Jenna Zark‘s new book Crooked Lines: A Single Mom’s Jewish Journey began life at TC Jewfolk and will be published by Koehler Books on September 5. Read the opening chapter about how Jenna searched for a mezuzah when she had to move to a new home after an unexpected divorce.
If you’re a Jewish single mom (who wasn’t raised all that Jewishly), you already know the last thing you’re thinking about when moving out of your old, married life is a Jewish prayer scroll (mezuzah). They are supposed to be mounted on every doorpost of your house as a daily reminder of Jewish identity. Is that why I was thinking about them?
It was late August, and I was packing up everything I own to move across town to the bottom half of a duplex. My son, age four, would live there part of the time with me and part of the time with his dad in our old house. I had everything packed up and was ready to go to bed, only I couldn’t. I was thinking about mezuzahs.
The day before, I told an Orthodox friend I was moving. She asked if I had mezuzahs to bring along. “I, uh, hadn’t thought much about it,” I said, which was only a partial truth; I hadn’t thought about it at all.
“But when people don’t have good mezuzahs, it’s a problem,” she replied. “In fact, it’s the reason there is so much trouble in the world.”
I looked at her and she looked back at me, and I realized she was quite serious. Though normally I might have nodded politely and talked of something else, the idea of a mezuzah protecting me from all the trouble in the world rang true. Because you’re not only leaving home when you leave a marriage. You’re leaving everything you thought was right about your life.
“By the way,” my friend said, “those mezuzahs need to be kosher,” meaning sanctified. “If you want, my husband can inspect them.”
I smiled at her, trying to buy time before replying. I was moving to St. Anthony Park, hardly known for its Jewish traditions. My head was full of things I hadn’t done and wanted to do, like getting a sukkah (temporary hut for the Jewish pilgrimage holiday called Sukkot). I was also trying to figure out where to put two sets of dishes so I could be, yes, kosher, or observant of Jewish dietary rules. “I’ll find some mezuzahs and let you know,” I said. My friend directed me to the gift shop at her synagogue, which I promised to visit.
Later that night, I thought about the mezuzahs I wanted and where to put them. I decided something ornate would catch my eye and brighten the house. The next week, I found what I was looking for in St. Louis Park; a friend gave me something as well. These and the mezuzah I bought at my friend’s synagogue are enough to start, I thought.
Then came the inspection.
“Ms. Zark?” a man’s voice intoned when I picked up the phone three days later.
He introduced himself, explaining he was my friend’s husband. “Sorry. But only one of your mezuzahs is kosher.”
Apparently, the pretty ones didn’t have the right scroll or the right kind of scroll to be considered legitimate. “Can’t I get some new scrolls?” I asked. My inspector was opposed to this idea and thought I should get new mezuzahs from his synagogue instead.
I thanked him and hung up, trying to finish making dinner and rid myself of all the horror-movie images suddenly flooding my mind. I couldn’t help seeing a little newsreel of everything that COULD go wrong if I didn’t get a truly kosher mezuzah on the doorposts in my house.
I want to tell you I’m not superstitious, because my parents always said Jews are not supposed to be.
But I’m superstitious I am.
I looked at my son arranging dinosaurs on the kitchen floor in preparation for a war between the T-Rex and brontosaurus. Seeing his face, alight with the pleasures of play, made me want only to keep him safe, so the dinosaurs in his life are always small and manageable. Would a mezuzah do that? While I had grown up Jewish, I had never done much more than glance at the ones on my doorposts. Were they really so important? Why?
What’s inside those long, thin containers? Mezuzah scrolls contain the first two paragraphs of the Shema prayer, commanding us to “write them on the doorpost of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy. 6:4-9). Jewish writings also say having a mezuzah on the door of each room means whenever we move from one room to another, we bring the presence of God with us in a way that sanctifies God’s name. Because of that, some people touch the mezuzahs when they enter a room.
Fine, I thought. I know this stuff, but it’s not something I wanted to deal with when I look at a doorpost. Sorry, but no.
Then I read something that made me want to read more. It said something about mezuzahs keeping away evil spirits. Not like the ones in horror movies, but the monsters in our minds and hearts. And having just gone through a divorce, I knew those monsters. They were persistent, real, and much scarier than an actual T-Rex showing up at the doorpost of your home.
Which meant I probably (okay, really) needed a kosher mezuzah. But what did that mean?
To be kosher, a mezuzah must be handwritten on genuine parchment. A specially trained scribe, known as a sofer, carefully writes the words using special black ink and a quill pen. The letters must be written according to Halacha (Jewish law). Every letter and word must be correct; any mistakes or missing letters invalidate the entire parchment.
I sighed, not wanting to give up my ornate mezuzah. Could I get another kosher one and keep the pretty one? I thought. Maybe on a doorway underneath a kosher one?
In the end, that’s what I did. And I must tell you, throughout the year or two we lived at that apartment, I skirted no end of trouble—from carpal tunnel to money troubles to a heat breakdown midwinter—and all kinds of things in between.
When we moved to our new house, I brought all the mezuzahs with me and got some new ones.
I haven’t seen my Orthodox friend lately, but if I do, I’ll tell her I’m doing my part to keep all the trouble out. And on nights when things feel scary and I think those monsters are surfacing again, I still reach up to touch those mezuzahs. More than you think.