by our human perspective. Overcoming them does not come easily or naturally, which is why we call on the assistance of a supernatural strength, a higher power, God.

Those of us who’ve grown up without any religion may not know this: with faith and assistance and a bit of struggle, we can make peace with and learn to honor not just ourselves but whatever force brought us here and will eventually snatch us away with the hope that we will not just survive, but thrive. Religion might not be the only way, but it has been used for centuries by people whose inner struggles are no different from ours.

After dinner, only the rabbis and their families remained; they had been serving the guests and were just now getting a chance to eat. I didn’t want to leave, so I asked Rachel if I could help clean. She showed me how to scoop up the plastic table coverings—plates, cups, cutlery, everything—into one big trash ball. I cleared the tables and then picked up items that had fallen on the floor—napkins, forks, chunks of matzah. Underneath a table, I found a coloring book page of the ten plagues. Some kid had drawn little germs of pestilence with bright pink and purple.

The mother approached to thank me for helping. I reached for her hands and held them briefly between mine. It wasn’t much, but it was enough.

After she left me, I paused to appreciate the room: the rabbis and their families chatting and eating. This was their normal life and I was in the middle of it. I had overcome all that divides us.

I was congratulating myself when Rachel approached and asked if I would mind helping with something in the kitchen.

I followed her to the back where the burners on two industrial stoves were going. It was at least 100 degrees in there. “Would you mind turning them off?” she asked. I paused, considering the situation. I had read about observant Jews employing a non-Jew to stoke their fires and do the activities forbidden on Sabbath, but I had thought the practice was comical and old timey. Hadn’t timers and slow cookers taken their place?

Sweat was beading on my brow. “Are you asking me to be your Sabbath Gentile?”

She laughed and nodded.

I tried to imagine a rabbi roaming the block explaining his need to passersby. It was almost midnight. Would he slip a $20 to a homeless person to do the task?

“It’s nice to have someone who understands,” she said.

Not exactly the honorary status I had imagined but she was right, I did understand—and maybe that was more than enough.

Dayenu

From their stations at the edges of the room, the rabbis led us through the steps. First, the recollections of enslavement: we scooped a spoonful of the apple mixture on to our plates to remind us of the adobe mortar we molded into bricks, along with a dollop of horseradish for the bitter experience of forced labor.

Then we were freed by the Egyptian leader, Pharaoh, after a series of plagues befell his land. Calamities including swarms of lice, flies, and locusts weakened his resolve. Water turned to blood and the sun disappeared and his people developed incurable boils. One of the rabbis instructed us to spill a drop of wine onto our plates as he listed each plague. These were the tears we shed for the Egyptians because any human suffering is sorrowful even if it is the price of freedom. The last plague, the death of every firstborn human and animal, finally swayed Pharaoh to release the slaves, an event commemorated by the hunk of meat on the Passover platter. The Jews smeared a bit of blood from a sacrificed lamb on their houses so death would know which families to “pass over.” The meat is a token of this gesture as well as a nod to the significance of animal sacrifice at the tabernacle and temple.

I chewed some matzah and eyed the big sheet of it I had pulled from the stack. This was most definitely the nourishment of a fleeing people, the basic minimum to sustain life.

I watched my tablemates construct little sandwiches with apple mush and the horseradish by putting this odd combination of fillings between two shards of matzah bread. I built my own and ate it along with them. I was surprised by the overpowering sweetness, perhaps heightened by the contrast to the bitter horseradish. That’s the thing about Passover: it’s ultimately a celebration of freedom. The memory of slavery offers contrast that heightens the joy and gratitude we feel for the ability to live freely.

As the festivities progressed we consumed the requisite four cups of wine and the atmosphere grew more jubilant. No one was required to fill their cup to the top, merely to take a hearty gulp each time, and a grape juice alternative was provided, but most people opted for wine and some, like my Vietnam vet tablemate, took its consumption very seriously. We had a small cup for wine and a large one for water, but he used his water cup for the wine, filling it to the brim each time. Watching him, I abandoned the notion that he was here for the free meal. He knew the Hebrew prayers by heart and his enthusiasm for every aspect of the evening was contagious.

Each time we drank the wine, everyone in the room tilted to the left like we were performing some synchronized dance movement. Per tradition, we were mimicking an angle of repose: reclining to relish our freedom. The Vietnam vet leaned so far over I thought his wine might spill.

