Every school morning, my father wakes me the same way: he yanks open my blinds, slaps his hands together, and says, “Boker tov, beautiful daughter. Time to rise and serve your Creator.”
Once upon a time, I didn’t need wake-up calls. I bounced out of bed as if each day delivered a surprise package. When I was five, I might have found my father’s routine cute, but now my fifteen-year-old brain barely registers Abba’s words. Instead, I hold onto my last dream before it morphs to reality.
“And who knows?” my father booms. “Today might be the day the Messiah comes!”
He says this says every morning. No joke.
“Stop, Abba. Please.” I pull the quilt over my head.
He starts to hum a Hebrew song—a nigun, as he calls it, a mystical melody passed down from the Hasidic masters.
I groan. “You’re annoying me.”
“Yes, Sara sweets, that’s my job.” He pats my leg beneath the covers. “Come on now. No going back to sleep. You’ll miss the bus again.”
“Okay, okay, just stop the singing.”
During Torah class, while Rabbi Ginsberg drones on about the sacrificial peace offerings brought to the once-standing holy Temple, my mind turns to a more pressing concern: what to do about Abba. I stare at my teacher’s scraggly black beard and try to imagine what he would advise me. Most likely this: You should be proud to have such a father, Sara. Lately, I’m not so sure. I’m worried about my father, like, big time worried.
The rest of the day I consider each of my teachers as a possible confidante. Not one of them seems fitting for the job, except for, well, maybe, Mrs. Wright. (I think her name could be a cosmic sign.) First of all, she’s an English teacher who seems naturally sympathetic to the drama of life, at least when we’re discussing Shakespeare. Second, the fact that she is not Jewish makes her a better candidate. Mrs. Wright won’t pull that, ‘honor your father’ lecture on me. Besides, isn’t saving your father a form of honoring?
On the bus ride home from school, Nina rattles on about the unfairness of the math team coach. “Just because I missed two practices, and for totally valid reasons, I’m on probation. Seriously? I’m like the second best on the team.”
That is not a problem, I want to say to my charmed-life friend with the big intact family. While Nina blabs, I think about the best way to ask Mrs. Wright for help. Email? Too risky. I consider writing a letter and leaving it in her mailbox. Then I worry she’ll tell someone else, maybe Dr.. Feldman, our principal. I worry that I’ll be betraying Abba. My head starts to ache from the mental gymnastics. Maybe the Messiah will come tomorrow, after all, and then I won’t have any worries.
“Call me later?” Nina says, as the bus stops at Elmwood. “I’ve got to figure this out.”
I half-smile. “Yeah, sure.”
When I walk in the front door, I’m surprised to see Abba at the dining room table studying a page of Talmud like it contains a secret code. He’s wearing his Hasidic black hat, and it’s not even the Sabbath. Just another thing about him that I find annoying lately. When I ask why he isn’t at work, Abba says he needed a break. Panic flutters in my chest. I hope he hasn’t lost his new job.
Abba used to teach Hebrew school. The students loved him. Then he started saying things the administration didn’t like. “They have trouble hearing the truth,” Abba explained to me after they axed him. Now he works as a kosher supervisor for three restaurants in Philly. Abba makes sure the kitchen workers use only kosher ingredients, inspect raw vegetables for bugs, check eggs for blood spots, and don’t mix milk and meat, so that when your meal is served, you know the food is one-hundred percent kosher.
I grab some chocolate milk from the fridge and sit down across from Abba.
“I didn’t hear your bracha,” he says as I drink the milk. Abba likes when I say the food blessings out loud, which makes me feel like I’m five years old. “Did you know that when you answer ‘amein’ to a blessing, you do an even greater mitzvah than the person who recited the blessing?”
“I think I heard that before.”
Abba gives me a wide-eyed look. “I certainly hope so. It’s right from the Talmud.”
“What are they teaching you in that school, anyway?”
That school is Hillel High School, the one my mother graduated from, the one that, until last year, seemed just fine to Abba.
