Tag Archives: mothers and daughters

Berlin, November 10, 1938

By Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

Late on the afternoon of November 10, 1938 my mother and I were traveling home on the Stadtbahn, Berlin’s elevated train system. Fortunately we knew my father had already landed in the United States after the torment of a lengthy stay and an eventful release from the concentration camp of Buchenwald.

Now there were many details still left to be settled for the hoped-for emigration of my mother and me and we had just come from the headquarters of a government office located in another section of the city.

It was cold. Because of the winter month darkness came early. What I remember most clearly was that my mother suddenly decided to get off the train several stops before our regular one. She did not explain why, only said, “I saw something,” grabbed my hand, and pulled me with her when the train doors slid open.

What she had seen I did not understand until she and I had run down the steps at the train stop and headed toward an area which I immediately recognized as Fasanenstrasse, the street where our synagogue was located.

That evening as we got closer to the familiar building a strange scene unfolded.

A large group of people stood on the street in front of the entrance and stared silently at the magnificent synagogue illuminated by a bright glow from within. I had visited the building many times when its facade was splendidly lit, but I had never seen it so luminous, shining so brightly, as if its heart was on fire.

My mother was devout and frequently took me to services here at our synagogue on Fasanenstrasse, the home of Berlin’s liberal Jewish community. I had witnessed my first religious observance in its sanctuary and visited my first Sukkah in its enclosed rear yard.

I was introduced to the rituals of liberal Judaism here. The sound of its majestic organ and the brilliance of its choir had opened a portal to faith to me.

But its magnificent cupola had always fascinated me. When I looked upward, I easily visualized it as God’s throne. Its high golden dome became an umbrella of holiness and safety to me and I could imagine Him watching me from its heights. Under it I felt protected and sanctified.

My mother pointed her finger toward the sky. I followed her glance and saw flames shooting out of the cupola. They burned brightly in the cold evening air, sending down crackling sparks onto the synagogue roof. I thought it surprising that I heard that snapping, popping sound from so far away.

We stood at the rear of the crowd. There were smirks on many faces. What was more astonishing was the sight of several idling fire engines forming a circle around the front of the synagogue. Nearby, their crews in firemen’s uniforms stood in relaxed conversation. At a close distance there were watchers all around. But no one moved. It was eerie, as if the whole scene were a bad dream in slow motion.

It became evident that no one would put out the fire. We stood there for what seemed to me a long time.

Trembling from cold and fright, I stood in the crowd, strongly aware that something quite terrible was happening. I was heavily troubled by thoughts that ran through my head.

“Why is God allowing this? Why is He letting them destroy His beautiful sanctuary? Why is He not striking all these evil people down?”

I was an eleven-year old child living through a very upsetting time. I had already learned not to voice such dangerous thoughts.

When finally, my mother reached for my hand, we turned to leave, and silently walked back to the elevated train station.

When we reached the station, my mother said her only words.

“Remember this,” she said to me.

I have remembered. Through all these many years.

To this very day.

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

 

 

 

 

 

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Ruth Leah

by Ruthie Stolovitz (Atlanta, GA)

Regularly, I am told of the weight of my namesake. People tell the beauty of my name, the history and the reason behind my name.

Unfortunately, you died before my birth at age 68, but you continue to impact my life as if I always knew you. I hope this means our souls are connected.

The rings on my mother’s hands each hold a story of my mother’s mother and her mother, a story that will forever repeat itself with the help of my descendants.

Her Spanish-style home near the water in Larchmont, NY was where my mom and her four siblings grew up. The home can be compared to my grandmother; my grandmother no longer inhabits the home, but it is still standing tall. My grandmother’s memory will always last.

Living in Florida for the end of her life, my brother visited her as a young boy and sang “Fly Me to The Moon” during the last stretch of her life.

Eternally her spirit will guide my decisions and daily actions.

A wonderful woman and great role model, my uncle tells me. I am honored to share a name with such a remarkable woman.

Hands that are gentle, my mom would tell me the similarities between me and my grandmother.

Ruthie Stolovitz is a 9th grader at The Weber School in Atlanta, GA. She wrote this poem for an assignment in Jewish Literature class, in which students discussed how biblical poetry can function as a tribute or eulogy. Students then wrote acrostic poems, in the style of biblical poetry, in memory of family members who influenced them.

