Choosing the light

It’s Friday night and we are giddy after a long week of school. I am 12 years old and want nothing more than to curl up on my best friend Camille’s couch with an issue of Seventeen magazine or rehearse the dance routine we’re preparing for the middle school talent show. But the sun is setting over the San Francisco skyline across the bay, and we’ve been summoned to the dining room.

Speaking French, Mr. Landau calls us to the table.

Mr. Landau is not French, but Camille’s mom is, and French is the language of the house. I don’t really know where Mr. Landau is from, and it doesn’t occur to me to ask. He is a bit of enigma to me. He, not Camille’s mom, Babette, does most of the carpooling for the kids and the house chores. I figured this had something to do with being European. Later, in high school, he was the one who purchased birth control for Camille, just in case, which shocked me. Was this another European thing? In any case, he seemed to relish his role as a caretaker, often offering me a ride home from school and correcting me if I forgot to say thank you. He made us tea late at night and found us warm blankets when we wanted to hike up the hill beyond the house and look at the stars.

As we gather around the dining room table, Mr. Landau is presiding over the ceremonial cup and candles. His face, naturally tanned but even more deeply amber from the California sun, glows in the light of the candles Babette has lit. He says a few words in Hebrew that I don’t understand. Camille and her siblings repeat some other words. I’m not Jewish, but it doesn’t matter. Whoever is at the house on Friday nights is invited to participate in the Shabbat ceremony.

This ceremony fascinates me. Like so much of Camille’s life, it’s like nothing I experience in my house, where we are churchgoing Christians from a long line of Protestants. In my family we say conversational, informal prayers at dinner time. But during the Shabbat ceremony, the Landaus recite ancient prayers in an ancient language. I like the mystery of it, the sense of ritual and the connection to the past.

The next year, when Camille and I turn 13, she celebrates her Bat Mitzvah at the oldest and largest reform synagogue in San Francisco, a formal temple filled with stained glass and rows of wooden pews. It is so different from my church, which meets in a school gymnasium with folding metal chairs and a temporary stage. The scroll Camille reads from in Hebrew seems like it came from one of the Dead Sea caves pictured in my children’s Bible.

After the ceremony, the Landaus host a big party for Camille on the deck of their home. Babette greets each guest with a kiss on each cheek. She’s an artist and has filled the tables with bouquets of fresh flowers. Mr. Landau helps serve the lunch.

***

It is April, 18 years later, and the bright California sun is streaming in the windows, but my pastor has lit a candle, as she usually does. She prays that the Holy Spirit will be present in our conversation. Then she asks me, “What seems important to you today?”

I pause and begin to tell her of my recent trip to Arizona to see my elderly grandparents and introduce them to my one-year-old son. There was Grandma at the door, smiling and oogling over my boy. “He looks just like you!” she said, patting his cheek. And there was Grandpa somewhere down the hall yelling, “Ruth, the food is getting cold, hurry up.” Then later, “Ruth, you forgot the butter again…Ruth, would you stop talking.” He had always nagged Grandma a little, but I saw now that dementia and pain made him perpetually grumpy and short-tempered. I had lost the fun grandpa I had always known.

“That sounds very hard. Perhaps this Easter season, this is your cross to bear,” says my pastor.

I feel comforted that Christ can relate to my pain. My shoulders relax and I settle into my chair.

“Would you like a few moments of silence?” my pastor says.

Sure, I say and close my eyes. Suddenly I remember a scene when I am a young child, maybe 6, and Grandpa is kneeling with me at the side of my bed. He’s teaching me to say the Lord’s Prayer.

I open my eyes from this memory and look at my pastor. “Can we say the Lord’s Prayer?” I ask.

It’s one of the many times of solace I feel during my year of spiritual direction. Direction has opened up a whole new world to me, a way of claiming an ancient part of my faith I never knew about growing up in my large evangelical church. It is a practice first conceived in the Catholic church and now gaining popularity among Protestants. In direction there is time and space to contemplate life’s events with a spiritual lens. There is also room for honesty. A good director will help her clients explore not only the high points in life but the valleys as well.

I like the fact that it has been practiced for centuries. It reminds me of the long history of my faith, something that wasn’t always obvious to me growing up in a church that met in an auditorium and eschewed masses of liturgical formality in favor of “seeker-friendly” worship times, boisterous youth groups, and church potlucks and picnics. I still attend an evangelical church as an adult, albeit one that meets in a real church building, but I feel spiritual direction and other contemplative practices bring a balance to the way I practice my faith.

