Mysteries and Miracles

Olney High School in North Philadelphia

“I made up my mind to find out the truth about God.”

 

As I entered Olney High School, my excitement was tempered by the usual freshman anxieties, but I had no inkling of the real dangers that would threaten each of my three years there.

My homeroom advisor turned out to be a handsome and popular Spanish teacher about forty years old named Mr. White. l was intrigued to learn that he was also a fundamentalist minister who led an evangelical Baptist church and conducted an after-school Bible Club at Olney. Whenever I had the chance to speak with him one-on-one, I asked questions about Christianity, and when he invited me to a meeting of the Bible Club, I …

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Family

Philadelphia
Philadelphia in the 1940s.

My exploration of Christianity had been leading me to learn more about my Jewish past and I was gaining a deeper sense of connection to my ancestors. Over thousands of years, they had retained their identity as Jews, despite unspeakable persecution, eschewing the physical, social, and economic rewards of conversion to the religions of their various persecutors.

My earliest ancestors lived in the Holy Land, in Israel or Judea, before the Romans changed the country’s name to Palestine, before the expulsions of their various conquerors had forced Jews to scatter throughout the entire world. My father’s and mother’s families had lived in Ukraine not many miles from each other, but did not meet there. My mother’s parents immigrated to Philadelphia …

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God’s Time

Church pews.

The preacher at the New Jersey prayer rally had said, “I know who you are.”

What could he have meant?

Transfixed, I had waited for him to continue, but he said nothing more. My head was spinning and I felt nauseous. I walked outside into the heavy rain and vomited on a lawn. My vision was blurry, but somehow I managed to hail a jitney and return to the house where I had rented a room.

During the night, I continued to be physically ill. Opening a window to get more air, I noticed a tall building some distance away. Its facade seemed covered with row upon row of crosses. Or was it just the frames of the many windows?…

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The Test

Building Classroom

College education at too high a price

The first time I met Mrs. Agar, an Olney High School counselor, she mentioned her interest in the medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas and I asked questions about him. She seemed to enjoy answering them, and began sending for me periodically. Each time, we would talk at some length about her current reading and then about my classes.

When she asked where I would continue my education, I told her I thought I would not have enough money for college. She seemed shocked.

“You must go to a good university,” she said. “You’ll have to get a scholarship.” That possibility had never occurred to me.

“Do you think I can?”

“I’m sure of it. …

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The Decision

Auditorium chairs

Of Philadelphia’s two major institutions of higher learning, Temple University was the less expensive and so I applied for admission to it, although we actually didn’t have the money for either. I filled out the scholarship forms I got from them although I knew that all requests for information from my high school would be handled by Mr. Jay.

One day, when l was alone with Mr. White, I asked, “Was there once a problem at the school about your being a minister?”

“I see,” he sighed, “that Brother Jay has been telling tales again.”

I had noticed that Mr. White seemed to refer to people as “brother” or “sister” when his opinion of them was not positive. It was …

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Part Four, Chapter One: Dvora

Kibbutz from Hill

Interlude

Four eventful years passed after my graduation from Olney High School and now, at twenty-one, I was living on an Israeli kibbutz founded by Holocaust survivors who had played a major heroic role in Israel’s War for independence.

A serious conflict had arisen between the kibbutz founders and me in connection with Israeli national elections. I did not vote because, by U.S. law at the time, this act would have automatically resulted in loss of my American citizenship. An unwritten but consistent State Department policy of the time would then have prevented me from ever being able to reenter the United States.

But political zealots at the kibbutz had lent my identity booklet to another young woman to vote

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The Camp

When Dvora headed back to camp, I was with her. Any penalty for me, I reasoned, would have to be less than the possible consequences to Ernesto for AWOL. Expecting to return before sunset, I wore shorts, a blouse, and sturdy shoes, and took with me only my identity booklet, a small amount of money, and a comb.

Dvora timed our trip with the precision of a military tactician. We would come to the outskirts of the site when the least experienced sentries were on duty, and would get to the camp itself when the soldiers would have just returned exhausted from the day’s exercises. Avidan and the other officers would be inside their tents on top of a hill, …

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The Driver

Military Tank
Military Tank

We went outside to a parked jeep where a soldier named Yossi sat behind the wheel.

The Commander motioned me into the back seat, climbed in next to Yossi, and told him to drive to a destination whose name I did not recognize. After a short drive, the jeep stopped in a town I didn’t recognize, on a narrow street lined with small shops and offices.

He spoke to Yossi in a low voice and I had to strain to make out the words.

“Wait here for me,” he told the driver.

“Yes, Sir,” Yossi replied.

“Stay inside the vehicle, both of you.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“But be sure you don’t cause the girl any injury, directly or indirectly.”

“Yes, Sir.”…

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The Commander

As they finished eating, the officers left. One of them gestured slightly to Dvora, and she went with him.

When we were alone, the Commander asked, “Do you want to sleep?”

“No,” I replied. “I’m not tired anymore.”

“Earlier today, I asked you some questions. Now, it’s your turn.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You get to ask me any questions you want.”

Maybe he was still testing me, I thought, seeing what kinds of questions interested me. I assumed that what I wanted most to know was off-limits, so I had to come up with something else.

“This afternoon you told Yossi not to do some things and he replied, ‘Yes, Sir.‘

If he’d said, ‘No, Sir,‘ wouldn’t that have been …

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The Cave

Cave
Cave

I removed my blouse and shorts beneath the covers, put them under the cot, and quickly fell asleep.

When I awoke in the morning, the Commander was working at his table, and there was a breakfast tray on it waiting for me.

After I had eaten, he said that Yossi would take me to a store.

“Buy what you will need,” he told me. “Yossi has money.”

Need for how long, I wondered. The small general store was in the same town we had gone to the day before l still didn’t know its name. I selected a complete change of clothes similar to those I had come in, a toothbrush, a sweater for the cool evenings, and airmail forms …

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