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My parents' house is filled with packing boxes.


No, they haven't died; they are only moving. To a newer, smaller home -- one without sagging floors, aging bathrooms and room for five children.


I stand in the kitchen, wrapping things I haven't seen in years but instantly remember: a milky-pink cake platter, the double vegetable dish, a pair of Sabbath candle sticks.

And then I see the spice box. Its metal body is tarnished, its tin flag bent, but when I tilt back the top on its tiny hinge, an aging ball of nutmeg and a broken cinnamon stick still send out the faintest of odors.


The spice box isn't an heirloom. It didn't come over with any ancestor on any ship. My older sister bought it at the Temple gift shop during her "Jewish roots" phase. It's part of Havdalah, a Saturday evening ritual marking the end of Sabbath -- a ritual our family rarely observed.


Friday nights, however, were big at our house. Dinner featured regulation-sized candles, challah and wine, plus chicken and Welch's grape juice. We said hello to the Sabbath, but not apparently, good-bye.


As a fully-trained Jewish kid, I should have fond memories of those dinners. But I don't. Friday nights were a tense time, with my father donning the role of patriarch. His grandiose delivery annoyed me, along with his questions that weren't really questions at all.


"Alison, will you honor us by blessing the candles? Daniel, will you say the brucha over the wine?" My brother and sister were Danny and Aly the rest of the week. How did they suddenly turn into "Daniel" and "Alison"?


I liked the burning candles though. Liked to play with the soft wax and see my fingerprints in it. But 25 years later I still hear my father's irritated tone: "Don't play with the Sabbath candles!" So the candlesticks and Kiddish cup hold no special meaning, merely symbols of a holiday whose rules we never kept.


The spice box, though, was different. The spice box I transformed into something else.

It was the year I turned eleven; the year I began my own religion. I'd just found out that I couldn't touch the Torah because women -- like shellfish and pigs -- were unclean. Because we had periods. Even though I hadn't gotten mine yet.


So, in the tiny mud room off my bedroom, which smelled of old carpet and greasy bicycle parts, I held my own services. Wearing my bathrobe like a high priest, I carried in my mother's old jewelry box. It held my treasures -- polished rocks, a sand dollar, a blue jay feather and three baby teeth -- all of which I set on a pillow case by my feet. Facing me, in a neat half-circle, sat my congregation -- a collection of carved wooden turtles, furry toy mice and a photograph of an unidentified, long-dead relative.


As part of my religion, I burned stray Chanukah candles and chanted garbled words. I talked about the stars and the ocean, prayed for world peace, and declared that God lived everywhere, even in the dirt.


Unlike our Temple, there were musical instruments at my services: a paper towel roll with wax paper on one end, a coffee can with a balloon stretched over the top. My music was profoundly sacred.


No two services were the same, but they all ended with the spice box, which I kept hidden under a washcloth until the very end. I opened the top and took a deep breath, letting the smell of cloves and cinnamon fill my nose. Then I passed the box in front of the turtles, mice and unknown ancestor. After they'd gotten their turn, I breathed in once more. I was allowed to go twice; I was the leader.


I kept my religion a secret. Partly because it was more special that way, but also because I felt a little silly playing with toy mice and toy drums. I believed in the magic of my instruments, yet I also knew they were just coffee cans and paper towel rolls.

The spice box, though, wasn't a toy. It was real. Would God be mad at me for using it? What about all those Jews who died because they wouldn't bow down to idols or got gassed in the Holocaust? Wouldn't they be angry if they knew I'd made up my own religion, passing around a box that was only supposed to be used on Saturday nights? I didn't think God would kill me with a lightning bolt, but there were other ways bad things could happen. Ways less clear and more scary.


Winter came and it got too cold to be in the mud room. I stopped holding services, wore my bathrobe only after showers. But it wasn't really the cold that stopped me. The spice box had become too dangerous. In a year, I would begin training for my Bat Mitzvah, and even if it didn't give me the privileges that Bar Mitzvahs gave boys, it meant something. It had to mean something. I had to take responsibility and for me that meant not using the spice box anymore.


I slipped it far back on a kitchen shelf and stopped holding services. They just weren't any good without it.


Back in my parents' kitchen, before packing the spice box away, I fill it with a cinnamon stick and cloves. I inhale deeply, then close the lid, smiling at the metal flag.

I know now that my short-lived religion didn't desecrate the box, five centuries of Jewish tradition, or even God. In fact, I bet that God -- or whoever lives up there -- got a kick out my service and its turtle-rodent congregation.

And just because I am curious, I dig an empty paper towel roll out of the recycling box and, using a rubber band, fasten wax paper over one end. I blow into it lightly, making thin, vibrating noises.


It sounds almost sacred.


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