 

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Tzedekah: The Gift of Giving

By Ellen Sue Spicer-Jacobson (Bala Cynwyd, PA)

Two strong memories of giving are still vivid in my mind’s eye. The first is my father sitting at the dining room table at the end of the year and making out $1.00 checks to each of his favorite charities. This was the 1950s when $1.00 meant something. And since he was a hard-working owner of a gas station and garage, supporting five children and a wife, $1.00 per charity was all he could afford. The other memory is my mother working as a volunteer for our synagogue and packing our one-car garage with other people’s stuff, much to my father’s chagrin, to be saved for the annual rummage sale, the money collected going for needy causes. The garage was always stuffed with stuff!

Both my parents’ actions could be labeled under the Hebrew word tzedakah, an obligation to give to those less fortunate than ourselves. Some also define this word as charity, but the meaning of tzedakah goes beyond charity, and for me, is linked with another Jewish tradition, tikkun olam, which means repair of the world. Helping others is also considered a “mitzvah,” a good deed, all of which dovetails into the whole concept of compassion for others through giving.

I grew up with the idea of tzedakah, and as an adult, continued to emulate my parents, who were following Judaic traditions. (This idea of giving can be found in other religions and belief systems. Jews don’t have a monopoly on this concept.) Then, a couple of years ago, I was introduced to Maimonides’ Eight Degrees of Charity, also known as Maimonides’ Ladder of Charity. Maimonides was a well-known and revered 18th century Jewish philosopher, astronomer, Torah scholar, and physician whose influence Jews still feel today. This ladder was a revelation to me, and the brief description below may give you, as it has me, new thoughts about giving in the future. (I have used several sources, each of which had some variances in language or interpretation.)

  • The lowest rung on this hypothetical ladder is when one gives help or money unwillingly, or gives a small donation grudgingly after being asked.
  • The next-to-the last rung on the ladder is a direct donation, but smaller than s/he is able to give, but given with a smile, after being asked.
  • The next rung up the ladder is a direct donation of sufficient size after being asked or only when asked by the poor.
  • The rung fourth from the bottom (now halfway) is giving a direct donation to the needy, with one another’s knowledge of the giver and the receiver, and without being asked.
  • The fifth rung from the bottom (or third one down) is charity in which the giver knows not the receiver, but the person receiving help does know the giver and may feel indebted.
  • The next rung, directly under the top rung, is when a donation is made anonymously to a charity fund that benefits the poor and the person receiving the help does not know to whom s/he is indebted.
  • The top rung of Maimonides’ ladder is the highest rung of tzedakah. This is when money is donated to prevent a person from becoming poor and helps this person (or persons) to become self-sufficient. This could be in the form of a loan or a job. It is the highest form of charity because it prevents poverty.

With this new information, I am much more aware of how and why I am giving. The next time I am ready to contribute, I want to keep in mind these eight levels of tzedakah and give anonymously, without expecting recognition. In fact, if I can afford to give, then I feel it is a privilege as much as an obligation to help another more needy than myself. I believe that this top rung of the ladder is probably the greatest gift you can give to another, as well as a gift to yourself.

How you give is as important as what you give. If you make wise choices from your heart, I can think of no better gift to yourself and to those in need at this time of year and throughout the next year. Give anonymously with joy and reap its benefits all year long!

(Note: Maimonides’ Ladder of Charity is from Mishneh Torah: Hilcot Matnot Aniyim 10:7-12.)

Ellen Sue Spicer-Jacobson is a freelance writer and author of four cookbooks, a children’s coloring book, a computer manual, and a children’s (fiction) book based on her ancestors’ trek from Russia to Austria-Hungary (and eventually to America.) She lives in Bala Cynwyd, PA, and has a health-oriented website, www.menupause.info  for older women.

This essay is reprinted with the author’s permission. It appeared originally in Women’s Voices for Change (www.womensvoicesforchange.org).

