A Time to Rend and a Time to Sew
FELDHEIM PUBLISHERS Jerusalem/New York
Most of the anecdotes and many of the instances of dis-
crimination recorded here actually occurred to people known
to me personally. The characters, however, are all fictional.
Two Fistfuls of
Beth was not yet school age when she
first encountered the puzzle. A night-
mare had awakened her and, as she
lay sleepless in her bed, still upset by her dream, she became
aware of her father's and mother's voices coming from the
living room. She got out of bed and started padding down
the carpeted stairs toward them, taking care not to trip
over the hem of her long nightgown. A few steps down, she
noticed the unusual tone of her parents' conversation. She
paused, her hand on the banister, still out of her parents'
"Prejudice against Jews is already much less severe
than it was ten years ago," Dr. Snyder was saying with
great intensity. "By the time our children reach university
and medical-school age, Helene, there may be no barriers
against Jews at all."
"Then let's hope that in that enlightened era the barriers
against women will also disappear," Mrs. Snyder returned
"Oh, with a mind like hers, she'll make it to the top in
medicine in spite of her gender."
"I have no doubt that a girl will do as well as a boy,
Bernard, but societal prejudice against women in the pro-
fessions is strong maybe too strong."
Dr. Snyder sighed. "If we'd had sons instead of daughters,
it would be different. One of them would surely become a
"If we'd had sons instead of daughters," Mrs. Snyder
replied, "we wouldn't be having this discussion."
There was the sound of her mother rising to her feet.
Beth, fearing she would be caught eavesdropping on the
stairs, lifted the hem of her nightgown to clear the steps
and raced back to bed.
Lying under the covers, she went over and over the
conversation until she had memorized it. Much of it was
above her head. What was prejudice? What were these bar-
rier things against Jews and women? What was a surgeon?
Until now, she had thought that it was a kind offish.
If she could solve this puzzle, she would understand
what her father really wanted from her. One thing she could
guess: It seemed that her father was not happy that both
she and her sister Lynn were girls. What was wrong with
being a girl? Her mother didn't think there was anything
wrong with it; she had said it straight out, in the one part
of the conversation that Beth had clearly understood: a girl
would do every bit as well as a boy. If Beth could only solve
Beth bounced up and down impatiently beside her father
as he rang the doorbell to his parents' Williamsburg apart-
ment. Her father's youngest brother, who opened the door,
swooped Beth high up into the air. "Uncle Michael! Put me
down!" Beth squealed in protest.
"Just a second, Goldilocks. I want to see if you're taller
than me yet." He raised her until her head almost brushed
the ceiling and then deposited her by her father's side again.
"Where's Mama?" Dr. Snyder asked.
"In the kitchen, baking cinnamon rolls for her-son-the-
"Her-son-the-CPA doesn't rate?"
"Maybe if he got married and came to visit only once a
week the way you do, he would!"
Beth ran into the kitchen, where her grandmother was
just pulling a pan of rolls out of the oven. "Hi, Grandma,
here we are! Can I have one?"
"Not yet, darling. They'll give you a tummy ache if you
eat them hot." She put down the tray and gave Beth a
slightly floury hug. "Come, sit up here while the rolls cool.
Grandpa wants me to teach you something for the Seder.
You're going to get Uncle Michael's job this year. Now, say
after me: 'Mah nishtanah '"
Beth was proud to be Jewish, This was not surprising, for
in Flatbush where they lived, nearly everyone she knew was
Jewish. For a while, she had even thought that New York
was a city in the State of Israel. When she was three, she
had asked her mother if there had ever been a non-Jewish
President of the United States. If part of being Jewish was
to learn something in Hebrew by heart for the Seder, then
Beth would do her very best.
Ten minutes and two cinnamon rolls later, Beth's first
lesson in asking the Four Questions was interrupted by the
appearance of her father in the kitchen doorway. "Mama,
how are you feeling? How's your back?" Dr. Snyder walked
over to his mother, bent down and kissed her on the cheek.
"It hurts," Grandma admitted, "but having you and Beth
here almost makes me forget it."
"Do Michael and I get any of those?" Dr. Snyder inquired
teasingly, pointing to the remnants of the roll in Beth's
"You thought I would let you leave here without eating?"
Grandma retorted. She handed him the silver tray loaded
with a platter of rolls, tea cups, and a sugar bowl. "Take
this to the table, Bernie, and I'll bring the tea as soon as the
"You shouldn't lift such heavy things yourself, Mama,"
Dr. Snyder replied. He took the tray and turned to his
daughter. "Beth, you come with me. Uncle Michael doesn't
believe you can really add." Beth followed her father into
the living room. "All right, Michael, here is my star pupil,
ready to be tested. Try any two two-digit numbers whose
sum is less than a hundred."
Michael raised his eyebrows in surprise. "Okay, if you
say so. Beth, how much is twenty-seven and forty-four?"
That was an easy one. "Seventy-one!"
"Not bad at all for a five-year-old," said Uncle Michael.
"Not bad at all. And with a carry, too."
"She doesn't do it that way," Dr. Snyder said. "She has
some system of her own."
Uncle Michael turned back to Beth. "How do you know
the answer's seventy-one, Goldilocks?"
Beth faltered. She always hated being asked to explain.
"Well, twenty-seven is two more than twenty-five, and forty-
four is six less than fifty, so... so... so seventy-one is the only
thing it can be."
