She told me I had a beautiful soul.
She told me it was kismet, fate, that I came to be sitting beside her.
A stranger who sat at the same table in the dessert reception hall following George Takei's sharing of his family story of internment during WWII, has become a part of my story.
Last evening, I was blessed to be surrounded by many powerful, beautiful souls. Words escape my grasp as I search for a way to describe how my time at the 34th Anniversary Dinner at Congregation Shaarey Zedek is affecting me. Over 1,800 tickets were sold for this celebration. It was not what I'd expected.
"Why are you here?" I was asked at Table 72. Not accusatory. The woman asking knew who I was, said she'd 'Googled' me when she did the seating chart, said she'd intentionally set my group with the other artists, the people who'd created the video being shown later that night. "You're an author," she identified me. She was curious. I was dumbfounded. I was one person in a room of hundreds.
Again, she asked. "Why are you here?" I am not Jewish. I am not from the Congregation Shaarey Zedek neighborhood. I am undeniably connected, however. I explained about my teaching of the Holocaust in previous years, my feeling of connection with the Holocaust Memorial Center, and my pull to support what it seemed to stand for and against, especially in these frighteningly reminiscent times. Similar conversations took place as I chatted with many others around our crowded, cozy round table. Over delicious small plates of kosher salmon and chicken, veggies, and mushroom risotto, I was asked repeatedly, "But, why are you here?"
After dinner, the crowds moved into the main worship area to hear the speakers, featuring George Takei. Judy sat to my left with her husband of 58 years. I saved their seats as they rushed around the pews so my step-father-in-law didn't have to stand up and move. Judy and I chatted, and I learned she is a retired teacher, also a writer, and an avid reader. I noted book titles, we laughed, fist bumped over a quick political commonality mutual admiration for Mr. Takei's social activism. Again, I was asked the question. "But, why are you here?" At the end of the talks, we wished each well and moved our own ways. I smiled, feeling as if I had made another new friend.
Then, the Dessert Reception. Hundreds of elegantly dressed men and women, laughing and smiling, grabbing through the line to snatch a cupcake or chocolate fruit skewer. I left my husband and father-in-law to their devices and found a table to sit and enjoy my fruit and a single decadent cannoli. The evening was coming closer to an end, and then the stranger sat two chairs from me. Dressed comfortably in black evening wear, chic blonde hair framing her face, she smiled over to me before scanning the crowded room. She and her mother were searching the room for 'the lady in the hat.' Her mother spotted someone, jumped up, and rushed off.
The beautiful blond stranger smiled at me, asking me if I had enjoyed the program, and upon learning that it was my first visit, asked the now inevitable question. "Why are you here?" I explained my connection as a teacher, the importance of my students learning about the tragedy of the Holocaust. Then, she asked a new question. "But, why did you feel it was important to teach your students about these things?"
Such a simple question, and the answer seemed obvious to me as I honestly shared with her. The whole idea of one race or group being singled out, blamed, vilified; and, knowing how many young adults are still unaware of the Holocaust; I had to teach around the topic of equality for all.
I have to admit, I stated this more eloquently here than to her last evening. Speaking the words out loud, I was emotional, remembering how many of my students had sat shocked, learning that things like this actually happened.
But then, I told her how my students reacted as they learned; how they were appalled; how they could not understand the 'why' portion; and how their reactions gave me hope. Hope for our future.
She reached out and took my hand, squeezed gently. "You have a beautiful soul." I had to fight tears. "You were meant to sit beside me," and she looked away to gather her own reaction as her mother returned with 'the lady in the hat' and her daughter. Paula, the lady in the hat, a smiling and vivacious Holocaust survivor, exuded energy. She hugged me, kissed my cheek, insisted that we had met before, that I come and see her at the HMC. She asked me about my teaching, and there was a brief, frenetic few minutes of conversation. What happened next will forever be a smile in my memories. Paula placed her soft, soft, loving hand on my cheek, looked directly into my eyes, and said, "You are so beautiful." The blond no-longer-a-stranger, smiled over at me and nodded. I am sure Paula was not commenting on my outward appearance. I felt her touch. I felt her words. I felt her soul touch mine.
As we drove home, I tried to verbalize how the night indelibly changed me somewhere deep inside of myself. I tried to understand the emotions. I tried to explain the angelic aura I felt myself surrounded by, by so many in just a short time. My husband smiled, told me he sees me, surrounded by an aura, a goodness, a light that shines for others. I was glad it was dark in the car. It was too much to hold inside.
Last night I was in a room filled with beautiful souls.
Last night too many were surprised that I was there, interested, supportive.
I cannot be the exception. Please, I cannot be the exception.