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My sister’s evolution into Orthodox Judaism was gradual. First she refused to eat hamburgers in non-kosher restaurants; next, no turning on lights on the Sabbath. From there, she was just a hop, skip, and a wig away from marrying a man she met at the college Hillel organization. We’re the kind of sisters who make other people say, “You two are sisters?”
The question doesn’t arise often. We grew up in Chicago. I moved to New York. Janis has lived in Massachusetts all of her adult life. She recently spent a day with me while she was between buses while heading home from a wedding in Monsey, New York.
Over lunch in a kosher restaurant, I told her about my neighborhood and how Riverside Park is a popular place for dead bodies to turn up on Law & Order.
“I don’t watch Law & Order,” she said.
“You’re kidding?” I didn’t think it was possible to avoid Law & Order.
“I like Star Trek.”
Who knew my sister was a Trekkie?
I asked Janis about her friends. I realized that I didn’t know anything about them.
“My best friends?” She chewed on her lip, an old childhood habit. “My husband,” she said. “My children.” She smiled at me. “And you.”
But I hardly see you, I wanted to say. We only talk a handful of times a year. But then I remembered that my sister knows how to maintain a strong emotional connection even without a physical presence.
She talked about the babies she works with as an occupational therapist. She talked about her children. We ordered green tea and sipped it from Chinese cups. We each insisted on paying the check, then agreed to split it.
After lunch, we walked to the Hayden Planetarium. Sitting side by side in the dark, crouched down in our seats, our necks resting on the backs of our chairs, we stared up at the dome and its computer-generated universe.
“Nice starry night,” I said.
“How can anyone see this and not believe in God?” Janis said in a soft, reverent whisper.
I would have asked, “What about quantum physics or existential random chaos?” But I envied her certainty, her lack of angst. Neil deGrasse Tyson narrated the show, pointing out constellations and black holes. “I hate all of this ‘vast universe,’ ‘speck of dust in time’ talk,” I said. “It makes me feel finite.”
“You aren’t finite,” Janis said, her voice free of any doubt.
We watched a pretend doomsday asteroid on a collision course with Earth.
I said, “This is why I never come here.”
The lights came up. Janis checked her watch. “It’s late,” she said. “I want to get to the bus station in plenty of time.”
Back in my apartment, I waited for her while she rearranged the few items in her suitcase: her dress from the wedding, some books for the bus. I asked if she’d like another cup of tea before she left, but she didn’t want to take the time; what if traffic to the bus station was bad?
I went downstairs with her to find a cab. She looked sweet and vulnerable with her scarf tied beneath her chin, pulling her little overnight bag on wheels. I stepped into the street and waved for a taxi. When one pulled up, she opened the door and slid her luggage across the seat, then turned to me. “Relax,” she said. “That doomsday asteroid isn’t happening anytime soon.”
She was still my big sister, reassuring me, saying, “Don’t be scared” while holding her arms open for a hug. “I’d like to come back,” she said. “Soon.”
I hugged her and said, “I’d like that,” realizing how much I meant it.
She stepped into the cab, and as she closed the door I heard her say, “God willing.”
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