He was born to a life of privilege and, as the times mandated, rebelled fiercely when he was nineteen. Donning the faded, torn denim uniform of his generation, Joey Riklis dropped out of college, quit his part-time job, and announced to his widowed father that he was taking off for India in search of "enlightenment." Sensitive and psychologically astute, his father, Adam Riklis withstood this blow with equanimity and grace, heeding the advice of friends who counseled patience, tolerance, and love. Joey was acting "normal for his age," they explained confidently, and the storm would soon blow over, they were sure. So Adam told his son that he understood that he was testing his wings and carving out his own unique identity, and he assured him that he accepted the convulsions erupting in his life with sympathy and understanding. But when Joey revealed one day that he had broken with his religion, his father snapped.
Adam Riklis was a Holocaust survivor. His entire family had been murdered by the Nazis, and he alone had withstood the barbaric hardships of three concentration camps. Upon learning that he was the sole survivor of his family, he had silently pledged that the religion his relatives had died for would not die with him. Although many survivors had come away with the opposite attitude, abandoning the religion of their youth in anger and pain, Adam's perspective had been quite different. To divorce himself from the religion of his murdered relatives would be no less than a betrayal of their lives...and deaths.
In Cleveland, Adam had clung tightly to his Jewish traditions and religious rituals, carefully incorporating them into his family's day-to-day existence. He sent his children to Hebrew day school, took them to synagogue regularly, and saw to it that they adhered strictly to religious law. He was proud that he had raised religious children who would carry on the family's heritage. But now his own son was announcing that he was scorning this very legacy, making a mockery of his family's losses. Adam could countenance anything but this.
"Get out of here!" he screamed at Joey. "Get out of my home and never come back! You are not my son. I disown you from my heart, from my soul, from my life. I never want to see you again!"
"Well, that's just fine with me," Joey shouted back, "because I never want to see you again either!"
In India, Joey traveled from guru to guru, seeking wisdom, spirituality, concrete answers to life's elusive mysteries. During his travels, he hooked up with Sarah, his female counterpart in many ways. She too had dropped out of a religious Jewish home and was looking for another spiritual path. They were certain they were "soul mates." They had been together for six years when Joey accidentally encountered an old classmate from Cleveland on a street corner in Bombay.
Joe and Sammy embraced happily. "This is unbelievable!" they told each other. They were avidly trading the stories of their respective adventures when Sammy's eyes clouded and he said somberly, "Hey, Joey, I was really sorry to hear about your dad."
"My dad?" Joey repeated dumbly. "What do you mean?"
"Oh my God, I'm so sorry. Then you don't know, obviously."
"Know what?" Joey asked, now rigid with dread.
"Oh, Joey, your father died a couple of months ago. No one wrote you?"
"No one knew where I was," Joey replied slowly, dumbstruck by the news. "What did he die of?"
"A heart attack."
"Not a heart attack," Joey said, his eyes welling with tears. "More like a broken heart, I'm sure. And I'm the cause. I killed him. I killed my own father."
"Joey, don't be ridiculous," Sarah murmured, touching his shoulder in compassion. "You had nothing to do with your father's death!"
"Sarah, you're wrong," Joey answered. "I had everything to do with my father's death!"
For several days afterward, Joey lived in a stupor, dazed with grief and remorse. He could not shake his overwhelming certainty that the pain he had inflicted on his father had taken his life. In the back of his mind, he had always hoped for a reconciliation. Somehow he had been sure that a loving reunion would one day take place. Now he would never be able to ask his father's forgiveness, or return to the warm embrace of his love. And he would never have the closure, the resolution, that he so desperately needed.
"Sarah," he shook his head mournfully a few days after learning of his father's death. "I can't go on like this anymore. India tastes like ashes to me now. I know you'll think I'm strange but I have to go...to Israel."
"Israel!" Sarah said in surprise, wrinkling her nose in distaste as only an entrenched religious rebel could. "Why do you want to go to Israel?"
"I just feel a pull, Sarah. I can't explain it, but I have to go."
"Okay, okay, so we'll go," she agreed unhappily.
When the plane landed, Joey turned to Sarah and said, "I want to go pray."
"Are you turning weird on me, Joey?" she asked in mock concern.
"Okay, okay," she relented, "so you want to pray, fine. You want to go to a synagogue?"
"No, Sarah, I want to go to the Wall. It's the only remnant left of the First and Second Temples, considered to holiest site in Jerusalem. People believe that God's presence is stronger there than in any other place in Israel. It's where people from all over the world go to pray, to petition God, to ask for miracles. What I want to do is pray for my father's forgiveness."
"Okay," Sarah said, "let's go. But I have to tell you I don't like the direction you seem to be taking."
"Sarah!" Joey cried out in anguish. "Why don't you understand?"
"I understand only too well, Joey. I understand that you're not the same Joey I knew all these years. You used to laugh at all this crap together with me. And now you want to go pray at a wall."
"Look, Sarah, I'm in pain. I loved my father. He's dead. I feel I killed him. Why are you making this so hard for me!"
They quarreled for an hour, and finally decided to split up. "Sarah, I don't know why this is happening," Joey said sadly. "I thought you were my soul mate."
