Extraordinary Coincidences of Heart and Spirit
By Yitta Halberstam and Judith Leventhal
Adams Media, 272 pp.
I didn't grow up with miracle stories like the ones presented in "Small Miracles for Women," the fourth in Yitta Halberstam and Judith Leventhal's series of inspiring tales. Quite the contrary. My grandmother saw her life as a series of unanswered prayers. Who could blame her? She escaped Poland just before the Holocaust, leaving behind countless ill-fated relatives and friends. She bottled her godless view of the world up inside her, converting her memories of a childhood in Poland--its impoverished towns and empowered anti-Semites--into a countenance of cringes and sighs. Grandma, who made the best pancakes and coleslaw in the world, was overaware of the sadness on earth, and the shadow of her depression hovered over the entire family.
"If you knew what I know," she would say. "Life is different for you. For me, we didn't have miracles. For one person to be saved is no miracle."
When tempted to delight in an uncanny coincidence, I stop and think: "What makes me so special? Why would God and the cosmos collaborate with one another to enrich my world, but not that of my ancestors or neighbors?"
I've always contended that faith and spirituality are luxuries granted to those who have never experienced tragedy. Tragedy is the portal to nihilism, and it is the truth. Wealth, kindness, and success are tools to self-delusion: They give us the psychological space to imagine that there's a rhyme and reason to our existence.
This non-relationship with the spiritual is not so unusual for postwar secular Jews. While many of us are emotionally attached to our heritage, we are perplexed by the rhetorical riddle: If there is a God--and if He is involved in our daily lives--why do bad things happen to good people?
There are Jewish "answers" to this question. In his famous book "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," Conservative Rabbi Harold Kushner takes a shot at it: "Could it be that God does not cause the bad things that happen to us? Could it be that he doesn't decide which family shall give birth to a handicapped child...but rather that He stands ready to help them and us cope with our tragedies if we could only get beyond the feelings of guilt and anger that separate us from Him?"
This perspective leaves coincidences as coincidences, and everyone equal. It doesn't permit us the pleasure of relishing--not spiritually, at least--the fortuitous events that mark our lives.
But Yitta Halberstam and Judith Leventhal, co-authors of "Small Miracles for Women," the fourth and most recent of a series on "extraordinary coincidences," refuse to accept such a distant relationship with God. They grew up deep within the Bobov and Satmar Hasidic enclaves of Brooklyn, New York, two sects that whole-heartedly subscribe to the idea of individual providence. The Bobov and Satmar are communities of Holocaust survivors and their descendants. They thank God constantly throughout their day, finding small miracles--signs of His existence--in every positive life experience.
I was not excited to read the book. I have experienced the most hilarious and wonderful coincidences, but I've never been privileged to ride the high for more than a moment. How, I ask, can anyone be so naïve as to find the face of God in their own personal luck? In random pattern formations? How can they be so self-important? I am at best beguiled, at worst bothered, by believers. I sat down to read the book poised to roll my eyes at others' evidence of the Sublime.
After taking in the first six unbelievable chapters, I closed the book and lay down. I called my friend. I read her the first tale (the stories are short enough to read several in a sitting), in which a pregnant woman's water broke in a strange neighborhood: "Without thinking, without understanding why, Monica ran past three houses that were closest. Staggering in excruciating pain, shivering in her stocking feet, feeling the baby coming any second, Monica chose the house that was farthest away.... 'Help me!' she screamed, pounding on the door. 'I'm having a baby! Call 911!'... The door swung open. An elderly woman in a robe waved Monica inside. 'Don't worry,' she said kindly. 'My daughter [Diane] is here.'"
Diane happened to be a nurse who had delivered babies for four years. She came downstairs immediately, unalarmed even though the baby was in a breech position. Monica began to panic, keenly aware of the danger of the delivery. But she thought to herself, "'Calm down...God did not send this woman to you for this baby to die. Just do what you have to do and everything will be fine.' After the baby was successfully brought into the world, the nurse asked: 'Why on Earth did you choose us?'
'I really don't know. I remember I prayed to my grandmother to help me. And then without thinking, I ran to your house.'"
I admit, I got the chills. My grandmother came to mind, which at least for a moment cleared my head of the intoxicating buzz. I couldn't imagine praying to her. "Oy, why are you praying to me?" my grandmother would say. "Who am I?"
But story after story left me moved again, transported to a personal, peaceful space. Whatever insights you gain, or whatever meanings you allow yourself to experience or imagine, reading Halberstam and Leventhal's brief stories of extraordinary coincidences provides a sweet, short vacation from logic. A month after opening the book, and I still find myself reading and rereading the gentle, yet powerful narratives a few times a week.
These miracle tales haven't changed my view of the universe, but they force me to put aside the negative, at least for a few minutes a week.
And they leave me wishing that I could share the stories with my grandmother. Because I would love to see her wonder, if just for a moment, about the possibility of an existence of a special world in which she may be special. May she rest in peace. And may she be experiencing the indisputable miracles of heaven.