Friday, February 19, 2010

Shabbat Story

My 91 year old grandmother called yesterday and told me she had a huge thing to ask of me but first there was a story.....

Her brother (my Uncle Arthur) made a recent discovery while going through some papers. You should know that Arthur has been "going through his papers" for as long as I can remember so how he could possibly find anything new is beyond me but apparently he recently did.

What he found was a sealed letter from my great grandmother Ida which wasn't to be opened until her death. Ida was a lovely woman. She was short and plump, with beautiful silver hair that she wore in 2 braids pinned on top of her head until her very last years. She wore clunky shoes and plaid wool shirts and mostly smelled like sugar because she was always in the kitchen, baking. She moved from NYC to Portland when I was a baby, into a small apartment right behind my high school. I was lucky to know her until she died in 1982 when I was 16.

I am not sure how her letter got overlooked in my uncle's extensive file system but it had a number of requests relating to her death and afterward. As it turns out, most of her requests had been carried out anyway but for one. My grandmother started crying when she told me that her mother had asked that a yartzeit candle be lit for her each year.

Given my family history it's nothing short of miraculous that I am a practicing Jew today. My father isn't Jewish. My mother came from Orthodox Jews on her father's side and adamantly secular Jews on her mother's side. Part of my grandparents' decision to leave New York and come to Portland in the 1950's was about getting away from Judaism--all that Old World superstition and tradition. My grandfather's experience with Judaism as a child was oppressive and without joy so he wanted no part of Jewish life as an adult. My grandmother's family were the classic politically active, intellectual, lefty types of folks who had no use for religion.

When my grandparents came to Portland, they didn't join a synagogue. There was no religious education for my mother and aunt. When I was growing up, we gathered for some holidays but I was in college before I realized, for example, that most Jews say a blessing while lighting the candles at Chanukah. I had to figure out what being Jewish meant on my
own as an adult.

I don't talk about that much with my family. Jewish observance is an awkward
subject with both my Jewish and non-Jewish relatives--which is why this conversation with my grandmother felt so very significant.

Both my great uncle and my grandmother are feeling awful that this one simple request had been ignored all these years. Both feel like, now that they know, they still can't commit as they're both over 90 and don't know how much longer they'll be with us. So my grandmother asked me today if I would accept this responsibility.

So, of course I will be lighting the yartzeit candle in my great grandmother's memory. I'd always wanted to but it was such a touchy subject I didn't know how to approach it. I already feel a little bit guilty when I light the candle for my grandfather every autumn. I think he'd surely disapprove but when I finally confessed to my grandmother today, she assured me he would be honored.

My house is full of my great grandmother's beautiful old furniture. Each morning I take my clothes out of her old dresser. Our Chanukah menorahs are lit on the same old oak buffet where she lit hers. And every week, I braid my challah on the same wooden bread board that she used for her delicious baking. So I don't know that I need to light a candle to remember her, but it does feel like both an honor and a very strong connection to those who came before me.

It's funny how things work out, isn't it?


LeLo said...

This is such a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing it.

Delaney's Duds said...

Wonderful to carry on such a beautiful tradition. What an honor.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Oh--what a wonderful story! We light yartzeit candles for many family members who otherwise would not have them lit--similar family histories, you and I--and for friends who otherwise would have no one to say Kaddish.

Anonymous said...

Our ancestors come to inhabit us in amazing ways, don't they?

Catherine said...

Lovely. Just lovely. Is this photograph of your grandmother or great grandmother?

Kai Jones said...

When my mother died I asked the rabbi of the congregation I was then attending what was appropriate, given that my family is not Jewish (I'm a convert). He said nothing was required but I could do as much as I wanted. So I said kaddish and I light a yartzeit candle for her every year.

She always said we should all do what helped us, that her funeral and all such after-death things were about making the living feel better.

Anonymous said...

It is funny how things work out. Often times they "work out" on their own when we let them. I am not always so good at just "letting them".

And I drooled a little on my keyboard when I saw that you make challah. I used to work at a company where the executives would have some delivered every week. Yum.

Very sweet story.

Mimi said...

Oh Magpie, I have tears, what a beautiful story. In my tradition, we say - may her Memory be Eternal.

What a fascinating faith journey you have been on.