"You didn't teach her this?" Uncle Michael asked his
Dr. Snyder smiled. "I taught her to add up to twenty. She
figured out the rest herself."
"Maybe you're on the wrong track, Bernie. Maybe you
should make an accountant of her."
"Forget it, Michael. When you have a daughter of your
own, you can make her into an accountant."
Grandma brought in her china teapot and poured the
steaming liquid into everyone's cups. Before taking a bite of
a roll, Dr. Snyder donned the yarmulke that he always took
with him when he visited his parents, while Uncle Michael
ate bareheaded. "Where's Papa?" asked Dr. Snyder.
"Still in shul. He should be home soon."
Uncle Michael, who had been looking thoughtfully at
Beth, asked, "Mama, do you need anything from the drug
store? I have to go get something."
"Another tube of Ben Gay would be nice."
When Uncle Michael returned fifteen minutes later, hid-
ing something behind his back, his father had already ar-
rived. Grandpa was bouncing Beth on his knee and quizzing
her on what she had learned of the Four Questions. Her un-
cle put both hands behind his back and called, "Goldilocks,
come pick a hand!"
Beth scrambled down from her grandfather's lap and
went over to Uncle Michael. She studied his face but didn't
see any clue. "Right!" she called out, pointing to that hand.
Uncle Michael, laughing, showed her his right hand,
which held the Ben Gay. "Go and give this to Grandma,
and I'll see if I can find you a booby prize." Beth took
the ointment to her grandmother and hurried back to Uncle
Michael, not quite sure what to expect. He had never bought
her anything before. Was he just teasing?
"Here we are," said Uncle Michael, bringing out a black
plastic box with a flourish. "For the young lady who can add
up to a hundred, a one-hundred-percent-genuine toy doctor-
"Ooh!" Beth exclaimed in delight. She carefully unfas-
tened the plastic catch by the handle and opened it to
find a glossy picture of a dignified-looking doctor wearing
a stethoscope and a concerned-looking nurse bandaging a
child's arm. The kit included a thermometer and a syringe,
gauze bandages, scissors and tape, a blood pressure cuff,
and assorted plastic bottles for pills. "Thank you so much,
Uncle Michael!" Beth exclaimed. She tugged on his sleeve
and he bent over to receive her grateful kiss. "I can't wait to
show it to Lynn. Daddy, when are we going home?"
"Sooner than I had planned, apparently," said Dr. Snyder.
"Michael, are you sure this wasn't just a ploy to make sure
that more of those cinnamon rolls would be left for you?"
"I like that!" Uncle Michael objected with mock-indigna-
tion. "Here I surrender my dream of a new generation of
Schneider accountants to your dream of a new generation of
Schneider doctors, and all the thanks I get is an accusation
"That's Snyder doctors, if you don't mind," Beth's father
"Oops! Sorry, Bernie," Uncle Michael said. "Just a slip of
During the drive home, Beth held the bag of cinnamon
rolls Grandma had sent for her mother and her sister in one
hand and the doctor's kit from Uncle Michael in the other.
She had been reluctant to play with it at her grandparents'
house for fear that something might get lost.
When they got home, she burst into the house and ran
to find her sister.
"Look, Lynn! Look what Uncle Michael gave us to play
with!" Lynn's eyes widened with excitement over the new
toy. "Mommy, can we stay up a little bit after supper, just to
try it out?"
"All right, but come and eat right now. Then you may
stay up until 8:30," Mrs. Snyder agreed indulgently.
Immediately after supper, the two girls put on their
nightgowns and went into the playroom to set up their
game. Beth pulled a table up to the wall that was painted
with blackboard paint. First, she erased the drawings and
scribbling of the last few days and then she printed with
yellow chalk, DOCTORS OFFICE. Satisfied with her handiwork,
she carefully opened Uncle Michael's present and meticu-
lously laid out the pieces of equipment.
In a stack on the table, she set some of her children's
books. Beth had learned to read the summer she turned
four. Mrs, Snyder would read her favorite books over and
over to her, always following the words with her finger until
Beth could actually read the text on her own. Since then,
her father had frequently brought home books about doctors
Beth then placed one child-size chair in front of her play
table and sat down on another behind it. Lynn, who had
been settling her favorite doll into a baby carriage, wheeled
her over and took the seat facing Beth.
"What's wrong with your baby?" Beth asked her.
"She fell down and broke her arm."
"Oh, my! Did it bleed?"
"A whole bunch!"
"Don't worry. We'll fix it."
A few minutes later, Beth came downstairs to the living
room. "Daddy, look how nicely I took care of this baby." She
held out a doll with a neatly bandaged arm for her father to
Dr. Snyder lowered his newspaper, glanced at the doll
and murmured, "She's lucky to have such a clever mommy."
"No, Lynn's the mommy. I'm the nurse."
"You don't have to be the nurse," Dr. Snyder said sharply.
"You can be the doctor."
"But the doctor is always a boy," Beth said. "The nurse
is always a girl."
Dr. Snyder put down his newspaper and looked intently
at Beth. "Listen carefully, Elizabeth Elka Snyder: Doctors
can be girls. You be the doctor."
Beth went dutifully back to the playroom and announced,
"Lynn, Daddy says we have to start the game over."
