Lessons Learned Oddly Applied

Growing up, Mom and Dad made sure every visitor felt welcome in our home with a (proverbial or actual) warm and welcoming embrace. 

And our cultural, religious and family traditions had to follow suit.  My parents never cared much for tradition that didn’t honor everyone, engender both joy and remembrance and welcome the stranger.

I remember, at one Passover years and years ago, a relatively new friend of Mom (she made friends every day, even in the elevator or on a City bus) came over for her first Passover seder and brought something that she had made and  . . .  

WAIT FOR IT, WAIT . . .

there were noodles in it.  [NOT kosher for Passover.]

It was a shock to all of us that someone would make something homemade (especially to my mother) because, after all, we lived in New York City.

SIDEBAR:  No one “cooked” except for Mrs. Travers (of blessed memory) who made the same cherry Jello mold with fruit since the early 1960s.  Don’t laugh because it became so “groovy retro” in the 1990s.

So my mother was charmed and mortified all at once. Still, what to do about the noodles?

Without missing a beat, my mother put the noodle dish on the Passover table.  As everyone sat down, she thanked her friend for bringing it and advised those observing the Passover dietary restrictions that this was not a dish for them.

Just as it is written that, each of us was liberated from the land of Egypt and we eat the Hillel sandwich of the matzah and maror signifying the bitterness  of slavery and other symbolic foods, the Blogger family ate the matzah, maror and some pasta and veggies, in observance of our tradition and our parents’ rules about joy and welcoming the stranger in our house.

Fast forward twenty or more years to Dad’s Shiva.

Ok, “Shiva” was only one night, so it doesn’t even meet the requirements of the name, Shiva. And, a female rabbi who looked about 11 years old led the service. 

And THEN . . . .

My brother beckons me to the kitchen. 

SIDEBAR: It has taken many years but I think that my brother and I are in a good place.  I know we love each other.  And, I have a deep admiration and respect for him.  And, he is just so adorable and handsome and funny.

“Hey, E . . . . ” he says with his Texas drawl.  “SOB’s [Sister of blogger’s] birthday is in two days and we are going back to Dallas. We brought this birthday cake with these crazy striped pastries on top.  Like the ones Grandma and Grandpa used to bring from the bakery in Brooklyn.”

The following things ran through my head:

BIRTHDAY CAKE. 

SHIVA. 

A HOUSE PARTIALLY FILLED WITH MEN WEARING KIPAS,

A 12-YEAR OLD FEMALE RABBI LEADING MINYAN.

TRUMP THANKING MY FATHER FOR HIS SERVICE TO OUR COUNTRY [see earlier post].

MOM.  DAD.  PASSOVER SO MANY YEARS AGO.

THE LOVE OF A BROTHER WHO DIDN’T WANT HIS SISTER’S BIRTHDAY TO GET LOST IN REMEMBRANCE OF DAD’S LIFE WELL-LIVED.

“BOB [Brother of blogger], great idea!!  Let’s wait until the Shiva minyan is over and those who would be totally offended have left, OK?”

So, when we thought “the coast was clear” and some of SOB’s friends were still around, out came the birthday cake, with candles and everything.

Also? It was GREAT cake. (Just sayin’.)

And, courtesy of BOB and his family, there was joy for us three kids amid the sadness.  And we bent the traditions so far back that they almost broke in two — but not quite.

And Mom and Dad smiled down.  They were proud. 

And the three of us?  We would not have done a thing differently.

The Holy Father and what I learned on Yom Kippur

I know, it is odd for me, a veritable caricature of a New York Jew, to restart my blog with a reference to Pope Francisco.

These have been odd days.  I haven’t written much because much has been the same or, in my father’s case, declining in an incremental and mundane manner.  (My siblings and I have resorted to an Olympic point system for the daily insanity/dementia status, as if it were a gymnastics events.  BOB (brother of blogger) is the former USSR, with low marks.  I am the USA, with high marks. SOB (sister of blogger) is Belgium or Switzerland, splitting the difference.)

On Yom Kippur, certain things resonated with me.

