Friday, July 10, 2015

Morning Time Ritual

Every morning, my mother would awaken me.  “Gut Morgen,” she would whisper. Her body leaned over mine and I felt her wet kiss linger on my forehead. “Time for school.”

As I tumbled out of bed, I would stumble upon my father. Standing next to the open window in the corner of the living room, my rabbi -father swayed to the rhythm of his premeditated prayer dance, draped in his white and black-striped worship-gear. Often, my father enveloped me under  his prayer shawl wings,and we moved through the morning ritual together.

Now when I wrap myself in my white cotton prayer shawl scattered with blue, magenta and purple embroidery,  I long for the security that my father’s well-worn wool tallit offered me at morning time. Through decades of time and distance our spiritual practice is surprisingly similar. We still embrace each other albeit virtually.  

Before I open my eyes in the morning, I recite the Hebrew prayer of gratitude:
Modah Ani. Thank you Holy One for returning my soul to my body and renewing
the life force within me.

Then, I open my eyes and take notice of my surroundings. The fleshy tones of the
bedroom paint connect me physically to my body. The light from my bay window calls my spirit into being. I enunciate my good fortunes thought by thought.  Modah Ani. Somewhere behind my morning ritual is the promise of a sweet kiss on my forehead.and a warm embrace.

It's Not Over Until It's Over: The Laundry

My father was in charge of the laundry. As a young girl, I delighted in accompanying him to accomplish this Sunday morning ritual.  I would press the mysterious “B” button as we descended into the basement of our eight- story apartment building in the Bronx. Before we entered the elevator, however, we collected all our quarters needed to operate the washer and dryer machines. We managed to complete the several loads of undershirts and  underwear, the towels and turtlenecks of our daily life, with the quarters we had been hoarding in sundry containers throughout the house..

In between loads, we  would visit the nearby neighborhood park where my father puffed joyfully on his cigar away from my mother’s watchful eyes and consternation. It was our secret and I faithfully kept it. Unless,of course, my mother stared into my eyes and asked me directly.  “Was your father smoking outside? Tell me the truth.”

Smoking or not, my father mingled with neighbors and strangers alike. He was gregarious
and garrulous. I enjoyed his chatter with the people who presumed not to know me.  “You must be Benny’s little girl.” But,of course, I grimaced. Who else would I be?  Did they not notice how firmly I held onto my father’s hand?

Back and forth we went from the park to the basement and back up again until
the folded laundry was placed into our shopping cart and brought upstairs for my mother’s
scrutiny.  She always separated the laundry into two piles. One belonged to me and my sister; the other to my mother and father. The laundry ritual continued this way just beyond my college years when marriage found me, and I moved with my husband to Syracuse, New York.

Suddenly and irretrievably, I became the CEO in charge of all family laundry distributions. Four children later, the laundry ritual was now a daily occurrence. Alone without my father's cheerful inflections, the laundry piled up in every corner of our two story Dutch Colonial house in Greensboro, North Carolina.  Occasionally, my parents came to visit and my dad, once again, joyfully, participated with me in the sorting and folding of each piece of worn and torn t-shirts of every shape and size.  

As each adult child entered college and left the proverbial nest, they lessened my load.
The laundry load. I was naively mistaken.

College was at the University of Chapel Hill for the two eldest daughters.  UNC was a
mere hour away from our home and yes, they would often come home on weekends
to refuel. I mean reload. Before a hug, a kiss or a smile, their bright- colored  laundry
sacks calligraphed with their embroidered names, were dumped unceremoniously just outside our laundry room  So while my two college students refueled, I mindlessly loaded and reloaded the washer/dryer.  By Sunday evening, the girls’ washed clothes were ready to go when they were.

“Thanks, mom.” They giggled as they placed their fragrant totes into the Honda.
I smiled knowing what they knew.  Mom is always in charge of the laundry no matter
where you roam.

Currently, my four adult children reside in four different homes in two different states with their
children and their own assortment of laundry baskets.  Laundry radar follows me from home to home, mound upon mound.

“Thanks, mom.”  

