Darkness Can (And Does) Enlighten
Certain childhood experiences are like good teachers.
No matter that they may seem bizarre or pedestrian at
the time of their occurrence, they often leave worthwhile,
life-long impressions. Henry Brooks Adams, American
historian, journalist and novelist put it best when he said: “A
teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence
stops”, and so it is with certain of our lives’ experiences, the
importance of which we may only realize years down the
I grew up “Jewishly” but not religiously in the 1960 (s)
one suburb west of the orthodox community, centered
in University City, Missouri. My brother and I lived with
our mother, a young, inexperienced divorcee who was
probably overwhelmed by the realities of single
My maternal grandmother, Jean Austin nee Pick who
lived with us for several years, worked as a professional
buyer of women’s fashions and was, I think, a genuine
rarity in an age when divorced, independently-minded
women were far less common than even in my
mother’s generation. She had been a “tough love”
parent (a fact I learned from both my mother and my
Aunt Iris, my mother's sister) who successfully combined hard
work and an independent spirit to raise two daughters. “My
mother provided us with a fine home,” my mom told me,
“but without any Jewish atmosphere.”
I’m not sure why she did what she did or if she even
understood it herself, but my mother enrolled my
brother and me in the Epstein Hebrew Academy, the
first Orthodox Hebrew day school in Missouri almost
immediately after our arrival in St. Louis. It sounds like
a good first step, right? Well, we hated it. My sole
memory was of the alphabet on our classrooms’ walls
which, I recall with perfect clarity, was written in an
unrecognizable script. Unbeknownst to us at the time,
we had been looking at the aleph-beis posters. My
brother and I protested vociferously to our mother. I
don’t think we lasted more than several days before my
mother withdrew us.
As a result of my all too brief “close encounter” with
Torah Judaism, I became a Jew who knew virtually
nothing about his Judaism. The richness of Jewish tradition
had eluded me and countless other Jewish children whose
attachment to Judaism was largely cultural rather than
Torah-based. I suppose had I not disliked the Epstein
Academy so passionately, things might have turned out
differently, perhaps even better.
Then again, as Jews of faith, our bitachon reinforces our
belief that while “things do happen for the best”, I look
back upon my limited Jewish upbringing with a slight
tinge of regret but with thanks as well. After all, my
youth was not entirely barren of Jewish experiences. We
gathered at my Aunt Iris's house for our family's one
seder with ample supplies of machine matzah while my
Uncle Marvin led us through the redemption of our
people, according to the Haggadah from Maxwell
House. Shavuos and Sukkos were unknown to us. We
celebrated Rosh Ha Shana and broke the fast of Yom
Kippur with festive meals. We did not light candles, but
my mother did plug in an electric menorah each of the
eight days of Chanukkah. It was not so much that my
family lacked the threads of Jewish life (though there
were many we were missing) as much its fabric.
My First “Almost” Shabbos
It was exceedingly difficult not to love Reb Moishe and
Chava Grossman. The parents of Harold Grossman, my
mother’s second husband, Reb Moishe and Chava
became Morris and Eve upon their passage through
Ellis Island. A tiny twosome, they were a quaint,
picture-perfect couple of old-fashioned dignity, each
crowned with snow white hair. Speaking a stereotypical
blend of Yiddish and English, dubbed “Yinglish” by
author Leo Rosten and living within fifty yards of their
shul, I felt drawn to Reb Moishe and Chava. There was
just something about them I found so … charming, I
When the sun sets on Friday afternoon, Erev Shabbos
begins. For observant Jews, the Shabbos is kadosh,
separate and holy, a reminder of the Creation.
To me, an eight-year old Jewish boy living outside the
observant Jewish community, it was just Friday night. I
had no idea that another state of being, Shabbos,
existed on a parallel but higher plane than our own.
Harold, my mom and I stopped in one Friday night to
visit his parents. Already several minutes after
sundown when we arrived, we found Harold’s parents-
their feet barely touching the floor (actually Mrs.
Grossman's did not), sitting quite properly on their
plastic cover-fitted sofa, in total darkness as if nothing
were amiss. Except for what little remained of the
Shabbos nerot, there was no other light to be had.
We sat down with them in a state of virtual
bemusement for several moments until Harold’s
patience ran out.
"Pa,” he pled incredulously, always the dutiful son but
who had forsworn Jewish religious observance when he
enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor, "You're ‘gonna’
sit here in the dark?! Lemme tur ..."
"Zol zein shtil, Herschele! 'Don' touch!” barked Zaide
who did not pronounce the 't' in ‘don't’.
"But, but ... " Harold blurted out.
"But, but 'nuting'! Shah!" Zaide thundered.
"Ma!?" pled the son.
"It'll be fine tatele. Listen to your father," Bubbie
"Mom, why are we sitting in the dark?" I asked,
absolutely intrigued by this most bizarre circumstance.
"Shah! Listen to Bubbie."
If only Mel Brooks had seen this!
To this day some forty-seven years later, I do not know
if the Grossmans had set their timers but which failed
to turn on or if they had simply forgotten to switch on
their Shabbos lights. It remains a fond albeit befuddled
memory to this very day.
We did not stay much longer. Leaving behind the dark
wonderment of Erev Shabbos, we drove back to Friday
night. Darkness could and did enlighten me that night
to the fascination of Erev Shabbos to which I returned
years later. It turned out to be a difficult destination to
reach as an adult, but at least I knew that my childhood
journey had begun in the apartment of Moishe and
Chava Grossman, may their memories be for a blessing.
Alan D. Busch