The entire room broke out in a traditional song. It’s an inventory of all the good things that have happened before, during, and after Passover, but it’s the single-word chorus everyone sings with such delight that it’s contagious. The word is “Dayenu” and it translates into something like “more than enough.” It expresses a deep sense of gratitude and satisfaction even when times are hard and means scarce. We sang the word “Dayenu” over and over again, clapping and shouting. At one point, three rabbis got up and began to dance. Others joined them and for several minutes the joy bubbled over and the crowd egged them on and grown men danced in a circle like ecstatic school children.

The smooch

Before I started attending synagogue services, I thought it would be obvious I wasn’t Jewish based on my looks alone. I soon realized this wasn’t the case. Certainly my pale skin and freckles made me an outlier, but not out of the question. One afternoon my friend, Lisa, and I stopped by her mom’s apartment in Marina Del Rey for a visit. Although not observant, Lisa’s mom is extremely knowledgeable about Jewish genealogy and history. I explained to her that I had blended in so far among the reformed Jews; I suggested that maybe among the orthodox no one would identify me as an outsider. She shook her head in disagreement. “Oh, they’ll know.”

“How?” I asked. The smile that spread across her face was priceless. I saw in it the memory of a dozen lessons learned the hard way. “The second you do something wrong.”

Of course she was right and I found there was very little I did right, especially in the beginning.

For example, I had no idea about the Torah-kissing ritual. Just before the rabbi’s Torah reading during the Sabbath service, he or she, usually with a few helpers, hoisted the holy book in the air and paraded it around the sanctuary. Members of the congregation would crowd toward the aisle to kiss the Torah as it passed, either touching it with a prayer book or with the fringe of a prayer shawl and then bringing it to their lips—whether they were kissing it or letting it kissing them, I was never quite sure.

Even when the women were separate the men would bring the Torah to an opening and we would rush to it as if to glimpse a rock star. Sometimes the Torah passed so quickly hardly anyone got a good kiss in, and a handful were left to toss a kiss in the air as it whizzed past.

The first few times I witnessed the carrying-out of this tradition, I stayed firmly planted in my seat, hopelessly marking myself as an outsider.

I read that this practice of Torah smooching is considered an archaic custom by some, one that reformed synagogues may have abandoned, but I found it in effect almost everywhere I went, lending credence to my observation that many reformed places are embracing old traditions, even passionately so.

For the last Sabbath service of my trip, I went to a hipster synagogue I kept hearing about and was finally able to kiss the Torah not once, but twice. Centrally located in the middle of West L.A., this synagogue caters to liberal Jews from all over the area and has a reputation for being particularly unorthodox; it was the only one I visited with a female rabbi. Yet, besides the rabbi’s gender, the main thing that seemed to distinguish it from more conservative places of worship was the level of enthusiasm with which the congregation embraced even the smallest prayers and rituals. Something as minor as the Torah procession was performed so wholeheartedly everyone was given ample opportunity to kiss the good book as many times as they wanted. The Torah-procession came down the aisle once and then circled back around.

I had rushed through the first kiss, trying to seize the moment quickly, so when it came again I went in for a second. I put my prayer book to my lips and then reached for the Torah and then brought it back to my lips so that no matter what was kissing what, I had it covered.

That last time, I kissed the Torah like I meant it, like it was a dear friend I might not see again.

The fire

One afternoon I arrange to meet Barbara, my new orthodox Jewish friend, at a café for coffee.

In her I felt I had found someone I could ask uncomfortable questions.

“But why don’t women have to go?” I asked on the evening I accompanied her and her husband to the Sabbath-ending services.This detail had been bothering me since I learned that in more conservative congregations women don’t count toward the minimum number of people, or minyan, needed to conduct the public prayers.

As we walked, Barbara explained that even though she is not required to attend synagogue services, she likes to go as often as possible. “Because in Judaism women are considered more inherently spiritual,” she told me as we came to a busy intersection. “We don’t need the structure of the synagogue like men do.” This was consistent with explanations I’d heard for why only men often wear those tiny square top hats on their foreheads containing printed Bible passages and the straps twisted up their forearms when they pray—they are meant to have these little reminders pressed tightly to them. Even so, she must have read skepticism on my face. “It’s true!” she cried, pressing the cross-walk button.

