Chana Miriam pulled my fingers urging, “Dance. Can we dance? My totty does with the men.”
I smiled at my granddaughter. “Soon. I need to finish here in the kitchen.”
“We can dance in the kitchen!” Sunlight from the small window caught Chana Miriam’s green eyes.
“Soon.” I noticed the sun’s rays on the child’s face and began to hum. “You’ve Totty’s eyes, honey. They are pretty.”
“Totty dances, all by himself, in the house. Why?” Chana Miriam moved in circles. Her dress swirled around her calves.
“Praying. He’s always dancing.”
A childlike giggle escaped from my lips as I envisioned the movements my older son was probably making when Chana Miriam saw him. I put down the linen dishtowel with its broad blue stripe and moved from the sink. “Chanala. Totty’s swaying, not dancing.”
“So many possibilities.” I paused. “Like one tiny sentence in the Torah can take hours to discuss, this can, too.”
“I’m four. I’ve been lighting my Sabbath candle for a whole year so I’m a big girl. I want to know why Totty dances alone.” The twirling stopped, and Chana Miriam’s dress settled into its folds above her white stockings.
“Let’s talk about it.” I walked into the living room, patted a cushion on the couch that faced my own mother’s baby grand piano, and we both sat down. “Rabbi Judah HaLevi of Spain gave a reason when he spoke about many men reading from one big book at the same time; each reader had to bend down and turn a page to recite a passage. The bending down then sitting up looked like rocking motions.”
“Like when you rock me?” Chana Miriam was listening carefully.
“When I rock you, I do move up and down. It might look similar to that.”
“Is there more, Bubby?”
“Rabbi Simchah of France used a line from Exodus (20:15), ‘And the people saw and they trembled.’ When you’re trembling, you’re shaking.”
“Oh, yes. When I get too cold in the winter, I do shake!”
“Okay. The Zohar, around the 13th century, in Spain, I think, if I’m remembering correctly…you can question Totty…asks why a Jew sways. That answer has to do with the Jew’s soul’s lighting up as a candle flame whenever the Torah is read. Candle flames sway when lit.”
“Now can we dance?” Chana Miriam was satisfied.
“You do understand that Totty is swaying and not dancing, don’t you? Perhaps swaying allows men to concentrate on their prayers and even gives the men some exercise while they’re concentrating.” I attempted to tickle my granddaughter as I finished this sentence. “I sure get enough exercise around this house when you visit, Chanala.”
“Sometimes we don’t know reasons. Right? But we do what we see?” Chana Miriam rose from the cushion. A small impression had formed in its foam contents.
“Four certainly is a big girl!” I rose also, quite delighted with the wisdom of this very young girl. “Yes. We do what we see, and rocking or swaying has been going on for over a thousand years without anyone really knowing exactly why.”
A tiny hand reached out. “La la. La la.” Chana Miriam moved sideways then straight, then sideways again.
My fingers touched the child’s, and near the gentle curve of the 55-year-old piano, we began to dance in a circle.
August 2006. Chana Miriam is 16 years old and working as a day-camp counselor at the Chabad House in Rochester, New York. She’s come almost 400 miles from her Crown Heights house for this summer job, and she’s less than 10 minutes drive from me. In my living room, standing by the 67-year-old piano, facing east, she quietly recites her prayers; she comes here on the camp’s scheduled laundry night.
There are no more “la la la’s”, nor twirling in her long skirts, and her blonde hair is pulled tightly into a pony tail. Her facial expressions are more serious than silly, and I realize that a full circle has happened in these past 12 years: I sway or dance in place, and she has the answers to my questions.