On Jewish Mothers
I was raised on Mosholu Parkway in the Bronx by a woman who could have taken Olympic gold in Jewish mothering. Sonia, Abie-the-tailor’s
wife, never stopped fearing for my life. She made me wear galoshes on sunny days (“It might rain, you never know!”), and warned that if I left the house with wet hair Iwould die one hour later of pneumonia.The worst thing is when my mother does her worrying in front of other people — like boys! When I’m 13, I have my first solo piano recital. I’m wearing a sleeveless, scooped-neck dress that Abie copied from Seventeen. The whole building is there, including Stanley Eichenholtz from 5B. I think Stanley likes me. Whenever we pass on the staircase, he always punches my arm.
I finish the last piece, and I stand up to do the curtsy that Mrs. Blitzer taught me. This is my favorite part. Suddenly, in the middle of my moment of glory, my lunatic mother runs up on the stage, throws a schmattadickeh old cardigan over my bare shoulders, and screams in a heavy Yiddish accent, “Cover up! You’re perspiring! You’re gonna catch a bug!”
The humiliation is not over, because the next time Stanley passes me on the staircase, he says, “Cover up! You’re gonna catch a bug, ha, ha!” And then he punches me on the arm. I am so ashamed. Why must my parents be such immigrants?
I have to acknowledge that, in her better moments, my mother also paid for piano lessons, took me to movie musicals and saved nickels and dimes for years so that I could go to Europe after college. Also, my mother never left the house without a pocket full of crumbs for the sparrows and a pocket full of change “for the poor people” — totally innocent of the fact that she was the poor people. And as little as she had, she would share it.
Mama rented a room to a recent immigrant from Poland. The man had been a professor, but now was scraping by as a janitor. My mother felt very sorry for him, but she knew he’d be too proud to take charity. So when he came home at night she would make up a story: “Oy, Mr. Rabinovitz, I made this all this food and now my daughter’s not coming over for dinner. Do me a favor, have some or I’ll have to throw it out.”
So Mr. Rabinovitz would “do her a favor” and have some.
Ashamed? I should have been proud. But she was still a constant source of embarrassment to me, and after the Stanley Eichenholtz incident I swore that when I grew up and had a child of my own, I would never be an overprotective, interfering, super-doting Jewish mother.
Then I became a parent and — you guessed it — history repeated itself. My son treated hip, worldly, sophisticated me with the same scornful superiority I dished out to my simple, old-country mother.
Back in his college years, he announces he’s going to Vegas for the weekend with some friends. I ask how he’s getting there, and he rolls his eyes and heaves one of those “parents-are-such-a-pain” sighs. He patiently informs me that they’re going in Dave’s car.
I look at Dave’s car, and I see Death. Dave’s car is an open jeep: no roof and no sides. We are a family that drives Volvos. I point out that if they take that car through the desert, not only will they be burned to a crisp, but they won’t have any protection in a collision. I suggest that they rent a nice four-door sedan. More eye-rolling, more sighing and then the killer accusation: “Would you please stop being such a Jewish mother!”
Why fight it? I decide to plead guilty: “Listen, I am a Jewish Mother! And maybe one day you’ll thank me for it! Here’s some money. Rent a real car!”
The boys are driving back from Vegas. There’s a van in front of them with a heavy glass door strapped to the roof. Suddenly this glass door comes loose, flies through the air, and crashes right onto the top of the rented car. But the heavy steel roof protects the kids and nobody gets hurt! So I do the best I can to protect my child. Just like my poor mother did the best she could.
Then I read “The Joy Luck Club,” and I think, “Those Chinese mothers are very familiar.”
And I see this movie, “My Left Foot,” and I think, “That Irish mother is very familiar.”
Then a black girlfriend calls about her teenage son. She’s concerned because he can’t find a summer job, so she asks me to find him a little computer work.
“I will pay his salary,” she says. “Just don’t tell him where the money’s coming from.”
This sounds very familiar.
Then I get my nails done and the Vietnamese manicurist, Kim, tells me she has six children and they all live in a tiny two-bedroom apartment in a very bad neighborhood.
“All children full scholarship: Berkeley, UCLA, M.I.T., Harvard, Amherst, Yale,” she says. “You want to cut cuticles?”
Well, I may have turned into my mother, but I am not alone. Everyone has turned into my mother!
Annie Korzen (“Seinfeld’s” Doris Klompus) tours and lectures worldwide with her solo show, “Yenta Unplugged.” Her humorous essays have aired on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” and will appear in freshyarn.com and theknish.com. Her web site is
All the Children
On the eve of Simchat Torah, many synagogues auction the three major honors of the day, with proceeds benefiting the synagogue or other Jewish institutions. Two honors, hatan Torah (for the one called to the final reading in Deuteronomy) and hatan Bereshit (for the one called to the first reading in Genesis), usually receive the highest bids. The third, kol hanearim — supervising the blessing of all minor children as a tallit is held over their heads, while the honoree receives the next-to-last aliyah in Vezot Haberakha — can be a close second.
