My Nana Esther, my grandmother on my father’s side, came to America from the old country, Russia, when she was a child. She was a small round woman with soft curves and a warm smile. She always wore a neat gray bun, had a beautiful face and she always looked perfect. She loved to tell me Russian folk tales while I was in her arms or nestled in bed.
She left me with indelible lessons about unconditional love and kindness, as well as the following story, which has stayed with me throughout my life.
I vividly remember the tale she told of the poor, hungry woman who knocks on the door of a stranger to plead for a piece of bread and a cup of water. The woman who lives in the house opens the door and turns the stranger away. After the “beggar” leaves, the woman who turned her away opens her mouth to speak and frogs come out of her mouth.
The beggar woman (who I always felt was an angel in disguise) moves on to the next house – where she is turned away again, this time by an angry man who slams the door in her face. When the man turns to his wife to report the incident, snakes fall out of his mouth.
The angel in beggar’s clothing is sad and weary, but she walks to the next house. It is cold now, and getting dark. When she knocks, the door is answered by a woman with a warm smile. When she asks for bread, the woman invites her inside to sit at the table with her and her family. She offers her bread and water and a hot meal. The beggar woman stays a little while, but soon it is time for her to move on. She thanks the family for their kindness, and slips out the door. As soon as she is gone, the woman and her husband begin to talk, and gold and pearls fall out of their mouths.
Amazed, they open the door to rush after the woman. There is no trace of her, but the gold and pearls continue to appear – more than enough to repay them for the food they shared with their visitor.
That story and my own Nana’s kindness and love are embedded in my brain and heart. When she spoke to me, it was as though gold and pearls came out of her mouth. My grandmother’s message was clear: Perform mitzvot whenever you can. Be loving and kind-hearted. Treat people kindly. Speak pearls of wisdom and do kind deeds wherever you can because kindness comes back to you. Meanness and bitterness only bring more of the same.
PATRICIA RASKIN is an award-winning producer and host of “The Patricia Raskin Show” on Saturday at 4 p.m. on WPRO AM 630/99.7 FM. She is a board member at Temple Emanu-El.