As we sipped coffee, she confided that she, too, went through a phase of religious exploration. In fact, in her 20s, after growing up in an Orthodox home, she became a practicing Buddhist. It was difficult, she explains, to sit cross-legged, especially given her height, but the seated meditations led her to an overwhelming sense of thankfulness for life, which then led her to a deep desire to show appreciation to a creator. She realized she longed for the more formal means of expressing gratitude that were the foundation of her native Judaism. Then a little token Buddha statue she kept broke off at the legs and that sealed the deal: she was a Jew. But, she says, if it hadn’t been for Buddhism she may never have come to understand the deeper significance of Judaism. Buddha made her a better Jew.

Her story reminds me of a realization I recently made. I tell her that when I moved to the Pacific Northwest and started to take on freelance projects, my work week shifted. Instead of starting on Monday, I would start on Sunday morning. My justification was I wanted to have drafts waiting in client in-boxes by the start of their official work week, but I maintained this schedule when I had nothing due. I even had a motto: “Sunday is the new Monday.” On the other hand, I began my weekend early, usually stopping work by early Friday afternoon to spend a couple of hours on household chores before evening. Without even realizing it, and while my ignorance of Judaism was still in full effect, I had adopted a Jewish week. What I believed was a decision firmly rooted in secularism had led me straight to the heart of Judaism.

Barbara wore the knowing smile of a person familiar with God’s tactic of bait and switch. “Maybe you’re a missing spark,” she says and explains the Jewish concept of “sparks.” Over history, some Jewish families were alienated from the faith due to political pressure or the whim of a single generation—whatever the cause, the Judaism is never fully extinguished but smolders in the children and the children’s children. I think about the Greek side of my family and how my ancestors could very well have been Jews before Constantine declared his empire Christian. It’s possible that Judaism has been burning in the bosoms of my foremothers for centuries. There’s no way of knowing, but I love the idea—a hot coal inside me is drawn to the fire of Judaism due to epic forces working to reunite the errant embers. It gives me a new perspective on the role of observant Jews, how they follow the letter of the law not just for themselves but on behalf of the global community, even those no longer in touch with Judaism. They have dedicated themselves to this task. They keep the fire burning brightly.

The mother

The mother explained that for the past several years she had organized a little festival for the Sukkot holiday. They construct a Sukkah hut, a temporary dwelling usually made of palm fronds that observant Jews build every fall to replicate those used by their ancestors after their Exodus from Egypt. “We invite the kids from the street, but they don’t come.”

I thought of how intimidated I had felt just gazing upon their yard, what I understood to be an extension of their secret and sacred world.

Her forehead strained and her eyes grew accusatory. “The neighbors are not friendly with us.”

Now I was getting miffed at her. Instead of recognizing that I was a neighbor reaching out, she was seeing me as representing everyone who hadn’t.

The uncomfortable tension was palpable as she introduced me to her son, the head rabbi. He and I shared a brief, awkward hello with no handshake. When we were kids, it would have been okay for us to talk and play, but now we were officially forbidden from touching and discouraged from engaging in unnecessary chit chat. “Hello,” I said. “Hello,” he said. I suppose with that, a miniscule corner of the universe was mended.

The mother asked me to stay for the women’s group, which was starting in a few minutes. I felt she was just being polite, but I accepted. She and I waited for the others to join us around a big table; sitting quietly together, the vibe between us began to mellow. I tiptoed back to our previous conversation. “Maybe the neighbors don’t realize you’re open to social interaction with them.” I was trying to be as gentle as possible. She didn’t say anything, but she nodded slowly, her scowl softening.

She invited me to return to the synagogue the following Friday for dinner on the first night of Passover. “Thank you,” I said. “I’d like that.” It would be my first-ever official Passover. When the other women arrived, she introduced me as an old neighbor who had returned. “She didn’t feel comfortable saying hello back then, but she’s come now,” she explained. Everyone raised their tiny cups of white wine at me and I said, “Better late than never.”

The rabbi

The woman at the ultra-orthodox synagogue, Rachel, pointed at a man who had emerged from behind the partition to check on something at the far end of the gymnasium. “My husband. He’s the head rabbi here.” He was dressed almost identically to how I remembered only he and his clothes were bigger now. Even from far away, I spied faint traces of the boy he had been through his enormous beard. “His mom still lives in that apartment building.”

After Rachel left me, I tried to relax. I closed my eyes and focused on the sound of the Hebrew words being spoken by the men. I imagined each one like a soap bubble, filled with love and gratitude, floating up and out beyond this room.

Mid-way through the service, two men pulled each side of the partition apart. A glare flooded the cozy dark of the women’s side and I squinted. I felt uncomfortably exposed.

