Many times I am asked where I get my stories. I am going to provide a long answer, but before that a short one: I do not look for them, nor do I solicit them. They find me.
Meaning, wherever I go (and I go to a lot of places) people are always telling me their stories. But there are also stories (here comes the long answer) that I pick up by just trying to be an “observant” Jew. Many a time I will comment in wonder upon something that I noticed to the person standing next to me – who observed the very same thing – yet failed to discern that something remarkable had just transpired. Often the neighbor will think about this for a moment and then thank me for picking up on what they had neglected to observe.
Sometimes, however, the person who just heard my play-by-play remains unimpressed; seemingly annoyed that I bothered them to point out what I had deemed noteworthy. Gee, I never have a problem when people highlight things to me. As a matter of fact, although I am not a curious person, I am attentive, and regret if I fail to notice something that was right out in the open.
Alexandra Horowitz wrote a book entitled On Looking, which I wish to read, but every time I go to the library it is not available. As a consolation, I read her book Being a Dog and that was surely an eye-opener. (I had never considered how a dog looks at the world, especially as it bases most of what it “sees” upon its nose, rather than eyes.)
But as I am already on a tangent, we might as well add that if you have your eyes truly open, there are plenty of stories out there and ready to be processed. Not long ago, as I got out of the car parked in front of a Bed, Bath and Beyond in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, a woman – a perfect stranger – approached me and asked me if I was intending to enter the store?
When I nodded affirmatively, she told me to wait a minute and went fishing inside her purse. After a few seconds she dug out a coupon which she presented to me. I thanked her warmly and explained that I was just rewarded, for earlier that morning I was waiting in line in the post office when the clerk informed the gentleman in front of me that the package needed to be taped in order to be mailed. He would therefore have to either ship it at a higher class which comes with adhesive sealing, or purchase a roll of tape for $3.99.
Providentially, I happened to have a roll of tape in my pocket which I offered to the man. The fellow was a little gruff and did not thank me, but he did offer the slightest look of appreciation. I hope that this man felt as I did when the woman offered me a coupon, and will be anxious to perform a kindness for a stranger.
Years ago (for reasons of vanity, I am not saying “decades”) a girl walked into a class I was teaching in Neve Yerushalayim on Pirkei Avos. I do not believe she had learned a word of Torah before in her life, but she commented cleverly and originally on the Mishna in the fourth chapter, “a mitzvah brings in its chain another mitzvah, and a sin brings in its chain another sin…” if someone, a stranger, randomly does you a favor, you will be motivated to perform a favor for someone that you encounter. This sets a dynamic in motion that locomotes the train. (Not exactly her words, but definitely the gist of her idea).
And I have yet to tell you the really long answer to the question I initially posed, as to where I get my stories. I will save that for the next column, p”G, but working on the premise if-you-look-you-will-find, I conclude by relating something I witnessed in a room with 60 other highly-intelligent people who neglected to notice something truly noteworthy, right before their eyes. But that was the whole point…
Since 1969, Michlala in Jerusalem has been one of the flagship seminaries of our people. Well over 5,000 women have been educated in just the overseas program, and have made their profound impact upon communities throughout the world.
Needless to say, such a large seminary requires a significant staff. At the obligatory teachers meeting at the beginning of the year, approximately 60 erudite and dynamic instructors gather to learn the goals for the coming year, the challenges to be aware of and the resources available.
Well over ten years ago the esteemed director of the overseas program at the time, Rabbi Chaim Pollock, thought that it would be wise for everyone to introduce themselves and explain what they teach, as many of the teachers did not personally know their colleagues. Some teach in the morning, others in the evening, some on Mondays, others on Wednesdays, etc.
The academic firepower in that room was awesome. There were gedolei Yisrael, including the legendary founder of Michlala, Rabbi Yehuda Copperman, zt”l, all the way down to incoming teachers recently graduated from Michlala. Each teacher introduced themselves and detailed what they were teaching. There were rabbis noted for their scholarship and grandmothers with decades of pedagogic experience and just reputations for being life-changing instructors.
I was also at the teachers meeting, certainly not in the former rubric of luminaries, but proud to be part of the teaching staff of this august institution.
In the room were also the rookies; the newly married graduates who had never sat in front of a classroom before. Here they were assembled with their former teachers and rabbis, feeling as if they were at the feet of the Lincoln Memorial, practically melting in trepidation.
Finally, after going around the entire room, it was time for one of the novice teachers to introduce herself. She tried; I definitely saw that. But she was overwhelmed in the presence of her eminent mentors, and could not muster the wherewithal for anything audible to escape her lips.
Rabbi Pollok did not miss a beat and offered seamlessly, “This is Chavi Eisenberger (fictitious name) who will be teaching nashim b’Tanach.” The next teacher then introduced herself without anyone (hardly) realizing that Chavi had not spoken.
It was a beautiful story that I was blessed to behold.