February has been designated as JDAIM, the Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. I have long mused how traditional Jewish folk tales and folk songs are rich with messages about inclusion, tolerance and refraining from judgement of another. Clearly our ancestors knew that there was room for all kinds of people in any community. This is one of my favorite old stories. It is here both in text and in a recording. The recording includes a special treat that cannot be conveyed in the written piece!
Long ago, in a small shtetl in what is now Ukraine, where the famous Rabbi, the Ba’al Shem Tov lived, also lived a family of scholars. The father of the family, Moshe, was the son and grandson of very respected Rabbis, and he himself was a well-respected teacher of Torah and Talmud. And the mother, Rachel, was the daughter and granddaughter of very respected Rabbis. Though many women of her time did not know how to read Hebrew or study the Torah, Rachel did, and she would read and study along with her husband at home. Their home was always full of joy, full of learning, full of conversation, full of exploration, full of consideration of life and how best to live it.
Moshe and Rachel were blessed with five sons, and together they taught their sons the treasures of Torah. When their eldest, Meir, was six years old, it was time to go to Cheder, to learn to read and write. He said goodbye to his parents and his younger brothers, and he excitedly went off to school, eager to learn. It was obvious right from the first day that he too would be a brilliant scholar. He was a quick learner, and soon was able to assist the Rabbi in teaching the other boys.
Next came time for the second son, Menachem, to join his older brother in Cheder. He too said goodbye to his parents and younger brothers, and happily joined his older brother in Cheder. Sure enough, just as everyone expected, he was just as sharp a student as his older brother and his parents and grandparents and great grandparents.
Soon, the third son, Shmuel, was old enough to join his brothers in the Cheder. Shmuel was a wonderful, sweet boy. But his parents had a suspicion that he would not have the same experience in Cheder that his older brothers did. And sure enough, as obvious as it had been that Meir and Menachem were going to grow to be brilliant scholars, it was quickly clear that Shmuel would not. He wasn’t like his brothers: he couldn’t sit, he couldn’t learn his letters, he didn’t seem to be paying attention the way the other boys did, and he often would get up and walk over to the window, staring longingly outside at the trees and the fields and the clouds.
So Moshe and Rachel and the Cheder’s teacher realized that Cheder was not the place for Shmuel to learn and thrive and grow. They didn’t know what to do, because all of the boys of the shtetl went to Cheder, and everyone in their family had always gone to Cheder. But the solution came clear very quickly: early in the morning, every day, the shtetl shepherd would come by to collect the community’s sheep and goats and cattle to take them out to the meadows and pastures around the village for the day, and then bring them back every evening. Though Moshe and Rachel had never noticed before, Shmuel had a special friendship with the shepherd, and used to rise early every morning just to greet the man, and walk with him a bit. Moshe and Rachel asked the shepherd if Shmuel could be his apprentice, and the shepherd was thrilled to have the young boy’s company and help. And so , unlike his brothers and his cousins and everyone else in his family, Shmuel did not go to Cheder. Instead, he spent every day in the fields and meadows learning how to be a shepherd. Shmuel was thrilled. He loved the animals, he loved being outdoors, he loved being with the shepherd, and he loved learning how to play the flute, which the shepherd taught him as they sat for many hours every day with the flocks of animals. Shmuel always felt that he was praying as he played his flute.
In time, the two youngest brothers, Simcha and Yitzchak, were also old enough to go to Cheder, and they joined their oldest brothers, and showed that they too would soon be star scholars. Moshe and Rachel were proud of all of their sons in Cheder, and of course loved Shmuel dearly, but worried about him in a way that they did not worry about the other four boys.
As each of the boys grew, they reached Bar Mitzvah age, and Meir, Menachem, simcha and Yitzchak all led the prayers of the congregation on their respective Bar Mitzvahs beautifully. Shmuel did not, but instead quietly celebrated his Bar Mitzvah playing his flute in the fields. For him, playing the flute was praying. He always felt that he was talking with God as he played his quiet tunes.
When Shmuel was about fourteen, the old shepherd decided that it was time for him to stop going to the fields with the flocks, and Shmuel became the official shepherd for the village. It was bitter-sweet of course for Moshe and Rachel, they were proud of their son, but it was never what they would have dreamed for one of their children.
Now, all of these years, there were two days every year when Shmuel would not take the flocks to the fields, on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. On th.ose days, he would join his grandfathers, his father and his brothers in the synagogue, where everyone would gather to join the Baal Shem Tov in the holiday prayers. Every year Shmuel sat quietly, unable to speak the words of the prayers, unable to read. He loved the melodies of the community praying around him, but as the years passed, he felt sad that he couldn’t join in.
One year on Rosh HaShanah, Shmuel was sitting with his family as usual, in the midst of the prayers, and he happened to look up at the Baal Shem Tov. As the prayers were being sung all around him, Shmuel again longed to join in. He noticed that the Baal Shem Tov seemed to look concerned. Shmuel sat and wondered what he could do to add his voice to the prayers of the community. His hand went to his flute in his pocket, and at once it was obvious how he could join in. He pulled out his flute and began to play a beautiful melody that wove harmoniously with the prayers of the congregation. He played with all of his heart and all of his soul, so happy to finally have found a way to participate in the community.
But the community stopped their praying, and a sound of shock and horror went through the room. Suddenly, men were shouting at Shmuel to stop, shouting at Moshe, Shmuel’s father to stop him, shouting at the Baal Shem Tov to stop him. Moshe rose to reach out and grab Shmuel’s flute, but the Baal Shem Tov reached them first, and, putting his hands on both Moshe and Shmuel’s shoulders, the Baal Shem Tov said, “Finally, our prayers will truly reach Heaven as a full community, because Shmuel has joined us with his pure love, joy and devotion. We needed his voice in order for God to hear all of us. This is how he prays, and though it is different than our prayers, it is wonderful.”
The rest of the congregation bowed their heads, acknowledged their mistake, breathed deeply to accept this new idea, and after a few minutes, returned to their prayers, letting their melodies intertwine with Shmuel’s flute.
Joanie Calem is an autism parent, teacher, songwriter, performer and disability awareness advocate. Since her first year of teaching in 1984, Joanie always had students with diverse learning styles, and learned to adjust her teaching in order to meet students where they are, building from their strengths and helping them learn to strategize their perceived weaknesses. Wearing the dual hat of both teacher and parent of a child with special needs, Joanie has extensive learning in the field of Sensory Processing Disorder. For the past four years she has been leading “concert-conversations” for teachers, parents and communities, sharing original songs as starting points for discussions on how to build truly inclusive communities that allow room for the increasing “neurodiversity” in our world. These sessions focus on understanding how Sensory Processing Disorder presents in classrooms, community settings and other public spaces, and exploring simple strategies that can be put in place to make our environment more sensory friendly for those that struggle with sensory overload.