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In my high school grad­u­at­ing class in Nor­man, Okla­homa, only three kids out of eight hun­dred were Jew­ish, and one of them claimed not to be — she said she was a pagan and that her fam­i­ly cel­e­brat­ed win­ter sol­stice with a Yule log. Her name was Alice but her brother’s name was Isaac, and both sib­lings excelled at math and the violin.

Although I was Jew­ish, I knew very lit­tle about my reli­gion. I’d nev­er heard of a minyan and the only bar mitz­vah I’d attend­ed was my brother’s. The per­son who ran the Hil­lel was not a rab­bi, but sim­ply a nice man with a strong knowl­edge of Hebrew who had moved to near­by Okla­homa City for some job or anoth­er, which had either fall­en through or sim­ply dis­ap­point­ed him. At Sukkot, a Chabad rab­bi from Tul­sa would dri­ve down to the Hil­lel park­ing lot in a pick­up truck that he’d trans­formed into a trav­el­ing sukkah. He’d tell a sto­ry to the few chil­dren who were gath­ered, and then he would give us a chance to smell the etrog, which was kept in a box lined with satin.

But I was curi­ous about Judaism. The hand­ful of Jew­ish books that came my way I read like clues. In high school, a friend of mine (who was not Jew­ish) intro­duced me to Har­ry Kemelman’s mys­tery series, which fea­tures the won­der­ful­ly named Rab­bi Small as a detec­tive. Fri­day the Rab­bi Slept Late seemed like a goofy title — and also, out of con­text, like the result of a Mad Lib. Though the sto­ries were real­is­tic, and the mys­ter­ies were often of the human-heart vari­ety, the series seemed to imply that Judaism had a con­nec­tion to the enig­mat­ic — which, using the tools of log­ic, it could also help to decode.

The book I remem­ber best, The Rab­bi and the Twen­ty-Nine Witch­es by Mar­i­lyn Hirsh, was from ear­li­er in child­hood. We must have got­ten it at a garage sale; my par­ents weren’t book-buy­ers, and even less were they buy­ers of books with words like witch­es” in the title. Witch­es, vam­pires, ghosts — all of the fan­ci­ful crea­tures that intrigued kids, they con­sid­ered nonsense.

The book con­firmed my notion that Judaism was about solv­ing rid­dles or puz­zles, and that it had a strong dose of mag­ic. The sto­ry posed what seemed a myth­ic prob­lem: a town suf­fers every month, on the full moon, from a ter­ri­fy­ing vis­i­ta­tion of witch­es. Milk sours, babies cry. Also, no one ever gets to see the full moon. Only on rainy full-moon days do the witch­es not visit.

I was curi­ous about Judaism. The hand­ful of Jew­ish books that came my way I read like clues.

The wise rab­bi is con­sult­ed, and he turns it over in his mind. If full moon, then witch­es; if no full moon, no witch­es. But if it rains … and he reach­es his aha: the witch­es can’t sur­vive the rain. He enlists the help of twen­ty-eight towns­men and gath­ers a bunch of white robes and cov­ered clay pots. On a rainy full-moon night, the men hike up to the witch­es’ cave. Before enter­ing, they change into the robes, which they’ve keep dry in the pots — although they tell the witch­es they accom­plished this by danc­ing between the rain­drops. A strange and decep­tive par­ty begins. In a final move, the men invite the witch­es to dance between the rain­drops — No one has asked me to dance in four hun­dred years!” — and the witch­es dis­solve in the rain.

Look­ing back, I notice the sweep­ing por­tray­al of men as brave and women as coquet­tish and evil. But what still moves me is that after the witch­es are defeat­ed, one of the men observes that such a ter­ri­ble thing shouldn’t hap­pen to his worst ene­mies. Even win­ning is sad, wrong. Lat­er I con­nect­ed that sen­ti­ment to the drops of wine removed from the seder cup to rep­re­sent each of the plagues suf­fered by the Egyptians.

As a col­lege fresh­man, I enrolled in a Jew­ish mys­ti­cism course. I hoped that I would final­ly reach the core of the mag­ic I’d always sensed in my reli­gion. But in fact I learned a tiny bit less than I had by the atten­tive, hope­ful read­ing of my garage-sale and high-school-library books. Try­ing to imag­ine an unknow­able whole from those books was more illu­mi­nat­ing; it more close­ly resem­bled the tra­di­tion of rea­son­ing and sto­ry­telling of which I didn’t yet under­stand I was a part.

Riv­ka Galchen is a jour­nal­ist and fic­tion writer. Her most recent work is the chil­dren’s nov­el Rat Rule 79.