Nothing says “I love you” more than stacks of neatly- sorted clothing resting royally on the beds of my beloveds. The laundry?  It is not over until it is over, which means, it is never really  over. Really.


Thursday, June 11, 2015

His Death Was Certain

I stand in the shade, lean into the base of a yellow birch tree trunk and tune in to a story about the fate of one Jewish man during the holocaust.The sparrows chirp in the background,and I strain to comprehend the archivist’s narrative through the low volume on my phone.

Several days before, I was asked to translate a letter from Yiddish to English written by the man’s widow. I am stymied by the handwriting, but fully intrigued by the possibility of finding a clue that will ultimately lead to the puzzling discordant ending to this family's search.

Did he die at the camps? Or was he betrayed and shot to death by his rescuers?

Either way, he has died without burial, without eulogy, without closure. Seventy years later his family continues to discern what happened to their beloved husband, father, grandfather.

His death is certain. How he died is not. The murdered victim’s epilogue is missing but through what final action?

Holding the document in my hand, I become part of the string of events that might reveal some surety about the chain of events that lead to one man’s terrible demise. It had to be terrible. It was 1944.

My curiosity has now become my burden, and my burden has become my sacred task. His denouement has become personal. Our destinies have collided beyond death.

As I linger on each cursive letter, his life and death begin to matter to me. How can this be? Last week, he was one of the six million. This week, he is one of my ancestors who traveled through my Yiddish- speaking childhood reminding me of other conversations and other incongruities about my family’s past.We call them, the lost ones. Now,I am lost in discovery and in doubt, floating in mystery amid words and paragraphs, sentences without periods, and signs without sounds. Like a Chagall painting, I am in dream mode that slowly regresses into a nightmare.

I place the manuscript in a folder labeled: to be translated. Tomorrow I will struggle to find a message of comfort in this two page document. I am not certain that I will.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Life is Beautiful But...

“Life is beautiful but not always kind,” said the 95 year old matriarch. “ You will need resilience and courage.” This blessing for five-month-old Naomi Adele followed the ritual of calling out her Hebrew names for the first time in community.
Light-haired and blue-eyed Naomi Adele was showered with words like peace, love, health and happiness by other family members. The familiar formula. But Sophie’s words, in contrast, added a truth that we all know but rarely express.  
We beam at the loving wedding couple; we gaze at the precious infant child; we applaud the  proud college graduate when she receives her diploma.  We breathe in the joy these moments contain, and we silently pray for a bountiful tomorrow. The future, however, winks back at us sarcastically.  Maybe they will have a storybook ending and maybe they won’t. But in this celebratory frame of mind, we prefer to believe in fairytale endings.
Life is beautiful but not always kind.
“I have had many setbacks and upsets,” Sophie admitted. “ I just keep on going. I have had a full life. I am not finished yet.”
Her elegance attracted me. Her outspoken demeanor inspired me. Her truth bothered me.
“You are a beautiful and kind lady,” I said. I added no “buts” to my compliment.  

Sunday, April 26, 2015


All too often life takes an unpredictable turn.

We find ourselves on a dead end street.

Or so we think.

We step outside the car and re-examine our options.

We walk around a fence.
An open field stares back at us, iridescent and vast.

Our dreams wait beyond those pastures.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Art and Maintenance of a Thirteen-Year-Old Mensch

For 13 years, I have watched my eldest grandson take on the characteristics of the proverbial mensch. Minutes after he was born, I witnessed a boy in the making. With his flagrant red hair, his calculated screams, and his sense of timing, Mr. Adin made an impression. Immediately after his covenantal circumcision, he began his preparation towards the real thing: his bar mitzvah.

Menschology is the art of making a child into a mensch. It is a gender-neutral word that encourages the creative strategies of parents and rabbis to fine tune the intricate details of becoming a bar/bat mitzvah in today’s contemporary society.

A mensch: A person of integrity and honor.

"Perhaps a public dialogue on the bimah about your parshah would be the way to go," I suggested to my daughter and grandson as we began exploring the essence of his bar mitzvah service at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C.

