I Keen!

A great big wooden chair sits at the front of our Shul, right next to the Ark. One of our Sephardic members donated this “Sandek” chair a few years ago. Grandfathers and respected rabbis have since held infants for their bris while sitting on that chair. It is a chair that represents joy, new life, and unbroken Jewish tradition. The chair is a magnificent work of carpentry. We keep it at the front of the Shul because it is beautiful and symbolic.

Shaina believes it is her throne.

The sandek chair resided in my office for months before we upgraded it to become a centrepiece of our Shul. The following Friday night, Shaina waltzed into Shul, took one look at the chair and marched over to claim her post. Her face had an air of “It’s about time you installed an appropriate seat for me”. Since that Shabbos, she clambers onto that chair weekly to preside over our community. Unlike in many shuls, I don’t face the congregation from a designated rabbi’s seat at the front. All of us orient equally towards Jerusalem when we pray. Except for Shaina. She beams at us from her perch, radiating an aura of royalty.

She’ll sit there for five minutes before she rises precariously on the chair’s wooden footrest, unable to get down. Her brother usually rescues her. If he’s not quick enough, one of the men will rush over to assist her down. She marches off, grinning, with nary a nod of thanks to that week’s knight in shining yarmulke.

Jewish lore describes the “Shabbos Queen” that graces our homes at sunset on Friday. In our Shul, Shaina has claimed that role.

Not only at Shul.  

Shaina’s friend and partner in mischief and wild laughter, Ari, has Down Syndrome. A few days ago, those two dressed up like a king and queen at school with capes and paper crowns. I Instagrammed a photo of the grinning imperial couple with the comment, “These two think they’re royalty”. Shaina’s fans messaged back indignantly, “Well, they are!”. As you can see, she has enablers. No wonder she doesn’t hesitate to boss around her siblings, friends, parents and teachers.

One of Shaina’s earliest phrases, back when we celebrated anything beyond a monosyllable, was “I Keen!” (“Keen”, as in monarch, not eager). You’d think she’d appreciate us calling her our “princess”. Nope. It was “Keen” from as soon as she could verbalise it.

This girl with a wobbly gait, wandering eye, flapping arms and daily medical challenges doesn’t lack self-esteem. Most of us do. We avoid the mirror, second-guess our judgement and distrust our gut. We question our right to love, recognition or happiness. Shaina is a cheerleader for acceptance of who we are. She’s a “Keen”. It’s that simple. Nobody can steal her throne because she’ll find one wherever she is. Shaina embodies the poster that once hung in my primary school principal’s office: “I know I’m somebody, ‘cuz G-d don’t make no junk”. Every Friday night, she reminds us that each of us is “Somebody”. 

Published by rabbiarishishler

Husband, father and rabbi of Chabad of Strathavon in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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