A month or so later, Beth's parents switched to a female
pediatrician and Beth discovered that, indeed, doctors can
All the children at the afternoon Hebrew school liked
Mrs. Mandelbaum. Beth had liked all of her Hebrew school
teachers,in fact, but she especially loved Mrs. Mandelbaum's
smile. It gave her an aura that was not exactly motherly, for
Mrs. Mandelbaum's English had a Yiddish tinge to it that
would never seem motherly to Beth, but if she would only
have baked cinnamon rolls for the class, she would have
Beth's favorite class was Chumash. They had started out
learning about Abraham. "Abraham Lincoln and his brother
Isaac," Stevie Wiener had told his parents, but Beth would
never make a mistake like that; she knew that Abraham
Lincoln's birthday was an American holiday when there was
no school, and although they shared the same first name,
Lincoln was definitely not Jewish.
Now they were learning about Jacob fighting with an
angel. Beth was sure that Jacob would win, because the
good side always won, though it seemed a little peculiar to
have an angel be the bad one. They fought and they fought,
as Beth listened intently to Mrs. Mandelbaum's hushed
voice, and finally the angel touched Jacob's leg and injured
"That," said Mrs. Mandelbaum, "is why Jews don't eat
sirloin steak because it comes from a cow's leg."
Beth's hand shot up, but she didn't wait to be called
on. "We eat sirloin steak, Mrs. Mandelbaum," she said,
surprised that somebody as grown-up as Mrs. Mandelbaum
should be so ill-informed about Jewish practices.
"What I meant, Elka darling," replied the teacher, who
always called them by their Jewish names, "is that it isn't
That didn't seem to make sense. "It's not from a pig, is
it?" She had heard that pigs were not kosher.
"No," Mrs. Mandelbaum admitted, "it doesn't come from
a pig, but people who are strictly kosher don't eat it."
That satisfied Beth. She knew that they weren't strictly
kosher. Grandma and Grandpa Schneider were strictly
kosher, and that was why they would never eat in the
Snyders' house. Beth was a little disappointed that they
weren't as kosher as her grandparents, but she knew it was
the same for some of her friends. And she was glad that her
parents weren't strict.
The next piece in the puzzle fell into place when Grandpa
Schneider was taken to the hospital. His children all gath-
ered at Grandma's house to discuss whether or not Grandpa
should have something called a pacemaker. There was a lot
of "the surgeon says this" and "the surgeon says that." Beth
knew by then that a surgeon was a kind of doctor, but she
didn't know why everyone cared so much about what he
said. Why didn't they just ask her father?
After a while, she tugged on the sleeve of her newly mar-
ried Uncle Michael and pulled him aside. "Uncle Michael,
what's a surgeon?"
"A surgeon is a fancy kind of doctor. I guess he's the
fanciest kind of doctor there is."
"But why? What does he do?"
"Hmm. Well, do you know what your father does?"
"He puts people to sleep and watches all sorts of machines
to make sure they don't go to sleep so much that they can't
"But do you know why he puts them to sleep?"
"Sometimes, when a person is very sick, the only way to
help him is to cut him open and fix whatever is wrong. That's
the surgeon's job, and he has to be very clever because it's
a very dangerous thing to do. Your father puts the patients
to sleep so that they won't move while the surgeon cuts and
so that it won't hurt them."
Beth now understood much better why her father
wanted her to be a surgeon so that everyone would
listen to what she said but it didn't stop her from
wondering why he wasn't one. "My daddy is clever enough
to be a surgeon."
"Of course he is, Goldilocks. Any minute now, when
everyone gets tired of talking, he is going to tell us what to
A few moments later, Dr. Snyder looked around at the
other family members and said quietly, "The only reasonable
thing to do is to tell them to go ahead and put in the
pacemaker." That ended the discussion.
Mrs. Mandelbaum liked the children in her class. Pairs
and pairs of shining, innocent eyes gazing up at her while
she told stories about the Patriarchs it was always such a
shame to see her pupils all grow up and drop out of Hebrew
school. She always hoped that maybe this year's crop would
be different, but every year only a few remained in Hebrew
school after their Bar Mitzvah or Bas Mitzvah. Once high
school was over, of course, hardly any of them came to
Mrs. Mandelbaum liked to think that she made some
impact on them. Today's lesson was about Jacob fighting
with the angel, and she remembered very well how surprised
little Elka Snyder had been at being told that sirloin steak
wasn't kosher. Now Elka's little sister, Leah, was in her
class. Mrs. Mandelbaum had been watching for a sign that
her words were having some effect, but it was hard to read
Leah, for she seemed somewhat suspicious of her teacher.
Of course, she consoled herself, it was hardly likely that a
family would just start keeping kosher nowadays. Everyone
had a reason to depart from religion. Science and reason
were very big now. Religion was old-fashioned.
The children, as always, were enthralled by the story, but
she hesitated for a moment when she came to the part about
Jacob's leg. Seeing no
snicker in Leah's eyes, she continued
as she always did,",.. and that is why Jews don't eat sirloin
steak, because "
"My mommy says Judaism's about how you treat other
people and not what you eat," Leah interrupted, without
raising her hand, her eyes, or her voice.
So that was the extent of her influence on the children,
Mrs. Mandelbaum noted with a sigh. She would have liked
to resume her story, but she saw that the children were
watching and waiting for her answer.
