Tillie Rosenberg was my favorite babysitter:
Her Russian-Yiddish blended with a Southern drawl,
Many of my people spoke like that.
She wore diamond studs.
It was she who played one-for-the-penny and freeze tag.
She had grandchildren my age.
She was my friend.
It was she who told me about the Beilis case.

I wasn’t more than seven.
She told me of when she was even younger than me.
A Jew in her native Russia was accused of killing a boy—
To mix his blood in matzah.

The Russians were going to kill all the Jews.
The Jews went to shul.

All the Jews.
Like on Yom Kippur.
They fasted.
They blew the shofar.
The verdict came out not guilty.
The Jews were saved.

Years later I read up on Beilis.
The jury was all Russian peasants.
They were expected to side with the Church.
The charge was that not all Jews—
Just chassidim use blood in matzas.
“That’s what the Kabbalah says!”
(Mendel Beilis was not a chassid
but occasionally he did business with a few.)

The Rebbe at the time,
Known with respectful affection as the Rashab
told the defense
“End off with the words Shema Yisrael of the foundational prayer, Hear O Israel.”

Astonishingly, Mendel Beilis was acquitted.
Not so astonishingly, he had to flee for his life.
He’s buried along the Jackie Robinson Parkway.

The Rebbe Rashab’s son, the Previous Rebbe,
Is known with respectful affection as the Frierdiker Rebbe.
He saw the fall of the Czar and his Church and the dawn of a new day—
A black, Bolshevik nightmare.

He was expelled by the Communists and settled in Poland.
When the Germans started bombing Warsaw
It was soon realized that Jewish neighborhoods were being targeted.
He wouldn’t move to another neighborhood.

He was in the shelter with Jews of all stripes.
If the bombs wouldn’t have been so loud,
they would have argued philosophy, like Jews do.

One bomb fell incredibly close.
They all, scholar and agnostic, yelled
“Shema Yisrael”
The Nazis came looking for the Rebbe.
“I’ve never hidden. I will not hide now.”

The Nazis broke down the door and invited him to leave.
Does this invitation mean I have a choice? he asked.

He made it to America.
He told the American Jews that he would never forget that Shema Yisrael.

One simple line. Hear O Israel, Hashem is our G‑d, Hashem is One.
It is so interwoven with our history.
It is our history.
It’s kids in nursery.
It’s bar mitzvah boys.
It’s young mothers.
It’s bubbies.
It’s death.
It’s life.

It’s a camp cheer:
For morning lineup.
Lineup on trips:
The Kremlin.
Great Wall of China.
Magic Mountain.

A simple line we recite three times a day.
The Kabbalah on it is voluminous.
The Talmud on it is astounding.
It means simple things.
It means esoteric things.
It’s profound.
It’s straightforward.
It’s Jewish.

And like the Frierdiker Rebbe saw
It unites us when and where nothing else seemingly can.
It’s in our Torah. Like every verse is in the Torah.
We learn it.
We recite it.
We remember it.
We teach it.
We die it.
We live it.
We are it.
I know,
Tillie Rosenberg said Shema with me
On nights my parents were going to be coming home late.