The Jewish Book that First Inspired Me

When I was a child, my parents announced that we’d be traveling from our home in New Jersey to Pittsburgh. It would be exciting, they said, as this would be the first time that I would fly on a plane.

They warned me that we would not see much of the city itself. They would leave me with friends who had moved there and go to a hospital, where they would consult with a specialist in whom they placed great hope. My father, then in his mid-30s, was weakening from an ailment that had killed a great number of his relatives and ancestors, all at an early age, far back through time in the shtetl. They called it “the family curse.” Nothing more was known.

The last day of Hebrew School before we left, I went to the synagogue library – a dark, hushed, plush-carpeted room full of thick, somber-looking tomes. I chose the book that looked most lively. Its binding was red. The spine said Tales.

It was a collection of mystical Jewish stories. There is only one that I remember. I read it in my parents’ friends’ house on a rainy morning that turned into night.

Four wise men had been permitted to glance over the wall separating life from that which lay beyond. Two refused. One looked and was so overcome that he dropped dead, himself, on the spot. The fourth, entranced by the beauty and wonder of what he saw, went over the wall and was never heard from again. This, the tale concluded, was why we have no reports back from the Other Side.

My parents wouldn’t return until well after 11, ashen-faced and drained, my father barely able to stand. The friends, who had no children, didn’t realize that I should long before have been in bed. The specialist was able to name the disorder, but that was little help, as it could not be cured. A year later, my father died. But the tale proved a comfort, and stayed with me.

I’ve tried to find the book again, searching online, and even called the synagogue. I even told them where the book was – on which wall, on which shelf. They found no book matching that description. It’s now as though the book did not exist.

Many years later, I would find myself on research to former homelands, Jewish and other, in the far corners of the earth – as close, perhaps, to that wall as I could manage. Once or twice, I hit dangers that could well have pushed me over it.

What was I looking for? Possibly my father.

Yet, as the tale reminds us, one day we’ll join those who see what the fourth wise man saw. Until then, we’ll simply have to wait.

Editor’s note: Dr. Salamensky has written about the rise and fall of the Jewish Autonomous Republic of Birobidzhan, and the recent opening of POLIN: Museum of the History of Polish Jews among other Jewish Studies topics.

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