A rabbi stood behind a podium. He was the one with the voice like Joe Pesci. He made several announcements in preparation for Passover, which was to begin the following Friday evening. Most importantly, he wanted to remind everyone to get rid of all chametz, which is food made of grain mixed with water that has fermented and risen, or “leaven.” This is given up on Passover in honor of the ancestors who fled Egypt and had neither the time nor accommodations to prepare such elaborate dishes. I always knew flat, cracker-like matzo was eaten instead of bread during this holiday, but I hadn’t realized all the other things that are forbidden; beer, hard alcohol, pastas, cookies, and cereals—the kind of items that are commonly kept in bulk in most pantries. To avoid throwing away these often costly goods, many observant Jews have developed a system whereby they temporarily “sell” them to a non-Jew and then buy them back after Passover. The leavened products may even stay in the house, though they would technically not belong to its inhabitants during that time. Rabbis generally manage this transaction.

The rabbi explained that this was the last chance to pick up the forms labeled DELEGATION OF POWER OF ATTORNEY FOR SALE OF CHAMETZ from a nearby pile. He invited anyone who wanted to help to sweep all chametz from every surface of the synagogue to come back on Thursday evening. When he finished, the men closed the partition again. The women’s side dimmed, the words returned to Hebrew, and I went back to pretending the source of the voice was the great and mighty Oz.

After the service, we did blessings over cups of wine and challah loaves. An older woman approached me. Here was the mother, who had been told about me. Her wig was a chestnut bob. She said her name in Hebrew, a sound like a growl with a hiccup. I tried to imitate the noise, but she looked disappointed in my rendition. “Why didn’t you ever come into our yard to play?” she asked after our brief introduction. I didn’t know what to say, I hadn’t realized that was an option. I don’t recall anyone in her family ever making eye contact with me. She said, “The neighbors are always so standoffish with us.” She seemed upset at me.

Together

With the notion of Tikkun Olam fresh in my mind I decide it’s time to find out what will happen when I try to reconnect with my old neighbors, the family of Hassidic Jews that lived a few doors down from us when I first moved to Los Angeles. Followers of Kabbalah might think of Tikkun Olam as the process by which pieces of the original vessel, shattered by the “Big Bang,” are brought together once again.

I studied a map of my old neighborhood and found an orthodox synagogue seven blocks from the corner of their apartment complex. As ultra-orthodox Jews, I knew they’d live within walking distance of their place of worship. This was the only place it could be. Perhaps the family had moved, but it seemed likely that someone at the synagogue would remember them. I would reconnect with their community if not the family itself.

I called the synagogue and made sure they were alright with visitors and to see if I needed to do something with my hair. A rabbi with a voice like Joe Pesci said, “It’s not important your hair.”

By the time I left for the Saturday morning service, the only thing showing besides my hair was my face and hands. I arrived early. I thought parking would be a nightmare, but a space directly in front sat waiting. I wondered what the building was before being converted into a synagogue. A WWII dance hall? Inside looked like an old gymnasium. I spotted a couple of elderly women behind a partition and I joined them. They were speaking in hushed tones and they nodded in my direction and went back to whispering. I flipped through a prayer book with no English or phonetic translation, just a sea of squiggles, and listened to the rain falling outside. Everything felt damp and dreary and not at all welcoming. I wondered how often they were visited by non-Jews. I reviewed my motives hoping some element of insincerity would grant me good reason to flee. I decided I was coming from a genuine place and that the discomfort was a sign of this effort’s importance.

No one paid any attention to me. Male voices chanted on the other side of the room divider. More women arrived but they seemed not to notice me. They set about chatting quietly with one another. Every once in a while one would stand, bow, take a step back, and mouth prayers. Occasionally some kids would wander in to say a few words to their moms before being ushered back to their classroom.

I sat mutely for what felt like a very long time. As the sounds and activities went on around me, I was painfully aware of my own presence, even more so because no one else seemed to notice it. After what felt like an eternity, a woman my age approached and asked what brought me here today. I could tell she was trying to be friendly, but she didn’t smile.

I’ll call her Rachel. She looked surprisingly normal. I knew her hair was a wig because most Hassidic women use wigs to cover their real hair, but it looked like my hair except better. My hair was a fuzzy mess from the moisture in the air but hers was smooth. I explained to her about living down the street and how I saw the kids but never spoke to them. “I’ve come back,” I said. Spoken to a stranger, the endeavor seemed bizarre, but she nodded like it was the most natural thing in the world.

