The silver spice box stood at the back of our mahogany sideboard. The box was tarnished, and the flag up top was bent over. As a child of six or seven, I would sit at the dining room table and spin the flag as I pictured the tiny princess who lived behind those silver filigree walls.
Ten years before I was born, we inherited the spice box from my grandfather, along with the silver menorah, a pair of tefillin, a kosher Megillah scroll, and a shelf of prayer books. Every year at Chanukah, my father placed the silver menorah in the window. His voice rang out as he lit the candles on each of the eight days. There were dreidels, new toys, and chocolate coins.
But the silver spice box was a mystery. What did my grandfather use it for? I never asked or even thought of asking. My childhood was laden with such mysteries. Like what was inside the black box my father wore on his head every morning as he prayed in the dining room? Perhaps he told me there were Hebrew letters, but which ones? And why did he put it on his head, and why the straps on his arm? Because his father, my grandfather, did it this way.
But my grandfather knew why. In the only photograph we have of him, his eyes are smart and penetrating. He had a long, black beard, and his tall yarmulke was the kind they wore in Europe.
My mother called him “stern” and said she was frightened of him. Once, he took a hammer and smashed the stone carving of a face over the front door, because of the Torah prohibition against graven images. Another time, he was grabbed from behind and threatened with a knife at his throat: “Swear you’re not a Jew.” He refused.
He never stopped being “Old World,” though he arrived in America at the age of l3. Others readily joined the “melting pot” in their new lives of freedom. He never melted.
The figure of my grandfather looms very large and serious. On one occasion he surprised everyone by taking my older sister on his lap, but I gathered that it was very much out of character. I was told that he studied Jewish books, and even in his last days, he hired someone to teach him out of these books.
So what was he doing with a pretty silver box? Was it called “spice box” because he put spices inside? Clearly, it wasn’t as important as the menorah which came to life every Chanukah.
My grandfather’s spice box sat in back of the china tea cups for forty years after his death until I realized what it was for. Now, 6,000 miles away from my childhood home, I take another spice box in my hand during Havdalah in our farewell to Shabbos. I unlock the tiny silver latch and the door swings open. I say the blessing over spices. The intense fragrance of mint invigorates me as I get ready to enter the new week.
So much vital information was missing from my childhood. It wasn’t withheld. It was simply lost. No one remembered. They gave us Chanukah, but they didn’t give us Shabbos. They gave us the Seder, but they didn’t tell us about the other seven days of the Passover holiday. If we were lucky, they gave us Hebrew names, but we never used them. Now my nine year-old daughter asks me to remember the names of the girls in my fourth grade class. Their names rise up from the luminous past like balloons. Marcia. Jamie. Susan. Bunny. Lynn. Amy. Ellen. My daughter wonders why there isn’t even one Ruchel or Faigie, Devorah, or Shifra.
Did Susan or Bunny have Hebrew names or spice boxes in their dining room drawers?
I still feel on intimate terms with these fourth grade girls who accompanied me all the way through high school. Now they are mature women, the great majority still living with their vast Jewish inheritance unclaimed.
I wonder how they were able to choose mates and raise children without the vital information that we missed. I wonder how they weather the daily struggles and occasional upheavals of life without knowing what their grandparents and great-grandparents knew. At what point will they lose faith in the popular love song as a guide for their well being and happiness? Will the troublesome mystery of death ever send them on a spiritual search?
My own father’s death was one of those devastating events. I couldn’t believe that he was simply gone out of the world and out of existence. Even in the science of physics, there is a principle that energy may be transformed, but it never disappears.
I approached a Rabbi of the community with my question of what had happened to my father’s life force, his presence–I might have used the word “soul” but I had no clear definition for the word. I tried to keep it simple. Where did my father go?
The Rabbi implied that my question was improper. Judaism is a religion of life. Other religions emphasize death with their systems of reward and punishment. Judaism focuses on life and how to make our lives better, more humane, and more ethical. Anyway, how can anyone really know what happens after death? Has anyone ever come back to tell us?
That answer finished the last remaining interest I had in knowing more about my Jewishness. It convinced me not to waste my time and to look elsewhere.
I looked. I found. I lost. Nothing really satisfied me. Hard years, but they could have been harder. I might still be looking in all those places.
There were clues along the way, and finally, I began to notice them. I was having dinner with friends, and one of the guests was introduced as a visitor from Israel. He spoke with intensity about his own discovery of the world of Hebrew letters. Opening his practice book, he formed the letters for us with his quill pen.
I felt as if I was being led to the site of buried treasure. This was the Hebrew alphabet I had learned as a child, but his commentary made me realize I had never known what the letters meant. Even from a distance, it was dazzling.
The clues began to add up. A fascinating book about life in the Polish shtetl before the War. A “friend” remarking about Jewish greed, and a neighbor threatening to make trouble for me because I am a Jew. My Jewishness slowly became an issue in my life and not just a fact of my birth. And then the mystery dramatically unfolded during a visit to Jerusalem.
Here was a deep well of wisdom, deeper than I ever imagined. And it had always belonged to me, hidden for 40 years in my childhood home with my grandfather’s spice box and my father’s tefillin.
After so many years, I finally understood what was there. I reclaimed the spice box. And really, a 40-year gap is not such a long time in our Jewish history that spans thousands of years.
Varda Branfman has been living with her family in Jerusalem for the last 22 years. A former Director of the Maine Poets-in-the Schools Program, she now runs workshops in using writing for healing and reaching breakthrough insights. This piece is excerpted from Varda’s book I REMEMBERED IN THE NIGHT YOUR NAME which can be ordered at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.