(RNS) — I will call her Margalit, though that is not her real name. She is perhaps 25 years old. Over the past few summers, we have become friendly. She works in my favorite bookstore in Jerusalem, and whenever I visit, she always has a new book to show me. On one visit, it was a translation of a book of Leonard Cohen’s poetry into Hebrew (it works, exquisitely). On another visit, it was a collection of the essays of the modern mystic and founder of neo-Hasidism, Hillel Zeitlin, who lived in Warsaw during the Second World War and who died in the Shoah — which she proceeded to read with me. 

That was last summer. 

So, when I went to that bookstore in Jerusalem the other day, I was overjoyed to see her. 

“For the past nine months,” I said to her, “I have been worrying about you.”

“About me?” she asked. “Why?”

“I was worried you had attended the Nova music festival. I was thinking you are precisely the age of young person, and the type of young person, who would have been there. I was worried you had been one of those killed, or taken hostage. I do not know your last name, and I have been scouring the photos of the victims and the hostages, looking for you. Now I know why I did not see you among them. Thank God.”

Margalit was silent for a moment. 

“It is ironic that you mention this to me, because I have never spoken about it. I was supposed to go to Nova. I had a ticket. I even had a ride all arranged. But, then, I noticed the festival was going to be on Shabbat, and right before Simchat Torah, so I could not go.

“I gave away my ticket,” she finished, her face growing dark.

We were both silent. 

I cannot begin to know how many stories there are like this, in this broken land and in the midst of this brokenhearted people. I think of my own sons — had they been in Israel at the time, there is little question in my mind they would have attended Nova.

The stories of the people who were supposed to have been there, and didn’t go. The stories of those who were not supposed to go, but at the last minute decided to go. Those stories remind me of America’s 9/11: the stories of the woman who was sick and didn’t go to work that day, or the man who was not supposed to be at work but someone called a meeting.

Or, my favorite, of a woman who worked in the Twin Towers who had recently decided to convert to Judaism, and whose parents were vehemently opposed to her decision. 9/11 came, and her parents frantically tried reaching her, but to no avail. Finally, they found her. “Where were you???” they screamed at her, grateful that she was alive. “I had a class with the rabbi this morning,” she said. 

Never before in Jewish history have reluctant parents embraced a child’s decision to convert to Judaism with as much speed and fervor as those parents. 

I have been here in Jerusalem for several days, and as always, the journey has been exhilarating. And painful. And poignant. You cannot walk 50 yards without encountering images of the hostages. They greet you upon arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, and there are photos of them on every street, crying out to be remembered, to be at the forefront of our memory and our determination — and yes, national policy and strategy in this conflict that is now 9 months old. The burden of all the hostages is simply too weighty — everyone, it seems, has “their” hostage for whom they pray. Mine, for some reason, is Hersh Goldberg-Polin.

Nine months. The time of gestation. 

Back to Margalit. Back to my memory of her from last summer. Back to our little session on the modern mystic, Hillel Zeitlin.

First, there was her unbridled enthusiasm in his work — her palpable excitement in sharing him with me. (Can you imagine this happening in, say, Barnes & Noble? Yes, this intellectual heat might exist in certain independent bookstores — I think immediately of my friend Matthew Tannenbaum, who owns The Bookstore in Lenox, Massachusetts — but elsewhere? I don’t think so.)

So, we sat and studied one of his essays together — in Hebrew. 

The essay was about the Shechinah, the mystical feminine presence of God. She is not a god of physical power, as Adonai is often portrayed. Rather:

She is the mother of all creation … the mother of all the children of Israel, the mother of every individual, a loving, compassionate, comforting mother … And we, the last of the last, orphans among orphans, children of unprecedented suffering, children of misfortunes of a magnitude that even a people that has been too familiar with pain has never previously known, firebrands salvaged from pogroms and slaughters, we who thirst for redemption and only for redemption …

Those are the words we read with each other last summer, sitting in that bookstore — the rest of the world silent around us.

We read those words last summer, little imagining that we would come to see ourselves as orphans among orphans. Unprecedented suffering? No, though the suffering of Oct. 7 would stand out in history — the Nazis sought to cover up their bestial crimes; Hamas sought to publicize and even brag about them.

We read those words last summer, little imagining that we, and our people, and the world, would so desperately need the face of Shechinah.

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