"I am," she said softly, planting a tender and regretful kiss on his cheek. "But our souls simply aren't in alignment anymore. Goodby, Joey."
Approaching the Wall on foot, Joey looked from a distance at the clusters of people thronging the plaza. Ethiopians in African headdress, Yemenites in white traditional robes, Americans in T-thirts and little yarmulkes. All coming to press their lips against the cool stones, cry warm tears, and fervently beseech God with their personal petitions.
Joey approached a security guard, one of dozens tensely scanning the crowds. "Excuse me," he said. "Can I get a prayer book anywhere around here?"
Silently, the guard pointed in the direction of a bearded rabbi, who was dispensing religious paraphernalia, yarmulkes, prayer books, women's scarves, to the uninitiated.
Donning a borrowed yarmulke and clutching a prayer book, Joey made his way to a section of the Wall. Watching the others and simulating their movements, he rested his head against the smooth stone of the Wall, tried to encircle it with his arm to create an aura of privacy, and began to silently pray. He thought the words would seem foreign after all these years and that he would chant them haltingly, but instead they flowed forth from him in a familiar, comforting stream. He closed his eyes and recalled his father's intonation of these same words, as he was transported back in memory to different realms, the world of his youth. "Oh Dad," he sobbed. "How I wish I could ask your forgiveness! How I wish I could tell you how much I loved you! How much I regret all the pain I caused you! I didn't mean to hurt you, Dad. I was just trying to find my own way. You meant everything to me, Dad. I wish I could tell you that."
When Joey finished praying, he turned around, at a loss at what to do next. Then he observed people around him scribbling notes and inserting them into the crevices of the Wall. Curious as to what this behavior meant, he approched a young man, and asked, "Excuse me, why are so many people putting little pieces of paper into the cracks of the Wall?"
"Oh, these are their petitions," the youth answered, "their prayers. It is believed that the stones are so holy that requests placed inside of them will be especially blessed."
"Can I do that, too?" Joey asked, intrigued.
"Sure. But be warned, it isn't easy to find an empty crevice anymore!" the yound man laughed. "Jews have been coming here for centuries to ply God with their prayers!"
Joey wrote: "Dear Father, I beg you to forgive me for the pain I caused you. I loved you very much and I will never forget you. And please know that nothing that you taught me was in vain. I will not betray your family's deaths. I promise."
When he had finished writing the note, Joey searched for an empty crevice. The young man had not exaggerated. All of the Wall's cracks were filled, crammed, overflowing with petitioners' notes, and it took him close to an hour to find an empty space. But it turned out not to be empty, after all. When he slid his own small note into the crack, he accidentally dislodged another that had already been resting there, and it fell to the ground. "Oh, no, I've pushed out someone's note," Joey thought, a little panic-stricken, wondering what he should do with it. He stooped down to retrieve it, and holding the rolled-up paper in his palm, began searching for another space in which to insert it. But suddenly overcome by a tremendous curiosity to read the words of the unknown petitioner, Joey did something uncharacteristically unscrupulous. He rolled open the note to examine its contents. And this is what he read:
"My Dear Son Joey, If you should ever happen to come to Israel and somehow miraculously find this note, this is what I want you to know. I always loved you, even when you hurt me, and I will never stop loving you. You are, and always will be, my beloved son. And Joey, please know that I forgive you for everything, and only hope that you in turn will forgive a foolish old man." The note was signed "Adam Riklis, Cleveland, Ohio."
"Sir, are you all right, Sir...Sir...?" The disembodied voice came from a distance, shattering Joey's reverie. He didn't know how long he had been standing there, numb, paralyzed with shock, clutching his father's note in his trembling hand, tears flowing in rivulets down his face. Stunned, he turned to face the young man who had instructed him on the writing of the petition minutes ago. "Listen," said the young man warmly, draping a sympathetic arm around Joey's shoulder, "you don't have to tell me. It will be Sabbath soon, it's almost sundown. Would you like to come spend it with me?"
Three years later, Joey had returned to his religion and was a full-time rabbinical student. "I think it's time for you to marry," the rabbi said to him one day. "My wife likes to play matchmaker and she says she has the perfect girl for you. I've told her about you, and she says she's positive she has found your soul mate. It's someone like yourself, a returnee to Judaism, who studies at my wife's women's school. Would you like to meet her? Come to my house tonight for dinner, and she'll be there."
That evening, Joey entered the rabbi's house and was escorted to the living room. There, sitting on the couch, was none other than his old love, Sarah. They stared across the room at each other in shock and awe, and Sarah blinked back tears. "How...how did this happen, Sarah?" Joey asked in stunned surprise.
"Well, after we split up," Sarah said, "I began to wander around Israel. 'I'm here already, I might as well see the country before I head back to India,' I told myself. So I started trekking around, and despite myself began to fall in love with the country, the people, and...the religion. One day, someone told me about a great women's school, so here I am!"
"Sarah, I thought about you so often all these years..."
"Well, I guess our souls are in alignment now," she said softly, as she turned to him with a welcoming smile.
from the book Small Miracles
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