Go in Good Health

Go in Good Health

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Create Your Best Future

Go in Good Health

No one ever becomes poor through the giving of charity.

~Maimonides

Even in the 1930s when the Great Depression left no family untouched, tzedakah and tolerance were twin morals in our home. Alongside the candlesticks my mother had brought from Europe stood the Jewish National Fund box, into which my mother dropped her weekly spare change, and spare it was.

We lived in a middle-sized city in Western Canada. In our home, we lived in a world of Judaism and Orthodoxy. Outside, everyone, no matter what their heritage, was labeled “English.” At home, observance of the Sabbath and the Jewish holidays dominated our lives. My father attended synagogue services daily, and several times a week a teacher came in to give Hebrew lessons to us five children. At school and on the playground we mixed, sang Christmas carols and ended the day with the Lord’s Prayer.

The outside world to us also consisted of many churches. My own firsthand experience with churches began when we were very young and my parents bought a home across the street from a Roman Catholic church and parochial school. We used to hear the church bells ring all day, and we learned to set our clocks by them. From our screened verandah we would see the nuns and priests walk from building to building, their hands tucked into their long gowns. In the summer, we would hear the bells ring out their glad tidings on Saturday afternoons, when young happy couples would park their Model Ts in front of their church, and with their huge families, would gather for their weddings. With my “English” friends I would run to the open church door in time to see a bride and groom walk up the long aisle to the altar. After the guests were seated we would steal quietly into the last pew. There, before the crucifix of Christ, their Lord, the couple would kneel and promise never to break their solemn vows. To a young child, the organ, the choir, the stained glass windows (no-no’s in our little clapboard synagogue), plus the candles burning in the little red glasses and the lavishly embroidered robes made a lasting impression.

Later I would watch the hooded sisters and the long-robed brothers stand in the doorway to greet and give their blessings to the newlyweds. I saw in these devout faces a radiant love that only they knew, and I wondered how being married to God could fill their lives so well.

Living on the same street and watching them go by daily, they became to me something mysterious, a mystique that I could feel and yet not touch, that I could see and yet not know. They were different, and they lived in a world very alien to my very orthodox home; and yet their constant smiles as they passed our house gave me a feeling of kinship. I used to walk by their residence and wonder about them as I gazed childlike at the black shades in their windows, wishing I could know more about how they lived and felt and worshipped their God. One winter, when I was ten, was a particularly cold one. It seemed as if the snow would never stop falling and the wind would never stop blowing. Christmas drew near, and the Depression seemed endless. We began to feel the tightness of money all around us. There were large heating bills, warmer clothing to buy for five children, and more and more food seemed to disappear from our table. But, one by one, the Christmas lights began to glitter in our neighbor’s windows, and the fortunate Gentiles who had evergreens in their front yards shook off the snow and put up a few lights to welcome the holiday. In our home, Hanukkah came and went. We lit the candles, one more every nightfall. Uncles came and gave us Hanukkah gelt [money]. My father taught us “Oi Hanukkah, Oi Hanukkah, a yontif a shaineh” (a holiday, a pretty one) and then we ate Hanukkah-latkes and dreamed of better times next year.

One evening, a week before Christmas, the doorbell rang. When I opened it, two nuns stood on our front porch. “Merry Christmas!” they exclaimed.

I stared at them in wonder. Never before had I been so close to nuns. Their white stiffly starched bibs and cowls looked like the icicles that hung from our eaves. One rang a small bell, and the other held a brass plate.

“Mama,” I called breathless. “There is someone here!”

My mother came from the kitchen, her hands covered with flour. She was in the midst of making apple strudel. A wisp of hair was falling over her face, and as she came to the door she moved the back of her hand slowly over her forehead. Then she noticed the visitors, and in Yiddish said to me, “Tell them to come in. It’s cold out there.”

I looked again at the callers and then at my mother, and was not quite sure I had heard right. Then my mother opened the door with her floured hand and said, “Kimtaran. Sis kolt.” (Come in. It’s cold.) The nuns pushed the storm door open and entered.

“Merry Christmas,” they said again. “We are collecting for the poor. Would you like to donate?”

My mother could speak very little English, and understood less, but the plate spoke for itself. “Go,” she said to me in Yiddish. “Get me my purse.”

Still stunned by the strangeness of the presence of nuns in our home, I dashed upstairs. From under the corner of my mother’s mattress, I brought out the little black leather pouch that held the precious and very scarce money that had to clothe and feed seven people. Then I stood on the bottom step and leaned over the banister and watched as my mother dropped two dimes and a nickel into the plate. Twenty-five cents! It was a fortune to me. It could then buy two quarts of milk, two loaves of bread and a whole bagful of rock candy.

The nuns, their faces devoid of makeup but wreathed in smiles, were profuse in their thanks. “Thank you, and God bless you!” they repeated several times.

“Geht gezinter hait” (Go in good health) my mother told them. As she opened the door and said again how cold it was, her voice showed real concern. The sisters seemed to understand her. “Oh, that’s all right,” they said, their voices quiet and peaceful. “God takes care of His children.” Then they were gone.

My mother closed the door and went back to her baking. I followed her into the kitchen, wanting to ask a million questions, but all I managed was, “Why?”

“They’re good people,” my mother told me, rolling her dough. “Very good. They do good things for others. It’s their holiday, but we must help.”

“What do they do?”

“I don’t know all they do. But they have hospitals, and children’s homes, and help the poor, and we should help them. Some day you will understand.” As the years went by we continued to set our clocks by the church bells. The sisters came each Christmas to collect alms for the poor. My mother continued to drop change into the brass plates. My sisters and brother married and moved away.

During most of those years my father was very ill and was in and out of hospitals many times. During his last illness he was in a Catholic hospital.

One morning my mother received a call that my father was in critical condition and that she was to come at once. I received a message at work that I was to come immediately and I rushed to the hospital. When I arrived there a sister met me at the door of my father’s room. “Your father passed away ten minutes ago,” she told me.

My concern now was for my mother. She had been all alone with my father at his death, with no one to comfort her. The sister led me to another room, where she had given my mother a sedative. I was amazed to find my mother so calm in her grief, and I kept repeating, “You were all alone! If only I had gotten here on time!’

My mother shook her head. “I wasn’t alone,” she assured me. “The sister was with me.”

“But someone in the family should have been with you,” I cried.

“No one is ever alone in this world,” my mother told me. “I said the prayer for the dying person, and when the sister heard me she put her arm around me and said the prayer with me.” Then, as my mother and I wept together in our grief, the sister put her arms around both of us, and as we all prayed together, I recalled my mother’s words of long ago, “They do good, and we must help them.”

~Lottie Robins

More stories from our partners