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Pages from My Mother’s Diary: A Bus Trip to Ashkelon

By Naomi Gross (Tel Aviv, Israel) and Shira Sebban (Sydney, Australia)

My sister and I never expected to find the diary of our late mother, Naomi Gross. Indeed, for many years, we did not even know of its existence. It was only when we sorted through our mother’s possessions after her death in July 2013 following a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, that we came across the non-descript, navy-bound volume, stashed away and seemingly long forgotten in a drawer of her writing desk.

The diary reads like a film script, relating experiences in the Israel of the mid-1950s of a young woman whom I did not recognize. After almost a decade’s absence, she had returned to her birthplace from Australia, where she had gone to join her father after World War II, only to discover that she had become somewhat of a stranger in her own land.

At the same time, and especially in the wake of the most recent deterioration in relations between Israel and the Palestinians, it is sobering to read a personal account of the early trials and tribulations, anguish and vulnerability of the new State of Israel.

Now, nearly sixty years later, I have decided to bring the yellowed pages filled with my mother’s distinctive script to life once more, recreating stories from her diary, which has become one of my most cherished possessions.

 Shira Sebban

*******

There was not a soul in sight. Surrounded by orange groves, my mother expressed her growing unease, “recalling some unfortunate encounters workers had with Arab infiltrators some months ago.”

I picture her, as she was then, an attractive and bright 20-something student, alone – except for her cousin Miriam – in the hot afternoon stillness. She would have been unable to get the image of those poor workers out of her mind. What if she was attacked too?

The infamous date of 4 October 1956 must have been etched in her memory. Only six months previously, five Israeli construction workers had been killed in an ambush in broad daylight on a desert highway near the Dead Sea, just a few hours away from Ashkelon.

Why on earth had she agreed to visit the South in the first place? It had been sheer madness to try to walk to the 5000-year-old site of ancient Ashkelon from the beach cafe, and they were still two kilometers away from the excavations.

The term, “infiltrator,” with its connotations of menace and evil, has recently been revived to refer to African asylum seekers to Israel. Its origins date back to the early 1950s, when numerous attacks on Israeli settlements culminated in the 1954 “Prevention of Infiltration Law,” which defined Palestinians and citizens of surrounding Arab states, who entered Israel illegally, as “infiltrators,” punishable by law, especially if armed or accused of crimes against people or property.

How many incidents had there been in the past 18 months since my mother’s return to her birthplace from Australia after almost a decade’s absence? Five people had been massacred in the previous two months alone: on 18 February 1957, two civilians had been killed by landmines next to Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak on the southern border of the Gaza Strip; on 8 March, a shepherd from Kibbutz Beit Guvrin, not far from Ashkelon, had been murdered in a nearby field, while just two days prior to her excursion, on 16 April, two guards had been killed at Kibbutz Mesilot in the North.

No, she decided firmly, she and her cousin would have to miss out on seeing the Neolithic excavations recently undertaken by French archeologist Jean Perrot; it just wasn’t worth the risk. They would then have joined the disorderly, long queue catching the Egged bus back to Tel Aviv. The two-hour trip would be a nightmare, she thought as they boarded, jostling in the narrow aisle against laborers standing cramped two or even three abreast after a hard day’s work.

It had not been as overcrowded that morning, when at least she had managed to find a seat next to Miriam. They were taking every opportunity to spend time together, renewing the strong bonds of their childhood friendship. Born and bred in Tel Aviv, Miriam was eager to inspect recent developments undertaken by the new State, remaining ever hopeful that her enthusiasm would somehow rub off onto her more-worldly cousin.

A high-pitched voice rang out above the din of the other bus passengers:

“Whose idea was it to throw Joseph into the well?”

“Was it Judah?”

The tentative reply was met with squeals of laughter.

“Wrong! You lose a point.”

My mother turned. “The seats behind us were occupied by four Yemenite girls, 15-17 years old, probably recent arrivals to the country,” she subsequently noted in her diary. “Full of joy of life, laughing and continuously talking in squeaky voices, cracking small black seeds and throwing shells on the floor of the bus. They were conducting a biblical quiz concerning the story of Joseph and his brothers in a childish manner, heavily taxing their minds and enjoying it tremendously.”

She was recalling the rescue mission, Operation Magic Carpet, which had airlifted most of Yemen’s 50,000 Jews to young Israel between June 1949 and September 1950 in what had been the first wave of Jewish immigration from the Muslim world.

