Covering My Bases


On Tuesday, March 13, many local Jews had the upcoming Passover holiday on their minds. Yehudah and Tali Younessian were an exception.

That day, their 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Liel, had a near-drowning accident that caused full cardiac arrest. The lack of oxygen during the over 30 minutes she went without a pulse resulted in anoxic brain injury, meaning that she had total oxygen deprivation.

A rabbi added “Chaya” to the little girl’s name to imbue her very being with life. Her family asked Jews around the world to pray for her recovery and take on a mitzvah on her behalf. That is how I came to remember the name “Chaya Liel bat Tali” more than even my own Hebrew name and that of my mother. 

Every time I talk to God, whether I’m lighting Shabbat candles or stuck in traffic, I pray for little Chaya.

And I’m not alone. She has brought countless Jews toward better versions of themselves, whether elderly men, middle school girls or even toddlers. Every Friday, the children in my son’s daycare facility say her name out loud as their uncoordinated little hands knead challah dough. They are all roughly the same age as Chaya Liel, and like most Jews around the world who have her in mind, many of them have never met her. It’s one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.

Every time I talk to God, whether I’m lighting Shabbat candles or stuck in traffic, I pray for little Chaya.

Schools and synagogues all over Los Angeles have held challah bakes and Torah classes on her behalf. Many women who would not identify as Orthodox have committed to taking on a new mitzvah, ranging from lighting Shabbat candles 10 minutes earlier to dressing more modestly.

Before I heard about Chaya Liel, I tried to wear a hat every Shabbat and major holiday, but I loathed the idea of anything beyond that, because I was afraid of losing myself. I didn’t grow up religious, and it didn’t help that my mother nonchalantly reminded me that if I ever wore a wig, she would “kill herself.”

I still can’t believe it, but for the past two months, I’ve been covering my hair every day, inspired by a girl whom I have never met, and at the moment cannot meet because she has been transferred to New Orleans to receive hyperbaric oxygen treatment. According to her father, she has completed one-third of the treatment and slowly is responding, although she is still comatose. 

I’m still adjusting to hats. I get hot often. They blow away and often don’t match my clothes. And people give me confused looks at kosher markets when they see that my hair is covered but that I’m wearing a T-shirt and skinny jeans. 

But I’m beginning to love having a little something on my head. It’s a constant reminder that there’s a whole other realm of reality above me.

I’m nothing special and there’s much more that I could be doing, but at least I’m trying. And my mother hasn’t killed herself. Not yet, anyway.

Chaya Liel’s mother and father also have taken on more mitzvot. I’ve never met them in person, but I know that they’re truly kind, strong people with unshakable faith.

I love Judaism. I love that it leaves room for Jews of all levels of observance to experience growth, so that a Jewish atheist could whisper a little prayer when no one’s around; a Reform Jew could try to keep a few laws of Shabbat; and a Modern Orthodox Jew could refrain from gossip — all on behalf of a toddler fighting to live. May all of our efforts invoke God’s mercy and miracles.

Chaya Liel’s parents want us to know that our undertakings on her behalf have given them “strength and resolve.” If nothing else, this is why I challenge nonobservant readers to commit to a new, good deed with regularity. Donations may also be made at chayaliel.com.

As for me, I’ll keep wearing a hat for as long as I can, but here’s the thing: Even if I can’t prove that covering my hair will result in a miracle, I know with incalculable certainty that it can’t hurt. It truly can’t hurt.

Thank you, little Chaya Liel. God willing, you will owe me (and my hat) a dance at your recovery party, and my soul will owe you even more.

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer.

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