Elie Wiesel said, “Some stories happened but are not true, while others never happened but are true.” This may be one of them. I received it this morning from Janet Waxman, the wife of Congressman Henry Waxman, and I thank her for it. (see below for notes on the original story)
The brand new Rabbi and his wife were newly assigned to their first congregation to reopen a Shul in suburban Brooklyn. They arrived in early February excited about their opportunities. When they saw their Shul, it was very run down and needed much work. They set a goal to have everything done in time to have their first service on Erev Purim. They worked hard, repairing aged pews, plastering walls, painting, etc., and on 8th of the Adar (February 17th) they were ahead of schedule and just about finished. On February 19 a terrible snowstorm hit the area and lasted for two days. On the 21st, the Rabbi went to the Shul. His heart sank when he saw that the roof had leaked, causing a large area of plaster about 20 feet by 8 feet to fall off the front wall of the sanctuary just behind the pulpit, beginning about head high. The Rabbi cleaned the mess on the floor, and not knowing what else to do but postpone the Erev Purim service, headed home.
On the way home, he noticed that a local business was having a flea market type sale for charity, so he stopped in. One of the items was a beautiful, handmade, ivory colored, crocheted tablecloth with exquisite work, fine colors and a Magen David embroidered in the center. It was just the right size to cover the hole in the front wall. He bought it and headed back to the Shul. By this time it had started to snow. An older woman running from the opposite direction was trying to catch the bus. She missed it. The Rabbi invited her to wait in the warm Shul for the next bus 45 minutes later. She sat in a pew and paid no attention to the Rabbi while he got a ladder, hangers, etc., to put up the tablecloth as a wall tapestry. The Rabbi could hardly believe how beautiful it looked and it covered up the entire problem area.
Then the Rabbi noticed the woman walking down the center aisle. Her face was white as a sheet. “Rabbi, “she asked, “Where did you get that tablecloth?” The Rabbi explained. The woman asked him to check the lower right corner to see if the initials, EBG were crocheted there. They were. These were the initials of the woman, and she had made this tablecloth 35 years before, in Poland. The woman could hardly believe it as the Rabbi told how he had just bought “The Tablecloth.” She explained that before the war she and her husband were well-to-do people in Poland. When the Nazis came, she was forced to leave. Her husband was going to follow her the next week. He was captured, sent to a camp and she never saw him or her home again.
The Rabbi wanted to give her the tablecloth; but she made the Rabbi keep it for the Shul. But he insisted on driving her home. That was the least he could do. She lived on the other side of Staten Island and was only in Brooklyn for the day for a housecleaning job.
What a wonderful service they had on Erev Purim. The Shul was almost full. The service was great. At the end of the service, the Rabbi and his wife greeted everyone at the door and many said that they would return. One older man, whom the Rabbi recognized from the neighborhood, continued to sit in one of the pews and stare, and the Rabbi wondered why he wasn’t leaving. The man asked him where he got the tablecloth on the front wall because it was identical to one that his wife had made years ago when they lived in Poland before the war, and how could there be two tablecloths so much alike? He told the Rabbi how the Nazis came, how he forced his wife to flee for her safety and he was supposed to follow her, but he was arrested and put in a camp. He never saw his wife or his home again all the 35 years between.
The Rabbi asked him if he would allow him to take him for a little ride. They drove to Staten Island and to the same house where the Rabbi had taken the woman three days earlier. He helped the man climb the three flights of stairs to the woman’s apartment, knocked on the door and he saw the greatest Erev Purim reunion he could imagine.
[Note: The original story was written by the Rev. Howard C. Schade, pastor of the First Reformed Church in Nyack, New York and was published in the December 1954 issue of Reader’s Digest. Cheryl Wetzstein read the original at the Library of Congress: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/dec/22/tablecloth-is-a-love-story/?page=all. Gratitude to Kitan Smole who told me of the source.]