The exuberance so evidently displayed by the girls would have contrasted sharply with the largely discontented demeanor of most of the other passengers. She glanced out the window and found the land “flat and uninteresting,” the monotony of the green fields “relieved here and there by red and yellow spring flowers.”

Ashkelon itself had been a disappointment – “An old Arab town with one main street containing the shops,” she would write, “now occupied mainly by migrants.”

That “old Arab town” was al-Majdal Asqalan, established under Ottoman rule in the 16th century. A commercial and administrative center, it had been part of the area occupied by the Egyptian army during the War of Independence, when its Arab population, about 11,000 strong, had largely fled, ostensibly temporarily, to nearby Gaza, before the town itself had been captured by Israeli forces in early November 1948. Less than two years later, the remaining Arab population, which had been confined to a fenced-off “ghetto,” had been transferred mostly to Gaza.

Meanwhile, demobilized soldiers and new immigrants, including survivors from the displaced persons camps in Europe and Jewish refugees from Yemen, Iran and Iraq, had been moving into what was Israel’s first development town. After several name changes, it had officially become Ashkelon in 1956 – only the year before my mother’s visit with her cousin. They had not lingered long, boarding another bus for the ten-minute ride west to the recently incorporated seaside township of Afridar.

Touted as a South African-style garden city, Miriam had long wanted to visit Afridar, which was being built on a large tract of land granted to the South African Zionist Federation by Labor Minister Golda Meir. Even its name sounded exotic, an amalgam of “Africa” and the Hebrew word, “darom,” meaning “south.” But as her description reveals, my mother had found the town center frankly uninspiring: on the right was a cinema, while on the left stood “a museum, library, health center, city municipality, all in one building. Likewise there is a row of about ten shops, comprising the entire shopping center, also a café. There is a tall tower with a clock at its top, and there, at the bottom, is the information bureau.”

The buildings, she conceded, were quite attractive, constructed of “colored bricks, with a somewhat oriental touch,” and “surrounded by lawns and flowers,” although multiple official notices forbidding visitors from walking on the grass spoiled the overall effect.

Looking for a place to have lunch, I picture the two women entering the information bureau.

“Welcome to Afridar,” the official behind the counter – clearly a new South African immigrant – would have intoned in stilted Hebrew. “This is the first modern neighborhood of Ashkelon, and the first, and up to now, only Anglo-Saxon settlement in Israel!”

“It’s impossible to utter any genuine impressions or opinions in front of the local people,” my mother would later record in her diary. “They will bite your head off as they can’t take any criticism. Still, the overall impression is a poor one, which might change with the enlargement of the place.”

She described the sea from a distance as appearing “beautiful, very blue and calm.” Small single- and two-family homes with red tiled roofs, arched front balconies, and spacious private gardens dotted the broad dirt road, an occasional old, rickety bus ambling past. Upon closer inspection, however, she expressed her disappointment as “the shore was poorly looked after, the sand none too clean and quite uninviting,” the only saving grace being the “most beautiful purple, yellow and orange wildflowers” growing in abundance.

At that time, the coastal dunes were quite deserted, save for two buildings, one a hotel and the other a café, which stood closer to the edge of the sandstone cliff running along the beach. The hotel was none other than the Dagon Inn, which had been established in 1954 by the Government-owned Afridar Development Corporation. Sharing the name of the Philistine god Dagon, whose temple Samson knocked down in biblical times, the Inn was one of the South’s first hotels, its then 16 vacation cabins even attracting the Prime Minister himself, David Ben-Gurion.

Its sole neighbor, Café Maurice, had proved to be the perfect place to have lunch, which was ” beautifully prepared and exquisitely served,” my mother wrote, although “the bill was tremendous – 12 lirot for both of us, which was very high for Israel, but perhaps worth it.”

“The place belongs to my parents,” the waiter had told the women in response to their compliments. “They’ve been in Israel for ten years – lucky for me as I was kicked out of Egypt last month.”

“What were you doing there? Your English is excellent,” my mother noted.