First, debunking a myth.  Jews fast for 26 hours on Yom Kippur.  If one has an easy fast, then supposedly he or she has been righteous with little need to repent.  The obverse is also true, a difficult time fasting (hunger, headaches, fainting) means one has to atone for really bad stuff.  As in, when we recite how we will die, “who by fire, who by flood, who by beast . . . .”, you ought to start praying for the quick and painless.  I had a relatively easy fast (ok, I had a cup of coffee), and I soooo had stuff to repent for.  So, midway during the fast, I knew that, easy fast be damned (ooops another sin), I should start praying for death by wild beast because it is a quick bite to the jugular and then they eat you.  No pine box needed.

Second, maybe G-d who doesn’t care if people believe in G-d.  Our rabbi believes in such a G-d.  Believers and non-believers alike can atone and lay off the yolk of sin, for themselves or before G-d, whichever.  What matters is that one owns one’s sins, resets one’s inner compass toward that which is good, right and noble.  And then keeps sinning but amortizes it with good deeds.  (Ok, the latter part is the Blogger Corollary.)

Finally, a person’s essential goodness can shine through all of the divisions and barricades that we humans erect to separate us from each other. I am thinking of the Holy Father.  I have read about the Pope and (here comes ANOTHER Yom Kippur sin . . . ) I watched the Pope address those assembled at the White House before going to shul.  I saw him greet well-wishers.  I have read about his opening his home to the poor, the hungry and the outcast.  And I have heard him take on the pressing issues of our time.

While I don’t agree with some of his views (seeking to limit some access to contraception under Obamacare comes to mind), I think his message is essentially to love life, do good, care for the stranger and walk humbly on this earth.

As I walked to synagogue, the Pope’s message stayed with me.  Aren’t these the universal precepts of our common humanity?

And I thought, he is rightly called the Holy Father.  (This coming from a Jew who has invoked G-d, Jesus and Moses in unholy ways.)

I could actually believe in a G-d who doesn’t care if a person doesn’t believe in G-d or in the G-d of Jews.  People of all faiths can be holy through their hearts, souls and by their examples.

G-d bless Pope Francisco, the Holy Father of his faith.

 

What Did Grandpa Know and When Did He Know It

Dad’s world is closing in.  He can understand some things.  But, he no longer tries to understand the intricacies of his care, his insurance, etc.  He refers any material matters to his children.  I think that is freeing for him, even as it is an admission — a resignation — that he can’t navigate the bigger world anymore.  We are here to catch him before he falls.

But at my son’s Bar Mitzvah, when he slowly came to the Bimah and — relying decades’ old some-kind-of-muscle memory — chanted the prayers before my son read Torah, I imagined that Dad understood that his grandson was being called to Torah as a Bar Mitzvah.  Linking the past with the present.  From generation to generation.

My son did a magnificent job, by all accounts (including mine).

Dad was in and out of reality during the day. He enjoyed dancing at the reception, as always, cutting up the floor.

But did he understand what happened?  Did he understand that his grandson accepted his birthright to become a Bar Mitzvah? To hold the Torah and read from it?

In my mind, I said, “Of course, Dad knew!”

But I had no idea.

Then my son said to me, days later, “Grandpa didn’t understand what happened at my Bar Mitzvah, did he?”

“Dude, I think he did, in moments, but I am not sure that he always understood.”

Silence. Resolution. Generational connection lost.  I could feel it in my son’s look and posture.  I felt a desperation to keep the connection alive.

Today, I asked his health aide (who was with him at the Bar Mitzvah), “Tell me for real, FOR REAL, did Dad understand what was happening at the Bar Mitzvah?”

“Well, this week, he told the visiting nurse how his grandson read from Torah so beautifully!!  Some days the light is on and others he is a little in the dark.  But he knew it then and sometimes he knows it now.”

And that is all I need.  I hope it is enough for my son.

A prayer for my son on his Bar Mitzvah

The rabbi told me we needed to bless my son on his becoming a Bar Mitzvah, so, my voice trembled as I gave him this blessing:

My dearest child:

You are a young man now.

Where does the time go?

And you have your own mind about things. I remember when you were 6 years old and you said, “I have to disagree with you, Emom”. And I said, “no, no, I don’t think that ever needs to happen.”

Well, you are a young man now.

NOW, you can disagree with me, but you will still be WRONG.

I admire so much in the person you are already and three things in particular that I think will form the person you will become:

Your insatiable curiosity and quest for learning about people and the world – near and far, existing and ancient. From the Mughals of Middle Age India to today’s German Muslims learning about the Holocaust.

From every fact I never knew to every one I have already forgotten.

