Turn Your Shoes Around

There once was a man who had given up on his life. He found no joy in his work, his family, or his community. And so he prayed to God to let him leave this world. “Show me the way to Paradise!” he implored.

God asked him, “Are you sure that’s what you want?”

The man replied, “I am sure with all my heart.”

“Very well,” replied God, who showed him the way to Paradise.

As it turned out, Paradise wasn’t far away – just a few days’ journey from his village. So late one afternoon he set out on his way. He walked until nightfall and then decided to rest beneath a leafy tree. Just before he fell asleep, it occurred to him that in the morning he might become confused and forget which was the way to Paradise and which was the way back to the village. So he left his shoes by the roadside, with the tips pointing toward Paradise so that in the morning all he’d have to do was jump into his shoes and continue on his way.

But sometimes unexpected things happen. Shoes get turned around. Was it an imp? Was it an angel? Was it just a squirrel? Who knows? But somehow the man’s shoes got turned around. In the morning he rose feeling rested from his sleep, ate from the fruit of the tree, and prepared to set off on his journey. He went to the roadway, stepped into his shoes, and began walking – unaware that he was in fact returning home.

By noon he could see a village on the next hillside, and his heart leapt. “I’ve arrived in Paradise!” he thought. He ran down into the valley and up the hill, not stopping until he had arrived at the gates of the village.

“What a beautiful place in Paradise!” he thought. My village was always so crowded, so noisy. This is different, so filled with life and joy!” He sat down on a bench in the square and witnessed the life of the village. He heard the songs the children sang at school and the sounds of the adults at work. He felt the vitality, the energy, and the love that filled the village. He sat in the square all day. In the evening he heard the joyful sounds of families reunited at home and smelled the meals that were being enjoyed by each family. And he began to feel hungry.

He thought, “Since Paradise looks so much like my village, I wonder if there is a street in Paradise like my street.” (When I told Greg this part of the story, he said, “Not the sharpest tool in the shed, eh?”) And just where he thought it might be, there it was! Just as he was wondering at this marvelous coincidence, a woman came to the door – a woman who bore a striking resemblance to his wife. The woman called his name and asked him to come in for dinner.

His heart leapt again. “They know me in Paradise! There is a place set for me here in Paradise!”

“I don’t know what’s in Paradise,” the woman responded, “but your soup is getting cold at home. Come inside!”

He entered the house. this house in Paradise was nothing like his house in the village. That house was always crowded, cluttered, filled with commotion. This place was cozy and homey and filled with life. He sat at the table and ate the best meal he’d ever had. He complimented the woman on her heavenly soup. Afterward he went up to his bedroom and entered the deepest, most restful sleep he’d ever known.

In the morning the woman who looked like his wife handed him his tools and sent him to work. At first the man was incredulous. Who ever heard of working in Paradise? But then it occurred to him that even in Paradise there were tasks to be done. And he found that this work was different from the work he’d done before. Not dull or tedious, it filled him with a sense of purpose. And that night he returned to the same warm and loving home, the same kind woman, and more of her wonderful soup.

Do you know that in all the years that followed, no one could convince the man that he hadn’t made it to Paradise! Every one of his days from then on was filled with more wonder, more purpose, more joy, and more life than the day before.

Transcribed from Capturing the Moon: Classic and Modern Jewish Tales, by Rabbi Edward Feinstein.

**

I have known Harold Grinspoon and Diane Troderman since I was in secondary school. Close friends with my parents since the mid-80s, they are major forces of change, vision, and philanthropy in the Jewish community here and abroad. Many twists and turns in our paths later, my middle sister serves as the Executive Director of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation. This past week, this strand of my life wove its way into a beautiful experience. I want to share a little of it here.