"I'm sure, Leah darling, that your mommy is very smart,"
"My mommy is a social worker" said Leah, as if that
clinched the point.
Mrs. Mandelbaum caught her breath and decided to
think for a moment before answering. Her own mother
would have had an answer on the spot. "But that's what it
says in the Torah," her mother would have stated, and that
would have closed the subject. However, such an answer
had satisfied neither the young Mrs. Mandelbaum nor her
friends. She preferred a more moderate tack, which was
why she taught in the Conservative Hebrew school.
"Leah darling," she began again, but Leah neither soft-
ened nor stiffened. "Every Jew has to decide things for
himself. I am sure that if you do what your mommy tells
you, God will love you just as much."
Mrs. Mandelbaum thought she was pacifying Leah, but
now Leah's voice became insistent. "I don't think God cares
what we eat," she declared. She waited for a moment, but
Mrs. Mandelbaum had no ready reply.
"And besides," Leah said, this time with confidence that
belied her years, "you don't think so either, or you wouldn't
tell me to make up my own mind."
Mrs. Mandelbaum expected Leah to start crying and run
out of the room, which would have been a relief of sorts. But
Leah simply sat glaring at her, and so there was nothing to
do but continue the lesson as if nothing had happened. She
was not surprised when Leah started missing lessons and
soon stopped coming altogether.
Grandpa Schneider passed away the summer Beth
turned thirteen. The relatives all assembled at a funeral
parlor in Flatbush and drove out to the family plot Grandpa
had purchased in a Jewish cemetery in a Brooklyn suburb.
Through the front windshield Beth could see the hearse not
far ahead, and through the rear windshield a long caravan
of cars that stretched back down the highway as far as she
could see. At all the side streets the other drivers stopped
and waited for them to pass, as if they were one big train
and the hearse was the locomotive.
Inside the cemetery, they parked alongside one of the
grassy lanes. The family plot consisted of an empty lawn
surrounded by a stone fence, with "Schneider" carved over
the gateway. At the far end was a heap of earth where the
relatives were gathering. It was strange to think that this
empty lawn would one day be filled with stone monuments
like the two large plots on either side. It was even stranger
to think that the names on those monuments would be those
of the aunts and uncles standing around her.
Her grandfather was in a pine box. She watched silently
as it was lowered into the grave. It was only when her father
picked up a shovel and threw the first spadeful of earth onto
the coffin that she began to comprehend what death meant.
Never again would her beloved grandfather stroke her hair
and call her his "little Rebbetzin" Never again would she
sit by his side at the Seder to "help him out." Grandma had
been crying since the beginning of the funeral. Now Aunt
Golda started to sob. Beth added her own tears to theirs.
After Grandpa was buried, her father and her four un-
cles all recited the Kaddish in unison. It seemed natural
for her father, who regularly attended their Conservative
synagogue, but looked odd for Uncle Michael, who probably
never stepped inside a synagogue except on the High Holy
Days. She wondered what Uncle Michael was thinking as he
walked up to the graveside with his brothers and formally
asked Grandpa's forgiveness. Was he sorry he had been so
lax about going to synagogue?
Oddly enough, it wasn't until they were driving back
to Grandma's house that Beth began to wonder if her own
father might have had any regrets as he stood at Grandpa's
graveside. Was he sorry that they did not keep kosher like
Aunt Golda or Uncle Irving? While her father had stood
there, had he asked Grandpa to forgive him for that? It
seemed like a very disloyal thought, so Beth pushed it away.
During the week of mourning, only Grandpa's children
stayed in the apartment with Grandma, but Mrs. Snyder
drove over with the girls every afternoon after school. It
was an odd experience for Beth to see her usually well-
groomed uncles padding around in bedroom slippers, with
several days' growth of beard on their faces. After half an
hour, when her mother took Lynn home, Beth would stay
on to shop and run errands for Grandma. Uncle Herman,
Aunt Golda's husband, would then drop her off at home in
At nightfall, a number of Grandpa's friends came over to
hold services, and the five Schneider brothers again recited
Kaddish. Grandma stood in the doorway to answer Amen,
but Beth, Aunt Golda, and Aunt Irma usually retired to the
kitchen to wait.
On one of those evenings, Beth finally was handed the
missing piece to the puzzle. She was telling her aunts about
her visit to her father's hospital, when Aunt Golda sighed
and commented to Aunt Irma, "I still think that Bernie
made a mistake going into anesthesiology. It must rankle
having to work side by side with the surgeons day after
"I don't know," Aunt Irma disagreed. "He wanted to be
in the operating room, where the action is, and that was the
Beth stiffened. This was the first hint she had ever had
that her father had wanted to be a surgeon. What had
stopped him? She remained perfectly still, hoping her aunts
would continue to overlook the impropriety of discussing
this subject in her presence.
"No one questions his brilliance," Aunt Golda said. "He
could have starred in some other field and forgotten his
old ambitions entirely. I think it would have been much
healthier for him than always being Number Two."
"Why should he harbor ill feelings? No one thinks for
a minute that he wasn't good enough to get a surgical
residency. We all know how fierce anti-Semitism was during
the war and the early postwar years."
"After a few years," Aunt Golda responded, "no one re-
members how or why such decisions were made. They only
see the results that he is not a surgeon. I think he feels
unfairly deprived of a position which should have been his,
and I'm sure that must rankle."
