The First Year of My Adulthood
26 Teveth 5768, 4 January, 2008
The year of mourning for my dear mother z.l. ended last Friday. To my great surprise it became a most unusual experience which I did not anticipate. Suddenly I was once again allowed to listen to music (one of the great loves of my life), go to celebrations like chatunoth, and buy new garments. I returned to being like everybody else, so I am told. The world is back to normal.
But it isn’t. My experience is very different. I suddenly realized that I could not get myself “just like that” back to my music and enjoy chatunoth. Something had “happened” and it took time before I realized what that was. But now I know: I have matured. I now understand that I had entered adulthood the day she died. And not a second earlier.
Although I am of “ripe (old?) age”, I was, as long as my mother was alive, still a child: I had a mother and I lived in her life. She cared for me, even when she was very old, frail and plagued by Alzheimer’s. She was there and that was all I needed to know and feel. But there was also something else: On a deeper level, she represented the world into which I was born and which was totally different from the world in which I now live; to the point that I sometimes wonder how I got to where I am now. How did that happen? Today I live among Jews in the land of Israel. I try to live a full religious life (is there anything more difficult?) I spend most of my time in Jewish learning, trying to suggest new approaches to Jewish and national religious life, helping fellow Jews and non-Jews. Three times a day I go to the synagogue and try to pray. (Yes: try, because I have not yet succeeded to accomplish this lovely but nearly impossible goal!)
I have grandchildren who walk around with large knitted colored kippot who tell me that they are sorry that I am not a Cohen like them because it would have been so nice “if we could do the “avoda”, the divine service, in the future Temple with all of the family together”. Other grandchildren wear black velvet yamulkes, learn in a cheder and love to sing “Yimloch” (1) in the sefardi synagogue and can’t wait till their turn comes.
And then there is this: One of my granddaughters wants to marry a “chosid” (2). Yes, you read well: A chosid! How did that happen? A picture comes back to my mind when I, as a boy of 10, wanted to marry the non-Jewish girl next door whose parents used to go to church on Sundays! (Yes I still remember her name!) And now my granddaughter wants to marry a chosid!! What happened? And thinking of it: All my granddaughters wear blouses with long sleeves, while I sat in a class of only gentile boys and girls and I do not remember any girl with long sleeves, and if she did, there were questions as to whether she was “okay”!
I sometimes look intensively to my family; they are the loveliest people I know. Each one is precious with a big neshama. I am very blessed. Wow! Am I blessed!! They are all proud religious Jews. My children in law are each a gift from God, together with their parents, our mechutanim.
But then I look in an album of photos of my childhood with my parents and my dear brother. Or I stare at a large oil painting of my brother and myself, hanging in my front room, (my brother two years old and I four), inherited from my mother after she had passed away. And I ask myself: What happened? Is that me? How did I get from “there” to “here”? Do my children understand what happened to me? Do I understand myself? Sometimes I feel like an existential stranger among my own family and feel again blessed because I can see what other people may not be able to recognize – it is the recognition of wonder and appreciation. At least I do not suffer from familiarity breeds contempt! I see my family and take notice. I am aware of a big Hand behind my life.
And my wife – a most wonderful, marvelous person: But did she know what she was doing when she married me? Over the years I have changed. I am no longer a “secular” student or the “bachur yeshiva” she married when she was twenty and I twenty one. My views of Judaism and life have radically changed. They are deeper and my love for Judaism has developed into a deep love affair to which I have become so addicted that it would have aroused jealous overtones in other women. Not with her. Baruch Hashem! But does she understand? Do I understand?
I think that the only one who “understood” was my mother. Not that she would have been able to express and verbalize it. It was an unconscious awareness. Why? First of all because she was my mother and mothers are able to comprehend things concerning their children nobody else can. But also because she traveled with me on this strange road. She was there together with my unforgettable father z.l. and my dear brother, (may God bless him and his family), when it happened. The Change. The first daring steps into a world which was unknown to all of us: Religious Judaism. Not that my parents were not proud of our Jewishness. They were! But it was a cultural, social and historical Judaism, not Das Ding an Sich. Not the world of prayer, shabbath, kashruth and above all the “dangerous and daring” encounter with the Almighty.
And when it happened and developed, it was she who was there to support me. Nothing would stand in my way. A small kosher corner in her kitchen was not permitted. Everything had to become kosher she decided and so it was. Shabbath was not going to be spent at somebody else’s house and everything was done to make it possible for me to stay at home. And so it was. At the time I took it for granted, but now I realize the radical uniqueness of her personality.
Over the years my mother started to recognize the religious world of Judaism and, together with my father, began to take part in its experience. It was a slow development of inner recognition. When I later joined the famous Gateshead Yeshiva in England, it was they who let me go, although I fully recognize today how much of a challenge this must have been. But there was never a complaint even though they must have been scared.
My mother z.l. saved many people’s lives in the Holocaust. The courage of a nineteen year old girl to stand up against the Nazis and pulling wool over their eyes was unprecedented. (3) It could have cost her her life but when my children asked her years later whether she was ever afraid, she did not understand the question. It had to be done and that was it!
On her nachala (yahrzeit) last week, my dear son Shimon quoted a Midrash which he correctly said described my mother in the most eloquent way. When Moshe stands in front of Pharaoh and his brother Aaron throws his staff on the floor (Shemoth 7:12) which swallows the sticks of the chartomim (necromancers) of Pharaoh, the sages tell us that the staff of Aaron got no fatter. This says the Midrash Rabbah was a “siman tov”, a good sign, so that the staff of Aaron would later be able to perform many miracles. Why, the commentators (4) ask, was the fact that it did not get fatter an indication that it would later wrought miracles? Because, they answered, it stayed humble and never showed off that it had defeated the sticks of Pharaoh’s sorcerers and became more “weighty”. So the staff of Aaron could do miracles because it was made of a miracle: To swallow all the other sticks and to stay humble is a miracle.
Indeed this was my mother as my son suggested. She did great miracles, in fact she was one herself, but she never felt any pride or showed any haughtiness because of it. She stayed as “tiny” as she was before.
So now the year is over, but it is also a new life with the first steps into adulthood. Perhaps the strangest awareness I have is that I am no longer able to say kaddish (5) for my mother. And however strange this may sound: I miss it. The kaddish prayer kept me connected with her. Although she was in my thoughts all the time during the past year, the fact that I could say something for her, only for her, while she was over “there” while I was over “here” was a great feeling. I was sanctifying God’s name in her name. But she probably never needed it. She could stand “there” in front of the Divine Throne on her own feet. She did not need me to help her.
If there is anybody who needed the kaddish it was me! So what shall I do now that kaddish is no longer required or even encouraged by Judaism? I suppose there is only one way that I can continue to say kaddish for her and that is to become the embodiment of kaddish myself; to live a life of Kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God’s name. I will try even while knowing how difficult that is. But I will keep trying so as to honor her. May the good Lord help me and bless her soul.
(1) Sephardi prayer before the Torah scroll is brought back to the Hechal, the ark in the Synagogue.
(2) Chosid, chasid, follower of the chassidic movement started by the famous Baal
Shem Tov, several hundreds of years ago.
(3) See Thoughts to Ponder 203 www.cardozoschool.org/ : Essays
(4) Techelet Mordechai ad loc
(5) Kaddish, prayer said several times a day in honor of a deceased person, especially
parents which contains an abundance of praises about God, without ever