In Russia, 1967, after some thirty years without possessing a siddur, a prayer-book, my grandfather, Lev ben Moshe Halevi, was fortunate to purchase one for $180 dollars, his entire lifesavings. The Communists had banned the use of prayer-books and all other religious articles. My mother, ten years old at the time, still remembers how her family struggled financially the next two years.

"Morty, I am going to tell you a secret."Yet that lone blue siddur became the fulcrum of our family and community life, and was used daily for the next twenty-five years. My grandfather would go to the park and pray; upon returning, he'd hand the siddur to my grandmother, and she'd leave to the park and pray. Then she'd pass the precious book to the neighbors and they'd go to the secluded spot and pray. Each Shabbat, the siddur was used by fifty people, one by one. Luckily, no one was caught. When my grandfather passed away, my mother gave this beautiful siddur to me. It is one of my most priceless possessions. I do not yet know how to pray from it, as it has no vowels, Russian or English translations, but I am learning.

My family's story is a difficult one. Both my parents are children of survivors of the Rîbniţa Ghetto. The Romanian forces ordered my paternal great-grandfather to dig his own grave, and then shot him. My grandfather, eleven years old, was forced to bury his wounded father lest they murder his mother, sisters, brothers and cousins. Until this day, he has nightmares.

When I was five years old, my maternal grandfather sat me down upon his lap and said, "Morty [my Russian name is Maksim and Hebrew name, Mordechai], I am going to tell you a secret. Do not tell it to your mama and papa, or to your brother. It is a secret just for you, and only you." Being a five-year-old, I was extremely excited. Amazingly, I kept the secret until I came to the USA. I was too afraid to tell anyone, as I was pushed around in school for being a Jew.

He continued, "Morty, I will teach you the holy Torah, the sacred scroll of our people passed from generation to generation. Those who know it lead happy lives filled with mitzvot that only the bravest knights undertake. Those who don't are lost in the enchanted forest in search of the knights." He then paused and continued, "Do you want to know the secret?"

"Yes, Grandpa, I do," I replied with unrestrained excitement.

He then declared, "Will you keep this a secret until you feel ready to express it?" I assured him that I would.

He kissed my cheeks and said, "Morty, every morning when you wake up, I want you to look at the mirror and strike your heart three times. While you are striking your heart, recite, 'I was born a Jew [strike heart]; I was raised a Jew [strike heart]; and I will die a Jew [strike heart]. When you finish, I want you to raise your hands towards the sky and proclaim, 'And the rest will come later.' When you go to bed, I want you to cover your eyes and repeat the same routine."

After making sure that I understood, he said, "This is the Torah of our people."

We shook hands, kissed and hugged each other, and the deal was sealed. Every day (and I still do it to this day), I would practice my grandfather's routine without thinking twice.

"Do you already know the Torah? Is that why you aren't listening?"When I came to the USA, I went to the Jewish day school in my city. My parents worked three jobs each to afford the tuition, but they never complained. However, though I went to the Jewish day school, I was often absent from my Jewish classes in order to study ESL. So I went through three years of Jewish day school and learned close to nothing about Judaism.

One day, my ESL teacher got sick, so I joined the Torah class. I was totally lost and not paying much attention. The rabbi realized my mind was elsewhere, so he called on me and said, "Mordechai, do you already know the Torah? Is that why you aren't listening? You hardly come to my class… at least now, take advantage of the opportunity, and learn Torah with us."

I looked at him and said, "Rabbi, I know the Torah like I know the back of my hand. I've been reciting the Torah for the last seven years, twice a day."

The rabbi responded, "Really, tzaddik? Why don't you do it right now?"

I stood up, adjusted my shirt, and began to reveal the "secret" my grandpa taught me. Needless to say, the students began to laugh, but the rabbi was stunned. He asked me to repeat it, and I did. By this time, the students were laughing their hearts out. I started to cry. I felt that they were making fun of the holy Torah. The rabbi asked the class for silence, and instructed me to repeat the routine again.

Through my tears, I saw the rabbi approach me. He hugged me and said, "Mordechai, when do you say this? And why do you say it like this?"

"This is how Jews recite the Torah," I said.

He replied, "No, Mordechai only the brave Jew recites the Torah like this."

I went home later that day, and I asked my grandpa to explain the Torah he taught me all those years ago. After explaining what has transpired in school, my grandpa placed me before a large mirror and said, "Morty, look at the mirror and tell me what you see."

"Myself," was the reply.

He said, "Look. What is on your head?"

I looked up, saw my kippa, the skullcap I'd forgotten to remove after the Torah class.

"Morty, how many times were you beaten up for being a Jew?"


"How many times were you hospitalized because of your injuries?"

"Twice," I said, recalling the stitches I received when a piece of iron was thrown at my head and a rock at my knee cap.

He kissed me and replied, "Morty, every day you strike your chest indicating that they - the anti-Semites - may break your bones, but your heart will always beat for G‑d."

"They - the anti-Semites - may break your bones, but your heart will always beat for G‑d."He continued, "How many times have you heard that Communism, Socialism, Liberalism, Capitalism, Christianity or Islam is better than Judaism? By covering your eyes at night, you are indicating that the nations may blind you with their philosophies, but at the end of the day your sight will always be aimed towards G‑d. And as for your hands raised to the sky, if you don't understand this now, you will know when the right time comes. For the rest will come later."

Armed with new knowledge, I went back to the rabbi and told him everything. He said, "Mordechai, you know more Torah at 12 than I know at 28, and I studied in Jewish schools all of my life."

After graduating the day school, I went to public school. Since I knew almost nothing about Judaism, I simply put it on hiatus. It was only two years ago that I slowly started to return to Judaism. Now, thank G‑d, I pray three times a day, wear my kippa always, and keep the Shabbat. I may not yet study Mishnah or Gemara, but I know Jewish and Israeli history, philosophy, and Jewish Eastern European literature (I even teach it). And as for the rest – "the rest will come later."

My grandfather's words ring true.