Remembering the conversation Beth had overheard
when she was little, she was sure that Aunt Golda was
right. Now it was perfectly clear to her why her father
wanted her to be a surgeon, and she had no intention of
seeing him disappointed a second time.
HONING THE EDGE
II Mom, how do you spell 'miscellaneous'
Beth called from the desk
in the living room where she was
working on a school report.
"When Samuel Johnson compiled his Dictionary of the
English Language, I believe he had people like you in mind,"
Mrs. Snyder called back.
Beth sighed, picked herself up, and started across the
room to where the huge Oxford English dictionary lay open
on its own stand, ready for use. Her mother's answer was
not always the same. If Beth caught her while she was filling
out forms for one of her social work cases or concentrating
on sewing, she often would automatically spell the word.
Mrs. Snyder was an excellent speller.
Now, at the end of her junior year in high school, Beth
was beginning to appreciate her parents' insistence that the
girls use reference texts. The only encyclopedia in the house
was the famous 1911 Britannica; if they wanted a fact of
more recent vintage, she and Lynn were supposed to look it
up in one of the science texts or history books which lined
the walls of her father's den. When she was younger, she
used to envy the other students who prepared their reports
in twenty minutes from the World Book Encyclopedia. But
now that her assignments outstripped the limited domain
covered by the World Book, she was glad she felt comfortable
dipping into the heavier tomes.
A rattling sound came from the letter slot, and since
she was already on her feet, Beth ambled over to the front
door to scoop up the mail that the mailman was inserting.
The return address on one of the letters caught her eye.
Dropping the rest of the mail on the hall table, she ripped
open the one letter addressed to her.
"Mom, guess what! I got into the bacteriology summer
program that I wanted, and they gave me permission to
work on my Westinghouse project in their labs. That means
that I can get started right now and take the cultures with
"That's wonderful, dear," said Mrs. Snyder, emerging
from the kitchen. She wiped her hands on the towel she had
brought with her and took the letter from Beth. "Your father
will be pleased."
Beth had been entering science fairs since she was in the
seventh grade. It was a natural outlet for her urge to tinker
and experiment. For her eleventh birthday, she had asked
for and gotten an Erector Set with a motor; the following
year she had chosen a collection of switches, light sockets,
and other electrical equipment with which to build circuits.
Her project in ninth grade had been to grow crystals of
various shapes and hues and she had strange castle shapes
growing out of shallow dishes of solutions on her dresser.
The hardest part of the preparations for these events was
not the experiments themselves, but lettering the posters
for her display. Her mother would often stay up helping her
until 1:00 or 2:00 A.M. the night before the opening.
Beth loved the hustle and bustle of each science fair.
First, she had to overcome the various crises involved in
getting her own display set up and operational. For a while,
she would stand and explain her project to the visitors. The
year she taught her white mice to run mazes, she drew
a particularly enthusiastic audience. After the judges had
made the rounds and seen her project, she would draft some
member of her family to cover her display while she drifted
around the hall, sizing up the competition and collecting
new ideas for future projects and displays.
Next year she would be eligible to enter the biggest
such contest of them all, the Westinghouse Science Talent
Search. The science teachers in the high-powered New York
high schools groomed their best seniors to enter it and New
York usually captured ten of the forty finalist positions.
The New York finalists were usually the youngest as well,
having, like Beth, taken advantage of the accelerated pro-
gram for finishing junior high in two years. After competing
successfully on the city and state level, the STS was Beth's
chance to test her ambitions on the national level as well.
The Westinghouse rules did not permit experimenting with
mammals, so Beth was planning a project on the sugar
coating found on some strains of bacteria.
On Saturday, Beth was still feeling cheerful about her
summer plans when she walked into the Chapel, where
those students who had kept on with their Jewish education
after Bar-Mitzvah age ran the youth services every Shabbos.
Beth was an active member of the congregation. She noticed
several of the boys in a huddle and asked her friend Sarah
what was going on.
"Danny wants to be elected president of the youth con-
gregation next year. The election is in three weeks."
"I guess he'll get it," someone else commented. "He's
"If you want a more interesting election," Beth said,
feeling self-confident, "I'll run against him." She and Danny
had been rivals in Hebrew school for years.
Afterwards, Beth searched out Rabbi Kleiner, the prin-
cipal of the synagogue's Hebrew school, to announce her
"Are you sure you'll still want to do it when you're under
pressure from applying to colleges?" he asked her.
Beth, thinking of her Westinghouse project, felt a twinge
of regret over her impulsiveness, but she also didn't like the
idea of backing out. "You can count on me."
"If you win, that is. I don't have to tell you that Danny is
a very strong candidate."
Usually, Dr. Snyder was content to arrive at the syn-
agogue on Shabbos in time for the Torah reading, and
he wasn't averse to ducking out after Aleinu. This time,
however, he was detained by his friend Dr. Silberstein, a
neurologist. "I hear that Beth is running for president of
our Youth Synagogue," he said.
"Yes," Dr. Snyder replied proudly, "and I hope she wins."
"You know, traditionally the president has always been
a boy. The vice-president is usually a girl."
"I don't think there is anything a boy can do that a girl
can't do just as well," Dr. Snyder remarked.
"Maybe so. And in Beth's case, I don't doubt it. I'm just
afraid that if we don't give the boys positions of respect,
they'll drop out and Judaism will become emasculated."