One year, however, the auction for kol hanearim in my synagogue was unusually competitive. When finally over, I asked the man who fiercely bid the highest why he vied for this honor.
Surprised by my question, he replied as if it were self-evident: “The one who supervises scores of little children crowded under the tallit, reciting the same blessing Jacob uttered over his grandchildren, is himself guaranteed Jewish grandchildren. Could I want less for myself?”
These words come to me again and again, whenever I contemplate the unique Torah portion, Vezot Haberakha, the only parsha not identified with a specific Shabbat. Rather, it is reserved for the joyous Simchat Torah holiday, with its unique kol hanearim ceremony, and as such deserves close analysis.
The Talmud, in Sukkah 42a, referring to Vezot Haberakha, provides a provocative comment: “Our rabbis taught: A minor who is able to speak, his father must teach him Torah…. What could be meant by Torah? Rav Hamnuna replied, the Scriptural verse [Deuteronomy 33:4], ‘Moses commanded us a law, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.'”
Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, an early 20th century commentator, questions why the Talmud chose this particular passage as the first Torah verse that a parent must teach a child. Epstein suggests that by referring to Torah as a morasha, an inheritance of all Jews — young and old alike — it rejects the notion that only mature adults are obligated to observe Torah. An inheritance is age blind, and so too is the Torah.
The word morasha, however, may contain another dimension. An early 19th century German scholar, the Ktav V’Kabblah, notes that the usual word for inheritance is yerusha, not morasha. In fact, morasha is best translated as “a possession” rather than “an inheritance.” The difference is crucial. One receives an inheritance without individual effort, but one attains a possession through personal exertion. Torah, in other words, requires personal exertion rather than effortless lineage. The only way to become fluent in Torah is to work at studying Torah.
Ketav Sofer, a 19th century scholar, remarks that “morasha kehillat Yaakov,” “a possession of the congregation of Jacob,” meaning that no Jew is an island. No Jew can observe all of the mitzvot of the Torah, for the 613 commandments don’t all apply to any one person. Some only apply to Kohanim, others to Leviim, some to women, while others only to those who live in Israel. Only as a part of the congregation of Israel can we become complete Jews.
Certainly, these lessons are themes that the beautiful kol hanearim ceremony emphasizes.
First, each child has a right to Torah, an inheritance that comes with birth.
Second, kol hanearim suggests that Torah requires effort. Neither children nor adults will acquire knowledge unless they work at studying Torah. If they put in the effort, they will be rewarded with the greatest gift: the Torah itself.
And, finally, we must appreciate that a Jewish life must include the community of fellow Jews. The children are blessed as part of an entire group — part of a future community — because Torah can’t be lived in isolation. Instead, our blessing emphasizes the need for everyone to be involved with the Jewish community, for only together do we comprise the congregation that both Vezot Haberakha and Simchat Torah celebrate.
This column originally appeared in The Journal on Oct. 9, 1998.
Elazar Muskin is rabbi at Young Israel of Century City.
Permission to Grieve
Years ago, one of my colleagues had the awesome task of officiating at the funeral of a 9-year-old girl killed by a car while riding her bicycle. My friend gathered the children from that small Jewish community and gently invited them to speak their true feelings.
"I’m mad at my mom because she won’t let me ride my bike." "I’m mad at my friend for dying." "I’m scared that I’m going to get hit by a car." She turned to the youngest one: "I’m still sad," he said.
That 4-year-old’s earnest and innocent remark has stayed with me ever since. We live in a society not so tolerant of grief, and I sometimes worry that even those of us who allow ourselves to feel our sadness at the funerals, try too hard to dry the tears as soon as we leave the cemetery.
Jewish tradition certainly acknowledges the reality of grief, offering wise step-by-step instructions to help the mourners heal and the comforters give solace. Yet, even our tradition — sensitive though it is to the human need to grieve loss — expects us to stick to a grief schedule. Although our yearly Yizkor cycle encourages us to remember our lost loved ones, the grieving is supposed to stop and we are expected to get on with our lives.
This week’s Torah portion — Chaye Sarah ("the life of Sarah") ironically begins with Sarah’s death and ends with the deaths of Abraham and his son, Ishmael. From this portion come many of our burial and mourning traditions: that we mourn for a set time and then stop, as Abraham did for Sarah; that we have a community cemetery, something Abraham arranged for after Sarah died; that we offer a hesped (eulogy) over our dead, a tradition that grew out of one interpretation of Abraham’s response to Sarah’s death; that the immediate survivors bury their dead, as Abraham buries Sarah, and Isaac and Ishmael bury their father, Abraham.
