Modeh Ani: I Am Grateful

by Laura Greene (Whitefish Bay, WI)

In 1957 I boarded the SS United States and sailed from New York to Germany to marry a “nice Jewish boy from New Jersey.” Neither of our parents attended our wedding, although they both approved of the marriage. The Army Chaplin provided the men for the minyan, and they held the chupah. I didn’t know any of the guests or what a minyan or a chupah were. At the end of the ceremony the rabbi folded my hands around a sheet of paper. I thought it rather strange to be handed a marriage license at the end of my wedding. The rabbi looked directly into my eyes and his last words to me before releasing my hands were, “The responsibility of having a Jewish home is yours.”

I was dumbfounded. This wasn’t fair. I had no knowledge of such things. Why was this my responsibility? Why hadn’t he warned me that he was going to say this in front of God! I would have argued, protested, refused. But now it was too late.

I am the daughter of two American-born, secular Jewish parents. I grew up in New Jersey which Jewishly is a suburb of New York. My Jewish grandparents on both sides went back to Moscow and Constantinople. They and my parents spoke Yiddish and attended Yiddish theatre. Yet none of them celebrated a Jewish holiday.

My mother never lit a Shabbat candle. Our so-called Seders meant bread on one plate and matzah on another. Hagaddah?  I never heard of it. I stayed home from school on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur because it didn’t look nice for me to be in school. My parents usually had an argument on Yom Kippur because my father, who stayed home from work, insisted on eating. To him religion was superstitious nonsense. Sometimes he referred to it as black magic and he mocked the religious. Yet, I always knew I was Jewish. My brother had a bar mitzvah by memorizing his portion. My mother made chicken soup, chopped liver, kugel, bacon and shrimp.

In college a sorority sister invited me to her family Seder. Her brother was studying to be a cantor and he sang the liturgy. The family explained the proceedings as the family read from the Hagaddah and sang the traditional melodies. How kind and gentle the family were. How non-judgmental. I felt cheated at how much I had missed. If I married a Jewish boy, maybe I could catch up. My parents wanted me to marry Jewish. They were pleased when I found Victor.

Victor and I met in college. Like me, Victor was Jewish all the way back. In fact his father lay t’fillin every morning. I found out much later that his father never told him why or taught him how. Victor’s Hebrew and religious school experiences were fraught with unhappy memories. He entered the army after college graduation and was sent to Germany. We decided not to wait to get married, and instead, took the opportunity to visit Europe during his leave time.

When we returned home, we both enrolled in school. He earned a Ph. D degree and I earned an MA degree. Our friends were academics. We hosted Seders and invited our non-Jewish friends. Victor knew how to lead a Seder and I knew how to cook. I lit my grandmother’s brass candlesticks that my mother had tucked into my luggage when I left for Germany. Victor’s first teaching job was in Manhattan, Kansas and there I had my next Jewish experience.

There were two resident Jewish families in Manhattan. They adopted the itinerant, and, for the most part, uncommitted Jewish university faculty members. The ever-fluid Jewish community owned a one room building and from time to time a student rabbi from Fort Riley would pay a call. For Passover the two resident families ordered supplies from Topeka and arranged for shipment to Manhattan. I ordered two boxes of matzah.

Nina Becker taught me how to light Shabbat candles and how to bench. I was awkward, but I did it. I never forgot what the rabbi said at my wedding. What was I going to do when I had children? I knew nothing.

While in Kansas, I gave birth to a daughter.  Then, since academics travel, our son was born in Ohio. Knowing nothing about the importance of names, and neither family making suggestions, we just picked our children’s names because we both liked them. Our son was circumcised, but there was no brit milah. It didn’t matter to anyone. The decision still haunts me. We never missed hosting a Seder, and I never missed lighting Shabbat candles.

Victor’s next teaching job was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, so we said good-bye to Kansas. By then our daughter was eight-years-old and our son, three. Victor drove a U-haul truck with all our belongings and I followed him in our VW Bug with the children. They had been the only Jewish children in that college town. There were no child car seats or seat belts in those days. To avoid the summer heat and traffic, we left about 3 a.m. I fell asleep at the wheel and hit a guardrail. The car went airborne over a fifty-foot embankment, plunged down, hit the ground, and bounced a few feet before stopping.

Miracle number one: The car did not turn over. Miracle number two: My children were not hurt. They had bounced between and among the nest of pillows and stuffed animals.

“That was fun, Mommy, can we do it again?” said my three year old when the car stopped moving.

I did everything wrong after that. Believing it was safer in the car than on the road, I told my children to stay in the car. Dazed and shaken, I climbed up the hill to get help.

Miracle number three: The car did not catch fire. My daughter had the good sense to turn off the motor. We stayed in voice contact. Victor, unaware of the accident, continued his journey.

A trucker spotted me. It must have been very strange to see a woman pacing the interstate road in the dark and screaming over an embankment. There were no cell phones in those days.

“Where’s your car?” he asked.

Shivering in the 80-degree heat, I pointed.

