Chapter 1: A Mysterious Package
1 A MYSTERIOUS PACKAGE
The box was addressed to Ms. Naomi Teitelbaum, which made Naomi feel very grown-up. It came in the same batch of mail as a check for thirty-six dollars from Naomi’s aunt Rachel, who was in Prague for the winter on a research trip, and a card from Naomi’s great-uncle Irving, who was too old to fly from Florida to California by himself. Naomi’s Bat Mitzvah was three weeks away, and the mail was practically all Bat Mitzvah related: gifts, late RSVPs, decorations for the party. It wasn’t that strange, then, that the box came addressed to Naomi. It was a little strange that there was no return address indicating who the box was from, but that happened from time to time when her older relatives sent things. Naomi stared at the dark, reddish-brown wrapping paper while her mom sorted through the rest of the boring mail.
“Can I open it now?” she asked.
“Hmm?” Her mom looked up and raised an eyebrow. “Not right now. Whatever it is will keep until after your lesson with the rabbi.” She checked her watch and frowned. “Speaking of which, why aren’t you ready to go?”
“I’m ready!” Naomi lifted her foot up over the counter so her mom could see that she was wearing shoes. “I’m so ready. I’m so super-duper ready, I could open this package right now and not even be late!”
“Where are your headphones?”
Naomi squinted. “I don’t need headphones to meet with Rabbi Levinson.”
Mom squinted right back. “You need your headphones if you’re going to practice your Torah portion in the car.”
Naomi groaned. “This is an injustice.”
“Don’t try that with me, Naomi Sarah. I’ve been dealing in fancy words longer than you’ve been alive.”
“Yeah, but you work for The Establishment.”
Mom didn’t dignify that with a response. She sent a meaningful look at Naomi’s Bat Mitzvah binder. “Ugh, Mom.” Naomi threw herself sideways over the counter. “I practiced my prayers already today, and Mama said I only had to do that.”
Her mom’s other eyebrow rose to meet the first one, high on her forehead. She put the mail down, her shiny, white-tipped nails clicking against the counter. “Is that so?” Naomi nodded quickly. “Hmm,” her mom said. “So if I call your mama right now, she’ll back you up?”
“We-ell, she’ll definitely back me up that I did my prayers,” Naomi told her.
“That, young lady, is not the same thing.”
Naomi scowled and stomped over to the couch. She knew she had been defeated, but she wasn’t going down without a fight. “I know my Torah portion, Mom,” she whined, trying to tug her headphones out from where they had tangled in the couch cushions. They were caught on something, and she had to give them a good hard yank to try to get them loose. “Cantor Debbie said I was just about ready.”
“?‘Just about’ isn’t the same as ‘completely,’?” Mom said. She was always saying things like that. Naomi’s mom was an assistant district attorney for Los Angeles County and a total perfectionist. Naomi and her older sister, Deena, were always getting lectures about paying attention to details and keeping track of their work. Naomi’s messy backpack made her mom sigh more times a day than anything Deena ever did.
“Fine,” Naomi said. Her headphones came free after another sharp tug, and she stomped her way back over to the counter to get her phone. “Now I’m ready.”
Her mom’s phone started ringing just then, and she waved Naomi off toward the front door. As she gathered her purse and her cardigan with one hand, she lifted the phone to her ear with the other and said in her professional lawyer voice, “Rebecca Teitelbaum.”
“Rebecca Teitelbaum,” Naomi mimicked, trying to make her voice sound like her mom’s. It was hard—she could never get her vowels to sound round enough. Naomi’s mama didn’t have a different phone voice; she just used her normal voice all the time. Though Naomi supposed that her mama didn’t need a special voice to be a yoga instructor. She didn’t even answer the phone like Mom did, with her whole name: Miriam Teitelbaum. She usually just said, Hello, or, if it was Naomi or Deena calling, How did you get this number? That had stopped being funny after the fourth or fifth time she did it, but she still answered the phone that way, almost every time. Deena was seventeen now and did a lot of eye-rolling at their mama.