But this story of the death of our first matriarch reveals yet more about grief and mourning.
After Sarah dies the Hebrew text gives two words to describe what Abraham does — "lispod … v’livkotah." Many English translations make the text sound quite matter-of-fact: "Sarah died … and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. Then Abraham rose from beside his dead, and spoke to the Hittites." At this point Abraham begins to negotiate the purchase of a burial site for Sarah (Genesis 23:2-4). But a more literal translation of the third verse might be: "Abraham got up from above the face of his dead one." Picture Abraham, kneeling or sitting up against Sarah’s body, wailing and crying, his face right over her face, his tears falling on her eyes, her cheeks, her mouth. Abraham wails for Sarah and he weeps for her (lispod l’Sarah v’livkotah).
How often do we give ourselves permission to let out such true feelings? We tend to turn to the business matters quickly. We appreciate (or are relieved by) stoicism in ourselves and in others. We tend to forget, or fail to acknowledge, that we are "still sad." Abraham did not immediately begin his negotiations to buy a burial site for her body. When Sarah died, Abraham hung his face over her face and he wailed.
Nor is Abraham the only one to experience grief over Sarah’s death. Sarah’s son, Isaac, is 37 when his mother dies. We hear nothing of his immediate response to her death, but three years later, in the beautiful scene of Isaac and Rebekah’s first meeting, we glimpse Isaac’s grief over his mother: "Isaac brought Rebekah into the tent of his mother, Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother" (Genesis 24:63-67).
It’s the first time love between a man and a woman is mentioned in the Torah. It took three years after Sarah’s death for Isaac to find comfort, to find love, to feel love.
Life will go on, grief will lessen; joy, even love, will return to most of us at some point after we lose dear ones. Yet that abstract knowledge about some time in the future can be cold comfort to those of us in grief now. While we wait for joy to return, for pain to ease, we would do well to remember and to take some lessons from the ways Abraham mourned, and from the length of Isaac’s grief. And, when needed, we would do well to recite — and to be there for others when they recite — the words of our little friend:
"I’m still sad."
Lisa Edwards is rabbi at Beth Chayim Chadashim — House of New Life — in Los Angeles.
The Icemen Cometh
I’m not picky. I don’t care if my spiritual teachers wear gauche colors, glitter in their shellacked ponytails and man mullets the likes of which you’d only find at a Greyhound station in Lodi.
I’m speaking of Olympic figure skaters; people who put blades on their shoes and fling themselves around on ice.
Rarely can one see the human struggle as simply and clearly manifest as it is in Olympic figure skating. I live according to its teachings.
Both nights of men’s skating had me huddled at home, alternately tearing up with awe and screaming, “You’ve got to land this quad, man!” Russian skater Evgeni Plushenko didn’t hear me, falling on his first jump combination, prompting his coach to tell the press, “The Olympics is over.”
Plushenko wasn’t so sure. Two days later, he took the ice for the long program as though he had never crashed and burned, skating the way only the Russians can — the pain, the struggle, the passion — all that Soviet pathos poured into four minutes of fire on ice. I held my breath. He walked away with a silver medal. He was in the moment, forgetting about the klutz lutz (or whatever it was, nothing rhymes with “axel”), listening to the music, getting the crowd on his side, not skating for the judges, but for himself.
Are these not life lessons?
Now take American Todd Eldredge, beautiful to watch and a world famous choke-artist. When he took the ice for his second program, after horribly botching the first, he was wearing defeat like Spandex tights. What a sad sack. He seemed to be skating around lugging the heavy baggage of his previous mistakes.
I don’t know from ice skating, but I’ve medaled in choking under pressure, amplifying that little voice that screams in your head, “This is it! It all comes down to this moment! Now, don’t suck.”
My stomach in knots, my hands deep in a bowl of popcorn, I vowed, as though praying, “I must not be Eldredge. I must be Plushenko.”
Of course, I have yet to mention Alexei Yagudin, the gold medalist. Yes, he was flawless, technically and artistically, but he didn’t offer me Plushenko’s resurrection, which is what I’ll remember. Like some Nike slogan hatching in my mind, I thought, “You are more than your score.”
As I’m writing this, the women have yet to skate. I’ll be watching, especially hometown skater Sasha Cohen — brash, brilliant and a bit of a loose cannon. Will she do for skating what Keri Strug did for gymnastics? Land those jumps, lady. I need to believe.
Teresa Strasser is now on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com . She will be appearing in “The Teresa Monologues,” April 28 at the University of Judaism. For tickets and information, call (310) 440-1246.