My playmates, c. 1956. I am in the back row, left, and Helena Valenti is in the back row, right.
In the years following World War II, Jews were the vanguard of the westward spread of Boston’s suburbs. When I entered grade school in 1954,my family moved into a white colonial house in Newton Centre, a small town outside of Boston. Our large extended family lived nearby, most of our neighbors and almost all my classmates were Jewish, and so it seemed to me that the whole world was too. My parents, though, were nonobservant. They had never been temple members, and certainly did not intend to provide their children with a formal religious education.
One block away from our house was Valenti’s, a truck farm that grew vegetables for local markets. In season, we bought all of our produce at their roadside stand. The Valentis’daughter Helena, a dark-haired beauty with sparkling eyes and an easy laugh, was my age and served as the family translator. Soon Helena and I had become fast friends. After school we would spend hours jumping into bales of hay in the barn, pretending to drive the tractors, and helping out at the farm stand. Often we just sat and talked, and it quickly became apparent that Helena was an accomplished storyteller.
The central figure in Helena’s stories was an amazing character named Jesus. As she described him, Jesus was a superhero with astonishing powers—sort of a combination of Superman, The Shadow, and The Green Lantern. Jesus made miracles happen: he could command bread to appear out of thin air and change water to wine. He controlled nature itself: he could make violent storms disappear at will and walk on water! He was an amazing healer: he could make blind men see and lame people walk. Once the Devil was living inside of a man (“He was covered with sores that oozed pus all over,” Helena recounted in a hushed voice), and Jesus chased the Devil away just by touching him. He could even make dead people come back to life! I was transfixed.
“Do you want to hear how Jesus died?” Helena asked one day.
“Oh, yes. It was horrible!”
It turned out that Jesus’ superpowers were not enough to save him from a terrible fate, which Helen proceeded to narrate in gruesome detail. Jesus was betrayed to the Romans by the Jews (“Why did they do that?” Helena wasn’t sure—“Maybe they were jealous?”), and from then on he was doomed. Roman soldiers stripped off his clothes, flogged him with a leather whip covered with nails, and made him drag a gigantic wooden cross up a tall hill. When he reached the top they hammered big iron nails through his hands and feet (!!!) into the cross. Then they stabbed him with a spear and made him drink vinegar until, after hours of agony, he finally died. Then the ground split open, fire came up, and they buried Jesus in a cave.
“Where did you hear these stories?” I asked in awe.
“From the nuns at my school.”
“What’s a nun?”
“They’re women who teach you to pray to God—they’re all married to Jesus.”
“But I thought he died.”
“Yes, but then he came back to life and went up to heaven to live with his father.”
“Like a ghost?” I asked, increasingly perplexed.
“No, no. The Holy Ghost is different.”
I didn’t fully understand this whole business, but Helena clearly did, and every time I went to the Valentis’ farm I demanded to hear more Jesus stories.
One day after playing with Helena I returned home to find a stranger in our living room, sitting in the stuffed armchair reserved for honored guests. He was dressed in a crisply pressed black suit, had a neatly trimmed white beard, and spoke with the hint of a foreign accent, just like my great uncle Manny, who had lived in Russia as a child.
“Hey, Richie,” my mother called out, “say hello to Rabbi Schwartz.”
Unbeknownst to me then, Rabbi Schwartz was paying my parents a social call to convince them to join Temple Beth El and enroll me in the temple’s Hebrew school. Thus far, my parents had politely, but firmly, declined his appeal.
“What’s a rabbi?” I asked, innocently.
My mother shifted uncomfortably. Finally, she responded: “Uh…he’s someone who helps you talk to God.”
“Oh, I know all about talking to God,” I declared. “That’s what Jesus does!”
“Really?” Rabbi Schwartz said, leaning forward in the armchair with apparent interest.
“Yeah! He can do miracles and everything!” I gushed.
“Ah, I see….Would you tell me more about him?”
And before my horrified mother and father could say a word, I excitedly began to regale the rabbi with the best of Helena’s Jesus stories. As I waxed on about Jesus’ final tribulations (“…they whipped him and hammered nails through his hands and feet and stabbed him with a spear…”), a peculiar wry smile crept over Rabbi Schwartz’s face.
Nodding attentively to me as I chattered on, he casually reached into his briefcase, withdrew a sheaf of papers, and set them on the coffee table before my parents. Still nodding politely, he took a pen from his jacket and placed it on top of the papers. My mother and father glanced at each other, and then, resigned to their fate, proceeded to fill out the forms. By the time my store of Jesus stories was exhausted, my father had written out the check.
“Well, Richie,” the rabbi said, “I can see that you love a good story. We have some marvelous stories to tell you at Temple Beth El. I’ll see you there next week.”
And so it was that I attended Hebrew school. There I discovered the wonders of the synagogue, the melodies of Jewish prayer, and the taste of fresh baked challah. I learned the aleph bet, the Shema, and the Four Questions. I made garlands for the Sukkah, spun dreidels, and played Haman in the Purim spiel. I asked my mother to light candles for Shabbat, and we began to attend services at Temple Beth El. Jewish prayer and practice returned to our family, and I had my own tales of heroes and miracles to tell.
More than half a century later, it gives me pause to consider how—but for that chance encounter—my Jewish heritage might have been lost to me. But as it happened, thanks in no small measure to Helena’s Jesus stories, I came to learn of our history, our traditions, and our stories—wisdom that I have now passed on to my own children.
Richard B. Weinberg, M.D. is a professor at Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston Salem, North Carolina, where he and his family are members of Temple Emanuel.