Sunday, November 27, 2016

My Mother's Legacy

Death is a night that lies between two days.
-Maurice Lamm – the Jewish Way in Death and Mourning

My mother's shloshim (30 days after death) and my father's yartzheit (anniversary of death) are only a few days apart.
The Hebrew name of my mother, Chaya, means life. It is the name of the first woman who G-d created from the side of the first man - Adam.

My mother, may her memory be blessed, passed away right before Shabbat Breishit, the Shabbat where Jews begin to read the Torah anew. This first portion, of course, features the creation of Chaya (Eve) and Adam.
While she actually died on the Friday, in the Old Country, because of the time difference, it was already Shabbat here in the Holy Land, and I only learned of my mother's death after Shabbat was out. So, while my siblings were dealing with the pain of her passing, and the details of arranging her funeral, I had one more day of thinking that my mother was still in the world.
However, as soon as Shabbat was out, and I learned my mother was gone, I immediately began to sit shiva, something my siblings began only the next day, after the funeral.

The whole experience was weird. I felt cut off and alone, so far from my family - despite the fact that MY family - my children, and husband and dozens of friends - surrounded me immediately in love and support.

My father passed away more than two decades ago. Then, I sat shiva in my mother's house, with her and my siblings, and various siblings of my father. The house was full; none of us was ever alone for a minute. Yet, one of my clearest memories of the week is of one family member saying to me, “It must be so hard for you to be here alone without your husband and kids.” Even though there was a constant flow of people, it was hard - I did feel alone; my other siblings had someone to run to the store for them, if necessary; someone to bring them coffee, someone to talk to at the end of the day. I had a baby with me; I had to wash his clothes, feed him, and find someone to buy him diapers.

Sitting by myself here in my own house, with my kids and husband, and sitting there with the others both had good points and bad points. Actually, both had only bad points - just different bad points.

I did kriya for my father at his funeral, watched by the many people who had come to pay their respects. I wore that shirt for the week, taking it off, finally, in a bathroom in the airport in Zurich, on my way back home to Israel. The Rabbi had told me to take advantage of my pre-paid, pre-booked ticket back home as my kids were waiting for me, even though I had two more days of shiva. I changed my shirt, carefully packing it away into my hand luggage. When I got back home, I washed it, folded it and put it away. I still have it, though I can't and wouldn't ever wear it.

When my mother died, I did kriya in my house, in front of my kids. When I got up from shiva for my mother, it was almost Shabbat. I took a shower, put on Shabbat clothes and threw the clothes that I had been wearing all week, including the torn shirt, into the laundry hamper. But after I had washed it, I immediately threw the shirt out. I couldn't look at it. It was too raw.

On the other hand, the phone number of the hospital, where my mother spent her last days, is still on the fridge, held in place by a magnet in the shape of a bird. I can't bring myself to throw the piece of paper away.

I have many memories of my mother, but two stand out as shaping me into the person I am today.

The first occurred just after my grandmother - my mother's mother - died. I was 9 years old. It was a Saturday afternoon. Saturday had not yet become Shabbat for me. I was sitting in my room at my desk, when my mother came in. She asked me what I was doing. "My homework," I answered, though it was - I thought - obvious. My mother said to me very quietly "You shouldn't do homework on Shabbos", and she left the room, closing the door behind her. I put my pencil down and left my homework to do the next day.

I never did homework on Shabbos again. Not ever. I didn't yet keep Shabbat. I went to dancing lessons for several years on Saturday afternoons. I watched MASH on Friday nights. I went out driving with my friends after MASH.
But I never once did homework again on Shabbos.

The second memory took place years later, during the Pesach holiday. I can't recall where I was exactly on my own religious journey, but my mother's actions at the time took me by surprise.

I don't remember, either, why I was there, but my mother was at her friend's house, with a few other women. As mentioned, it was Pesach. One of the women offered everyone a stick a gum. My mother reached to take one, but then noticed it wasn't 'kosher for Passover'. "Oh, no thanks," she said, "I only eat kosher for Pesach things this week". I don't recall exactly what the other women said, but I do remember they were borderline disparaging—something along the lines of 'don't be a fanatic, it's only gum, not bread', but without actually using the word fanatic. My mother stood her ground, and inside, I swelled with pride.

I am quite sure that she had no inkling of the affect either of these memories ever had on me.

I got up from shiva for my mother on Parsha Noach, the second reading of the year. Our sages discuss, at some length, how great a man Noach was. Noach was the only man in his generation who believed in God. He was the only one to do as God commanded him. Despite the need to solve huge logistical problems, years and years of physical labor, at great personal expense, and, most importantly and the hardest trial of all, despite ridicule from his friends, Noach did God’s bidding. Some of our sages say that had he lived in the generation of Abraham, he would not have been considered particularly great in comparison to the greatness of Abraham. But other sages contend exactly the opposite. Had Noach lived in the time of Abraham, and had Abraham to emulate and learn from, had he been surrounded by righteousness instead of evil, Noach would have been even greater than Abraham himself.

Every year, when we read this parsha, I am transfixed by this discussion. It reminds me of how important personal example is to others, what effect, even unknowingly, we have on others, and how important an impact our environment (our neighbors, friends, school, family) has on us. I wonder how I would compare.

I come from a smallish town, with a smallish Jewish community. I went to a Jewish day school, but I was one of the few in my class who came from a kosher house. At home, we ate latkes on Chanuka and hamantashen on Purim. (I still make my mother’s recipe for Hamantashen.) My mother tried, unsuccessfully, to teach me how to make blintzes, and knishes, and gefilte fish. She bottled her own sour pickles. She turned the house over every Passover, and made the seders in our house – every single year. She volunteered in Jewish organizations; she taught us Yiddish sayings (e.g., I need this tzuris like a loch in kop). Both my parents showed us, by personal example, the ways of kindness, and consideration, and thoughtfulness, to others and to each other.  In so many ways, our Jewish identity was instilled in us.

That was my mother’s strength, and this is her legacy. Against all odds, she raised four Jewish children, who went on to give her twenty Jewish grandchildren – nine of whom (so far) live in Israel – and seven great-grandchildren (so far) – ALL of whom live in Israel, the youngest one named after her as a blessing.