“Thank you, I speak five other languages as well. I studied hotel management in Switzerland and then owned some big hotels in Egypt. It was a great lifestyle – working six months a year and travelling around the world for the other six. But it’s all over now – I left with 20 pounds to my name. I’m leaving for Brazil soon. Prospects look good there. Israel’s a lovely place for idealists, but it’s got nothing much to offer me. Even if you have great talents to share, the country can’t cope yet.”

The waiter was part of the “second exodus from Egypt” after World War II, an expulsion that lasted for around 20 years, reaching its peak in the wake of the 1956 Sinai Campaign. Of Egypt’s once 80,000-strong, multicultural Jewish community, 34,000 would immigrate to Israel, the rest leaving for France, Brazil, North America, the United Kingdom and Australia. Forced to leave their property behind, many of these largely middle-class refugees were deported with little more than the clothes on their backs, their travel documents stamped “One way – no right to return.”

On the trip back to Tel Aviv, a frail, elderly lady had squeezed onto the bus, complaining of a sick heart, but no one was prepared to give up their seat. Huddled in the aisle, my mother and Miriam must have watched in disbelief as the mother of a little boy, nonchalantly sitting next to her, vociferously stood her ground, to the loud protestations of those around her.

“I paid for his ticket! He doesn’t have to get up for anyone!”

In a vain attempt to block out what my mother described as the ensuing “lively discussion,” peppered with frequent swearing, the cousins strove to share their impressions of the day.

“Miriam was most enthusiastic with all she saw,” my mother wrote. “Perhaps patriotism makes one so. As for me, I couldn’t work up a spark of enthusiasm or particular pleasure. Pity, I seem to be missing something vital.”

For other stories based on my mother’s diary see: http://jewishliteraryjournal.com/creative-non-fiction/blood-in-the-market/ and http://shirasebban.blogspot.com.au/2015/08/sordid-beauty.html

Shira Sebban is a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia. A former journalist with the Australian Jewish News, she previously worked in publishing and taught French to university students. She now serves as vice-president of Emanuel School, a pluralistic and egalitarian Jewish Day School. Her work has appeared in online and print publications including the Jewish Literary Journal, Jewish Daily Forward, Australian Jewish News, Times of Israel, Eureka Street, Alzheimer’s Reading Room and Online Opinion, as well as The Jewish Writing Project. You can read more of her work at shirasebban.blogspot.com.au

 

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Yahrzeit

by Leslea Newman (Holyoke, MA)

Golden autumn leaves
drift lazily through the air
onto Mother’s grave

White winter snowflakes
fall all over themselves to
blanket Mother’s grave

Gentle spring raindrops
are sent down from the heavens
to wash Mother’s grave

Warm summer breezes
chase pale yellow butterflies
around Mother’s grave

Today marks a year
endless tears soak one small stone
placed on Mother’s grave

Lesléa Newman is the author of 70 books for readers of all ages including the poetry collections, I Carry My Mother and October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard (novel-in-verse) and the picture books A Sweet Passover, My Name Is Aviva, and Ketzel, The Cat Who Composed.

And if you’d like to view the book trailer for I Carry My Mother, visit:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yf4ubYHObAM

“Yahrzeit” copyright © 2015 Lesléa Newman from I Carry My Mother (Headmistress Press, Sequim, WA 2015). Used by permission of the author.

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How To Bury Your Mother

by Leslea Newman (Holyoke, MA)

Slip out of the dark limo
into the bright light of day
the way you once slipped
out of your mother:
blinking, surprised, teary-eyed.
Turn to your father
and let him take the crook of your arm
like the crooked old man
you never thought he’d become.
Feel your heels sink into the earth
with every sorry step you take.
Weave your way through the graves
of strangers who will keep your mother
company forever: the Greenblatts,
the Goldbergs, the Shapiros, the Steins.
Stop at a small mountain of dirt
next to a hole that holds the plain pine box
that holds what’s left of your mother.
Listen to the rabbi mumble
prayers you’ve heard a hundred times
but this time offer no comfort.
Smell the sweet honeysuckle breeze
that is making your stomach buckle.
Feel the sun bake your little black dress.
Wait for the rabbi to close
his little black book.
Bring your father close to the earth
that is waiting to blanket your mother.
Watch him shove the shovel
into the mound upside down
showing the world how distasteful
this last task is.
See him dump clumps of soil
onto your mother’s casket.
Hear the dull thuds
of your heart hammering your chest.
Watch how your father plants the shovel
into the silent pile of dirt
and then walks off
slumped over like a man
who finally admits defeat.
Step up to the mound.
Grasp the shovel firmly.
Lift it up and feel the warm wood
between your two damp hands.
Jab the shovel into the soil.
Toss the hard brown lumps
into that dark gaping hole.
Hear the dirt rain down upon your mother.
Surrender
the shovel to your brother.
Drag yourself away.
Do not look back.