“Stay here. I’ll report the accident at the next exit.” He drove away.

Two cars passed without slowing. Meanwhile, I kept telling my children to stay put. It seemed forever before a police car arrived. The officer was kind. He asked me where I got my jacket. Until then I hadn’t noticed that the trucker had put his jacket on my shoulders.

The policeman stayed with me until Victor arrived. When Victor saw only me and not the children, his face contorted in pain.

“The kids are fine,” I said.

He put his head on the rolled-down window and cried for a few moments, then climbed down the hill and retrieved our children. Geoffrey’s pajamas were the color of the rising sun. I still cannot see the orange sun without remembering that accident.

Miracle number four: The VW Bug had not rolled over, but the guardrail had ripped a hole through the door of the driver’s seat. The hole was large enough to put my head through, but we walked away from that accident. We completed our trip scrunched in the cab of the U-haul truck. I never knew who the truck driver was. I never had the chance to thank him or return his coat. I wondered why I was still alive and my children safe. What made him stop when others didn’t?

We arrived in Milwaukee in August. I wanted to attend High Holiday Services. I needed to thank God I hadn’t killed my children. I needed to thank God for being alive. I needed to thank God for sending us the truck driver.

We visited all the Reform and Conservative synagogues in town. At each one we were told that without tickets we couldn’t attend the High Holidays. I asked why a person needed a ticket to pray. The answers did not satisfy me. Defeated, I told one Conservative rabbi that we’d pray in the park. He responded differently than the others. “A Jew should not pray alone on the High Holidays. If you decide to join us fine, if not, that’s fine too.  Come and welcome.”

We joined that day and enrolled our daughter in his religious school. Shortly after, at my daughter’s public school orientation, a woman approached me. “You’re new in town,” she said. “Are you Jewish?”

Her question shocked me. People in Kansas and New Jersey just don’t go around asking that question. I must have looked stunned because she laughed.

“I’m a speech therapist. I can tell by your accent you’re from the east coast. So I guess you’re Jewish. I’m Jewish too. Give me your phone number and I’ll invite you for Shabbat.”

To my surprise, she did. We talked. She said the synagogue I had just joined was looking for teachers and I should apply. I laughed.

“I don’t know anything,”’ I said.

“So, you’ll learn. You’ll keep one step ahead of the kids. I’ll help you.”

She did, and I did. We became good friends. Bit by bit I learned. Many people mentored me. I took courses through the Jewish community and the university. I attended Jewish conferences. It wasn’t long before I identified strongly as a Reform Jew. In time I received certification from HUC and teacher certification from the University of Wisconsin. I learned Hebrew, and, through the years, have received numerous teaching awards. I love what I do. My life was enriched because of my involvement in Jewish education. After 40 years of teaching in religious school and Hebrew school and helping kids prepare for becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, I have gained far more than I have given. Perhaps my debt to the truck driver is now paid in full. I wonder if he got his jacket back.

Just as I have been influenced by my many teachers, so have I influenced the children I’ve taught. I think about my Jewish journey and how far I have come. Was I led here? I like to think so. My husband is no longer reluctant to attend services with me or display Jewish artifacts in our home. When we recently downsized from a house to an apartment, he requested that a mezuzah be on every doorpost of our apartment, not just the front door. I wish I had treasured that strange paper the rabbi placed between my hands on my wedding day, but I didn’t know what a ketubah was. When I told this story to my present rabbi he smiled.

“You could have said no.”

His answer surprised me. Until then it never occurred to me that I had that option.

My daughter didn’t marry, but my son married a Jewish girl and they recently joined a synagogue. They live far away from me. My oldest grandchild now attends religious school kindergarten. He will learn Hebrew, see his grandmother light Shabbat candles and understand why. My brother, an atheist, is a strong supporter of Israel and his daughter and her family are active members of an Orthodox Jewish community. Our parents must have done something right, and maybe we did, too. I am blessed. L’dor v’dor.

Laura Greene holds an MA in American Studies from the University of Pennsylvania and an MFA in Writing from Vermont College. She has written twelve books for children and has received commendations for her work from the National Council of Teachers of the Social Sciences, Council for Wisconsin Writers, and the Writers League of Texas. She is currently seeking publication of her first adult novel: Walking on the Razor, a literary thriller about Eli Cohn, an Israeli spy whose courage saved a nation. Married, with two children, and three grandchildren, Laura enjoys reading, knitting, ballet, music, travel, cooking, and teaching. 

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3 Comments

Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity

3 responses to “Modeh Ani: I Am Grateful

  1. What a beautiful story, how moving. I was very touched by your story. (Don’t know if you remember me, but I believe I was your mentor at Vermont MFA) I also write for JWP. – see my name and email me if you like.

  2. Laura Greene

    Hi Mel,
    Of course I remember you! I’ll never forget any of my teachers at Vermont College. Everything after Vermont was shaped by my experience there. I’d love to get back in touch with you. I will ask Bruce to give you my e-mail address.
    Laura

  3. What a wonderful, moving story–told as only Laura can tell it.

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