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“There have been many questions and speculations about the change from a three-hour to a two-hour Church schedule,” Menachem Menashe said at the beginning of Sunday School the first week after the change was announced. Drawing on his superior understanding as someone who could read Church websites in English as well as the few materials available in Polish, he tried to set the record straight. “The hope of the brothers in America,” he explained, “is not simply to reduce the costs of heating this building during the winter, or the amount of time we spend with the scriptures. The real purpose is to increase the time we spend with our families. Or rather,” he added hastily, “the time that those of you who live with families spend with your families. But rest assured: the time you spend with your family will benefit me as well. The family, as we all know, is the fundamentalist unit of society.”
Menachem paused to adjust his glasses while he let this vital point sink in. He knew the people of Chelm could be of limited capacity, but he was nothing as a teacher if not patient. “I know it will be difficult for many of you,” he acknowledged, “to be reminded each Sunday where to go instead of following your muscles’ well-trained memory. Habit and religion are so closely connected that any change will feel a bit like blasphemy at first. That’s only natural.” He then chose to get out ahead of the curve and bear his testimony. “But as we work together, I know we can learn whatever it is God sent us here on earth to learn, no matter how little time we spend at Church. Are there any questions?”
Heshel, uncharacteristically, raised his hand first. “I don’t understand your mathematics,” he said. “On a good Sunday, we meet for four hours.”
Menachem nodded. He could see now why the topic was so close to Heshel’s heart. Though the Saints of Chelm had been told it was not strictly required to snack together in the foyer each week, they had seen no reason to alter their religion in that respect. People brought this or that to share. It was, by far, Heshel’s most sacred hour. “Only the official meetings will be affected,” Menachem reassured his worried student. “As long as your mother-in-law is baking her babka, no one would dare diminish the joy of the Sabbath.”
Tzipa spoke next, without raising her hand. “Speaking of Sister Gottstein,” she asked, “how will this change affect people who worship mostly in the foyer?”
Menachem shook his head sadly. “We should remember the lonely at all times, and will need to be especially mindful of those who lose precious time with old and treasured friends. I know many of you have faithfully skipped one or the other class each week for many years to keep the foyer busy. Sister Gottstein will, of course, be in our prayers, and it is to be hoped that some of you will still take time away from class once in a while to sit and spend an hour with her.”
President Gronam did raise his hand, but as usual did not wait to be called upon. “If I can ask a confidential question—” he began.
“You may not,” Menachem interjected. “This is the whole ward’s Sunday School class.”
As usual, though, his attempts to influence Gronam were in vain. “How will this affect the Cohens?” President Gronam asked. “They have been so happy attending on alternate weeks . . . why are they now suddenly expected to spend an extra hour together at home?”
Fortunately, Sister Cohen answered the question before Menachem had time to come up with anything offensive. “It will be easy enough for us to find an extra hour in meetings, on service projects, or simply shutting the world out by staring at our phones,” she assured the class. “We are resourceful people: there is no need for you to worry on our account.”
Dobra Peretz spoke up next. “And what is to be done for those of us whose families only seem to sit together at all when they’ve been herded onto the same pew? Is it really expected that we will somehow begin to study the gospel together at home now?”
Menachem thought he had prepared for this discussion well, but concerns were like locusts and the time had come to call for the seagulls. He referred Sister Peretz’s question to the ravenous wisdom of the class.
“You’re never together at home?” Sister Cohen said first. “That sounds like a dream. What problems would a family like that still need the gospel for?”
Belka Fischer raised her hand next. “It’s like the scripture says: blessed are those who hunger. I try to lure my children to the table with food and sprinkle a little gospel on top while their mouths are busy,” she said.
“Perhaps you could take a pew home and place it alongside your dinner table,” Zalman the Learned suggested. “Since we are home-centered and Church-supported now, surely the meetinghouse can spare a little furniture.”