“I got a 93 on the bio quiz,” I announce, trying to change subject.
He nods. “Good for you. And what about Talmud?”
I gulp my milk. “Didn’t have a quiz in Talmud.” The words I really want to say—Talmud bores me—stay in my head.
Abba presses on. “But what are you learning?”
I take an apple from the fruit bowl. Just as I bring it to my mouth, I remember the blessing, which I mumble in Hebrew, so Abba won’t get on my case.
“Amein!” my father replies too loudly.
I can’t explain to my father what I’m learning in Talmud because I don’t understand it in the first place. It’s like reading an ancient chat room filled with rabbis arguing. “The laws of the Sabbath,” I offer.
“Do you want me to help you review?”
My father takes off his black hat, and puts it on the chair next to him. “So, nu? What else happened in school today?”
I’d like to tell him that Ezra Cohen smiled at me in the hallway, that I noticed he is now braces-free. I’d like to tell Abba that seeing Ezra’s ten thousand watt smile momentarily erases all my worries. “We had gym, and my team lost in volleyball.”
“What did you do to bring the Messiah closer?” my father says, as if this were a normal thing to ask your kid after school.
My stomach churns. I think about that imaginary letter to Mrs. Wright. I don’t answer Abba. Instead, I get up from the table, knowing that I’m being rude. As I walk out of the dining room, my father begins humming a Hasidic tune. I plug my ears and retreat.
Six months ago, Abba was a regular modern orthodox dad who wore a small knit yarmulke and rooted for the Phillies. Then he went to Israel to bury his brother. Now he wears a large velvet yarmulke and roots for the Messiah. My friend Tamar says that visiting Israel changes you, that everyone comes back a little bit more Jewish. My father was in Israel only three weeks. I stayed back with Tamar’s family, so I wouldn’t miss school. I should have been with Abba. Maybe he’d have skipped visiting the grave sites of all those Jewish mystics. It’s like there was some soul switch and my father now has the eighteenth-century spirit of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.
My father’s Messiah is a great man who God is just waiting to send forth. This righteous dude will rebuild the holy Temple and bring all the Jews back to Israel. My father’s Messiah could come any day now, blowing his great shofar, and usher in a time of world peace and oneness with God—if only we are deserving.
But here’s my question: what if you like it just fine here in Philadelphia and you don’t want to move to Israel?
I decide not to ask Mrs. Wright’s advice about Abba because the next day she hands back my essay marked with a C plus. She wrote: Sara, you need to revise for clarity. While you express your emotions beautifully, your essay lacks structure.
My essay is about the day my mother died of cancer.
Did Mrs. Wright not get that Imma has been gone almost half my life, so I don’t really have clarity on the subject? And how do I give structure to something that doesn’t make sense in the first place?
I crumple the paper and stuff it in my backpack. If I had a mother, I wouldn’t have written that stupid essay in the first place. I wouldn’t need to ask Mrs. Wright whether or not my father is going crazy. Forget the confidante. I need a mother, and the only way I’m going to get one is if Abba remarries. But who is going to marry him when he gets fired from his job because he preaches about the Messiah?
After last period, Nina and I walk side-by-side through the crowded hallway. “So, I decided just to suck up to Ms. Finn and play the goody-two-shoes,” Nina tells me. “And guess what? Ms. Finn agreed to—” Nina stops walking. “Hey, is that your dad?”
My heart back flips when I see Abba standing outside the school entrance. He is smiling, greeting kids as they walk by and…oh my God. He’s handing them something.
I feel faint. “Uh, right. I forgot he’s picking me up,” I tell Nina. “You go ahead.”
Nina looks at me funny. “You okay?”
“Yes,” I say too harshly.
“Okaaay. Talk to you later.” Nina heads outside while I stand inside this nightmare.
I see Ezra Cohen pass by Abba, then stop.
Ezra takes something from Abba’s hand. A business card? I watch Ezra look at it as he walks toward the carpool line.
When the coast is clear, I take a deep breath and march toward my father. I grab his arm. “Abba, what are you doing here?”