She said, “My husband grew up there.”

I stared mutely. I couldn’t believe it. It was that easy. I had found them.

Forever light

Part-way through the Friday night Sabbath-welcoming service, the singing stops and the rabbi makes his way to the front of the room. Several individuals break from the congregation to join him.

This is a joyous occasion, the rabbi explains, because tonight the newest addition to the family before you receives her Hebrew name. Only then do I notice that one of the women is holding a tiny bundle in her arms and I put the pieces together: this is a naming ceremony, one of the most significant of the Jewish life-cycle rites of passage. Boy babies are normally named during a bris eight days after being born, but female newborns are named at the synagogue in front of the entire congregation.

The mom, holding the infant, huddles with both grandmothers. The rabbi wraps their shoulders in a single prayer shawl, pulling them in close. He speaks to the women, expressing sentiments you might expect to hear: how this baby is the future, the continuation of all of her ancestors who lived before her. Then he flips the script and addresses the baby directly. “You will one day be an ancestor like us,” he tells her. For me, his words conjure an image of this room in 70 years: this brand new human is the older generation wrapped in a prayer shawl giving out special names.

I still have that in mind when the congregants begin singing the Mourner’s Kaddish. When I first realized this prayer for the deceased was a part of every service at every synagogue, I thought it was intended specifically for those who were grieving. When we came to it, all those who had lost someone within the last year or so stood, and sometimes the rabbi requested them to call out the name of the departed. I didn’t know or understand the significance of the Hebrew words being recited by the congregation, but I sensed it was a sorrowful lamentation, the shaking of a metaphorical fist at the cruelty of death. I thought people stood because they were meant to see one another and thereby know they were not alone in their grief and to allow the rest of the congregation to identify those in need of our support. I believed the reciting of the Mourner’s Kaddish was akin to other life-cycle ceremonies in Judaism—whether a naming or bar mitzvah or wedding—that act as markers in a person’s life tying her to millions of others in the past, present, and future. The ceremony might transform what feels like an ordinary occasion into one with extraordinary potential or it might reassure a person who feels overwhelmed that what they are experiencing is actually very ordinary.

I was surprised when I saw an English translation of the Mourner’s Kaddish and realized it doesn’t even mention death. It’s simply a collection of lines praising and thanking God. Only then did I learn the true purpose is to rise up and proclaim your joy and love at a time when you might feel bitter or lost or angry. But the Mourner’s Kaddish continues to be spoken by the entire congregation day in and day out long after the official grieving period for any one person has passed. The gratitude it expresses is offered on behalf of all those who are departed, giving voice to worshipful words they can no longer utter here on earth. Through future generations, the dead continue to honor God.

Only then did I sense how those who are no longer here rely on those who are to continue expressing faith thereby carrying on the task of bringing light into the world. It’s such a big job, no one generation can do it alone. It’s an on-going responsibility that rests on the shoulders of countless generations. Only together can the ultimate goal of Tikkun Olam, or repairing the world, be achieved. I learned that the literal translation of Tikkun Olam is something like “forever light.” Each generation after the next working to endlessly shine light here on earth is how the healing takes place.

Tikkun Olam

“Surprisingly well,” I told Lisa when she asked how my dates with each member of our old high school group had gone.

When I finally met up with each of my old buddies, it turns out they weren’t interested in dwelling on my shortcomings or the hardships they had faced since last we’d seen one another. I had been worried about re-hashing the negative, but they were eager to tell me about the good things. Nina was nearing the end of her training to be a counselor. She wanted to talk about the teenagers she works with and her animal rescue work and the dog she adopted. She mentioned her boyfriend who had died, but only to tell me that she still stayed in touch with his daughter from a previous relationship.

At the museum, I wandered over to the area where the Tzedakah pinball machine continues from the floor above. At this level, it becomes something called the “Tikkun Olam House.” From my reading, I know that Tikkun Olam means “to repair the world” and is a fundamental concept in Judaism, perhaps even the most fundamental—the reason each of us is here. Each time a person does something good or follows one of God’s directives he or she contributes to the ultimate goal of Tikkun Olam. This display’s size and central location suggests that the lessons provided here could be more important than any other, the primary message kids are meant to take away from this experience.