Naomi climbed into the back seat of the car with her Bat Mitzvah binder and hit play on her phone, ignoring Deena, who slid into the front seat and made a face at her. Naomi guessed Mom was dropping Deena off at the mall or something. She waved her phone at her sister to show she was listening to her recording and couldn’t talk to Deena about whatever random pop star she was obsessed with that day.
Cantor Debbie’s voice chanted the Hebrew words while Naomi followed along quietly, trying not to disturb her mom on the phone. At the end of the recording, Cantor Debbie explained what the Torah portion meant and which words were special. Naomi had listened to the recording so many times that she could practically recite the explanation along with Cantor Debbie. “And when God calls out to Moses from the burning bush, Moses responds ‘hineni,’ here I am. This is more than just saying that he’s physically there. When Moses says ‘hineni,’ he is saying that he is present before God and committed to listening and taking on the duties that he is asked to,” Naomi recited along with the recording. “Whatever that means.” She threw her arm across her eyes and sighed, long and pained, forgetting for a minute that she was trying to be quiet. In the driver’s seat, her mom snapped her fingers. Universal mom-speak for, Be quiet. I’m on the phone. Deena turned around in the passenger seat and snapped her fingers too, just to be obnoxious. Naomi bared her teeth at her.
“Do your work!” Deena hissed.
“Mind your business!” Naomi growled back.
Mom snapped her fingers again, and both of them rolled their eyes. Deena turned back around. Naomi pulled her feet up on the car seat and watched the street signs pass by as Cantor Debbie chanted her way through the prayers for after-the-Torah portion.
The car pulled up to the temple. Naomi swung the door open as quietly as she could so Mom wouldn’t shush her again, blew her a kiss, stuck her tongue out at her sister, and hurried inside. Mom had dropped her at the side entrance, which led right to Rabbi Levinson’s office. He was at his desk, the office door wide open and the giant beanbag chair that covered the half of Rabbi Levinson’s office that wasn’t behind his desk—a gift from the class a year ahead of Deena—freshly vacuumed and waiting for his next student. He looked up and waved as Naomi scooched her way inside and clambered up onto the beanbag.
“How are you today, Naomi?” Rabbi Levinson asked.
Naomi shrugged. “Fine. I like your yarmulke.”
Rabbi Levinson patted the blue and green tie-dyed yarmulke that sat perched on his hair and smiled. It made him look very young. Well, not young young, but much younger than Naomi’s moms, at least. Rabbi Levinson was in that puzzling grown-up age bracket that Naomi’s best friend Becca Reznik liked to call “preparental” in the same slightly condescending tone Mrs. Reznik said “prepubescent.”
Naomi had known the rabbi since she was in kindergarten, and he had seemed old and wise when she was five, but now that she was about to be thirteen and was allowed to hear some of the gossip, she often heard her moms describe the rabbi to their friends as “Dave—you know, the cute young rabbi at Beth Torah,” which was weird and gross. She also knew that Deena and all her friends had crushes on him, which was weirder and grosser. Rabbi Levinson wasn’t revolting, Naomi figured, eyeing him critically across the desk as he pulled out whatever book they would be discussing that day and his copy of Naomi’s Bat Mitzvah speech. His hair was stylish and fluffy under his colorful yarmulke, and his glasses were cool and trendy without being hipster. He was tall and smiley, and Naomi knew he worked out because she saw him running by their house once in a while, but he was old.
Anyway, you couldn’t have a crush on a rabbi. Naomi’s Hebrew school teacher had explained that Judaism didn’t really approach sin the same way other religions did, but Naomi was reasonably sure that it was probably considered a sin to have a crush on a rabbi. If it wouldn’t be completely mortifying, she’d ask Cantor Debbie about it. As it was, Naomi just fidgeted as Rabbi Levinson held out his hand for her Bat Mitzvah binder.
She passed it over. “I’ve been working on my speech.”
The rabbi nodded encouragingly. “That’s good! What kind of stuff have you been thinking about?”
