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Manfred the Mitzvah, an excerpt from my new novel, "That Which Makes Us Stronger"

Butch has started school, but not with me. He’s on the other side of town, in something called a temple. So now mom picks me up at school, we pick up Butch, she takes us home, Grandma meets us in the driveway, we jump out and Mom heads to her overnight shift at the power company. On days I have Cowboy Eddie Art picks me up from school.

Sometimes Mom says, “Warn, I wish they’d let first graders drive.”

I say, “Me too!” knowing that will never happen, but I start paying attention just the same. All the lines on the road. They mean something. I’m going to figure it out, but that will have to wait. Today, Butch’s teacher wants to talk to Mom.

She quickly looks around. “Warn, you wait here,” placing me in a pew toward the back. “Hopefully this won’t take too long. I don’t want to be late for work.”

I brought my spelling list with me, so I begin studying. With. With is a spelling word. Who doesn’t know how to spell, “with”? I let go with a very dramatic sigh, trying to multi-task and work on acting and spelling at the same time. I must’ve been effective. The nice-looking silver haired man passing by stops and looks at me, raising his glasses.

“Hello. May I help you?”

“Hi. My name is Warn Barnes. I’m waiting for my mom and brother. They’re downstairs.” I pause to give the situation the weight it deserves, “talking with his teacher.”

“Ah, your brother is in special education then?”

“I don’t know. He doesn’t go to a regular school like me. He goes to school here,” I say, trying to make sense of whatever this church like place with a different name is. “So, if this is special education, yes sir.”

“You look a little confused.”

“Well this place feels like a church, but it’s not.”

“You’re observant. That’s good. No, this is not a church. It’s a synagogue. Temple Beth El.”

“What does that mean?”

“This is where Jewish people come to worship.”

I want to repeat this new word correctly. “Jew-ish. What’s Jewish?”

Someday I’ll know he is a Rabbi, but not today. I just see a kindly man, who is willing to listen and talk with children. I like him. Whatever he has to say seems worthy of my full attention.

“Eh. What’s Jewish? Ask ten people. You’ll get twelve answers. How to answer for the smart little boy willing to ask? Let’s see … do you go to church?”

“Yes sir, I do. Most of my family is Catholic. I have an Uncle and a cousin who are priests. Two of my Aunts are nuns. Sister Alma Rita and Sister Mary Rita. I wish they didn’t share the name Rita. I can’t tell which one is which. Never mind that they dress alike." I catch myself going off on a tangent and clear my throat. "My mom, my sister, my brothers and me, we’re Moravian.”

“Such a story! So, you’re Moravian - a fine church. Reverend Boettcher or Reverend Graf?”

Visualizing our minister, a bearded young man I answer, “I don’t know. We call him Paul. But my Grandma calls him, ‘The hippie.’”

The Rabbi laughs, which echoes in the nearly empty sanctuary. “Ah. Reverend Graf. He’s a fine man. Very open minded. He’d be glad we’re talking.” He looks at me with a smile, “Which brings us back to your question. What is Jewish?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Jewish or Judaism is another type of faith. Older than Christianity. Basically, we don’t believe that Jesus was the son of God. A fine man, yes. A prophet, surely. The son of God? No.” He starts to ramble too. “Oh course many say we’re all the children of God, but…”

I must look confused because he catches himself and goes deeper. “In Sunday school what do they tell you will happen when the messiah comes to Earth?”

“Things will be better. Perfect.”

“Are things perfect?”

Something about this man makes me think my answers matter. I dig deep inside myself before saying anything. “Not at my house. No.”

Again, his laughter fills the temple.

Years later I will find out this man is named Rabbi Manfred Swarensky. He emigrated from Berlin to the United States after his synagogue was burned by the Nazis in 1938. Afterward he was imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen Prison Camp. Somehow, perhaps through God’s good graces, he made it to Madison, Wisconsin.

How lucky for us.

To me, a little boy given a grateful reprieve from an unchallenging spelling list, he is a mitzvah beyond measure. I will always be thankful he took 5-minutes to talk and plant a seed.

“Well, just you remember Warn Barnes, there’s more than one path into the garden. Choose yours well.”

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