A window at the top of the house asks, “Where is your help needed?” A series of backlit boxes reveal cartoon suggestions of beneficiaries: communities, other people, the earth, animals. At the very bottom, low enough for the tiniest tots to paw, three big slots await tokens. The first slot has a picture of a dollar so that feeding it is meant to represent giving money. Another slot is labeled with a clock, proposing a second option for what you might offer: time. But it’s the middle slot I find most interesting. It sports a big bright ball with beams radiating out. To put your tokens here is to give something akin to your energy or your light. Maybe it means giving both time and money, but it transcends these categories because what you impart is even more personal. It’s your attention, your focus. It could be listening to stories of hardship, helping a person carry the burden of heartache, but it’s just as likely to demand something that our human natures can make difficult: celebrating other people’s good fortunes. Deb’s paintings, Becky’s little boy, Nina’s accomplishments helping others—my friends had wanted nothing more from me than to share in the joy of their unique contributions. I marshaled a positive force from the depths of my heart and soul and made a curious discovery: the more light I shined on their joy, the more joy I felt.

I asked Lisa’s daughter Sydney to make one last stop with me before it was time to leave. It’s an exhibit that recreates the Western Wall, the only part of the original temple in Jerusalem that still exists. Here, it is called the Wishing Wall; blocks that look like old, weathered stones have been affixed to a regular wall. Just as I’ve seen in pictures of the real deal, small scraps of paper are stuck between the stones. A nearby table has a stack of small papers that invite us to, “Draw or write your wish for the world and place it at the Wishing Wall.” I tell Sydney to put her wish down and I’ll do the same. We’re quiet for a few minutes as we concentrate, and then Sydney shows me what she decided on. In the box provided she’s written, “More play dates with friends.” I laugh because mine’s not so different really. I want joy, for me and my friends. I don’t want to focus just on the sorrow; I want to help repair the world by shining my light on all the good too. Then Sydney and I fold our wishes into fat little squares and add them to the wall.

Tzedekah

West L.A. is home to three Jewish-themed museums. The Museum of Tolerance is the West Coast’s answer to D.C.’s Holocaust Museum, though less epic in scale. It’s also a bit broader in content: from the Holocaust, it branches out to displays on racism and genocide around the world. The Skirball’s main galleries are dedicated to Jewish culture, displaying objects used in the homes, businesses, and worship places of Jews all over the world from the medieval era up to current day. There’s even a room with catalogued snippets of home movies and audio interviews on different aspects of the American Jewish experience. While both of these museums are kid-friendly, only the last—the Zimmer—is designed specifically for children.

On a Sunday afternoon, I meet my old high school friend Lisa and her 6-year-old daughter, Sydney, at the Zimmer. It’s not technically billed as a “Jewish” museum, just a regular children’s museum, but its location on the first floor and basement of a high-rise called the Jewish Federation Building is the first indication that this play space might have a special message. When I arrive, Lisa and Sydney are already deep inside and I get stopped by the security guard for being childless and then let through once Lisa comes to vouch for me. Beyond the ticket booth, a few items remain stationary in a blur of activity: a full-scale ambulance with spinning red lights, a make-believe theatre stage with an exploding trunk of costumes, a replica of a jet with the bobbing heads of tiny pilots.

One display stands out. It’s in the center of everything and the floor has been cut away so that it continues on the level below. A giant wall of levers and gears and pegs sports a sign declaring this the “World’s Largest Tzedekah Pinball.” I’ve seen “tzedekah” translated as “charity” or “justice” and my sense is that it encompasses any generous or kind act. Pucks released at the top fall through the open spaces, ricocheting off obstacles here and there. I suppose it’s meant to symbolize the complicated course of life with each collision representing an opportunity to do a good deed. The pucks rain down on the roof of a little house below.

On bottom floor, I stroll down a tiny main street complete with shingled roofs and streetlights. Each lovingly rendered storefront invites playacting: wait tables at the Blue Bagel Café, organize inventory at Bubbie’s Bookstore, wrap yourself in a prayer shawl at the mini-synagogue.

Beyond the pretend synagogue, Lisa and I take a seat as Sydney joins a group of kids on a life-size boat in a sea of soft balls.

“So, how did it go?” Lisa asks. She’s curious about my dates with the other members of my old high school gang: Nina, Deb, and Becky. I had been so anxious about the prospect, I’d considered abandoning my goal of seeing each of them, but decided I had to do what was right, not what was easy. So I arranged to meet each friend separately. I hoped to provide my undivided attention and convey my sincerest apologies for having disappeared so thoroughly from their lives.