Growing up in the church, I was always longing for a big faith. During long sermons, I often paged through the Bible I was given in third grade, looking at the half-dozen color photos of Holy Land. There was the Dead Sea and Jerusalem. These places halfway around the world looked so mysterious. I wanted to know how this old faith had survived millennia. I would think of Babette lighting the Sabbath candles, and how that act expressed a faith passed down through generations.

***

On a recent Sunday afternoon I stay after my church’s 10:30 service to meet Ron, a single man in his 50s who attends another church in the area. I’ve been meeting Ron for a year now. In the last year I’ve become a spiritual director, praying with people the same way my pastor did with me so many years ago. We sit in upholstered brown arm chairs across from each other in a quiet room above the sanctuary and talk for an hour. I begin simply, by lighting a single candle to remind us of God’s presence. Then I say a short prayer.

During our sessions, Ron talks about his prayer life, his church experiences, and the ways he has seen God show up in his life. I ask questions, make observations and perhaps offer a gentle suggestion. Occasionally Ron’s eyes water a bit as he describes a powerful experience. I believe the Holy Spirit is guiding our conversations. I know how ridiculous our talks would seem to a non-believer. To truly believe is unfathomable to some. I can’t remember a time I didn’t believe. However, I am still a new spiritual director, having just received my certificate last year, and I am not sure I’m up to the lofty title.

Today Ron is excited to tell me he had a breakthrough with the inmate he regularly meets with at the nearby maximum security prison. He has been meeting with this prisoner for nearly a year. They are both Christians and often talk about God. He tells how the last time they met he was suddenly inspired to tell the inmate the parable of the widow and the mites. (Mites are small coins.) He told the inmate that he was like the widow, who didn’t have much, but his small “mites” (gifts) could make a big impact right there in prison.

“He was really touched by the parable,” said Ron, leaning forward in his seat and squinting his eyes a bit as if holding back tears. “It was incredible.”

“Do you think the Holy Spirit guided you to tell that story?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” Ron said.

“That sounds very affirming for you. It sounds like you were practicing something like spiritual direction,” I said. I knew Ron was thinking of becoming a director too.

Ron shifts positions in his seat and looks around the room.

“You have a really great church here. You’re really connected, right?” he says. “I still don’t feel like I fit in at my church. Everyone else is married or has kids. I don’t have those things. I think I made a mistake.”

“Have you talked with God about that?” I say. Ron has mentioned this issue often.

“Yeah, I have. I guess it’s just the way things are,” he says.

I felt at a loss. I can’t think of what to say next. No Bible story comes to mind, no wise insight or question. Should I offer silence or a prayer? How do I accompany someone in the valleys of life? Am I really cut out to be a spiritual director? Why does God allow people to struggle and suffer?

***

After high school, college and my wedding, in which Camille was a bridesmaid, I didn’t see Camille and her dad for many years. I heard bits and pieces about them both from my parents, who often bumped into Mr. Landau at the grocery store. I heard about his painful divorce from Babette. I couldn’t imagine my friend’s parents–happily serving lunch after her Bat Mitzvah, dancing at my wedding, warmly chattering in French and sharing household duties–separating.

The story of how Mr. Landau met Babette was almost a legend. Babette had grown up in Tunisia and Corsica, a beautiful but small island. As soon as she could, Babette decided to become an Air France flight attendant to see the world. Those were the days when being a flight attendant was a glamorous enviable position for women, and with her platinum blond hair pulled back in a neat braid and her pretty smile, she fit the role perfectly. She met Mr. Landau on a flight. Mr. Landau traveled a lot for business in those days and had dated several stewardesses. He was 10 years older than Babette. George’s aunt actually spotted Babette at the Tel Aviv airport just before George was to get on the flight. “Get to know that one,” said the aunt. It turned out that Babette didn’t speak much English; George didn’t speak much French. Retelling the story to my mother in her thick French accent, Babette said the language issue didn’t matter—in bed! They became lovers, friends, and companions.

“Your parents lived together before they were married?” I asked Camille, shocked, when she recounted their tale to me when we were in junior high. To me, living together was a sin.

“Yes,” said Camille, “it gave them the chance to make sure they got along well. I think it was a good idea.”