His face brightens. “I wanted to surprise you on this gorgeous day. Let’s get ice cream!”
His answer has no effect on my hard heart. I consider hopping on the school bus but reconsider at the thought of facing the other kids. “Take me home. Now.” I turn away from Abba and walk quickly toward the parking lot.
Inside the safety of our car, I let my father have it. “What were you thinking?”
“I was thinking how wonderful it would be if more young people prayed for the Messiah.”
“That is totally embarrassing, Abba!”
Confusion spreads across his face. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you. Would you rather give them out yourself? I thought it was a nice thing to—”
“No, I don’t want to give out Messiah cards, FYI.”
He starts the car. “Sara’le—“
“Don’t call me that! I’m not a little girl.” I stare out the window. I feel my father’s hurt hanging in the air between us.
Abba drives. After a few minutes he says, “Do you realize…that if everyone really yearned for the Messiah, he would come?”
I bite my lip. “Not everyone believes the way you do. Don’t you get that?”
“The great sage Maimonides himself said that we are supposed to, not only believe, but await the Messiah every day, or else, it as if we denied the whole Torah.” He lets out a sad sigh. “But we’ve somehow forgotten that in our modern life.”
I try a different tactic. “Parents might get upset, you know.”
Abba glances at me. “What parent would get upset about me encouraging their child to do good deeds?”
“It’s the way you do it, like…like some missionary!”
“We are all ambassadors of Judaism, Sara.” He pulls a card from his white shirt pocket. I snatch it from his hand. On the front is a picture of the Western Wall. Do a good deed today to bring the Messiah now! Join the coalition for world peace. For more info on the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, visit: Messiah.org.
I call him crazy.
Once home, I retreat to my bedroom, hug Boo, my stuffed tiger, his faded fur matted with the scent of childhood. That’s fading, too. Like my memory of her. Sometimes I hate my mother for dying.
I simply cannot to school tomorrow. Won’t go.
But I do go.
Abba makes me.
Miraculously, not one kid says anything about Abba’s cards. Maybe they’re just being nice to a motherless girl. Or, maybe they secretly feel sorry for me because I’ve got such a lunatic dad.
I go to school the next day, and the next, and that is when another miracle happens. Ezra Cohen sits down next to me in study hall. Me, Sara Myerson, nerd girl with the flat chest. There are plenty of other seats he could have chosen, so I know it’s not some random stroke of luck.
I glance up from my chem book.
Ezra smiles and says hi. His teeth are perfect. He’s wearing a Penn sweatshirt. I try not to stare into his ocean blue eyes. I want to dive into them.
I smile back.
Then he reaches into his pocket and pulls out the Messiah card.
My cheeks burn. I am two seconds from running to the bathroom. Ezra holds the card between his fingers. I want to crawl in a hole. I stare at the textbook page. The periodic table swims before my eyes.
And then I hear Ezra’s deep voice whisper, “This card is…so…cool.”
Did he just say…? Yes, yes, he did!
Relief zips through me. My smile widens, and I know at this moment the universe is on my side.
By the end of the week, I have spent 187 minutes on the phone with Ezra. We’ve exchanged 132 texts. I can’t believe all this happened because of my father’s ridiculous Messiah card. Forget Mrs. Wright. Forget Nina. I choose Ezra as my confidante.
We sit together in the back of the library. I whisper my worries to him.
“Your dad doesn’t sound crazy,” Ezra says gently, “more like a zealot.”
“Is there really a difference?” I ask.
“If you want to see crazy, you should see my dad when he loses his temper, which is like every other day.”
I can’t remember the last time Abba lost his temper, but I don’t say this. Then Ezra tells me about the time his father got so mad about the cell phone bill that he smeared Ezra’s phone with peanut butter. Ezra is allergic to peanuts.
Sunday I meet Ezra at the town park. We walk for a while past a row of maple trees, their colors glowing like a flame. Ezra veers off toward the gazebo. “I like hanging here,” he says.