Naomi drummed her fingers on the desk. “Well, Cantor Debbie says that the story is about taking responsibility.”
“But Moses didn’t really cause any of the stuff that happened, right? He was just… born at the wrong time and things got put on him.”
“Sure,” the rabbi said again. He never disagreed with his students, Naomi had learned. He just asked gentle questions until they figured out what he was aiming for.
“So, then, why is it Moses’s responsibility to go free the slaves? Just because God asked him to? That doesn’t seem fair.”
“What do you think would be fair?”
“I don’t know! Couldn’t God have just taken care of it?”
Rabbi Levinson nodded. “Maybe. So why do you think he asked Moses?”
“That’s what I’m asking you!” Naomi exclaimed. That got her a laugh.
“No, that’s what I’m asking you,” said Rabbi Levinson.
Naomi huffed. “Maybe God was just lazy.”
“Sorry,” she muttered. She tapped her fingers on the desk again and took a candy from the bowl on the rabbi’s desk. The rabbi let her think, watching her fidget with a small smile. Finally, Naomi tucked the candy into her cheek and frowned, trying to remember all the discussions she’d had with the rabbi and Cantor Debbie over the last few months. “Maybe because slavery is a problem between humans, and it wouldn’t be fair or helpful if God just fixed it, because no one would actually learn anything. Like the Pharaoh would never see that he had been wrong and that there were consequences for that.”
“What an excellent point!” Rabbi Levinson said. “So, by using Moses as his messenger, God is helping his people learn to face their own mistakes and fix the things that are wrong, instead of relying only on miracles.”
“But they did rely on miracles!” Naomi protested. “At the end, Pharaoh changed his mind and they had to part the sea! And anyway, Pharaoh only let them go in the first place because of the plagues.”
Rabbi Levinson leaned his elbows on the desk. “Hmm. That’s true. So why did God even bother trying to get Moses to solve it?”
“Well, you have to try!”
Rabbi Levinson smiled, and Naomi groaned. “All right, fine,” she said. “But still, why Moses?”
“He’d already left!”
“Did he feel good about the way he left?”
“So maybe Moses felt he had to try, too.” The rabbi let her take another candy, then pulled the bowl out of her reach. “I don’t want your moms calling me about you coming home with a sugar high,” he joked. Then he went on. “What Cantor Debbie told you about taking responsibility is true. The word ‘hineni’ shows up a few times in the Torah, usually when people are being called to do things that seem unfair, or at least very, very difficult. Did Cantor Debbie tell you what ‘hineni’ means?”
“It means ‘here I am,’?” Naomi told him.
“Here I am,” Rabbi Levinson echoed. “God calls to Moses, and Moses shows up. He’s ready. He doesn’t say, ‘Who’s going to deal with this?’ He says, ‘I’m here. I’ll deal with it.’?”
Naomi nodded, and the rabbi nodded back. “Now, did you read the passage I sent you? I think you’re going to find it really interesting.”
Naomi’s mom picked her up—without Deena this time—and took her home. She was on another call, so Naomi fidgeted in silence the whole way, thinking a little about what the rabbi had told her about her Torah portion but mostly thinking about opening her present. Mom nodded when Naomi pointed to it when they got home, and Naomi raced to drop her shoes in the rack by the door, then skidded on her sock feet over to the counter. She dumped her Bat Mitzvah binder, grabbed the box and the sparkly pink envelope that was probably from her cousin Laney, blew a kiss at her distracted mom, and ran down the hall to her room. She video-called her other best friend, Eitan, as soon as she was in there, propping the phone up on her pillow so he could see her sitting cross-legged on her bed.
Eitan’s enthusiastic round face appeared on-screen almost immediately. “Nae-Nae! My best friend in the whole world who also has excellent timing! I just got home from my lesson with Cantor Debbie. What are you doing?”
“Ugh,” Naomi said, falling sideways dramatically. “I just got home from my meeting with the rabbi. Guess we just missed each other at temple. And my mom made me practice my prayers in the car. It’s like having homework.”