Your boundless imagination – it is a place where the impossible is routine and miracles happen.   You are able to see the world in ways unconstrained by the so-called common wisdom and societal strictures.

You see unending possibilities where others see insurmountable road blocks.

Your gentle heart – this is truly the treasure of you.

It is what makes you, you.

Yes, you will have your own mind about the world, and it will be guided by your curiosity, imagination and heart.

May they guide you on a meaningful life journey filled with joy, with wonder, with hope, with laughter and with peace.

I love you more than you can ever know.

And the band just played on.

Many Yahrzeits tonight for close family.  I am too tired of death.  I couldn’t get it together to buy Yahrzeit candles.  But there are leftover Chanukah candles!!!

Two candles making one flame.  They are Aunt Betty and Uncle Billy.  Intertwined in death as in life.

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One candle for Aunt Roz. [I am now dealing with the actual death of her recently undead sister — more about that in prior blogs.]

One candle for all who have no one to remember them.  IMG_1492No one to remember them.  No one.  It doesn’t need to be family.  It just needs to be someone who says, “I will remember you for all that you were (and weren’t).”

It is important to remember more than just the righteous among us.  Because if that were the test, then I, for one, would become one of the nameless souls who came into and out of this world in the blink of an eye.

AND THEN ALL OF THE CANDLES BLEND AS ONE.

Jesus, just around the corner

I am a Jew. Second generation American.  Of Ashkenazi descent.  From the huddled masses coming to our shores, yearning to breathe free.

I remember the pickled herring, stuffed derma, whitefish chubs, lox (nova was too expensive), salami and a bottle of scotch or vodka that were delicacies served in my grandparents’ rundown apartment.  They were poor Jews, but the children and grandchildren were coming over.  The apartment was in Williamsburgh, Brooklyn, back when it was a dangerous, largely burnt-out neighborhood.  My grandparents never could pronounce a “W” so until I could read, I thought they lived in Villiamsburgh.

I tell you this so you will understand the apparent incongruity of what follows.

There is a man who walks up and down Broadway between 100th and 110th Streets yelling that he loves Jesus and that Jesus is the Lord.  My son calls him The Preacher.  In rain, heat, cold, morning or night, The Preacher is seeking to share Jesus with every passerby.

Today, I envied The Preacher his mission.  His sureness of purpose.  His rock-solid belief.  Unwavering in the cold, the heat, the pouring rain.  Jesus is with him.  More than that, Jesus is in him.

It doesn’t matter if The Preacher is right or wrong.  When he finds that out, his days walking Broadway to spread the word will be over.  (And he appears well-fed, well-clothed and, in all other respects, well-kempt, so I am not worried about his day-to-day livelihood.)

As a Jew descended from those who fled Europe, members of my family have turned away from our version of G-d, shaken their fists at our version of G-d, and, sadly, resigned themselves to not having earned the love of our version of G-d.

Me? G-d and I are not so close.  So much so, that I think it is better for everyone if I not keep anyone in my prayers, lest doom and gloom come to them.

But The Preacher has a hold on me.  He exudes love and trust.  Maybe borne of revelation or desperation.  I won’t ever know.  But a love and trust so deep in something we cannot see.  Something that our society holds as both an ideal and a reason to commit a person to mental institution.

After my mother died, I asked Rabbi Ayelet Cohen why she believes in G-d.  She answered, “either I am right or I am crazy.”  All these years later, I remember her words.

Rabbi Ayelet, maybe being both is the magic mix. 

 

276 girls

http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/09/world/africa/nigeria-abducted-girls/

How is this possible?  There have been decades of atrocities, unbreakable cycles of violence, the world over. Countless children sacrificed to the power struggles over land and its resources.  Nigeria has devolved into chaos.

Legacies of colonialization and Western arrogance.  And backlash.

This is the one case that is gaining international attention.  Because of the brazenness and insanity of the Boko Haram fighters.  How does a militant group, fighting in the name of God, kidnap 276 school girls to sell them into marriage and slavery?

These girls.  These poor girls.  Their poor families.  I cannot imagine what it is to have my child taken from me by lawless gangs who roam with impunity.

This massive kidnapping is about radicalism and the cheapness of human life, in general, and that of a girl’s life, in particular.