"If the boys want positions of privilege," Dr. Snyder
argued, "they'll have to earn it. If Danny were more knowl-
edgeable or more involved than Beth, no one would question
his right to the position."
Mr. Hammer, a lawyer, objected. "Next thing you know,
we'll have a woman putting in her candidacy for president
of the synagogue, or even for rabbi."
"You're blowing this all out of proportion by making it a
matter of principle," Dr. Snyder said. "Beth is running for
president of our Youth Synagogue. She doesn't want to be a
rabbi she wants to be a doctor."
"Oh, well, that explains it," Dr. Silberstein said dryly.
Mrs. Snyder received phone calls from a couple of her
friends in the Sisterhood, warning her that some of the
other members felt that the president should at least come
from a family that kept kosher. Mrs. Snyder had a lot to say
about that idea, and felt herself vindicated when Beth beat
Danny by a handful of votes.
On the first day of the summer bacteriology program,
Beth pinned on her name tag, ate a quick breakfast, and
arrived in the lecture room where she and the others would
spend their mornings for the next eight weeks. Afternoons
were reserved for recreation. She carried with her a new
notebook and two sharpened pencils. Choosing a seat in
the middle of the second row, she sat down to wait for the
beginning of the lecture. Normally she would have spent
these few minutes reviewing past material, but on the first
day of the course there was nothing yet to review.
As the hall filled up, she had to suppress her disloyal
feelings of satisfaction that the Russians had put Sputnik
into orbit before the Americans had their own first satellite.
As a result of that debacle, postwar baby boomers were
being treated to the best science education ever offered to a
generation of American youth. This program was one of the
prizes dangled before them to attract them to a career in
science; the science fairs and the Westinghouse STS were
The director of the program, Professor James Wilson,
began his lecture. His goal was to get them involved, and
he demanded heavy student participation. Beth was in her
element; she leaned forward, trying to anticipate his next
question and be ready with the answer. She was not the
only one, though, and within the first fifteen minutes she
had already suffered two shocks. It was, of course, beneath
her dignity to look and see who else was answering all the
questions, but two of the students were easily within her
range of vision. Neither the blond boy in front of her nor
the Asiatic boy to the left appeared to be Jewish. Until now,
Beth had always maintained that Jews could be expected
to take the top positions in any ranking an assumption
that never ceased to infuriate Lynn the egalitarian.
The second shock, however, was even harder to absorb.
One of the quick and confident voices fielding Professor
Wilson's questions belonged to a girl! For as long as she could
remember, Beth had been the acknowledged queen of any
math or science course she had taken, and her competitors
had always been boys. When she realized how unsettled
she was by this female competition, she became furious
with herself. Of course there could be girls around who
were smarter than she. Why not? Then she deliberately
blocked out all speculation about the other students and
concentrated on what Professor Wilson was saying.
Only when the first lecture was over did she allow herself
to rise, stretch, and survey the room to find out who was
the girl sitting two rows behind her and a little to the right.
Their eyes met, Beth dropped her gaze to the girl's name
tag, and she got her third shock of the morning. Margaret
MacAllister. She wasn't even Jewish!
Margaret was as unsettled by Beth as Beth was by
Margaret, but less ambivalent about how to deal with it; she
competed openly. The program counselors soon discovered
that the volleyball games were much more interesting when
those two girls were on opposite sides of the net, and they
chose the teams accordingly. Although Margaret's chemistry
teacher back home in Cleveland had been urging her to
compete in the Westinghouse, Margaret had been wavering
about whether or not to enter. But when she discovered that
Beth had entered and was already working on her project,
Margaret started researching the background for a project
of her own.
The tension rose higher with the approach of their first
exam. The exam didn't determine anything except, perhaps,
who would be invited back as a second-year student or
counselor, but it was the prestige that mattered to them.
The boys had a rivalry of their own going on, and everyone
was speculating about who would rank highest when the
results were posted.
The morning of the exam, Beth had an upset stomach
and barely touched her breakfast. That was entirely normal.
What was not normal was her reaction when she was handed
a copy of the exam. She looked at the long list of questions
and panicked. How in the world was she supposed to answer
all of them in two hours? Grimly, she started at the top and
began slogging her way through.
The counselors spent the entire afternoon grading the
exams, and the list of the results was ready for posting by
that evening. Beth and Margaret arrived at the bulletin
board at the same time. They had placed eleventh and
twelfth respectively, and Mary Smith, who had never opened
her mouth in class, placed ninth. Beth felt no sense of
victory at having captured a slightly higher place than
Margaret. The only consolation she found in the entire list
was that Mark Zalmanowicz and Lenny Sperling, the most
impressive of the Jewish boys, had come in second and third.
Margaret turned to Beth and spoke frankly. "Neither of
us did as well as she should have. I think we could have
done better if we had worked together instead of competing.
Shall we try it?"
Beth held out her hand, smiling the first smile she had
meant all day, and said, "You're on."
They shook hands and Margaret cemented their new
relationship with an important tidbit of information. "I
spoke to some of the second-year students and found out
that the exam is deliberately too long,** she said. "You're
supposed to go through and pick out the short questions
first, and then come back later for the long ones."
"I wish somebody had let me in on that secret before the
exam," Beth commented wryly. She was on her way to the
lab to work on her cultures and Margaret tagged along, both
girls talking about their past experiences and their plans
for the future.