Mr. Landau and Babette married and moved to Geneva, Switzerland, where their three children were born. Eventually they moved to California, which is how I met Camille. Mr. Landau also purchased a 500-year-old manor house in Babette’s village in Corsica, which gave Babette a place to use her interior design skills.

Camille adored her parents and their story. She was devastated after the divorce. Mr. Landau was devastated too. It would take him three years to regain his equilibrium. Meanwhile, Babette had fallen in love with a new man, also an artist, and threw herself into his lifestyle of skiing, traveling, painting, and fishing.

What happened? What went wrong? Camille suspected her dad had given Babette too much in their marriage. He had done so much—the carpooling, serving on the school board, keeping Shabbat and taking the kids to synagogue—that Babette had felt edged out of a role. George suspected Babette simply chose a new and different lifestyle. It didn’t make a lot of sense. In any case, over the years Babette had filled their home with beautiful art. She had also embraced George’s faith, converting to Judaism.

When I saw Mr. Landau again, years later, I was in my own valley, though at the time it also felt like a mountaintop. I had been living in Spain with my husband and kids for almost a year and had suffered a series of anxiety attacks. In the ensuing recovery period I entered into a manic state. I had excess energy that made my heart race, made sleep difficult and made my usually quiet self talk on and on, more openly than normal. Only many months later did I understand that I was experiencing a bipolar episode. I had been forced to come back to my parents’ house from Spain and I stayed there over a month to recuperate. One night I decided to call up Camille to see if we could get together and we ended up meeting at her dad’s house.

Mr. Landau hadn’t changed. He had the same tanned skin and lean figure. He made us tea just like old times and we sat at the kitchen table. I talked openly about my health struggles. Then, as the night grew dark and Mr. Landau refilled our tea, he mentioned almost in passing that he had been sent, as a Polish Jew, to Siberia during World War II. I was shocked. Why hadn’t I heard this before? Why did he mention it now? Was it because I had been vulnerable, opening up about my own problems? I wanted to know the details, what happened to him and how it impacted him. But the hour was late. My curiosity was ignited; I thought about Mr. Landau on and off for many years, puzzling over how this Jewish man and I had crossed paths.

***

I continued to meet with Ron and other clients. At times I smiled widely as they shared their joys and triumphs. But I continued to feel inadequate when they shared disappointments or regrets. I sometimes questioned God quietly as I listened. Why does God allow suffering? There is the pat answer, that we only grow through challenging circumstances. But often this doesn’t feel satisfactory. How could it be that a loving God would permit so many painful things to happen?

Most Christians explain theodicy, or the question of why God permits evil, with the concept of free will. The reasoning goes something like this: God gave us the choice to do good or evil. He didn’t want to make robots. This is why evil exists in the world. God allows us to make bad choices in order to give us freedom.

Most of the time the free will explanation makes sense to me. I can embrace it and I see that fortunately most humans choose good most of the time. But when I read a news article about wars or kidnappings, I can’t imagine how free will is worth it. I want a better answer. I want to talk to my own spiritual director about it or simply cry out to God: Why? I’ve never been able to find a satisfactory reason why God permitted my own health crisis with bipolar disorder. Although I did emerge from mania and then depression, I continue to take medication daily and I have bouts with sleeplessness and anxiety. Perhaps–I think in my more hopeful moments–God can use me as a wounded healer. My wounds have given me an understanding of one kind of pain. Each day, I think, as I more fully face what I went through, I can help others better. But perhaps I’ll never understand why I plunged into that darkness.

***

Mr. Landau never talked about his survival experience, his exile in Siberia, when his children were young. Most survivors didn’t, with a few notable exceptions like Elie Wiesel and Viktor Frankl. Things began to change in the 1990s when Steven Spielberg made the movie Schindler’s List. For the first time people saw what is was like to endure the horrors of the concentration camps. The movie paved the way for survivors to open up about their experiences. The same year the movie premiered, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum opened in Washington, D.C. It was a watershed moment.

Camille, who studied film at USC, had always wanted to make a film about her parents’ life. She never quite got the momentum. Maybe she was too close to the story. Mr. Landau’s cousin, however, knew about his exile in Siberia and had a copy of his father’s memoir. She began conducting interviews and in 2019 she produced a documentary, which she called “Lies and Miracles.” Mr. Landau was then in his 80s; his story fully known to the world.