Mirele Schwartz had patiently kept her hand up through all these comments for the chance to add to the advice. “Whenever I worry about whether I am doing enough,” she began, “I have found that it is always possible to do more. With enough love, work, and spending, there is always hope that the family can be brought together. For example, I have some delightful attention activities planned for the first six months of home study. Since I won’t be at the Church building anymore, there’s a much better chance that my husband and daughter will notice them and finally have their attention captured. I’d be happy to share my lesson plans with you, and help you with the welding work on the props if you’d like.”
Sister Schwartz’s comment left Menachem Menasche feeling philosophical. She and Sister Peretz might be in the same room now, but he doubted they were ever really hearing the same messages. Menachem had gotten interested in the Church because of Heshel's talk of a Repair that would bring scattered truths into some kind of balance again. But was it even possible to teach the balance of gospel truth when everyone fixated so much on whatever already spoke to their own neuroses?
To tell the truth, a question like that excited him. He couldn’t help it. As soon as he got home, he wanted to look through the upcoming lessons and see which scriptures would lend themselves to a discussion of that paradox. He imagined that most would work perfectly. After all, the scriptures were full to bursting with neurotic people who didn’t listen very well.
But then Menachem’s heart sank. Could he really justify fitting this particular paradox into one of the handful of lessons he’d teach this year? It was one thing to bring up an interesting topic when you had two dozen hours of study ahead. Under the reduced schedule, and with conferences and holidays getting in the way, he’d be lucky if he got to teach ten times. The scriptures said that when you taught and students learned by the spirit, that you rejoiced and were edified together. What was the opposite? Moping alone?
Best not to dwell on that too much. Best to return to the subject. “Are there any other questions about this change to two hours of Church?” he said.
Oskar the Miser raised his hand. “Is there any intention to make the remaining classes more worthwhile?” he asked.
Though the question came from the miser, Menachem could still feel a certain sting. He had worked hard, as a Sunday School teacher, to bring the treasures of the Torah—and of course all the sequels in the ever-growing series—into the minds and lives of his students. That was his passion. It had felt like his place.
And then? Well, Menachem had heard others speak of moments in General Conference when a servant of God seemed to speak across the millions of listeners straight to them. When they announced that a weekly Sunday School was simply not necessary, that’s how it felt for him. Whatever words had been spoken, he’d felt as if he was receiving a personal message that his efforts had fallen short. That ward members needed to be freed of the burden made by his narrow claim on their attention.
Menachem swallowed back his pride. Pride had killed the Nephites. If Menachem didn’t watch his pride carefully, it would kill him too. Someone would say he talked too much and he would die of embarrassment. “I don’t know whether there’s any point to getting better,” Menachem told Oskar. He hoped someone else had a more edifying response to the topic. “Are there any thoughts from the class?”
But his pride had killed the mood. People shifted uncomfortably in their seats. The silence stretched on, awkward almost to the point of ugliness, before Lemel raised his hand. “I also do not know how to answer Brother Oskar’s question about making these lessons more worthwhile,” he said, “because it’s so hard—unless you are a pearl collector with an eye for such things—to say what is of worth. For example, Brother Menasche tries to teach us, but not even he can speak faster than I can forget. A minute after food passes over my tongue, I have lost its taste. An hour after I was baptized, I was already dry. Is it worthwhile to teach a man whose soul is like a pocket but whose mind is like a hole?” Lemel shrugged. “Why does Brother Menashe keep coming, then? Maybe he asks us to feast on the scriptures just so we can sit down together. Maybe there’s joy in heaven every time I see your face. Or does Brother Menasche spend his evenings hunched like a beggar over his books, preparing to teach a simpleton like me, again and again—for this many or that many hours each year, what difference should it make—because what God wants is not always our increase, but sometimes simply our sacrifice?”
James Goldberg is a poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, documentary filmmaker, scholar, and translator who specializes in Mormon literature.
Artwork by David Habben.