Eitan clicked his tongue sympathetically. “Homework the very first day after school lets out. It’s what we get for having winter birthdays. No winter break when there’s a Bar Mitzvah on the horizon. Or a Bat Mitzvah,” he added at Naomi’s scowl. She nodded, satisfied. She’d been reminding Eitan a lot recently about the dangers of defaulting to male language. It helped that his mom backed Naomi up whenever she overheard them. He flopped down onto his couch, and his picture on the phone shook for a moment. “But think of the presents,” he said wistfully.
“And the party!” Naomi added. “And the food!”
“And the presents!” Eitan said again. “You really can’t forget the presents.”
“Mama would say we’re disregarding the religious and communal significance of the ceremony.” Naomi sighed. In fact, her mama had said that—many times. Mama talked a lot about “raising them to be citizens of the world.”
“Your mama has a lot of things to say about the rampant consumerism of the youth,” Eitan said dolefully, “but I just want enough Bar Mitzvah money to pay for space camp.”
“They’re only going to give you bonds that your parents can put into college savings,” Naomi reminded him. “And, anyway, we’re buying into the capitalist lies that we could be rich if we save up enough,” she told him, parroting her mama’s favorite news show host.
“You live in a McMansion in the Valley, Nae,” Eitan reminded her. Naomi shrugged. She didn’t control where she lived. Eitan rolled his eyes. “Whatever. I got thirty-six dollars from Uncle Jeff today. That’s a start.”
“Oh, me too! From Aunt Rachel.”
“Double chai,” they chorused, with little enough sarcasm that neither of their respective parents would scold them for it.
“What happened to scorning capitalist values?” Eitan joked.
“I still have to live in a society, Eitan,” Naomi said. “Anyway, that’s why I called you! Presents! There’s a new mystery present!”
Eitan gave an exaggerated sigh. “Old people on the internet.”
“I know, right?” Naomi snorted. “Mom said I could open it. Want to help me guess who it’s from?”
“You know I do.” Eitan leaned close to the phone, and Naomi giggled at his distorted picture. “Shut up,” he said. “I need to see.”
“You could just come over,” she reminded him.
“Will you wait for me to open it?”
“Then I’m going to stay right here, thank you very much.” He did lean back far enough that his nose stopped looking squished against the camera, though. “Open it, Nae.”
Naomi tore the reddish-brown paper off the package to reveal a perfectly white, square box. It wasn’t the usual flimsy cardboard. Naomi wasn’t entirely sure what it was made of. She lifted it to show Eitan, who didn’t know what it was, either. “But what’s in the box?” he demanded.
“I’m getting there!” It took her a moment to find the seam of the lid, but when she did, it came off fairly easily in her hands. She pushed aside the soft packing paper until her fingers brushed against something hard and rough. Her hand closed around it, and she lifted the item free. “Huh.”
On-screen, Eitan was squinting at it. “It’s a… figurine?”
“I’m not sure.” Naomi turned the little clay figure around in her hands. It was the same reddish-brown color as the wrapping paper. It looked like someone had carved a tiny man out of clay. Its features were rough, just enough detail to see that it did have eyes and a mouth—little scoops out of the clay of its face that somehow still gave the impression of delicate work. It looked almost human but not close enough to be uncanny. She held it up and wiggled it at Eitan. “What a weird gift.”
“Is there a note?”
Naomi dug through the box again until she found the tightly rolled scroll nestled in the tissue paper. A silver wax seal held it closed, and Naomi had to dig her nails into it until it broke. Across the top, in neat typewriter text, it said plainly: For Naomi. To help. Then there was some Hebrew that Naomi couldn’t quite parse. It was the loopy, cursive kind with no vowels. She could barely pick out any of the letters. Underneath that, almost as incomprehensible with how embellished the script was, were the words I Create as I Speak. Below that was a blank line for a signature. There was a thin, perforated section along the bottom that had the same Hebrew words and instructions that read: Place smaller scroll in Golem’s head after completing signature of ownership.
There was nothing else.