Experience has taught me that when attending a conference I should always bring along something to read. Thus, seated with my Chumash open to this week's Parshah, I was not overly distraught that the scheduled speaker was predictably late, nor that no one there knew the topic he was to be addressing...

An impishly humorous man took the mike, uninvited and unannounced. Most funny people are either depressed or serious; he was serious. He spoke and I read, both of us relatively content in our roles; he making an occasional joke, me breaking an occasional smile while continuing reading.

Then he began speaking of his father, a man I had never personally known, but had seen on the streets of Crown Heights. A burly man with a flowing white beard, Russian-style kasket cap and crutches for his bad foot — an injury suffered while defending Mother Russia during World War II. The family tells of the miracle of the shrapnel that took his leg and spared his life. Funny what people from Russia call a miracle.

After the war, the young family wanted to leave Russia. With a convoluted reasoning only possible in a secretive bureaucracy, the hero was honored to stay indefinitely in the Motherland. Nevertheless, for a brief few moments, the family had reason to believe that they might be able to leave. The mother said she wanted to sell all that they had. "All that they had," the impish speaker told us, was two broken beds and three broken chairs.

"Sell it all," his father agreed. "But not my schach slats."

The holiday of Sukkot is a nice time to visit Israel. From every balcony and in every courtyard, little booths mushroom in this season. Covering these booths, called "sukkahs," are schach, green foliage: palm branches in Israel and California, evergreens in the Northeast (which sprinkle the matzo ball soup), and in my native Nashville, whatever happened to be growing in the yard. (I still like my Nashville schach best.) We have all our meals in the sukkah, under the schach.

In Russia, of course, making a sukkah was a crime, and eating in one punishable with imprisonment. Being caught with illicit tree trimmings this time of year was unheard of. But this then-young Russian war hero was not going to let all that deter him. He got a hold of some wooden slats – which as schach would have raised eyebrows in Jerusalem or New England, but are halachically valid. The speaker told us that his father kept those slats from year to year. During Sukkot he would sneak to a clandestine booth, place the schach-slats overhead, and for a few moments have his Sukkot.

"Sell all that we have," said the father to the mother. "Sell my coat if you have to," he conceded. "But not my sukkah-bletlach, not my schach-slats."

Our speaker moved on to another subject, and I turned back to my Torah book. I was up to a particular comment by the commenter Rashi: why does the Torah — when discussing the offerings of rich men, the middle class and the poor — reserve the word nefesh, meaning life or soul, exclusively for the poor man's offering. "Because," Rashi quotes from the Talmud, "the poor man's soul is in his humble offering. It is as dear to the Al-mighty as a man who has given his life."