My mother passed away in February, which means that their house—the house I grew up in—is empty now. Well, not exactly. There are four floors and almost 60 years’ worth of “stuff.” But all I’m looking for are some tokenMaybe I can find some clues to help explain how I got this way remembrances of my parents, plus a few from my own childhood, just in case I ever need to prove to someone that I wasn’t born Torah-observant. And while I’m looking, maybe I can find some clues to help explain how I got this way.

The bedroom that was “mine” hasn’t been mine for many years. My desk in the corner is without the blotter that I doodled on; the desktop is now dominated by the mirror my mother used in her struggle against macular degeneration. The drawers are empty, too, with no sign of my legendary treasure: the small white box that warned everyone to “Keep Out!” Inside was my generous snip of our dog Lobo’s white poodle hair. (Yes, even as a child, I was keenly aware that nothing lasts forever.)

Now dogs don’t go to heaven, according to Torah, but if they did, Lobo surely would have merited the opposite; he had a biting problem, he was never housebroken, and he refused to eat dog food. We loved him because we didn’t know any better—and he was ours. Did our dog train me in the way of unconditional love that I now know I’m supposed to have for all Jews? Dogs are far less complicated than people, I know, but Lobo definitely taught me how it’s possible for love to transcend any external qualities. But there’s no small white box and I can’t ask my parents what happened to it, so any Lobo lessons will have to be orally transmitted. (This feels very Jewish to me, too; it also reaffirms that I have been prudent in detaching myself from stuff, sentimental or otherwise.)

My next stop is to the attic to retrieve what I always said I wanted: my collection of 1960s’ MAD magazines. It takes a couple trips before I find a stash, but I am happy when I do. MAD helped shape me into a humor-driven iconoclast, which I would probably would still be had G‑d not shown me that not everything is funny, and that some things in life are truly worth revering.

I feel like I’m on a scavenger hunt for myself. I look for my high school diploma and a synagogue yearbook from the year I was confirmed, even though I never did learn what I was confirming. I have my eye out for the picture frame with my name engraved on it, especially because it testifies that I came into this world weighing 6 pounds, 13 ounces (and there are exactly 613 mitzvahs in the Torah). I’m convinced that I was marked for my Jewish journey all along, and my magic birthweight is just the icing on the cake. I was 30 years old before I learned 613’s significance, but that discovery is emblematic of my quest since then: to find a G‑dly connection in everything. (So far though, I haven’t found the frame, which reinforces my attitude towards stuff.)

My sister Stephanie never played with dolls, so I know I can take all the ones I want. A few are propped up on the basement sofa, looking a little scary and definitely too frail to leave the house. I find Barbie’s and Ken’s clothes crumpled in their doll cases, but the dolls themselves are AWOL. Fortunately, I already know that Barbie and her mishpocha are only valuable if they’re in perfect condition in the original boxes, and there’s no way in the world I would ever have wanted to leave my gorgeous, hot-pink-lipstick-wearing, platinum-haired “bubblecut” Barbie in a box. Barbie may have been my dalliance with superficiality, but she taught me how to dream big. Yet, here again, there’s barely a vestige of our relationship.

My brother Robert tells me I should take the family Judaica, even though I’m not sure I want the tzedakah box our kids made for my parents or their tired tchotchkes (mostly fabric-covered figurines of shtetl Jews). There are also numerous awards and acknowledgements from Jewish organizations scattered around the house; some of this quasi-Judaica dates back to my grandfather. A small memento of community service will suffice as proof that in my parents’ house, the more fortunate were obligated to give to the less fortunate. This axiom quiteI wouldn’t have had it any other way possibly ignited a spark deep within my soul: Why did some people need help, and why was I born capable of giving it? It was an existential question that haunted me as a child and motivated me to become Torah-observant as an adult. I learned that G‑d has a reason for everything, and that by learning Torah and performing mitzvahs, I might come closer to knowing why He created me—and everything, for that matter.

Thirty years later, I still marvel at the fact that my life changed direction the way it did, even though I understand that it was all hashgacha pratis, Divine will. G‑d needed to create me with my birth weight, my family and my neshamah (Jewish soul), which was meant to be dormant until it wasn’t anymore. I didn’t realize at the time how this awakening would change my relationship to everyone and everything, including the stuff in my parents’ house.

But I wouldn’t have had it any other way: G‑d wanted my Jewish soul to come home.