The counselors adjusted quickly to the new friendship
and started putting both girls on the same team in the
volleyball matches. They became adept at setting up for
each other, a knack which was to prove useful in other
areas as well. Both girls did much better on the second
exam, for which they had spent hours quizzing each other
orally and in writing. Margaret came in fourth and Beth
fifth. Mark and Lenny were still ahead of them; this time
Mark captured the coveted first place.
The last contest of the summer was not a written exam,
but a test of their lab skills. Each student was given a culture
to subject to a battery of tests in order to determine which
bacteria it contained and to which antibiotic they responded.
At first the work went well and they were in good spirits,
but after three days they hit a period of frustration. Every
test they tried came out negative. They checked with Mary
Smith and found that she was having similar problems.
They did not deign to ask the boys, with whom they were
still in unremitting competition. They did not want to admit
that they had encountered any problems.
After two fruitless days, Beth finally said, "I'm going to
rerun the E coli tests which came out positive; maybe some-
thing's gone wrong with the test materials." Beth carefully
repeated the tests. She looked up at last to say, "Negative.
I think these cultures are completely dead."
"You think they were deliberately tampered with?"
I wouldn't put it past them."
"Oh, Beth," gasped Margaret, "what about your West-
The two girls tore across the room, took out two of Beth's
petri dishes from the incubator, and brought them back to
their lab station. Beth took several samples, dotted them
across the agar-agar of a sterile petri dish, and then put it
in the incubator. It would take a day or two to find out what,
if anything, was growing there now.
By this time, their strange behavior had attracted consid-
erable attention and several of the other students crowded
around, waiting for an explanation. Beth told them.
Professor Wilson ordered an investigation, and it was
determined that half of the samples had been destroyed, but
it was apparently the result of a temperature malfunction
in one of the two incubators, not of deliberate malice. Beth's
Westinghouse project had escaped unscathed, as it had been
stored in the other incubator. Since only a few days were
left in the program, there was not enough time to prepare
new cultures and have the students test them, so Professor
Wilson regretfully had to cancel the final competition.
"What would you have done," Margaret asked Beth that
evening, "if all your Westinghouse cultures really had been
"Oh, I would have started over again. After all, I still
wouldn't have been behind you; you're only planning to
start when you get home." Beth was feeling reflective, and
so she added one more comment on a subject she had
always avoided with Margaret. "Jews have often had to do
that throughout the ages start over from scratch when
everything they had worked for was destroyed. When they
do, they seem to get special help from Above."
Margaret treated her friend to a glance of suspicion.
"Beth, do you really believe in God?"
Beth squirmed a little. "Well, I don't know if anyone can
prove He's there, but I doubt if anyone can disprove Him
either. It would explain a lot of funny things in nature. Also,
you know, there are some odd episodes in Jewish history
which could use some explanation. Without trying to be
dogmatic or anything, I'm not sure that I don't believe in
"Wow!" Margaret exclaimed, her eyes widening in sur-
prise. "Other than that, you're so normall"
Beth's senior year was both busy and encouraging. Dur-
ing the week she had her schoolwork and the Westinghouse
project; on weekends she was busy at the synagogue. The
peak of her year was in February. First, she was accepted to
the college of her choice on the Early Admissions program,
and then, four days later, a letter arrived with Westinghouse
STS printed as the return address. It was thick and she tore
it open hopefully. Yes, she was one of the finalists who had
won a trip to Washington, B.C.! In another month, she and
the others would troop through the Oval Office and shake
the hand of President Lyndon Johnson.
The letter included information about making travel ar-
rangements, a booklet containing the names of the runners-
up, and capsule biographies of the forty finalists, with their
ages and scholastic achievements. Beth was skimming down
the list to see how many were from New York and how many
were Jews, when she came to one name she recognized. Then
she remembered with a jolt that she had not yet told her
parents the news.
"Mom," she called as she raced up the stairs, 1 won it! I
won the Westinghouse! And guess what, my friend Margaret
won too!" She was almost as proud as Margaret's parents
must be. After all, hadn't Margaret applied because of her?
The following months were a whirl of awards and prizes.
Schoolwork receded in importance as second-semester se-
nior slump set in. First she was interviewed by newspapers
and radio stations for being a Westinghouse finalist. Then
came the Washington trip, which featured a tour of the
National Institutes of Health and the special trip to the
Dr. and Mrs. Snyder flew down with Lynn the day of
the awards banquet. They arrived early enough to view the
displays, Beth had pinned photographic enlargements of her
stained slides on the hinged bulletin board mounted on her
display table, together with the posters she and her mother
had prepared which described the steps she had followed
in isolating uncoated mutant bacteria. On her table was a
microscope and her box of slides. The panel of judges who
would choose the five scholarship winners came around to
evaluate each display.
Beth had already made friends with half the finalists
and would have liked to admire their projects, but she was
afraid to leave the expensive microscope unguarded. When
her family arrived, Lynn and Mrs. Snyder volunteered to
guard the display while Beth and her father went around
the hall examining all the other projects. Dr. Snyder was
suitably impressed by the originality and professionalism
of the displays.
"Let's go down this aisle, Daddy. You haven't met Mar-
"Beth was so pleased that you could come/' Margaret
said after the introduction. "I wish it hadn't been too far for
my own parents."
