Though hunched over her walker, and barely able to shuffle her feet, Ruthie (not her real name) was flying. “I am so happy. So happy. Thank you.” It took a little doing to maneuver her into the front seat of my car, but after a few minutes she was seated and comfortable, and we were on our way. “I am so happy. You don’t even know.”
Ruthie and I had first met years ago, at a Chanukah party. A bunch of us from shul had gone over to the nearby Alcott Center for Mental Health on the Sunday of Chanukah to sing, dance, eat latkes and light candles with however many of the residents wanted to celebrate with us. It was a blast, and the first annual Chanukah party led to the first annual Rosh HaShana davening, first annual breakfast in the shul Sukkah, and a variety of other events. Without fail, whenever we got together with the Alcott Center folks, Ruthie was there. I still remember sitting with her in the Sukkah one year, as she shared her life story with me, a story of immigrant parents, of college studies and of marriage, which took a sudden but irreversible detour into mental illness, institutionalization and loss of contact with her family. But through it all, Ruthie never lost her love for her Judaism.
This past summer, Ruthie’s physical ailments forced a move out of the Alcott Center and out of the neighborhood, to a nursing home near downtown LA. “There are no other Jews here, Rabbi Kanefsky. Except one woman, who’s Jewish but isn’t proud of it.” I was delighted and surprised to see her at our Rosh HaShana gathering. She had managed to secure transportation somehow and there she was, softly singing Avinu Malkeynu, taking in the tekiot and the teruot, and contemplating I’m not sure what. As the day ended, she pleaded that I not forget about her, and that I somehow get her to the Chanukah party.
To be honest, as I stood in this unfamiliar neighborhood, waiting many minutes for somebody to respond to the intercom at the nursing home gate, I wondered what I was doing there. The Sunday of Chanukah is always an incredibly busy day, and I questioned whether this was the best use of my time. But with the first, “I am so happy”, I felt embarrassed at having entertained these thoughts at all. Each person is an entire world; so our tradition teaches. What is it to then to make even one person overwhelmingly happy? As Ruthie and I drove back to the neighborhood, I recognized that for a pretty modest investment of time, I had made a world happy.
And the party hadn’t even started yet.