“Shvoo-oat? That’s a new one. Is it one of those minor holidays?”
I’d met Sharon downstairs at the mailboxes in our building’s lobby. I’ve never figured out exactly what floor she lives on in our twenty-one story building. Our relationship was made up of brief conversations in the elevator, me getting off in the single digits, she in the double digits. Occasional meetings at the mailboxes allowed for more small talk as we sifted through our mail, throwing out the junk that didn’t rate making it up to our apartments.
“No, actually it’s pretty major.” I said as I weeded through my letters, tossing out at least three postcards from real estate agencies. (Did they know something I didn’t know?) “ Shavuot celebrates our receiving the Torah. And Torah is major.”
“Okay, so what do you do?” she asked, pulling a small package from the post box. “…Oh good, my Land’s End came.”
Though we didn’t speak all that often, this little dance was a familiar one. Sharon didn’t have much of a Jewish education and her interest was genuine but not particularly formal. She was the one who had initiated our first exchange a few months ago. I’m sure it was my obviously Orthodox appearance that had attracted her and inspired her to strike up a conversation.
“Well, we study the Torah and we read the Book of Ruth.”
“Really, I didn’t know that Ruth was a biblical name. I work with a Ruth.”
“Yes, Ruth is biblical. She was a pretty fascinating person.”
“Oh, another heroine?” Sharon had caught me and my family in the elevator on Purim. The neon green wigs some of my kids were wearing had kind of caught her eye. The two minute ride downstairs was two short for anything even close to a condensed explanation of Purim. But we introduced Sharon to Queen Esther, in the form of my daughter (crown, scepter… the whole nine yards) and she had been impressed with the short bio we had provided.
So now it’s Ruth. Here’s where I hit a speed bump. How could I quantify Shavuot in a few short sentences? How to do justice to a remarkable woman like Ruth in the few short moments that I’m holding Sharon’s interest?
Should I try something like this…Well, she was a non-Jew, a widow, a princess. She deserted it all to serve her destitute mother-in-law, to live in poverty and go begging at the estate of a rich relative. Then she put herself in a really sticky position for the rest of her life with her brief marriage to one of the most prestigious men of her generation, and by bearing his son. All under what society saw as questionable and controversial conditions. And, oh yea, in the end she was justified by history and became the mother of a royal dynasty and ancestor to the future redeemer of the Jewish nation.
I didn’t think it would fly.
“Yes,” I told her. “She was a great lady.”
Ruth really was a great lady, I mused. As we moved toward the elevators I wondered about Ruth and how she lived her life. How did she know what to do? Ruth had no religious education, no information. Why did she choose to live a life of loving-kindness, humility and modesty? She could have made different choices and no one would have held her responsible or even have expected otherwise. I looked at Sharon, who was busy tearing open her Land’s End package. Sharon had more knowledge of Jewish life than Ruth started out with. Sharon still remembers some of her late grandmother’s inexplicable habits and a few Yiddish expressions. Ruth was a Moabite princess. How did she know?
We don’t write our own life stories. Ruth didn’t know how the script of her life would play out. At every stage of the game she had to make a decision about her next move. Should she live a life of ease or leave it to achieve more? Should she let poverty get her down or should she rise above it? Should she follow advice, and go through the motions that would help build the Jewish nation – or should she stay in her comfort zone? Every step of the way, and with every decision, she had to reach a little higher.
Sharon finished checking out her package and looked up to see that one of the elevator call buttons was off. “Oh great! One elevator’s out again. What a pain.”
I flashed her a look of agreement but my thoughts were still elsewhere. How does anyone decide what to do when faced with challenging choices? Maybe we just do what Ruth did. We learn. We stick around with the good guys. We listen to the advice of those who know better than we do; the way Ruth stuck with Judaism and clung to Naomi. We strive to do the right thing and pray for help from Above. Even if it’s hard. Even if we don’t know if we will ultimately be justified in the eyes of our peers. We just have to stretch and hope for the best.
Sharon broke into my thoughts, “Okay, so here’s the important question…,” she asked cheerily. “What do we eat?!” Every holiday has a food to define it. Sharon had priorities!
“Oh, great stuff. Cheese blintzes and sour cream…cheesecake…I make a great cheesecake.” I hesitated but decided to go for it. “ …Want to join us?”
“Wow, I feel my arteries clogging up already!” she laughed.
I didn’t think she’d take me up on the offer. I had extended tentative invitations before and they’d been met with nothing more than a smile. I don’t know what I would have done if she had accepted the invitation. She’d told me that her husband was a non-Jew and I knew that her kid was a monster. What would I do with them?! Could I even sustain a conversation for longer than the time it takes to get from the ground floor to the third?
I took a figurative deep breath, she might be clueless and her son might be a handful, but they’re Jews. In the spirit of Ruth, I decided to stretch. “You’re invited anyway. Stop in on Saturday…before you take your son to soccer… I’ll only give you a little piece of cheesecake!”
Baila Rosenbaum is a freelance writer and editor living in Manhattan. Her work has been published by Targum Press, Judaica Press, in Mishpacha Magazine and Horizons.