Shema

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Shema by Megan Walter - Photo by Hannah Rubenstein

Some light glows yellow; some glows gold. Near the temple’s eaves, back behind the Torah’s ark, skylights sliver opal off the sky and wreathe it over rented church pews. In another season, different communities practice other religions here. Like the spine of a prayer book, Judaism binds my family history; likewise, my family binds me to my religion. A prayer begins—people readjust prayer shawls and stand; those who can’t stand sit taller. Everyone holds a siddur, a prayer book, to their heart. As I hold mine to my chest, I feel a soft rhythm through the bound leather: my heartbeat, pulsating, making chapters alive. During High Holy Days, my temple duals as a place of worship and a second home; the community reminds me of my grandparents’ history, my relationship with them, and the interconnections of family and religion.

In the library, two armchairs sat largely, like real creatures—tucked in each one, with a book and a Kindle, my grandparents read and slept and conversed in rapid-fire Hebrew. They folded wings from paper books and flew off elsewhere, to places they remembered but would never revisit. Whenever I spent time with my grandparents, they became the storytellers of their own history. In front of them, my sister and I set up a camera and recorded a candid interview; the Nikon squinted at my grandfather’s ironed vest. He smiled, tuned his hearing aid, and described his early childhood in Leipzig—the German accent catching his tongue, still there—with his sister, Penina, and his brother, Ze’ev. My grandfather pulled apart his memories, which had, with time, bleared and become nebulous—the political warfare of 1934, a prayer bookshop shuttered, and a Saxon train station. He chronicled an escape to the port of Trieste, Italy, where Palestine-bound voyagers boarded The Italia, sailed through the Mediterranean, and anchored outside Jaffa. After he finished talking, I rewatched the interview and heard taped laughter, mine and his, then found myself staring at the sudden and petrified jolt of the video’s last frame.

Her hair looked like spider silk, dyed for visibility. Wrinkles held her cheeks like roots and, reflected in her spectacles, the camera blinked. My grandmother’s face revealed the softenings of memories as she told us that her parents emigrated from Russia, met on a Palestinian kibbutz—a Jewish community-owned residence—and raised two children with a different mother tongue. An agricultural chemist from St. Petersburg, Russia, her father learned to take root and regrow in a different land. By 1948, my grandmother attended university in Jerusalem, and the War of Independence had begun.

The camera lens blurred, unfocused itself as if underwater, then realigned. In 1948, my grandfather, a senior at the modern-day Israel Institute of Technology, joined the War of Independence as a member of the science corps. My grandmother, an army sniper then, protected passengers on bus rides to out-of-town places. After meeting in the military, my grandparents married and moved to London to further their studies. Their first year in England, my grandfather told me—shifting in the armchair—the city experienced the thickest fog in centuries: the Great Smog of London. My grandparents learned English and how to count shillings and the makings of tea. Soon after, job opportunities brought them back to Israel and then on to new cities. They laughed on camera and talked in Hebrew and in English; when I switched the Nikon off, we all laughed—not even stopping to breathe because my grandparents taught me that one can breathe while laughing.

Some light glows yellow; some glows gold. In the synagogue, back behind the Torah’s ark, there’s opal light. My grandmother once told me that her favorite necklace had an opal pendant; some headstones look like opal in sunlight, but hers didn’t. The day she left me, it rained and rained and rained, and it wouldn’t stop, and I thought about everything I never told her. During High Holy Days, as the temple choir adds silver sounds to opal air, I always remember my grandmother. Each year, I see opal reflected on the varnish of the wood; I think skylights sliver opal off the sky at night and lay my grandmother’s jewel over crowded church pews, the shoulders of the Torah’s ark, and in the gold lettering of prayer books. On Sunday mornings, the opal’s already jeweled the temple air for people to breathe in and say the prayer Shema, and say Listen.

Author Bio: Megan Walter is a member of the class of 2023 at the Paideia School in Atlanta, Georgia. Megan enjoys long-distance running, writing creatively, reading, and exploring all things literary. She participates in cross country and track and field, competes with her high school’s mock trial team, is involved with her local synagogue, and loves to hike on the weekends!

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Megan Walter is a member of the class of 2023 at the Paideia School in Atlanta, Georgia. Megan enjoys long-distance running, writing creatively, reading, and exploring all things literary. She participates in cross country and track and field, competes with her high school's mock trial team, is involved with her local synagogue, and loves to hike on the weekends!
Accompanying photo: “Changing Colors” by Hannah Rubenstein