Tag Archives: tradition vs change

Whether I Was Counted Didn’t Matter

by Rita Plush (New York, NY)

I was not a religious woman. I did not keep kosher. I drove and carried on the Sabbath, but when my mother died in 1995 I decided to say Kaddish for her. She had honored the role of motherhood in her quiet and loving way for so many years of my life; it was my turn to honor her. When I told her rabbi I’d decided to take on the responsibility of Kaddish every day for 11 months, he said it wasn’t expected of me. A polite way of saying I wouldn’t be included in the minyan, the ten people required for communal worship—ten male people that is. 

A bar mitzvah boy, still sleeping with a nite-lite? According to ancient rabbinic decree and prevailing diktat in the Conservative movement then, that pisher would be counted; he was up to the task. A 58-year-old female who had raised three children, gone to college and was running a business? Talk to the hand! No matter; I wasn’t there to make noise and change the rules of female inequality in Jewish ritual. I was there to pay tribute to my mother’s passing, a loss so profound, it felt as if my very connection to the universe had been broken. 

Yiskah-dol v’yiska-dosh sh-may ra’bbo begins the ancient Aramaic prayer. 

The words had a power I could not name but when I recited that opening line, I was part of the world again! Part of all Jews who, for centuries past, had shown their respect for their loved ones the way I was respecting my mother. I felt connected to them and to Jews in present time, whoever and wherever they were, remembering their beloveds as I was. I was not alone in my grief. Yet a need began to bloom in me. Reading the Kaddish phonetically was not enough; something was missing. 

Had been missing, every time I held a siddur. When I sat and when I stood during High Holiday services; when I bowed my head and beat my breast, following the prayers and blessings, silently reading in English. I wanted the language of my ancestors on my lips. I wanted to read Hebrew. 

And so I learned, in a classroom with other like-minded adults, part of National Jewish Outreach’s Read Hebrew America program, hieroglyphs in the booklet, square and blocky, rather than actual letters. I tried to commit to memory the significance of the undersized T’s, the dots and dashes under a particular letter—the new world of sound that was Hebrew. It took study and time; it took some sweat as I labored over a service’s opening prayers while the morning minyan was wrapping up the closing Aleinu. But I kept at it and after a few months I was reading along (struggling along, is more like it) feeling the presence of the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebekah and Leah, my matriarch, Malka, now among them. 

Soon after my mourning period was over, my synagogue became egalitarian—sort of, or as my Grandmother used to say, nisht du, nisht ort, not here, not there. To appease the older, more traditional-leaning congregants, women were included in the minyan in the smaller, downstairs chapel, while upstairs in the main sanctuary, it was business as usual. So be it; they built it and I came, called upon to be present for others saying Kaddish, as others had been present for me. Every Tuesday morning, with gratitude and my faltering Hebrew I joined the minyan and helped a mourner honor their loved one. 

In time, my synagogue became fully egalitarian, and it felt good. It felt right to be a fully acknowledged member in good standing of my Jewish community. But whether I was counted downstairs, upstairs, or no-stairs, it didn’t matter. In the tradition of my people I had given tribute to all my mother was to me. And… I learned my alef beis.

Rita Plush is the author of the novels, Lily Steps Out and Feminine Products, and the short story collection, Alterations. She is the book reviewer for Fire Island News, and teaches memoir, Continuing Education, Queensborough Community College. If you’d like to learn more about Rita and her work, visit: https://ritaplush.com

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Honoring your mother and father in lockdown

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

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My Yiddish Name

By Leah Klahr (Lawrence, NY)

My middle name is Bryna, a Yiddish name that probably stems from the word broyn, which means brown. For many years, I carried the name with resentment. To me, the obviously Yiddish name reeked of an outdated and simplistic culture, a culture I viewed as distant from my perception of life. Though I rarely disclosed the existence of my middle name, I felt as if everyone who met me could immediately sense its strong scent and trace it back to me. Yet despite my disdain, I somehow sensed a deep connection to my Yiddish name, the name which had been my great grandmother’s before it was mine. It had quietly slipped into the core of my being, and while I continued to resent its sound and meaning, Bryna began to symbolize a secret and essential part of my identity.

This past summer, I chose to learn more about the Yiddish in me and my people. My interest led me to a Jewish literature program at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. Together with other high school students, I entered the realm of Yiddish literature, and discovered that the Yiddish culture is far from simplistic. Yiddish embodies the continuing story of the Jewish People. Spoken for nearly one thousand years of Jewish history, it carries unwavering faith and adherence to tradition; it carries separateness; it carries words, sounds, and influences that managed to creep into crevices of the Jewish heart. Yiddish carries the large, frightening questions that knocked on shtetel doors, questions which scratched upon ancient, unbroken promises of faith; it carries the exhilaration of the new and uncharted; it carries the poetry of secularized writers who refused to forget the mother tongue; it carries survival, and the unending question of what it means to live as a Jew.

Together with other students, I discovered that Yiddish is not just a bridge through which we can connect to our past. It is the animated train of Sholom Aleichem’s Railroad Stories, merging the past and the future, transporting us  to new places, and connecting us to a world of old.

Bryna. Brown like earth. Like the ground that stood as witness to pogroms and ghettoes and death camps. Like the nature that is silent when we most want it to speak. Like the soil where broken life is transformed into creation. Like the synthesis of diverse creatures and life. Brown, the color of the earth that sustains us.

I had always perceived my Yiddish name as a remnant of a dying culture, as an unfortunate- sounding relic of the sturdy Jewishness of my ancestors. And while there is truth in such a perception, it is only a part of what my name symbolizes. Bryna represents my own struggles between the worlds of tradition and change. It represents the questions and identity that knocks heads with  Leah, the mother of Jewish faith, the name by which I am known. It represents the shtetel inside of me, and it also represents my struggle to escape its sometimes constricting walls. Bryna is the continuous reminder that you can take a Jew out of the shtetel, but you cannot take the shtetel out of a Jew. And though the truth of this adage had once invoked a sense of resistance within me, it is now a truth that I embrace like an old friend.

Bryna is still the name that I hide from the world. However, it is only seemingly hidden. My middle name is tied to my every thought and action; its presence in my life is indispensable. And yet, I refuse to be publicly called by it. Perhaps this paradox embodies the nature of the name, and the language and culture it implies. I am a searching Jew, still grappling with the multiple narratives and tensions of my identity. Bryna ensures that I will never stop searching. I am Leah; I am Bryna.

Leah Klahr is a current senior at Stella K. Abraham High School for Girls. She lives in Lawrence, New York, with her parents, four sisters, and one brother. She loves literature, and is especially passionate about fairy-tales. Leah has worked as the Editor-in-Chief of her school newspaper, The Looking Glass, and her work has been published in Teenink Magazine, and Fresh Ink for Teens.

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