Tonica Marlow stood looking down into the main hall of the synagogue. She couldn’t take her eyes off the rabbi or the Torah scroll he held in his hand as he faced the congregation. What am I doing here? she kept asking herself. So many times she had promised herself never to come here again, and yet here she was again, dressed in a brown wool habit, her hair covered with a brown scarf.
“Shema Yisroel Ado-nai Elo-heinu Ado-nai Echad,” the rabbi’s voice rang across the synagogue, and the congregants repeated after him. Tonica, too, found herself mouthing the words, though she knew not what they meant. She didn’t understand why her feet kept carrying her back here; but the more she came, the more she longed to hear those precious words again.
Her mother had been born a Jew, that much she knew. But then she’d converted, abandoning her Jewish faith at age 25 and marrying a gentile. Tonica, the youngest of five children, had been raised as a non-Jew. Nonetheless, the question cried out from her very soul: Who am I? It gave her no rest, the question; it tormented her, robbed her of her peace of mind.
Tonica watched as the rabbi lovingly replaced the Torah scroll into a wooden sculptured cabinet and drew the dark blue curtain over it. Then she hurried back to the theological college where she was studying to become a minister.
But she’d tarried too long; she was late for her responsibilities. The principal summoned her to his office. “Where were you?” he demanded.
“Why, I just popped into the synagogue for a few minutes,” she said.
“What?” the principal yelled. “I’m telling you, child, you are a gentile. I forbid you to go there.”
Tonica returned to her room in a haze. She knew that she understood that she was a gentile—her father was. So what was that void she felt, that unending yearning that dwelt inside her? Why was she so drawn to the Jews? She didn’t understand it. Yet her feelings gave her no rest.
Her thoughts turned to another meeting she’d had with the principal, one that had occurred several years earlier. It had been before Uncle Sammy, her mother’s Jewish brother, was due to come visit her at the college.
“I’m warning you,” he’d told her then. “Your uncle just might offer you a ticket to Israel. You know what to say, don’t you?”
How happy she’d been to see her uncle at last. Sitting in her room now, alone with her racing thoughts, Tonica thought about that visit, remembering with a sigh of pleasure the time spent together as they walked and talked in the garden outside.
“Tony,” Uncle Sammy had said at one point. “What are you doing here in those dark clothes, behind these high walls? Don’t you know that G‑d gave you life to be lived, to be enjoyed? C’mon, cheer up a little, laugh a bit.”
She’d laughed at her uncle’s naiveté. What did he know? This was the life she’d chosen for herself, a life of complete dedication to the religion she was raised with.
“You know what, Tony,” he’d said, “I’ll send you a ticket to Israel. You’ll live as a daughter in my house. Auntie Maria will take care of you—she’s such a good cook. You’ll be like one of my children. Give yourself the opportunity to see what it means to be a Jew. You know, the Jews will accept you as Jewish, because your mother was Jewish.”
Uncle Sammy spoke about other things as well. He told her about the mezuzahs that the Jews placed on their doorposts. He regaled her with stories about Jews living in Israel, and of miracles he’d witnessed in the Israeli army during the war. But nothing had moved her.
Finally, he turned to leave. “Tonica,” he’d said at the gate, “ask me for anything you’d like, and I’ll send it to you.”
“Send me a mezuzah,” had been her reply.
And, true to his words, the mezuzah arrived ten days later. How she cherished the mezuzah; she kept it near her, hidden inside her bedside table.
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But now, as she sat in her room immersed in thought, the question came back to taunt her once again. Who am I really? she asked herself, perhaps for the millionth time. Was she, Tonica, a Jew, as Uncle Sammy had claimed, or a gentile, as she was raised to believe? She would give anything in return for the clarity she craved. Desperation gripped her mind. She must still the confusion whirling inside her.
Somewhere outside her room a door closed, followed by quiet footfalls treading across the corridor. A cold breeze drifted in through the window, rippling the hairs at the nape of her neck. Her head throbbed.
Tonica raised her eyes heavenward. “To the G‑d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” she silently pleaded. “Please hear me and lead me to all truth, whatever it may be.”
Time passed, and Tonica discovered a leaflet printed by Chabad. The Hebrew words were foreign to her, but she rejoiced with it nonetheless. And then it occurred to her to write a letter to the address at the bottom.
“All I know is that my mother’s a Jew,” she wrote. “I don’t know if I’m Jewish or not. I had no Jewish education whatsoever, but I came across this leaflet.”
Her letter was answered. She was soon contacted by a rabbi, and they arranged a time and place to meet.
The principal, upon learning of her correspondence with the rabbi, was livid. “I’m telling you, child, you are playing with fire,” he said. “Leave it alone.”
“If you’re so sure that this is the right way, what are you so worried about?” she asked him. “So I’ll ask a rabbi some silly questions, and I’ll come back . . .”
“There’s something the matter with your soul, child,” he said, “and I just can’t put my finger on what it is.”
Tonica went ahead with her plans and met with the rabbi. “You owe it to yourself to spend two weeks with an Orthodox Jewish family in London,” he suggested.
“Two weeks?” she was incredulous.
“Give yourself the opportunity to find out about Shabbat. Jewish life is mostly in the home, not in a synagogue.”
“Don’t you know how hard it was for me to get a half-hour to talk to you? How can I leave for two weeks?”
“Don’t you have a holiday?”
“Can’t you have a mad moment?”
“Mad moment? No. That’s not my way.”
“Think about it.”
“I can’t,” she cried in exasperation.
“Take it easy,” the rabbi said softly. “You don’t have to be upset. I promise you that I will not leave you on the street. If this college won’t take you back, I’ll find another one for you.”
But Tonica was consumed with doubt and uncertainty. She was 25 years old. How could she throw away a life in which she’d invested so much effort and emotion and time? How could she turn her life upside down and inside out, when she didn’t know for what?
Yet the turmoil inside her gave her no respite. Overwhelmed with a profound feeling of emptiness, she felt a terrible, unceasing sadness, though she couldn’t understand why.
One Saturday morning, Tonica, who had been due to preach on that day, suddenly knew she couldn’t do it. “If I’m going to leave,” she told herself, “it has to be now.” Somehow, she discovered within a reservoir of strength she didn’t know she had. “I’m going to find the one and only true G‑d,” she repeated over and over again. “If I have to sleep on the gutter, I will do it. If I have to do any kind of menial task, I will do it. But I am going to find G‑d and the truth.” And with that, she stepped outside of the theological college for the last time.
Today, Tonica, now Tova Mordechai, lives in Tzfas (Safed), Israel, with her husband and five children.
Tova relates that some years ago her mother was lying on the operating table before undergoing life-threatening surgery. From the depths of her mother’s soul, a desperate cry shot forth, “Shema Yisroel Ado-nai Elo-heinu Ado-nai Echad.”
Throughout the ages, the cry of “Shema” was always on the lips of the Jew. It is the first prayer taught to children, the codeword that introduced one Jew to another in the worst of times, and the prayer uttered by millions of Jews who went to their deaths for the sanctification of G‑d’s name. It is the ultimate affirmation of our faith in G‑d.
It was the Shema inside the mezuzah that Tonica’s uncle had sent her, it was the Shema that had stirred her yiddisher neshamah (Jewish soul) when she’d first entered a synagogue. It was the answer to the question that all her young life had tugged at Tova’s soul.
Shema Yisroel Ado-nai Elo-heinu Ado-nai Echad—“Hear, O Israel, G‑d is our G‑d, G‑d is One.”
Note: Click here to purchase Tova Mordechai’s fascinating autobiography, Playing With Fire.