Lesléa Newman is the author of 70 books for readers of all ages, including the poetry collections, I Carry My Mother and October Mourning: A Song For Matthew Shepard (novel-in-verse) and the picture books A Sweet Passover, My Name Is Aviva, and Ketzel, The Cat Who Composed.

If you’d like to take a look at the book trailer for I Carry My Mother, visit:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yf4ubYHObAM

“How to Bury Your Mother” copyright © 2015 Lesléa Newman from I Carry My Mother (Headmistress Press, Sequim, WA 2015). Used by permission of the author.

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My Musical Mama

by Beverley Fingerhut (Toronto, Canada)

In Memory of Sonya Chula (1910-1999)

Music was woven into my life from a very early age. My mother came from a family of cantors in Poland and she herself had a beautiful voice and sang in choirs.  At the dinner table, I grew up with traditional fare such as names of famous conductors like Antal Dorati and Arturo Toscanini, the cantor Moshe Koussevitzky, opera singers such as Jan Pearce and Jussi Bjorling, the pianist Arturo Rubenstein, the violinist Jascha Heifetz as well as arias from “Madame Butterfly” and “La Traviata”. My story is a letter to my mother filled with memories of her musical legacy and how she transmitted her love of music to her children.

Dear Mom,

There you are, proudly in the front row, your voice soaring above the heavenly choir. How rich my life has been because of your beautiful voice and love of music. 

As a child, money was scarce in our house, but music was never scarce.  You had been a Hebrew teacher in Poland and dad had trained as an accountant, but when you and dad came to Winnipeg from Poland in 1928 and 1930, at the ages of 18 and 20, unable to speak English, you became factory workers in sweatshops. Dad, because of the terrible working conditions in the factories, was instrumental in forming unions to fight for workers’ rights and consequently was fired from many of his jobs. Despite the lack of money, you could still whip up savoury and geshmak meals from very little food and you saved pennies to purchase concert tickets. Because there was not enough money for all three of your daughters to attend, we picked the stalks from brooms to see who had the longest and who was the chosen one to accompany you to a concert.   I was often the lucky one, picking the longest stalk.

One of my favorite childhood memories is going to see the beautiful Madame Guiomar Novaes, considered one of the greatest female pianists of the 20th century. After the concert, you intrepidly took me backstage to meet her, whereupon she presented this shy, eight-year-old with a rose from the bouquet given to her at the end of the concert. I savoured this rose as if the queen had given it to me.  That year at our annual essay contest, I wrote my essay on this momentous event and won first prize, a lovely bracelet.

You walked around the house with your beautiful curly hair that dad loved and sang arias from “Madame Butterfly”, your favorite opera, or the Yiddish songs “My Yiddishe Mama” and “Oifen Pripitchik”. At dinnertime, along with your geshmak food, there was talk of famous conductors, stories of operas and composers. Our substantial record collection consisted of the likes of Beethoven’s “Emperor Concerto”, Grieg’s “Concerto in A minor”, Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”, Chopin nocturnes, and Rachmaninoff’s concertos, as well as cantorial music by Jan Pearce. 

You never had a cleaning lady but instead you made sure that we had private piano lessons, and to this day your youngest daughter Marleyne continues to practice and play the piano. She recently reminded me that when we had our music and theory exams at the Royal Conservatory you determinedly asked permission to sit outside the door of our examining room (though it was not permitted).  When we emerged, shaken from the frightening experience, you smiled and were able to tell us exactly how we did, note by note.  Sure enough when we got our marks in the weeks to come, they were exactly as you had foretold.

