by Shoshanna Silcove
My eyelids felt like they were clamped shut with superglue. With great effort, they opened. Much to my astonishment, I lay prostrate in a hospital bed. “There you are! Hi! We almost lost you!”, the cheery voice sang out from the young doctor’s face above me. I could see his wide smile of relief above the white surgery mask dangling around his neck. Oh the pain! It was searing through my torso. The nurse bent down to administer more anesthetic and the pain began to subside.
Where was I? What happened? My foggy mind started to flood with a myriad of questions. I looked around at the hospital room with all its shiny bright new modern equipment. This was not some underequipped public hospital, this was state of the art. Then I started to remember where I was. The university hospital, the one used for medical research touted as one of the best in the country.
My mind began to become occupied with memories. They came rapidly in snippets. My parents at my bedside saying, “We love you” holding my hand, their faces contorted with anguish. “I love you too!” I somehow managed to say, or had I actually just thought those words? Did my mouth articulate them or not? I could not be certain.
The screech. The broken glass. The terror. The fear. The pain and then all black. The accident. I closed my eyes. Oh yes, the accident! That was why I was here now in the university hospital on New Year’s eve. On the way home from the party at Marcia’s house to bring in 1982 with a bang. How ironic it was that we wanted to bring in the new year with a bang because a bang is what I got, a few bangs I imagined, but it hurt my stitches too much to let out a wry laugh.
More memories were coming faster and clearer now. I remembered after the accident being prepped for surgery. Overcome with a terror I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams, a terror that shook my soul to its very core. Screaming– who was screaming? Was that my voice? Or was it just my mind screaming in silence? Am I going to die? So cold. Death so near. Images of lying in a coffin, under many layers of soil, surrounded by worms and rotting flesh, alone, all alone, more alone than any person could ever be. Moaning– was it my voice or just in my head? I couldn’t tell which. I cannot face being that lonely! I cannot die. This cannot be happening.
And then the unthinkable happened. I began to pray. For the first time in my 24 years of life, this avowed atheist prayed authentic heartfelt prayers. If there is a god in this world, help me! Are you there? Do you hear me? If you hear me then you must do what I tell you to and make sure I do not die. I will give you reasons Mr. G-d if you exist, whoever you are, as to why I cannot possibly die now, not here, not like this. I cannot be allowed to die because I have not really lived yet. That’s right Mr. Whatever is Out There Whatever You Call Yourself, I am young, very, very young. And it just will not do to have me die this young before I get a chance to do stuff like get married and have a family. Hey Mr. or Ms. All Powerful and Mysterious Absolute Power of the Universe, if you actually exist, who do you think you are to let me die? You think you can get away with that? I have important things to do! I know I may not yet really know what those important things are, but I do know they are important, and you Great Force of the World, need me to do them!
It has been said there are no atheists in foxholes. I would add nor are there any in surgery beds. The fantastic doctors worked on my body furiously for over 14 hours to stop the bleeding. Just a few more ounces of blood, I was told, and it would have been an eternal dirt nap for me. I was lucky.
Getting back to the real world everyday life as a university student would not be so simple. My young body bounced back with ease and fairly quickly, but my mind and heart were lagging far behind. It was as if while conducting my everyday life I was just going through the motions. My studies suddenly seemed dull and irrelevant. My friends and professors all suddenly seemed different somehow, as if I got transplanted into a world that looked the same but, was in a different and strange dimension.
“This is quite normal for a person who has experienced coming close to death,” the university psychologist peered at me over his wire-rimmed glasses with compassion. “In some ancient tribes, they would often isolate men who had come close to death in battle for about a year and allow them to get back to themselves.”
I couldn’t allow myself to talk to the shrink about my praying. No one could know. I had a reputation to maintain as the rational intellectual educated leftist, the aspiring academic, the champion of all the politically correct principles and causes of the day. I could not let on that in a moment of weakness I betrayed all of my ideals and actually prayed to G-d. I was no backward ignoramus but, a sophisticated progressive, and for me, G-d talk was forbidden.
Nevertheless, I was bothered by an internal shift that defied the definition. I found myself singing some silly Hebrew songs under my breath that I had learned as a child in the Reform Temple. Why were these coming to my mind now? And then one day I decided to cross the line and secretly visit a local Rabbi.
This Rabbi was very well known for his charisma and warmth. He had a massive Reform congregation close to the campus. At 5 o’clock in the afternoon, I arrived at the Temple and found the Rabbi getting ready to go home for the day.
“Rabbi, is there a blessing to thank G-d for saving my life?” These words pouring out of my mouth stunned me as I had not expected that I would say them.
The Rabbi stopped putting on his coat and looked at me in puzzlement. “Are you a member of my congregation?” he asked. I nodded no.
After pondering for a moment the Rabbi motioned for me to follow him into his office and told me to sit down while he sat at his desk looking through some books. I sat quietly waiting. There were lots of books all around his office and I wondered what could all these books possibly be about? Religion was not academics, it was primitive superstition and nonsense and could not be something that people would write so many books for. Yet, here I was asking the Rabbi for a blessing and the cognitive dissonance I felt was overwhelming.
“Ah, I found it! I invite you to come to Friday night services. You will get your blessing then.”
And so I did. Clad in the white kippah and tallis they handed to me at the sanctuary entrance, I stood at the bima. Holding a silver pointer I read aloud in English, a blessing thanking G-d for the kindness He bestowed upon me. I sat down. I felt nothing. No spiritual high. No inspiration. I felt like I had wasted my time and quickly left disappointed that my conclusion at age 14 that Judaism was a bunch of claptrap had been right all along.
University life continued for me much like before, except for the inner feeling of emptiness and the psychological cognitive dissonance became more profound as time went on.
The Chabad shluchim were a familiar sight at the student union, with their table of pamphlets and a picture of some old white-bearded Rabbi. For years I paid them no heed except once the Hillel director told me that that group of Chassidim believed that old bearded Rabbi was the messiah, and we had a real good belly laugh over that.
It was winter, 1984. A huge colorful sign hung over the Chabad table saying ‘Chabad Lubavitch Wishes You a Happy Chanukah”. The aroma of potato latkes on a hot plate wafted through the air. I was hungry. The Rabbi’s wife handed me a latke with a genuine smile. “We are having a Chanukah party next week. Would you like to come?”
Getting ready for the party the week later I had a strange thought. Perhaps I should wear the only skirt I owned. I rationalized that one has to be tolerant and sensitive to other cultures, after all, would I go to an American Indian party dressed as a cowboy? Of course not, so clad in the skirt I arrived.
“You look really good in a skirt, not all girls look different, but you do,” the Rabbi’s wife told me and it wasn’t fake flattery. It was real and genuine, just like the Rabbi’s attitude towards me when we first started to talk. This Rabbi never asked me if I was part of his congregation.
My mind flooded with questions. ‘Rabbi, what happens to a person after they die?” For the first time in my life, I got answers and discovered that Judaism had something to say about spirituality. No one in all my years of Reform Temple education ever told me about Olam Habah.
The journey ahead would be fraught with challenges, difficulties, and setbacks. However, I soon knew there would be a significant change to me and my life’s path. There was no turning back. And those latkes really tasted great too.