The Sound of Lightning
By Debbie Shapiro
INTRO: My husband and I were sitting in the conference room at the office of Yeshivas Beis Zion in
, together with Rabbi and Rebbetzin Roberg. Although we had come to Berlin less than a week ago, we already felt as if we were part of the community. But now it was time to pack; in just another few hours we would be returning to our home in Yerushalayim. Berlin
From the beis medrash next door, I could hear the faint music of dozens of yeshivah bachurim – genuine, upright yeshivah bachurim – studying Torah. It seemed almost magical. The compelling sound of Torah learning was transforming
, the seat of German culture and its war against religion, into a true makom Torah. Berlin
Just as we were about to get up and return to our room to finish packing, the rebbetzin smiled and asked if we would like to hear one more story. I couldn't resist. END OF INTRO
Mariana grew up knowing that she was Jewish, but she had no idea what that meant. Her family kept nothing, absolutely nothing – no matzos on Pesach, no lighting of the menorah on Chanukah, nothing at all that could connect her to her Jewish roots.
Mariana's family was among the close to 100,000 Russian Jews who had immigrated to
with the fall of the Iron Curtain. Life in Germany was so much easier than in the small Ukrainian town where they had lived before. There were so many more opportunities for education and advancement. And like many others, the German government had settled Mariana's family in a small German town, far from any established Jewish community, which only served to make their tenuous Jewish identity even more fragile. Germany
Like so many precious Jewish souls, Mariana sensed that there was something lacking in her life. She was searching for meaning, for answers to her existential questions. She knew that there was more to life than earning a living and climbing the ladder of professional advancement, but she hadn't a clue what it was or where to find it. So when the outreach organization, Lauder Yeshurun, sponsored an evening about Jewish identity in her small town, she decided to attend. She hoped that there, perhaps, she would find some answers to the questions that puzzled her.
As we have seen happen with so many of these precious Jewish souls, Mariana's neshamah craved truth. From that initial evening she graduated to a three-day Lauder Yeshurun seminar, and then to weekly evening classes for students. Eventually, she was committed enough to discovering her Jewish roots that she enrolled in the women's Midrasha.
Mariana, now called Miriam, soared. From day to day, the teachers and other staff-members could actually see this young woman’s growth. It wasn't easy, it never is. It took a lot of work; after all, Miriam was transforming her deepest being, her aspirations and her way of viewing the world. Sometimes Rebbetzin Roberg would stand at the side of the room and watch her daven. She was always amazed by Miriam’s sincerity and the depth of her emotions. It was obvious to all that Miriam was creating a real connection with the Almighty and that He was helping her to transform herself into a true daughter of her people.
Rebbetzin Roberg continues: "Baruch Hashem, after several years of hard work, Miriam became, well, Miriam, a true bas Yisrael ready to build a bayis neeman. She was introduced to a wonderful young yeshivah student learning in
's Yeshivas Beis Zion and within a few weeks she was engaged, preparing for her marriage.” Berlin
Although Miriam had grown up knowing that she was Jewish, there were no documents to prove it. Yes, her mother had a Jewish name and yes, her family had been allowed to settle in
specifically because they were Jews, but none of that was conclusive proof of her Jewish roots. People from Lauder Yeshurun approached Miriam's mother to ask if, perhaps, she had any old Jewish documents or could remember anything specific about her childhood that might prove that her mother, Miriam's maternal grandmother, was Jewish. But Miriam's mother was unwilling to cooperate. She thought her daughter had entered a strange cult and wanted to have nothing to do with it. Germany
"So,” says Rebbetzin Roberg “I was given the difficult task of informing this precious Jewish soul that without proof that her mother was Jewish, she would need to convert lechumrah. You cannot imagine how difficult it was for me to tell her this. I gently broke the news, explaining that although this was just a precautionary religious rite, without it, she would not be permitted to marry halachically.
“Miriam began sobbing hysterically. She was not angry or bitter. She just kept on asking, 'Does that mean that all the time I was davening and performing mitzvos, I wasn't really Jewish?' I didn't know how to respond, so I just held her tight and cried together with her."
Hearing Miriam’s story, so poignantly conveyed by Rebbetzin Roberg I felt the tears well up in my eyes. I glanced at my husband, who was sitting next to me. His eyes were also damp.
Rebbetzin Roberg wasn’t finished. "Baruch Hashem, Miriam went through the conversion process. Several weeks later, her parents came to the Yeshivas Beis Zion community for the Shabbos ufruf and the wedding. Miriam was a nervous wreck. How would her mother react? She had always been so vocal in her opposition to Miriam's new lifestyle. Miriam asked me to please take care of her parents during their stay in
"I invited Miriam's parents to join us for the Shabbos meals, but, truthfully, I was a nervous wreck! I really didn't know what to expect. After all, Miriam's mother was so opposed to her daughter's lifestyle that I wondered how she'd react when my husband would stand up to recite Kiddush! But when she opened the door and saw our elegantly set table, she exclaimed in surprised delight, 'Ah Shabbos tish! Ahn emesdika Shabbos tish!' This was no strange cult; it was the real thing, what she remembered seeing as a very young girl back in
. As she so beautifully put it, 'Ahzei vi in mein heim.' Russia
"It was such a wonderful, joyous Shabbos seudah. Throughout the meal, the memories kept flooding back. But although Miriam's mother remembered so many things, the recollections were all very general, and I was fishing for something specific, something that could be seen as proof that Miriam's maternal grandmother had been Jewish.
"'Do you remember anything, anything at all, about your bubby, your maternal grandmother?' I asked her.
"Miriam's mother was silent. Her eyes were closed in concentration. 'There's only one thing that stands out,' she whispered. 'But it has nothing to do with being Jewish.'
"'Tell me.' I knew from experience that sometimes what seemed to be the most inconsequential recollections were crucial in proving someone's Jewishness.
"'My bubby was petrified of thunder. At the first clap of it, she'd stop whatever she was doing and mutter something under her breath.'
"'Do you have any recollection of what she said?'
"Miriam's mother's eyes scrunched up in concentration. 'I'm not sure,' she said. 'But if I'm not mistaken, it concluded with the words, 'Oseh maaseh bereishis.'"
"It was obvious to all of us there that there had been no need for Miriam to convert. All of her mitzvos, all of her davening, had all been done by a pure Jewish soul, a young woman whose roots went all the way back in a golden chain to the Imahos, Sarah, Rivkah, Rochel and Leah. Baruch attah Hashem… Oseh maaseh Bereishis, Blessed are You, Hashem… Who makes the work of Creation."
It was already dark outside. Our taxi was due in less than half an hour and we still had to finish packing our bags and bring them down to the front entrance. We were leaving
, but we knew that we'd be back. After all, how could we stay away from a place where the sound of lightning can be heard? Berlin