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Ghost of a Chance

Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman

He knew and she knew. And that was all that mattered

Wednesday, January 23, 2019




hen Miriam Stillberg (name changed) moved into our community, she was a single mom with a ten-year-old son named Simcha.

I found a “substitute father” who sat next to Simcha during davening. I watched him grow. And soon enough, he was preparing for his bar mitzvah.

I meet with every boy prior to his bar mitzvah. At this informal get together, I find out a little more about him. When Simcha arrived, he was carrying a shoebox.

“Rabbi, do you know what’s in this shoebox?”

I was somewhat petrified that he would tell me his pet snake lived in there. But Simcha informed me that it contained the letters his father had sent him for the last ten years.

I knew Mrs. Stillberg had no contact whatsoever with her former husband. I’d just assumed he was estranged from Simcha as well.

I asked Simcha, “Do you see your father often?”

“My father now lives in Tzfas. He has no phone and will never leave Tzfas,” Simcha told me. “My mother told me that he is a big tzaddik, and I will never see or speak to him. But he writes me a letter every week.”

From the loving manner in which he cradled the box containing his letters, Simcha was obviously very proud of his father. He pulled out a typewritten letter from his father, wishing him mazel tov on his upcoming bar mitzvah. Strangely, though, I noticed that all the letters were postmarked from the US.

I casually asked Simcha if I could read a few.

The more I read, the more something didn’t seem right.

The letters were almost identical in content, and in at least two of the letters, his father referred to recently seeing a tzaddik who had passed away a year before the letter was written.

I wished Simcha mazel tov and asked for his mother to come in.

“Mrs. Stillberg, Simcha showed me the letters from his father. I have a hunch that these letters weren’t written by any man from Tzfas.”

Mrs. Stillberg began to weep.

“You’re right. I write these letters every week and sign Simcha’s father’s name to them. When Simcha was three years old, his father left us. I haven’t heard from him since. Simcha often asked about his father, and I had no answers. I wanted him to feel loved and never to feel abandoned, so I decided I’d write him a letter every week and sign his father’s name.” She wiped her eyes and looked at me. “Rabbi, I’ve been writing to Simcha for the past ten years. Please don’t reveal my secret. It would break his heart.”

I told her the information was safe with me, and I would never divulge her secret identity.

Simcha had a modest affair celebrating his bar mitzvah. There was dancing and speeches like at any other bar mitzvah. Simcha got up to speak and said his pshetl beautifully. At the end of his speech, he began the perfunctory thank yous.

He thanked his rebbeim and thanked everyone for coming.

Simcha then began to thank his mother.

Everyone in the room was teary-eyed as he told how his mother had shuttled him to school and appointments and how much she does for him.

Just as he was about to leave the podium, he looked at his mother and said, “Most of you don’t realize that my mother is also a very talented writer. Unbeknownst to anyone, she has been ghostwriting for someone for the last ten years.”

No one understood what he meant. Some didn’t even know what a ghostwriter is.

But Simcha smiled at his mother and, composing herself, she smiled back at him.

He knew and she knew. And that was all that mattered. 

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 745)

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