by Jay Prosser (London, England)
‘How about salmon stir-fry?’
‘Yes, weather warm and dry.’
I realise my parents are once again having a parallel-universe conversation. This is the result of mutual increasing deafness, not helped by the depressing news virus updates at more-than-background volume.
Sitting between them at breakfast every morning, I’m often required also to translate between them. The experience is similar to watching a movie with them. ‘What are they saying?’ ‘I haven’t seen her before.’ I’m tempted to do sign language on the movie.
It would be one thing if I was 16, or 21, or even 30. But it’s quite another if you’re a man in your 50s — with your life, job, and partner left behind in another city — to spend the lockdown months with parents in their 80s. Neighbors have been very kind, and my parents relied on them before we could get online groceries. But this is not The Graduate, and I’m definitely not Dustin Hoffman. The neighbor’s wife is charming, but we bond only over tomato plants and coordinated deliveries.
Eleven weeks ago, my catastrophic worrying – the world is going to end – for once, proved the wise response. Just before lockdown, I packed my car with jars of halech (Iraqi Jewish date syrup), fermented beetroot and horseradish (it was just before Pesach, can you believe), piles of books so I could continue to teach, albeit remotely, at my university, and drove the 200 miles to be with my parents.
This week’s parashah includes the mitzvah about honoring your father and mother, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the extraordinary relevance of the 5th commandment in lockdown.
The Hebrew word, kavod, translates as ‘honor’ or ‘respect,’ but its root, kved, carries the sense of heaviness, of a burden. Our ensoncement has definitely not been easy. We’ve had a series of domestic catastrophes. The washing machine broke the day I arrived, releasing a flood that would have drowned Pharaoh’s horses. Then the dishwasher broke. The vacuum cleaner. The internet. The landline. It felt like a trial by ordeal. I missed my partner. My friends. My ordered, other life.
The verse in Exodus, ‘Honor your father and mother and I will arrange your days on the land which your God gave you,’ is about commitment to your parents and their home, clearly meant to be Israel. But returning to maintain my childhood home for my parents, the mitzvah has a different resonance right now. My parents are fit for their age and definitely more social than me. Their week is normally a cheerful merry-go-round of ballet and golf; French and tai chi; croissants and coffee; and, ever more occasionally, synagogue. But since they’ve not been outside for ten weeks, I’ve been their lifeline. I’m living in the studio in the loft and admiring my parents’ resourcefulness and stoicism – really respecting them — as they do their 50 circuits daily around the 100-foot garden (about 1.5 miles), weaving in and out of each other’s way, as if performing a coded bee dance.
The Talmud says that to honor your parents is like honoring God, because along with God you owe your existence to them. We learn that there should be almost no limit to honoring one’s parents, so that if our father was sleeping and we needed the key from under his pillow to unlock the chest and sell the contents that would make us a large fortune, we nevertheless shouldn’t disturb him. We hear of the rabbi who willingly bends low so that his elderly mother can use him as footstool to get into bed at night. But we also learn that all such actions must be done with a good heart and the right sprit: that we can be punished if we serve our parents a ‘delectable fatty bird’ resentfully. This latter, at least, is not my problem. I find it truly heart-warming to see my parents tucking into my easy-peasy roast chicken dinner.
Honor, the Talmud says, includes making sure your parents have provisions. I’ve summoned this to mind as I help my mother with her online grocery order, explaining that, yes, you do have to pay when you get to the checkout, because you’ll lose your slot if you don’t — not always succeeding at keeping my head out of my hands. Honoring one’s parents also includes providing for other needs. I’ve planted salad greens in their garden to encourage my father to move more often from his chair to water them. I’ve been baking (no one appreciates my challah more). I’ve accrued gadgets to make their life easier in the enforced absence of their home help. A secret joy is watching my mother gently order and nudge the new Roomba as if it were a small dog.
Jewish law even has something to say about honoring and dementia: that we should continue to care for our parents until we absolutely no longer can, and only then should we delegate. We learn Kaddish in order to honor parents after their death. And the greatest honor we give them is by continuing to perform good deeds even when they won’t be here to witness them. As I’ve adjusted to my parents’ rhythms, I’ve realised what an honor it is for me simply to be here: listening to their stories; watching their favourite film . . . which leads to the story of how they met; and I’ve heard that story a thousand times.
But in the end, honoring your elderly parents by spending lockdown with them is — unlike the normal filial fleeting visit home — not about you. It’s about them and seeing the changes they’ve really gone through – their ageing process. It’s about realising your parents are mortal, fragile, vulnerable, especially to this virus. It’s about carrying on the story from generation to generation. And it’s about honoring all those who’ve come before you, and thereby keeping traditions alive.
And, yes, it’s about translating at the breakfast table.
Jay Prosser, a reader in humanities at the University of Leeds, has published his Jewish-themed writings in Tablet, Jewish Renaissance, and elsewhere, and has written and edited several academic books on various subjects. At the moment he is working on a book about his Asian-Jewish family. For more information about Jay and his work, visit: https://ahc.leeds.ac.uk/english/staff/1076/dr-jay-prosser