Gingerbread Houses and Crashing Economies

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Stock Market Crash
12 Feb 2009

I light my Shabbat candles, but it doesn’t help one bit. A 200-pound barbell is still balanced across my shoulders.

Relative to many others, we have only been scratched and not crushed by the stock market crash and current economic crisis. Thank G-d, my husband still has a job, we still have food on the table, we still have a comfortable place to live.

But the stock market crash has brought on a sense of nagging, no… make that haunting anxiety about our ability to meet our basic needs in the long-term. And now, even on Shabbat Kodesh, the day when all my mundane worries would fall away.

My kids open their bags of Doritos and button up their sweaters in preparation for our traditional Friday night walk while my husband is in shul. I am more in a lie on the sofa and sulk mood than a go on a walk mood, but I don’t see any way around it. I wipe my 3-year-old’s nose, replace my one-year-old’s discarded shoe, bounce the double stroller down the stairs, and we are off into the Jerusalem night.

When we are headed back towards home, I smell the smoke.

Burning trash? Burning forests? Burning wood in a fireplace? I consider each possibility and then my mind steps back in time, falls into a deep sleep and my soul arises, circling around and sniffing at the air. In a moment, my soul has slipped out of my body like Peter Pan out of the Darlings’ nursery window.

A memory has been stirred loose and I am flying over white beaches and black oceans and vast potato fields, until I arrive at a Friday night in Brunswick, Maine 17 years ago. It is snowing so heavily, I feel as though I am stuck inside the glass ball I kept on my childhood dresser until it shattered one day. Most of my classmates are getting drunk at parties and yelling at each other over blasting Led Zeppelin and Madonna. A few dozen students are watching “Casablanca” in the auditorium of the foreign languages building. The library is the exclusive territory of exchange students and Classic majors.

As I hear the snow crunch under my feet, I am very depressed about something. An unrequited crush? A failed exam? During those years, life often felt meaningless, but this night is different. Tonight, the feeling of meaninglessness is no longer vague, like a mild toothache that comes and goes over a period of months until you call your dentist one day in a panic. Tonight the meaninglessness screams at me out of the black void of the universe like a long overdue root canal.

I double knot my olive-green duck boots, zipper up my pink LL Bean coat, and head away from the bright lights and shaking frat houses of the campus. I am a 19-year-old Odysseus setting off through the thick pine forest behind the gym, in search of the Meaning of Life.

At first, I just stare around me at the beauty of it all. The dime-sized snowflakes whizzing around me and settling on the 3-story pine trees in the dark night. But as the snow piles up on the pine branches, a layer of fear gathers on my heart. If a wild dog found me, or a psychopathic killer, there would be no one to protect me, I realize. If I sprained my ankle and could not get up, there would be absolutely no one to hear my screams for help. It would take days, maybe weeks, for someone to discover me out here underneath the snow in the thick woods. Maybe not until the spring came.

I shiver. I forgot to wear gloves, and I ball up my bare hands and stuff them, pink and frozen, as far as they will go inside my pockets.

“I am not afraid, I am not afraid,” I lie over and over to myself under my breath.

But I do not head back to the safety of my dorm room. I know this is a journey I must continue until its end.

I walk further and further. I reach the road and then an unfamiliar bridge. I hear the furious rush of the river below; it is almost licking at my feet, like the flames of Hell in a medieval tapestry.

“I am not afraid. I am not afraid.” But I feel my heartbeat pulsing hot and quick behind my eyes.

At the end of the bridge, I discover a pitch black path, and a cluster of small houses in the distance. This is not a wealthy area; probably workers from the college maintenance crew or the cafeteria staff live here. I come to a small white house, and from the path I can see inside the window. I see a tea-colored table lamp, a painting of flowers on the wall, and a man and a woman and a baby next to their fireplace.

Standing there, I feel like an alien who has never seen a human family in my whole life. I have crossed the river and entered a fairy tale, and this is the gingerbread house surrounded by gumdrops and candy canes. I see the fireplace’s white smoke rise from their chimney, and I smell the sweet smoke.

I stand there for minutes. Or maybe hours.

I take out my key and open the door to my dorm room. My roommate and best friend is with her boyfriend, as usual. Tears stream down my cheeks. I am a failed Odysseus. Whatever universal truth or meaning or purpose I was seeking on this journey, I did not discover it. I am alone in my room. And alone in the Universe.

But as I fall asleep, I cross the furious river or memory once again, and walk down the pitch-black path to its very end.

My husband has returned from synagogue before me, and he opens the door. “Let’s get started,” he says, “the chicken soup smells amazing.” I sit with my family around the table, the Shabbat candles casting flickering shadows on our living room wall.

As we sing Shalom Aleichem, I hold my 10-year-old daughter’s hand, and I realize that the barbell on my shoulders has evaporated. I feel happy for the first time in days. I look to the window, and my heart jumpstarts when I see a familiar young girl with her hands cupped against the glass, watching us.

I meet my eyes and shiver.

I turn back to my family, and I thank God for all the things I have not lost in the past few months. My family. My faith. My place. I tighten my grip around my daughter’s hand, and don’t let go even when we all stand for Kiddush.

Chana Jenny Weisberg is the creator of the new Jewish Motherhood Video Project which can be viewed on her website

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.