Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Naomi on My Mind

Sit still, my daughter, until you know how the matter will fall; for the man will not rest, until he has finished the thing this day. Naomi, Book of Ruth 3:18.

When I read Naomi’s words to her daughter-in-law Ruth during a long night of learning at Chabad of Beijing, it was impossible to miss the implications to my own upcoming experience. In the Book of Ruth, the titular character’s mother-in-law is generally placed to the side as commentators draw our attention to Ruth and her descendent David. I am convinced such readings miss the point of the text, drawing a bead on the daughter-in-law when it is Naomi who is actually the ancestor of the royal Davidic line that the book is designed to highlight. I suggest you reread the Book of Ruth for further details (and contact me if you dis/agree). My concern rests with another Naomi, with the lady who besides myself and my parents is most responsible for my returning to Beijing to start a two month Chinese language study program the day after the Jewish holiday of Shavout.

It is the comments that seem to speak directly to your thoughts, bypassing the eyes and ears, that are the best sign of authentic communication. One of the Chinese language teachers on the wintertime program I was attending this past January in Beijing caught me with such a comment when she asked me to provide her with an English name. Next to crafting the windows to a newborn’s soul (science aside, I am convinced everyone’s eyes are a personal gift from God), the name parents bestow on their child is certainly the most fundamental of gifts. And so choosing the right name for my teacher was not the simplest of tasks.

Or at least it would not have been if not for the sequence of events that occurred over the following week. On Sunday the girl I had been pining for from across the world splintered my heart when she coolly informed me time had passed me by and we had best leave aside the future and forget about the past. A few days later I heard that an incredible friend had fallen to his death while hiking near Petra. The two events combined to shatter my confidence in the pervasive ability to communicate, no matter the distance in time or place. My friend was torn from my life the second he lost his own. And while nowhere near as grim, the wound from earlier in the week seemed to be of equal permanence.

It was in this cloud of despair that I returned to my teacher at the end of the week, having seemingly failed in my task to find her a suitable English name. I am not sure to this day if she quite understood why my mind was elsewhere. But she understood that I needed to work some things out that went far beyond grammar points and new vocabulary. We spoke for nearly two hours that night, about what matters, and why, and what to do when some of the answers you thought you had finally figured out to the first two questions are destroyed before your eyes.

I left our conversation with at least one answer. There was only one name that seemed appropriate for my teacher, only one name that could capture the complex questions she had allowed me to confront while also reminding me that my path forward remained clear. So the next time we met, I named her Naomi. We spoke briefly about the character and her story from the Book of Ruth, none of which she had any familiarity with. I described how Naomi confronts readers with unanswerable questions while inspiring her daughter-in-law—and to share the author’s hope, also her descendents on the throne of David—to cling to her dreams and work toward making them a reality. We parted with the promise that I would share further thoughts on why I had chosen the name Naomi when the opportunity next presented itself.

Naomi contacted me a few hours before Shavout. She would not be returning to the Chinese language program this summer. I would be on my own but she wished me luck and urged me to keep pressing forward even on the longest summer days. And so I did, and so I am.


Shavout at Chabad of Beijing was wonderful. I arrived with no place to stay the night and nothing but the hope that their goodwill and my vaguely familiar face might earn me a place to spend the night and the holiday. Both hopes were fulfilled. I also met two fascinating individuals over the prayers and meals all held in the Chabad House. One was an Israeli a half dozen years my senior. The other an American girl straight out of modern orthodox Jewry central casting (SKA, Brovenders, Long Island, etc). Both are studying Chinese in Beijing, and both provide compelling parallels to my own experience that perhaps can be explored in a future post. And finally, I also reencountered Amy Winehouse’s cousin, except when I came for Shabbat in late December I had confused the Chabad rabbi with Santa Claus and this time I only had to ponder the revelation of his close kinship with one of British Jewry’s most public personas. It was a lot to ponder over the holiday—perhaps it was for the best that it stretched on an interminable two days and left off with me on the doorstep of two long months of Chinese study in western Beijing.

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