“Elana’s been teaching Katie about Judaism,” they chuckled to my parents one morning. “Katie says she wants to convert”
Katie Malito was an unlikely friend for an 11-year-old from a sheltered Orthodox family. But friends were at a premium during the short stretches of summer we visited Bubby and Zeide in the Berkshires, and Katie, a perky, Catholic ten-year-old, was my default option.
During its glory years, North Adams, Massachusetts, hosted a small Jewish enclave huddled within the vast, wooded expanse of the Berkshire Mountains. It boasted a community large enough to support a shul, a rabbi, an after-hours Hebrew school, and its own chapter of a national Jewish youth organization.
But without a Jewish day school or yeshivah to anchor their commitment, by the 1980s, most of the community had shorn their Jewish praxis like a snakeskin. Bubby and Zeide’s home was the only kosher address for miles.
But that didn’t deter my family from heading up to North Adams for our annual visits. I’d bask in the delights of the small town, whose backyard forest, streams, and waterfall rendered our quiet New York suburb comparatively crass and citified. And that’s where I met Katie, one of a handful of local kids eager for a friend from the “big city.”
Together we explored the sloping forest just beyond the backyard, chased fireflies winking coyly at dusk, and walked across the street to splash in the swirling brook that emerged, like a mirage, from behind the last house on the block. Katie taught me how to salt slugs and play Spud, and together we planned an afternoon talent show, then traipsed around the block selling tickets to indulgent neighbors.
I knew that Katie, along with most of the neighborhood, wasn’t Jewish, but that didn’t put a damper on our friendship or on my considerable Jewish pride. To the contrary, I was eager to explain, discuss, and enlighten anyone who asked. Katie learned about kashrus symbols (initially mistaking the concept of an OU as license to consume anything with the letters O and U scattered somewhere on its packaging), and I learned that unlike at the kosher supermarkets back home, there was an abundance of products out there that didn’t carry kosher certification.
On one occasion, when I joined Katie’s family for a short outing, they stopped at the drive-through of a local non-kosher eatery. Eager to treat me, they passed me package after package of cakes to inspect, hopeful I’d find the coveted kosher symbol. I don’t know who was more surprised — me, when I didn’t find a kashrus symbol on any of the many packages they offered, or the Malitos, who’d never encountered a child who refused a treat, even when unencumbered by watchful parents.
That outing left its mark. Decades later, when I bumped into Mr. Malito, he expressed wonder at the self-restraint exhibited by my ten-year-old self.
“I still remember how you wouldn’t put anything in your mouth that didn’t have a kosher symbol on it,” he marveled. “Not a single thing!” he repeated, with a shake of his head. “Gee, how old were you already then? Nine? Ten? A little kid!” he concluded with astonishment.
I simply smiled, knowing that what he’d witnessed then wasn’t an exceptional act of discipline on my part. It was an expression of respect and love for the directives that delineated my life, for the laws that encircled me in a secure, affectionate embrace.
My Jewish pride reached a tipping point when, at all of 11 years old, I determined that Katie Malito should convert. It started, innocuously enough, as a comparison between our holiday celebrations.
Relaxing behind my Bubby’s house one afternoon, I turned to Katie, “So, what’s your favorite day of the year?”
Her response was as immediate as it was emphatic: “Xmas, of course! First thing in the morning, I run downstairs and there are so many presents under the tree, and we all unwrap them together and—” Here she suddenly paused. With curiosity laced with pity she said, “You don’t do that, right? It’s not a Jewish thing.”
I did not appreciate her sympathy. As far as I was concerned, Xmas was for lightweights. “We don’t do that ’cuz we have something much, much better,” I asserted. “It’s called Chanukah, and it lasts for eight whole days.” And here I provided a detail-rich, side-by-side comparison of the perks and privileges of Chanukah over Xmas.
Katie was intrigued. “You get presents for eight whole days?” she asked, eyes widened in wonder. “That’s wicked!” she proclaimed, employing a favored New England superlative.
“And that’s not all,” I continued, capitalizing on her mounting interest. “We also have Pesach, which is a whole week long. Your Easter holiday is only for a day,” I smugly pointed out.
Katie listened with rapt attention as I conducted a concise lesson on the Jewish calendar year that would have done any Yahadus teacher proud. The sheer volume of celebratory occasions I detailed left her mute with defeat. Her religion was not nearly as festive, her holidays woefully underwhelming. I even managed to make fast days appear cosmopolitan.
“You really don’t eat and drink for a whole day?” she asked in wonder.
“Yes, and twice it’s from sundown of the night before,” I shared with affected modesty.
One conversation rapidly progressed to daily alef-beis tutorials, a brief overview of Shabbos and kashrus, and an edifying talk on the benefits of private schooling. The process reached a crescendo when Katie informed her Roman Catholic parents of her desire to become a Jew.
To their credit, the Malitos weren’t overly distressed. “So, we hear Elana’s been teaching Katie about Judaism,” they chuckled to my parents one morning. “Katie says she wants to convert,” they added wryly, clearly enjoying the irony of their Catholic daughter ensnared by a Jewish missionary.
My parents were decidedly less amused, and sat me down for a frank discussion on Judaism’s policies on proselytizing. Our departure to New York the next day ensured I made no repeat attempts.
But years later when I remember that Berkshire summer, I’m struck by the overwhelming sweetness of a sincere, albeit naïve young girl, so thoroughly smitten with her Divine inheritance that like an overflowing wellspring, she couldn’t help but share her gift with another.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 967)
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