Much to my chagrin and I’m sure yours, I did not inherit your musical gene. Two incidents stand out in my mind.  Firstly, the Jewish socialist school I attended from Grades 1-7 had a choir with a wicked choirmaster, Chaver Brownstone. We were terrified of him and his stick. I was necessary for the last row of the choir because of my height, but my voice was silenced.  I was instructed in a menacing voice that I was not to open my mouth to sing, but to mouth the words and if I dared to sing, he would wave the stick in front of my face.  

Secondly, my secret endeavour was to get singing lessons. I grew up thinking how wonderful it would be to be an opera singer and how thrilling it would be to hear beautiful music emanate from my body.  So when I was in my 50s I researched and found the name of a voice teacher who had a great reputation in dealing with difficult voices. I nervously went to the teacher and after she gave me some pointers about breathing I stood in front of a microphone and belted out what I thought was a knockout version of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy”. Well, they say that everybody can draw or paint, but it is not true that everyone can sing. 

When my oldest daughter got married in Toronto, you wanted to sing at her wedding. You always carried your song sheets in a special embroidered bag, but my older sister forgot to pack the bag in your luggage and so our plan for you to sing at the party in the evening went astray.  But you were a very strong-willed woman and you were determined to sing.  It was during the wedding ceremony as your granddaughter Natalie came down the aisle, with her arm linked with mine that you, sitting in the front row burst into song.  There was not a dry eye in the crowd and 15 years later, friends still remind me of that magical moment.                                                           

To the end of your life you sang in the Winnipeg Jewish choir, you were short and so you prominently sat in the front row and I was honored to see you proudly singing. You travelled with the choir to many cities in Canada and you were asked to sing at important Jewish community events. I remember that once you wore a long black silk dress with a shocking pink rose painted on it.  You had a flair for colours as well as music. 

The day of your funeral in Winnipeg the temperatures went down to -40. Riding to the synagogue, my family dressed in long johns and layers of clothing, double rainbows shone in the icy blue sky. We knew it was you, Mom, watching us. And at the funeral service when your grandchildren sang “Jerusalem of Gold”, one of the songs you loved, they ended by saying, Baba we know you’re up there telling us we were off key.

How rich my life has been. Over the years, Mom, I have seen the famous Rampal dance with his flute, Rostorpovich with his cello at one with his body, your Perly (Itzhak Perlman) making  his violin sing, and  your Pinky (Pinchas Zuckerman) with his beautiful grey hair.  I have been to the Met in New York, where I walked up and down the aisles in wonderment and listened to “Aida”.  I listen to the classical music station and sometimes I too can identify the music or the composer and it feels so instinctive and intuitive, because music has been such an integral part of my life.

To this day, I still have the thrill and pangs in my heart when I hear the opening bars of the Emperor Concerto.  And when I hear Chopin’s nocturnes, it brings back memories of the concert we attended when I was young, and saw the great Arturo Rubenstein famously bouncing up and down on his chair as he played.  Today, when I hear opera singers like Luciano Pavarotti, Jessye Norman, Monseurrat Caballe, and the Cantor Yaakov Stark, I turn the radio to its highest volume, the music envelops me and my heart soars.

Today Mom, I sing proudly and loudly at synagogue, oblivious and uncaring what I sound like.   And I am blessed with three handsome grandsons who love to dance and a little granddaughter Olivia, who has curly red locks like you, has an uncanny resemblance to you, is stubborn and strong-willed like you and best of all, loves to sing like you. Mom, your wonderful legacy has been strong and will endure through the ages.  

Beverley Fingerhut is program director at the Centre of Excellence in Business Analysis at the Schulich Executive Education Centre, Schulich School of Business, York University, in Toronto. As an academic she has been the course director for Entrepreneur Business Development Skills for the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies as well as an adjunct professor in the Professional and Technical Writing Programme at York University. Beverley enjoys painting, reading, art history (in the past she was a part-time docent at the Art Gallery of Ontario), knitting, and spending time with her grandchildren.

“My Musical Mama” was published in Living Legacies – Volume IV: A Collection of Writing by Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women, edited by Liz Pearl (PK Press, 2014), and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author and publisher. You can read more about the collection here: www.PKPress.ca

 

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