We sit on the gazebo floor, our backs resting against the wooden slats. The October sun covers us like a blanket. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this peaceful.
I tell Ezra about losing Imma and how my memory of her is fading. He listens quietly, not like other boys I’ve known. Not like Nina, either, who can’t stop bringing herself into the story. Ezra listens as if he is storing up my words in a safe place. “Like, right this very moment, sitting here,” I tell him, “I can’t even remember the sound of her voice.”
Ezra touches the top of my head every so lightly. “The sound is still in there.” Then his finger points toward my chest. “And there, in your heart.”
“You just need to find a way to unlock it,” he says softly.
I meet his blue gaze. Then I ask Ezra if he believes in the Messiah.
He pauses. “Never gave it too much thought, honestly, at least until your father handed me that card. Kind of ironic, huh, considering we say it every morning in the prayers?”
“We do?” The monotony of our school’s daily prayer service often puts me to sleep. Now my ignorance feels embarrassing.
Then Ezra recites the line, “Ani mamin b’emuna sh’laima, I believe with perfect faith.’ You know, like the song?”
“Okay, but do you really believe it, like, you know, the Messiah could come tomorrow?”
“I think he’s got at least a few years of preparation before taking on our screwed up world.”
I laugh. “Right. So what about the dead coming back to life? Do you believe that part?”
Ezra looks toward the sky, as if the answer is floating up there. “I want to believe it. Don’t you?”
“And how exactly would that work? If your mother died when you were a child, would she recognize you? Would she look the same as on the day she died?” My throat tightens. “And what would she be wearing? How come the rabbis never answer that one?” I look over at the red maple trees. There’s a fire rising inside me.
“You think too much,” Ezra says, laying his hand on top of mine.
The warmth of his palm spreads up my arm. “Is there a cure for thinking too much?”
He leans toward me, letting his forehead rest on mine. My heart drums. I’ve never kissed a boy before. Jewish law says… Our lips move closer. I feel his warm breath on my mouth. The no-kissing rule slips out of mind. His, too, I guess.
Ezra asks me out to the movies Saturday night. I tell him my father would never let me.
What if we go in a group? Ezra texts.
Not sure, I reply.
He tells me he misses me.
I miss him back.
Then Ezra writes: My fire will burn until the coming of the Messiah.
Ezra: That’s from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Cool old soul.
I stare at the quote. Goosebumps on my arm.
Ezra: When’s your birthday.
Me: April 3rd. Why?
Ezra: According to Reb Nachman, your birthday is the day God decided the world couldn’t exist without you.
Me: Gotta go.
In bed that night, I think of Ezra’s soft lips and the faint dark hair above them. My heart fills with a feeling I don’t quite recognize—something like happiness, excitement, fear, and love all lumped together. I think of Ezra’s name, which means ‘helper,’ and I know that this, too, is a cosmic sign. My fire will keep burning until the coming of the Messiah.
Goosebumps again. Faint words echo in my head. I squeeze my eyes shut, listen really hard.
My mother’s voice.
The game we used to play so long ago springs to life. I’ll love you until…. until…what?
And then I remember.
Until the moon turns to cheese.
Until the clouds turn to cotton.
Until…fire turns to ice.
“Until…until my tears turn into an ocean,” I whisper.
I lie there wrapped in my mother’s words, until the darkness turns to light, until my father comes to wake me.
Evelyn Krieger is the author of the award winning Young Adult novel, One Is Not A Lonely Number. Her writing has been supported by PJ Library, Vermont Studio Center, and TENT Children’s Writing Conference. She was a Hunger Mountain Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize Finalist in 2019 and a Creative Nonfiction Prize Finalist in 2018. Evelyn’s fiction and essays have appeared in Lilith, Hippocampus, Tablet, Sunlight Press, Winning Writers, Gemini, Teachers & Writers, and other publications. She is currently revising a Middle Grade novel set in the summer of 1968. Visit her at EvelynKrieger.net.
by Evelyn Krieger
First Place, Katherine Paterson Prize, Young Adult Category