"I wouldn't have missed it for anything," Dr. Snyder
replied. "It reassures me about the future of this country to
see all this developing talent."
"What's really impressive, Daddy, is how much some of
these kids know about astronomy, chemistry, physics, and
biology. I have no idea where they found the time to learn
it all. I still can't just pick up a science magazine and
understand all the articles. But," she added with a note of
determination, "that is going to change."
"I don't know that it's the other finalists' level of exper-
tise in science that surprises me," Margaret said. "What I
find impressive is all the other subjects they know about.
Some can quote all the major philosophers and others are
familiar with a wide range of playwrights and novelists.
Their brilliance isn't limited to one specialized sphere. I've
already decided that I'm going to take my $250 in prize
money to a bookstore and stock up on world literature."
"You both sound as if you're finding the move from the
little pond to the big pond a little overwhelming," Dr. Snyder
commented with amusement.
"I would say challenging more than overwhelming," Beth
replied. "I like the big pond. There's more room to move
around and grow." She looked around the hall at the vari-
ous contestants, dressed up in their best, explaining their
projects to various visitors from the Washington science
"And more motivation to do so," Margaret added. "The
judges called us in groups for our interviews and I was able
to read our current evaluation scores upside down. Mine was
neither the highest nor the lowest. In Cleveland, I usually
scored the highest, so I felt I could take it easy more. Here
I know I've got to work if I want to keep up."
Dr. Snyder nodded. "Are you girls nervous about the
awards banquet tonight?" he asked.
Beth and Margaret looked at each other and then Beth
answered for both of them. "We'd very much like to win one
of the scholarships, but I don't think we'll feel heartbroken
if we don't. There may be a lot of people in the world smarter
than we are, but there's plenty of room left in science for the
rest of us."
At the awards banquet, the finalists were seated among
the guests. Margaret and Beth sat with Dr, and Mrs. Snyder.
After the contestants were introduced one by one, the repre-
sentative of the Westinghouse Corporation approached the
podium to announce the award winners.
"The first prize scholarship of $5,000 annually is awarded
to...Larry Middleton." The audience applauded enthusias-
tically, Beth and Margaret among them.
Margaret turned to Beth's parents. "We all guessed that
Larry would be one of the winners," she said. "He knows
everything about everything."
The second and third prizes were announced. The fourth
prize went to a girl. When the fifth and last prize also went
to neither Margaret nor Beth, Dr. Snyder looked at them
and asked, "Well, are you disappointed?"
"I am," Lynn interjected loyally. "Beth's project was
Beth considered her father's question for a few moments
and then replied, "No, not really. The awards were fair and
the people who got them deserved them. I know I'm talented,
though I may not be the best. It's enough for me to try to be
the best that I can be."
"I feel the same way," added Margaret.
The Youth Synagogue's participation in the Israeli Inde-
pendence Day parade had been well-planned and successful
and Beth was thinking about refreshments for the Lag
b'Omer picnic as she came down the stairs for breakfast.
Her parents were already at the table and her father was
reading an item from the morning paper to her mother.
"This is terrible news, Helene," he said, visibly distressed.
"I think it means war!"
The Vietnam War, though undeclared, had been going
on for years already, so Beth knew he meant some other
conflict somewhere. "What happened, Daddy?" she asked
"The Egyptians have blockaded the Gulf of Aqaba. Egypt,
Jordan, and Syria are massing troops along Israel's borders."
For the next three weeks, Beth, who in calmer times
rarely glanced at a newspaper, devoured the New York
Times every morning. She arranged for her synagogue's
youth group to participate in the demonstrations outside
the UN, insisting on Israel's right of free passage.
As tensions mounted, the continued existence of the
State of Israel seemed to be called into question. At Israel's
narrow waist, the Jordanians were only a few miles from ma-
jor Jewish population centers. Beth found that her friends
who formerly showed only a marginal Jewish commitment
were approaching her to ask if there was something they
could do. Israel was in danger and Jews everywhere were
affected. Even Lynn, during her late-night snack of cookies
and milk, admitted to feeling stirred.
"It's not just that I'm afraid so many people would be
killed if Israel were overrun," Lynn explained. "It's that at
some level deep down I identify with the Jews there and I
feel that in a way the Israelis are standing up for my right
to exist." Beth was touched. Her Jewish commitment had
always been much stronger than her sister's, but now, when
the chips were down, even Lynn's Jewish spirit was ignited.
When war finally broke out on a Monday morning in
June, it was impossible at first to determine what was
happening. Both sides claimed that the other had started
it, and both claimed incredible victories in battle.
It took a certain amount of self-discipline to go to school
at all, and many students brought transistor radios which
they listened to during every break. By the fourth day of
the war it was becoming clear that Israel was winning,
spectacularly and miraculously winning. Sinai, the Judean
Hills, Jerusalem's Old City, the Golan Heights one victory
after another was announced, and by the sixth day the UN
frantically tried to get both sides to honor a cease-fire. Jews
all over the world were exuberant and proud. Beth felt
buoyed up by the triumph.
Something still nagged at her, though, a slight feeling of
a debt unpaid. She went out for a walk the night after the
cease-fire and looked up at the sky, at the few stars which
still managed to twinkle despite the nighttime glare of the
surrounding metropolis. "Thank you, God, for taking care
of us," she whispered into the emptiness.
Or was it really so empty?