Purely due to coincidence, the annual CAJE Conference (the Coalition for the Advancement for Jewish Education) just took place in Burlington on the UVM campus (where I was the Hillel director for the first few years we lived in Vermont). This meant my sister would be in town for 24 hours. She asked me if I would speak to the conference attendees about the PJ Library, the latest initiative to grow out of the Grinspoon Foundation, from the perspective of being a parent of young children. Of course, I said yes.

The program is modeled loosely on Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. Each month, two Jewish-themed children’s books appear in our mailbox, one addressed to Pearl and one to Aviva. A year or so after signing up, our bookshelves are literally filled with beautiful books we never would have read otherwise.

At the CAJE Plenary on Tuesday night, Diane shared a “magical moment” with an audience of about 1,500 Jewish educators. She thanked them for their work and said a few words about the PJ Library. Then she introduced me, laughingly acknowledging the nepotism involved with my speaking there. I got on the stage of the Ira Allen Chapel at UVM, wearing my “PJ Parent” hat. I had been given about 30 seconds to speak – and though I knew my four paragraphs would exceed the allotted time, I tried not to rush through my remarks.

I spoke about the ways in which reading these books sparks questions, conversations, and connections with our kids – and between me and Greg (who is not Jewish, by the way) – that wouldn’t otherwise happen. I spoke about the Jewish concepts, values, traditions, stories and images that infuse our everyday lives so organically because of this program. I thanked Diane and Harold and then stepped off the stage (after fumbling a bit with the mic- oh well). When I sat down, I asked my sister how it went. “You were great,” she whispered, “if a little nepotistic.”

“What? Narcissistic?!” Horrified that I might have come across this way, I searched back on my words for the self-absorbed part. “No, Jena, not narcissistic. Nepotistic!”

Talk about hearing things through our own distortions. We had a good laugh about it later.

Last night, I emailed a friend about this experience. Today, she emailed me, saying that something in her lit up when she pictured me speaking to so many people. “I think you will do it again, and again, and again, that maybe this is part of what you are here to do,” she wrote. Hmm… I do have to admit, something in me lights up too, to make a connection with people through language in this way.

(As an aside: if you are interested in signing up – it is FREE – check out the PJ website to see if you live in a participating community, or send me an email and I’ll help you figure it out.)

The rest of the evening was a combination of the soulful music of Craig Taubman and stirring storytelling by Rabbi Feinstein, including the one about the shoes. There I was, sitting in the front row of this chapel, surrounded by Jews. On my right was Diane Troderman, the very woman who advised me to “follow my bliss” when I was 22 and struggling to find my way in this world (I soon thereafter quit my job in NYC – and met Greg three weeks later). On my left, my sister and one of my soul sisters, Deb. For all the fraught-ness of my Jewish path, this was one of those times when I felt totally filled up by it all.

I wish I could better capture the music and stories here. But this one story, this one about the shoes, captured for me in its simplicity the essence of what it is to wake up to life: Paradise must be right here. The practical is the spiritual, and vice versa. If only we could see through new eyes.

8 thoughts on “Turn Your Shoes Around

  1. Karen Maezen Miller says:

    I will tell you what I have told others about that word paradise, and the concept we’ve made of it. When I moved into this garden paradise of my current home and began reading about the history of Japanese gardens, which is the history of Chinese gardens, which is the history of all Old World gardens, I found a reference to the origin of the word “paradise” and the first practice of a cultivated garden. The word is from Old Persian, and referred to a walled area outside the home where fruit trees and other ornamental plants were cultivated. I instantly realized that paradise is always your own backyard.

    PS Did you know I used that photo on a post a while back? Part of the series called “Once Paradise.”

    Like

  2. Mika says:

    That’s creepy about the shoe picture…All things connected.

    Jena this was beautiful and inspiring, like you say , in its simplicity.

    Do you know if the PJ library has a branch in Canada?

    Like

  3. Phyllis Sommer says:

    that’s one of my favorite stories to tell. i love it.

    someday i will go to caje…

    let’s talk about doing this pj library thing in my community… phylliss at amshalom.com

    Like

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