"Like what kind of questions?" asked Adin.

"Questions about your Torah portion. What are the Biblical and relevant themes? A few fun facts perhaps? Teaching moments," I concluded.

The morning of the bar mitzvah, I introduced the question/answer format to the congregation of friends and family. We did our back and forth routine with humor and affection.

After months of study and daily practice, my grandson learned some very important Judaic skills. Even before uncovering the sacred melodies of the scripted Torah, he had developed a built-in Jewish consciousness and a Talmudic mind characterized by his genuine curiosity.

So what was the task to be accomplished for his bar mitzvah?

The job of the bar mitzvah is to teach the young man how to swim in the world of knowledge, and how to navigate the nature of menschology. Both require a deliberate process with a talented guide/mentor. Both build on a strong foundation from the teacher/parent. Both are continuous and contiguous to each other. The bar mitzvah boy has to give himself over to the mystery that lies behind the Hebrew characters and learn to respect its history, legacy and sanctity. As a mensch in the making, the Bar Mitzvah boy has to search for his ethical and moral compass on a daily basis.

Have you ever watched the bar/bat mitzvah child during his special weekend? ow does he conduct himself around friends and family? What is his demeanor? Does he exude gratitude or haughtiness? Is he respectful to his family or is he spiteful? Has he begun the long road towards a person of character or a person of attitude?

As I watched my grandson stand up and be counted as an educated addition to the Jewish people, I was even more proud that after 13 years of character building and problem solving, his registration card reads, "Mensch." Now that the party is over, the guests have left, the daily practice routine has abruptly ended, we can focus on the art and maintenance of this thirteen-year-old mensch, Adin Isaac Yager. Mazal Tov!

Friday, April 3, 2015

Stuck at the Seder Table

I wish you all a meaningful and sacred Seder experience where time and space take you forward and backward. Do extend your prayers towards the possibility of freedom beyond our borders to all who need the miracles of the Exodus today. Chag Sameach V’Kasher.

Our annual seders were staged in the Bronx apartment where my maternal grandparents lived with my aunt, uncle and my two cousins. The living room was transformed into a festive dining hall where chairs and tables occupied the entire space. Once everyone was seated, it was difficult, if not impossible to move. Stuck at the Seder, we performed our rituals, sang our songs, recited the prayers and waited for our dinner. Sarah, our family housekeeper, prepared the plates from the overstocked kitchen and then passed them to the aunts, who passed them to the person at the end of the table who passed them down the table to the elders. The children were served last on smaller plates. During the passing of the plates. I stayed in my less than comfortable chair, taking in the heavenly smell of  my mother’s fluffy matzo balls. Besides the food and the atmosphere of thanksgiving, I felt lucky to be squeezed between my cousins at this crowded but cozy Passover Seder.

My immigrant Polish family had survived the pogroms, the holocaust, poverty and humiliation. Behind each song was a story. I would not tease out their solemn stories until I was in my twenties when the seders of my youth became the seders of my past.

My grandparents passed away. My cousins married and moved away. One by one we evacuated the Bronx apartment building on Prospect Avenue and moved to our own separate neighborhoods. My uncle moved to New Jersey, my aunt to Riverdale, my other aunt to Co-op City and my parents to the Grand Concourse. Our congenial family dispersed itself throughout the Bronx. For decades, I would try to piece together this geographic jigsaw puzzle, albeit unsuccessfully.

Tonight, I will celebrate Passover at the home of my eldest daughter in Virginia. Three of my four children will accompany my seven grandchildren, three son-in-laws, my ex-husband, his brother and sister-in-law from Israel, plus two young friends. We are still dispersed geographically, but we deliberately come together to replicate and celebrate the Seders of our past. The seating will be more luxurious. The dining room with its long table and chairs will extend into the hallway and two more tables will be added. I will be the one serving instead of waiting to be served. We will sing the songs, perform the rituals and recite the prayers while we all anticipate the holy matzo balls, fluffy or hard. I will be content to be stuck at the Seder table with those I love.