A Tradition 65 Years Later

Posted on June 4, 2009

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For the average Jewish family in America, the phrase Mishloach Manot or Shalach Manos is not part of our vocabulary.  Most of us have probably never heard the phrase or know what the tradition behind the phrase means.  Purim for us was the time when, as kids, we dressed up and paraded around our temple or JCC.  Maybe we have a fleeting memory about Purim, not Chanukah, as the holiday when gifts were traditionally exchanged.

For reference, Shalach Manot(s) is the mitzvah of giving gifts of food to others.  It is closely tied to the mitzvah of giving tzedaka.  Read the Book of Esther for the details 🙂  As Purim teaches us, among other lessons, the impact of actions of one persons on an entire community can be profound.  The giving of Shalach Manot helps perpetuate the sense of community and interdependence as do so many of our traditions ranging from the requirements of a Bris, Minyan, Wedding, etc….

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We have neighbors we’d never met even though we’ve lived around the corner from them for 13 years.  We know they are Jewish from the mezuzah that is clearly visible from the street.  Does the sign in the window say “Jews vote Democratic?”  I can’t recall exactly.  We once met their grown son who had taken over a furniture business from his parents.  It may have been David who told us that his parents were Holocaust survivors.  Or that’s what we recall.  We met David’s mother the other night.  She is a survivor.  Her husband was born here in the U.S.

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I learned about Shalach Manos when I received a basket the size of a small vehicle from our new friends Allen and Deanna Alevy.  I learned more as the president of the Beach Hillel advisory board when our director Rachel Bookstein and her husband Rabbi Yonah spoke about putting together baskets to deliver to members of the community who had been supportive of the efforts of Beach Hillel and the Jewlicious Festival.  Over the last several years, we have received baskets from the Alevy and Beach Hillel families, but have never actually given one.  Honestly, even as a recipient of the baskets, I was never too familiar with the traditions of when, where, what, why, and how to do a basket.  It turns out, there really isn’t much to know.

At Temple Beth Shalom in Long Beach, Rabbi Dov Gartenberg and/or others arranged for the congregation to assemble Shalach Manot baskets one evening–probably on Purim.  By the time I joined the assembly line, most of the goodies had already been put into bags and wrapped in cellophane. Part of my interest in making a basket was that I wanted to deliver one.  Actually, I had to deliver one.  Some little voice in my head was telling me to deliver one of the goodie baskets to our neighbors.  I was a bit fearful as I did not know how they might react.  As survivors, did they try to forget most things Jewish?  The mezuzah kind of had me thinking otherwise, but I was uneasy.

As we drove into the neighborhood and passed our street, I told the kids that I wanted to deliver the goodies to our neighbors.  It was late in the evening, and the house was mostly dark.  I asked one of the kids to quietly deliver the bag to the front step.  It wasn’t important to me that the family know that the bag came from us, so I had attached Rabbi Dov’s card.  Then we went home and more or less forgot about it.

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A few days ago that little voice in my head said it was time to take a walk.  I asked Stefanie if she wanted to join me.  We took the dogs around the first block. Normally we’d go home.  I suggested going around the second block.  She agreed.  A minute later we saw an older woman dropping a letter in the mail box on the street corner and walk back to her house. 

We stopped and introduced ourselves to Lilly.  We spoke for quite a while and learned a little about her life.  As we spoke, Stefanie asked if they remember receiving a goody basket a few months earlier.  Lilly’s face brightened.  She said “yes…and I called the Rabbi to thank him.”  She went on telling us that she had forgotten about the tradition completely here in the U.S., but that as a child she remembers how important it was and how her community would exchange gifts.  She said with her accent “we called it Shalach Manos.”  That was, of course, before they were taken away to the camps when she was 14 years old.

She told us how excited she was to receive the bag of treats.  She brought them into her house and shared the story and Hamentashen with her husband Gabrielle who was very sick at the time.  He died weeks later.  In telling the story, it was so clear that what was for me the simple act of delivering a bag of food, turned into reconnecting this wonderful old woman with a tradition and a community that was stolen from her more than 65 years earlier.  My eyes tear up thinking about it.  I can imagine her remembering her parents, sister, and friends putting together their own Shalach Manos baskets and taking them door to door in their town.

I wonder about the path I took that ended (or maybe started) when we made the late night delivery.  I suppose it could all be coincidence.  But I think I’d rather believe that my first participation in the mitzvah of Shalach Manos was very intentional.

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