And the knowledge of the perpetrators that we, in the United States, will soon turn back to the results of the NFL draft.  And then they can do this again.  And again.  And again.  Until no child is spared from the war crimes.
Our souls, and our beliefs in the sanctity of human life and in the God-given right of a child to realize his or her potential, lie in the balance of our nation’s response to this crisis and others like it across the globe.  Let’s find these girls, airlift them and their families and share the bounty of our nation with them.  It isn’t fair to those left behind, but it is a start.  And, in Jewish theology, it is a person’s moral obligation to save even one life even if one cannot save everyone.

God bless and keep these girls, and keep them safe from more ravages of war.

What’s in Your Wallet, part 2

For those missing my episode of rare charity and kindness, see http://40andoverblog.com/?p=5836

I am so better at being smug.

Well, Niki, the man whose wallet I returned, sent me the Book of Mormon, with a passage of scripture marked for me.

SIDEBAR:  Not show tickets, all you incredibly parochial urbane people, but the Mormon Testament.

Niki seemed a little too clueless for New York.  Did he know I was a New York Jewish lesbian? I don’t think he was proselytizing to me.  I think he sent the Book and the quotation as a genuine thank-you, in his belief system.  And I welcomed the gift that way.

And I remember a time when I was easy to trash other religions, belief systems, etc.  And I hurt people.  Because I was parochial and naive and egocentric.  In fact, I remember the precise moment at College when I offended someone from Utah, through my ass-hole-ish intolerance and regurgitation of stupid judgments I had heard in my young life.

This was my moment.  I can’t undo what I was.  But I can be better.  And, somewhere this religious conscientious observer found grace through Niki’s rather powerful expression of the kind and charitable person he thought I was.  But I am not that person, as the following will show.  I sent the following message to Niki:

“Niki:

Thank you for your incredibly thoughtful gift and kind words. I don’t ever need to be thanked for doing the right thing. Simply because it is the right thing. We are all accountable for what we do, whether to G-d or each other. There is a Hebrew prayer that, in modern translation, means “let me live my days so that fear or guilt does not haunt my sleep at night.” I found that meditation quite powerful, although I must admit I do not always live up to it.

Although I am Jewish, I have often meditated on the passage in Corinthians, which is akin to your passage:

4Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, 5Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; 6Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; 7Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

8Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. 9For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. 10But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. 11When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 13And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

But, really, “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly”, is a common ground for all of our faiths.

So, I did what I did because I could not do otherwise. No thanks. Just humanity.

I hope all good things for you and your family.  [Blogger]”

Now that I read it over now, I think, did I have to mention so many times that I am Jewish?  Or did I need that passage from the Hebrew Bible about humbly walking with G-d? Did I have to mention (in a smirk-y way) how close the Mormon passage is to the other Christian Bible?

In the guise of “common ground,” I pointed out the differences, and missed the basic message.  And missed an opportunity to reach across a divide.  Instead I demarcated ever more profoundly the De-Militarized Zone that separates us.

Ok, simply?  I am a schmuck (in the figurative sense of the word).

When will I ever learn?  And worse, yet, am I passing it on to SOS??

 

 

Vestiges of a past cast off

ULOB was not a religious man.  During his adult life, he went into synagogues only for family rites of passage.  And only if my mother told him he had to be there.

When he was a boy, his mother wanted him to have a Bar Mitzvah.  His father — my grandfather — renounced religion and didn’t care.  But it was so important to Grandma.  She wanted ULOB to be a man — a Jewish man –before G-d.  Even though she was persecuted for being a Jew.

ULOB often talked of sitting with the foul-smelling rabbi learning to read Hebrew and practicing his Torah portion while the rebbetzin (the rabbi’s wife) washed the floor and did any number of back-breaking jobs.

I think his Bar Mitzvah was on a Thursday.  I got the sense that it was mid-morning.  My grandmother was possibly upstairs but definitely behind a curtain (michitza) and at least 10 old men were in the main room of the shtebl.

Grandma brought whiskey and some cake for the celebration afterward.  She had to save to put out that meager spread. ULOB said the rabbi and the other men scarfed down the food and drink so fast that there were barely crumbs left.  No one said a word to Grandma.  She was invisible.  But Grandma was proud.

ULOB never wanted to go back after that.  Even more, almost every touch of Yiddishkeit and every tradition that a Jew learns by osmosis in a Jewish home seemed to drain out of his body over the years.  The transition was so complete that he worked on Yom Kippur, ate ham and cheese on rye during Passover, and AROB and he celebrated Christmas.

