I am am continually re-writing my book. The following is a new excerpt I hope to include.
Mrs. Cotter's JellyBeans
My first taste of Judaism was not the fruit and floral sweetness of MacIntosh slices dipped in honey at Rosh Hashanah or the nostril-searing bite of horseradish we ate at Passover. It was tangy-sweet lime, lemon, cherry, and sour-apple jellybeans: smooth on the tongue and then chewy and rough like cane sugar.
Mrs. Cotter’s jellybeans were the best thing about Beth Israel, the Messianic Jewish congregation we attended Friday nights and Saturday mornings.
Mrs. Cotter’s name reminded me of cottage cheese, and I fancied her hair looked a bit like cottage cheese, too. Her snowy white curls were cropped short and set close to the head. She sometimes wore a dark brown fur hat, and I imagined that if you were to turn her head upside down, it would look like a bowl of cottage cheese curds.
Mrs. Cotter had a little round tin in her purse where she kept those magic beans that haunted the minds of every child in the small congregation for the duration of the Shabbat service. No one understood the truth of the words of Jesus and the Apostle Paul better than the children of Beth Israel.
“I press on toward the goal to win the prize,” wrote the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians.
“He who endures to the end will be saved,” Jesus said to his disciples as they sat on the Mount of Olives discussing the End of the Age.
The children of Beth Israel pressed on toward the prize that we knew would appear in the end. We held on through the four or five messianic worship choruses like Come Back, People, the greeting time, and the prayer. We squirmed through the scripture reading and the sermon, the cold metal folding chairs making our butt bones ache.
At last! The last guitar chorus was here. The prize was in sight.
As the last strains of He Is My Defense died away, the pastor stood for the Aaronic benediction, arms raised up and palms bent downward toward the people. He sang the Hebrew words as a chant, his mournful tenor filling the quiet room with the strange presence of collective attention:
Y’va-reh-ch’cha Adonai v’yeesh-m’reh-cha.
Ya-air Adonai pa-nahv ay-leh-cha vee-chu-neh-ka.
Yee-sa Adonai pa-nahv ay-leh-cha v’ya-same l’cha shalom.
I felt as if the chant was gathering us somehow. I wondered why we couldn’t just skip everything else in the service and keep the Hebrew blessings and chants. Why did the parts that pricked my ears seem so few and far between?
The pastor concluded by speaking the English translation of the benediction. “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up His countenance on you and give you peace.”
The memory of Mrs. Cotter’s jellybeans engulfed me at every service–that and the hope of warm, buttered Manhattan bagels afterwards. These thoughts would tolerate interruption only from the Aaronic benediction, the Shema, the blessing over the lights, and the blessings over the bread and cup.
When Miss Cynthia struck the match for the candles and it burst into flame, it was as if the whole world fell silent, eyes caught up in the dancing of the light.
Before lighting the pair of candlesticks on the table that stood stage left before the congregation, Miss Cynthia covered her head with a shawl that was robin’s egg blue with strands of white and silver thread woven into intricate patterns across it. She wore her frizzy salt-and-pepper hair in a tight knot at the crown of her head. I could see the outline of the bun beneath her shawl, the high peak from which the blue cloth cascaded down around her face like clear sapphire waterfalls.
Miss Cynthia lit one candle and then dipped the fresh wick of the other into its flame until it caught fire. She held her palms out over the candles and drew them inward three times in a circular motion, as if ushering the world into the flicker and heat of the beams.
She covered her eyes and recited the prayer in Hebrew. “Baruch atah, Adonai, Eloheinu, melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.”
Her voice was low and sonorous and had a soft, husky quality to it. I loved the sound of her voice pronouncing the Hebrew words with their long vowels and glottal consonants. The English translation I could give or take. But there was music in the Hebrew words that fell on my ears without intelligible meaning apart from the sensations of the sounds themselves rising from the depths of a human body into beautiful, arbitrary aural shapes.
But the plain English always followed, plunging my heart with its jellybean-shaped hole into despair. “Blessed are You O Lord our God, King of the Universe who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to kindle the Sabbath light.”
It was the same when it came to the blessing over the bread and the blessing over the cup.
The ushers moved from aisle to aisle passing down silver plates bearing pieces of matzah, unleavened bread, broken into bite-sized pieces. I wanted to savor my piece, but always ended up chewing and swallowing it quickly, afraid that the congregation would hear my crunching and turn to stare at me.
When everyone had a bit of matzah, the pastor read from 1 Corinthians 11. “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’”
A solemn pause followed as everyone in the congregation nodded in silent remembering.
Then at last the Hebrew blessing and the miniature feast! “Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, hamotzi lechem min haaretz,” the pastor prayed. “Blessed are You O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.”
I popped the matzah in my mouth and crunched along with the rest of the congregation.
Then the ushers were at it again, passing out trays of little plastic cups filled with sips of grape juice. I wondered why they passed out the bread and juice separately. Hadn’t this usher just stopped at my aisle five minutes ago to hand us the plate of matzah? Wouldn’t it be more efficient to dole it out all at once?
The pastor once again opened his Bible to 1 Corinthians. “In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
More pausing, more nodding, more remembering.
“Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech Haolam, borei p’ri hagafen. Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine.”
Once the last drop of juice was down my throat, a vision of Mrs. Cotter’s jellybeans nestled in the white wax paper–gleaming like a hoard of gemstones or rainbow dragon’s eggs–seized me.
Soon and very soon, I told myself. The trumpet of the Lord will sound and Time will be no more.
When the pastor’s last words echoed through the hall, I was ready.
“The Lord lift up His countenance on you and give you peace.”
Then the silence was broken by the scraping of folding chairs against the floor, the gathering of coats, and the rising hum of people chatting to one another.
I meandered over toward Mrs. Cotter’s aisle trying (unsuccessfully) not to look too obvious. She smiled and opened her purse and rummaged for the prize.
And then, oh, glory for me!
It wasn’t the Shekinah, but for a seven-year-old girl with a sweet tooth, it was close enough.
This was an eschatology that my small body could understand. The wait was long, but in the end my yearnings were satisfied. Hope might be deferred until the end, but the end always came.
I learned my earliest theology and doctrines of the End Times from jellybeans. From these first teachers, I learned the futility of preparing for an end that was always coming but never here.