In memory of my mother, Bertha Lopes Cardozo z”l
on her 7th nachala (yahrtzeit)
27 Tevet 5774, December 30, 2013
I still remember it as if it were yesterday. Six years ago. The year of mourning for my dear mother z”l had just ended. It was 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 chatunot, and buy new clothing. Finally, I had returned to being like everybody else. So I was told. The world was back to normal.
But it wasn’t. My experience was completely different. I suddenly realized that I couldn’t “just like that” get myself back to my music and enjoy chatunot. Something had happened, and it took a long time before I realized what that was. I had stopped being a child. For 60 years, including the 30 years after my father had died, I had been a child; for much of that time, I had children and grandchildren of my own. But at that split second and not a second earlier, when my mother’s neshama left its earthly dwelling, I had entered adulthood. Totally unexpected.
As long as my mother was alive, I was 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. I could continue to live in my comfortable childhood surrounded by her unconditional love.
But there was also something else. On a deeper level, she represented the world into which I was born, totally different from the world in which I had come to live. My mother had given birth to me while living in a gentile world and had helped me on my journey to a deeply Jewish and religious world. She was not really Jewish, although through her marriage to my Jewish father she became closely connected to an assimilated Jewish milieu where everything was Jewish except religion.
As a result of her unconditional support, I have children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who walk around with large, knitted, colored kippot and tell me that they are sorry I am not a Kohen like they are because it would have been so nice “if we could do the avoda (the priestly service) in the future Temple with all of the family together.” Other grandchildren wear black velvet yarmulkes, learn in cheder, and anxiously await their turn to sing “Yimloch” (1) in the Sephardic synagogue.
And then there is this: One of my granddaughters wants to marry a Chossid (2). Yes, you read well: a Chossid! How did that happen? A picture comes to 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 Chossid! What happened? Well, now that I think of it, all my granddaughters wear blouses with long sleeves, while I sat in a class of only gentile boys and girls and don’t remember any girl with long sleeves. And if there was a girl who wore long sleeves, there were questions asked as to whether she was “okay”!
I sometimes look at my wife and family and reflect on them and on the lives they live. They are the loveliest people I know. Each one is precious and has a big neshama. I feel very blessed. They are all proud religious Jews. My children-in-law are very special, as are their parents, our mechutanim; they are the cream of the crop. And then I realize: they are all really a gift from my mother.
When I look at an album of my childhood and see photos of me with my parents and dear brother; or when I stare at a large oil painting hanging in my front room, of my brother (age 2) and myself (age 4), inherited from my mother after she had passed away, 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 myself understand? Sometimes I feel like an existential stranger among my own family and then feel blessed again because I can do what other people cannot – live in radical wonder and perplexity.
But I know that my mother is smiling from afar. She is the only one who really understands. Not just because she was my mother, and mothers can comprehend things concerning their children that others cannot, but also because she accompanied me on this strange journey. She, together with my unforgettable father z”l and my dear brother (may God bless him and his family), were there when it happened. The Change. The first daring steps into a world that was unknown to all of us – Religious Judaism.
And as it happened and developed, it was she who was there to support me. Nothing would stand in her way. A small kosher corner in her kitchen was unacceptable. Everything had to become kosher, she decided, and so it was. Shabbat would not be spent at someone else’s house, and everything was done to make it possible for me to stay at home. At the time I took it all for granted, but now I realize the radical uniqueness of her personality. She was sui generis.
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 awareness, and she eventually became a full-fledged Jewess. When I later joined the famous Chareidi Gateshead Yeshiva in England, it was they who let me go, although today I fully understand how much of a challenge this must have been. Yet there was never a complaint, though they must have been scared to death, especially when I turned into something of a religious fanatic!
My mother z”l saved many people’s lives in the Holocaust, including my father’s family. The courage of a 19-year-old girl to stand up to the Nazis and pull the 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 didn’t even understand the question. Afraid of what?
On her first nachala, our dear son Shimon Moshe Chizkiyahu quoted a midrash, which he correctly said described my mother in the most eloquent way. When Moshe stands before Pharaoh and his brother Aaron throws down his staff, which then swallows the sticks of Pharaoh’s chartumim (master magicians) (4), the sages tell us that the staff of Aaron got no fatter. This, says the Midrash Rabbah, was a siman tov (a good sign) that Aaron’s staff would later be able to perform many miracles. Why, ask the commentators (5), was the fact that it didn’t get any fatter an indication that it would later work miracles? Because, they answer, it remained humble and never showed off that it had defeated the sticks of Pharaoh’s sorcerers and become weightier. So Aaron’s staff could do miracles because it was made of a miracle. To have swallowed all the other sticks and have still remained humble was a miracle.
Indeed this was my mother, just as our 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 remained as unassuming as she was before.
It is now seven years that she is no longer with us. I remember having the strangest feeling when after 11 months of saying Kaddish for her, three times a day, I had to stop. But I couldn’t! It was a traumatic experience. As long as I said Kaddish for her I was connected to her. But now that I had to stop, I was forced to let her go a second time.
The fact that I could say Kaddish for her—only for her—while she was over there and I was over here, was deeply comforting. We were still together. And I was sanctifying God’s name in her name. True, she probably never needed it. She could stand there before the Divine Throne on her own merits; she didn’t need me to help her.
But I needed the Kaddish so as to stay connected to her. It was a struggle to have to stop reciting this marvelous prayer, and I resisted it vehemently. I still do. Yes, I know that there are other ways to honor her, by my becoming a living Kaddish, sanctifying God’s name in whatever I do. But besides the fact that it’s a daunting task and an almost impossible mission, how would it help me to feel this very special connection with her?
Still, once a year I get some relief, on her nachala. So last Monday on her seventh yahrtzeit, I was able, for just one day, to return to my childhood and be a child once more; to connect with her, just as in the first year after her passing. To say Kaddish. Just for her. I had the feeling of having her around, again. How wise were our sages to institute this custom. It is like touching Heaven.
(1) Sephardic prayer recited before the Torah scroll is brought back to the heichal, the ark in the synagogue.
(2) Chossid, Chassid, follower of the Chassidic movement started by the famous Baal Shem Tov, a few hundred years ago.
(3) See Thoughts to Ponder 203: www.cardozoacademy.org/
(4) Shemot 7:10-12.
(5) Techelet Mordechai ad loc.