The following is an excerpt from “Crooked Lines: A Single Mom’s Jewish Journey” by Jenna Zark.
January. I was on Cleveland Avenue, a few miles north of the Jewish Community Center in St. Paul. I wasn’t thinking about miracles, spring, or even the holiday called Tu Bishvat. While I’d been in Minnesota seven years, I was still not used to driving on icy roads, and that day the ice was especially treacherous.
I was supposed to be at the JCC in 15 minutes for a Tu Bishvat meal, celebrating the day spring begins in Israel by eating Israeli nuts and fruits. I had volunteered to help serve the children in my son’s class, and I didn’t want to be late.
Like most moms with a working life, I was never quite on time when I should be, but I was still trying not to speed. Not that it was snowing — it had to warm up first — but since there was a lot of snow on the ground, the temperature had plunged below zero and made almost everything a solid sheet of white.
Yet we were celebrating the time when sap begins to run inside Israel’s trees, as Jews have, apparently, for 2000 years, or at least since the diaspora began. I was concentrating so hard on driving I barely registered the ambulance stopped at a corner, perpendicular to the intersection I was approaching. Was I supposed to slow down? Or was that just when they’re alongside you?
Growing up in New York and New Jersey, I didn’t have much cause to drive and only really learned how when I moved to the Midwest. I’d started out with a blue Nissan Sentra that I quickly fell in love with. But after Nate’s dad and I divorced, I totaled the car on I-94 when the driver ahead of me jammed on her brakes.
At this point, I was driving a bright red Toyota, which had never felt quite right. It was much lighter than the Sentra and seemed prone to skidding no matter what I did. Because I bought the car during the summer, I had no inkling of how susceptible it was to winter winds and snow. The car was so light I jokingly called it Little Feather. And that’s just how it felt when I stepped on the brake to avoid the ambulance.
Left, right, left again. Before I knew it, I was sailing up, up, up, over the curve and onto the lawn of a vanilla stucco house at breakneck speed. In less than a split second I was driving toward two trees, and it seemed very clear I was going to hit them. There was no time to think, scream, blink, anything. Just trees, coming toward my windshield. Trees whose sap was not running, though it would be in spring if I lived to see the sap run.
Hard, cold, gray, trunks, two or three feet around and coming toward me.
And then not.
I have no idea how I did it, but I skirted through both pillars, swerving like Steve McQueen in “Bullit” back down to the street, pointed in the same direction I had been when I started. Against all odds, there were no cars in front or behind me. And that ambulance, like a sleeping cat, was right where it was when my skidding began.
Stopped, it seems, with no intention of moving.
I stared at the ambulance window, wondering if its driver was staring at me. In a minute or two, I thought, you could have had quite the customer. I started to laugh then, turning from trees to ambulance to my hands on the wheel. I laughed so hard I nearly split my pants, then stopped and laughed some more.
And then it occurred to me — thank you. There is a prayer, I thought, you say when you have escaped danger. Something to do with a miracle, but I could not quite remember the words. Baruch Atah, Blessed are You… HaShem melech olum, King of the world… the ending wouldn’t come. So, I finished in English instead. Thank You for not being so busy getting the sap to run in Israel that You couldn’t scoot me safely between two living trees.
I waved at the ambulance and went on my way. God only knows what the driver was thinking. By the time I reached the JCC, I was not only ready for Tu Bishvat, I was ready to celebrate. Figs, almonds, bokser fruit from the carob tree and dates lined the tables. One of the parents serving with me was Orthodox and wore a kippah and tzitzit. I told him what happened on the road and said it felt like a little miracle.
“Big miracle,” he muttered, turning away to pour juice for the kids. I looked at my son, reaching for a date and popping it into his mouth. It was not just the sap that is running, I decided. It was our blood, eyes and bones. It was the One who made us able to anticipate, apprehend, use our reflexes. It was the miracle of movement and humor and speech. And then I remembered the prayer. Thank You, God, for making me a miracle… nase gadol ba z’man ha zeh.
Some years later, my mother died, and I was barely able to cross the street without feeling like my heart had been wrenched out of my chest. Crumpling tissues in my rabbi’s office, I asked him, finally, if he believed there was life after death. I thought he might mention God, but he spoke instead of sap. This mysterious, liquefied nourishment spread like wildfire every spring through plants and trees to tell us there might be something like a resurrection.
But maybe resurrection isn’t limited to what happens after death. Maybe it can happen on the road to the JCC, to your office or to a meal with a friend. Maybe somehow or other, for no reason, you can be saved and live to tell about it, even in the middle of winter. To me, that will always be Tu Bishvat.
Reprinted courtesy of Koehler Books.