Imagine my surprise when, as SOB and I were cleaning out ULOB’s apartment after his death, I found his tallis (prayer shawl) in a bag.  He had kept that tallis for 73 years.

The one vestige.  I bet he couldn’t let go of it because of what that day meant to his mother.

Seder Part 2

Seder, Part 2:  Subtitled “Kol B’Seder?” (all ok?  literally in good order?)

Meanwhile, Uncle L looked slovenly despite his well-heeled paramour and family.  Just take a look at his coat:  No wonder his paramour thought we were wolves.  A generation from the ghettos of Europe, born in the country, and still.  But he is a Yankees fan, so some things are forgiven.

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Ok, so we started the Seder.  As commanded, we go through our “emblems of festive rejoicing” which are the symbols of Passover:  rebirth, renewal, bitterness of slavery and the sweetness of freedom, and the remembrance of the night of death in Egypt that led to the Exodus.  But wait, there’s more.

In our family, we have our own symbols of festive rejoicing, requiring a second Seder plate.  First, G-d didn’t deliver us from Egypt, then the pogroms of Europe, then the Holocaust, then to two generations of prosperity in the United States for us to drink that gross Manischevitz wine.  So, we have a “Manischevitz Free Zone” in our house, where there is (reasonably) good Kosher wine and some good other wine.  Second, courtesy of HOSOB (we love him so), we have a Moses action figure (which was a bonus with any Nintendo purchase) that has detachable staff and Ten Commandments for the requisite slamming at the sight of the Golden Calf.  Third, have a watch to symbolize the ONE hour that SOB allows for the ceremony before she takes away the Haggadot and announces the first course will be served. In a nod to the modern age, SOB flashes her iPhone timer, so I know exactly, to the nanosecond, how much time I have left.

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Finally (not pictured here), we have a brisket and not a turkey, because G-d didn’t work miracles and deliver us from five millennia of trials and tribulations so that we would have to eat dry turkey.  No, G-d delivered us so that we could enjoy a nice, juicy, marbled brisket with just the right amount of fat to make it tasty and moist.  (Unless you are vegan or vegetarian, in which case we had a delicious Mediterranean bean dish.)  That is my interpretation of the wisdom of the ages.  You can have yours, just not in my house.

We tried a different approach to Seder this year — we would go quickly through the retelling of the story (see the cheat sheet on the chalk board)

photo(12) And then we proceeded to discuss who was the most righteous in the story.  I emailed everyone with the assignment to determine the most righteous person, and people really read up on it.

Sidebar:  GDJOB, who had never cracked the spine of the Bible, was at a loss until her spouse GDKOB showed up.  GDKOB was in charge of preparing for Seder.  Unfortunately, she was a little late for the debate but her righteous person was discussed.  They brought dessert, so all was forgiven.

There was a catch:  what is the definition of righteous?  Depending on our definitions, we had different answers.  There was a second catch:  there is no right answer, except that we can agree that among the wrong answers are: (i) Pharaoh and (ii) the Edward G. Robinson’s character in Cecil B. DeMille’s, “The Ten Commandments” (did he chew on a cigar or is that just my imagination?).

We came up with four righteous people (with our varying definitions of righteousness):

  • Moses (trite);
  • Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law who advises Moses;
  • Tzipporah, Moses’ wife who saves him when G-d tried to kill him; and
  • Pharaoh’s daughter, who, knowing Moses was an Israelite, nevertheless saves the baby from the Nile.

My choice? Pharaoh’s daughter.  Who has no name, except in Chronicles, the Koran and the writings of Josephus.  In the Hebrew Bible, she is known only by her relationship to a man, Seti I, who decreed that male babies of the Israelites must die.  She defied her father’s decree and saved a life and raised Moses as her son.  She stepped outside her rarefied, privileged world and extended her hand to a slave child.  Because a child is a child.  Because a life is a life.  And she risked everything, maybe for the knowledge that she was doing the right thing and her heart and soul would not be sullied by the death of a child.

And she was exiled when later it was found out that Moses, her son, was an Israelite.

Her name was Bithia.

Bithia.  A person to be remembered as a human who saved a life of a baby who would grow up to liberate a people.

Bithia was her name.  And at Passover, I remember Bithia.  Because she is the person I most admire in this story.

Chag sameach.  (Happy holidays.)