The night the documentary premiered, the atmosphere was festive in our tiny hometown theater. Mr. Landau was there, as was Babette, whose second husband had passed away and who was recuperating from a stroke. She had moved back in with Mr. Landau and he was caring for her, not as a spouse but as family. Camille and her siblings were there. My parents and other members of the community came too. My mom spotted Mr. Landau’s swim buddy from the swim and tennis club. They knew each other from church.

The film opens in September 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland from the east and the Soviet Union invaded from the west and World War II began. The Soviets began rounding up professional people they deemed “enemies of the state.” George Landau was only 7 when his family was among the 1.7 million Jews deported to slave labor camps in Siberia. Over half of those people died.

His father’s memoir describes the moment when the soldiers came to their door to take them away. When his mother asked one of the soldiers where they were going, the soldier replied only, “Take warm things.”

Through drawings, stock historical and family photos, we watch little George and his family make the long journey to Siberia, where they are assigned a hut with no door or windows. His father is sent into the snow-covered woods for months with other men to cut trees. It was a miserable life with little food or hope.

After a year and a half in Siberia, Germans attacked the Russians and the family was let out from the camps and moved to Uzbekistan, where they only confronted more misery. Here, they had to stand in bread lines, eat turtles and sell their clothing for food. But after two years, they found a way out. Through a Polish diplomat, an aunt arranged an exit visa to Australia. From there, the Landaus traveled to Persia for several years. Later, they went to New York when George was 12.

“I attribute it to a miracle,” Mr. Landau says at the conclusion of the film. “I am forever asking myself, well, what am I expected to do? I’m obviously supposed to give back… I don’t think I’ve met the mark yet but at least I have an idea of what my role should be.”

In the theater, we rise to our feet and applaud. George beams a smile and hugs his cousin.

A line from the movie stays with me. It’s the dedication that Mr. Landau’s father wrote to him in his memoir. ”To George: You were, during the most difficult years, always of great help and comfort to us.”

Perhaps, even at 7 years old, George was a helper. Exile only sharpened this part of his personality.

***

Six months later, in October 2019, Camille invites me to her home to celebrate Sukkot, a harvest festival. Jews create “booths,” temporary structures, where they eat for seven days. I’m sitting in her backyard, under a trellis. She has hung sheets from the beams of the trellis to create a booth. This is how Jews remember that God sheltered them during their journey in the desert. Orthodox Jews eat meals and even sleep in the booth over a period of seven days. But this night, Camille has invited friends of all or no religious persuasion to share a meal, which she has prepared using recipes from Jewish cooks.

It is dark in this booth and candles flicker on the faces of the guests. Camille and I are 51 now. At one end of the table I see Mr. Landau, his skin still the same amber it was when I was child and his hair still thick but now a wintry white. Next to me is Babette, just as beautiful as before, with her long blonde braid running down the back of her soft pink sweater.

We’ve been asked to bring a poem, song or quote from a Jewish person and share them. Guests share a song by Leonard Cohen, a poem by Denise Levertov. When it’s my turn I show everyone a painting of Ruth and Naomi, which has touched me recently in its tender portrayal of the older Naomi comforting her daughter-in-law Ruth. In the painting Naomi is holding out a lantern to Ruth. I resonate with this image, now that I am approaching the age of Naomi, and I’m a spiritual director, offering solace to others. But I stumble trying to explain it all and Mr. Landau jumps right in and retells the Old Testament story expertly. Later, Babette leans close to tell me Ruth was the name given to her when she converted to Judaism after marrying George, as Ruth was a convert as well.

I stay late at the party, huddling under the heat lamp warming our corner of the booth. Mr. Landau recounts some of his victories as a member of the school board and Rotary club, back when Camille and I were girls. He tells me these days his life is focused on helping his 87-year-old brother, his only sibling, who lives in New York and is about to have hip surgery. He has been flying back and forth all year and has another trip there next week. I’m surprised that George, not exactly young himself, is flying back and forth to New York to help his brother. I remember the line from the movie: “George, you were always of great help and comfort to us.”

We face so many choices each day, some small and some large. Something within me has made a choice to walk with others in their spiritual lives. I want to be a witness to their hills and valleys, darkness and light. And I want to pass along those things my parents and grandparents taught me—the informal prayers and the formal ones—in all their complexity and nuance. Is it true, what the psalmist says, “Yea, when I walk through the valley of darkness, I will fear no evil”? I can’t quite say I have no fear. But will goodness and mercy follow me all the days of my life? Yes, I believe that wholeheartedly.

 

 

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