Despite really wanting go to synagogue Friday night, I made an informed decision to stay home and try my hand at our very first Shabbat meal. Reduced in scope so as not to overwhelm the spouse. I just stuck to the candle lighting, baking my own challah, and reciting the blessing over it.
What you see below is the aftermath, on our kitchen island. It occurs to me now that I should have memorialized it when first presented on the dining room table, but there isn’t much difference, minus Mad Max, the kitty.
Instead of sweating over the big meal that’s part of making the pause after an ordinary week sacred, I spent time gathering things that might mean something to my husband—he not being particularly interested in this piece of my life. Instead of the usual silver kiddush (blessing) cup, I chose one of his mother’s tea cups. One she brought with them from England nearly 70 years ago. And used one of her tea towels as a challah cover. The business of covering the bread gave me the opportunity to amuse Brian with various stories I’ve read about preserving the bread’s dignity when wine is given pride of place. Or not frightening it with sight of the knife (even though we ended up just tearing off chunks.)
Before all that I mystified him by stuffing a bunch of money in his pockets so he’d have something to put in the tzedakah (charity) box. Which in itself has a story. This box was painstakingly carved by a WWII pilot during his internment in a in a German POW camp. The pilot was a friend of my father-in-law’s who managed to make it back home to England.
Brian’s family has its own stories of awfulness during those years. Not just the bombing, or the fear of having to give their children away for safety’s sake. There were smaller things, just as gut-wrenching. His father was a well-known breeder and judge of budgerigars (parakeets) who managed to import the first English budgies when the family came to the US in 1953. During the war, with all the years of rationing, there wasn’t enough grain for people—let alone birds—prized or not. I’ve just thought of this, and will have to mention it to Brian: his dad was something of a Noah in his own right. The fact that he saved any of this special breed (and brought them over on a boat) is a small miracle in itself.
It’s a strange coincidence, but I spent my youth breeding budgies, long before Brian was ever on my radar. His dad’s deadpan delivery of how he had to “twist the necks” of most of his birds in favor of keeping the younger, stronger, “better” ones alive literally made me sick. I was able to get away before that happened, thank heavens.
My decision not to try for an entire Shabbat meal with all the blessings (in Hebrew, no less) wasn’t simply for Brian’s sake, but for my own. I’m going to have to do this bit by bit so that I’m not overwhelmed. So that I don’t screw it up and get embarrassed and discouraged in this slow creep I’m making back to the roots of my family’s religion. I don’t know how he took it, but I’m pretty sure this little bit didn’t bore him to death. That he didn’t find it a bewildering exercise in religiosity. But I’m not exactly sure what was going on behind his eyes because I wanted to include blessings just for him, as is traditionally done for each participant at the Shabbat meal. I wanted to hold his head in my hands as I said them. But my eyes were so full, I could barely even see to read:
May God instruct the Divine angels to guard you on whatever paths you take. (Psalm 91:11)
May Adonai guard your coming and going, now and forever.
But I can’t ask him what, if anything, the whole business meant to him because sure as he’s British, the answer will be that deadpanned, “Fine. It was fine.”
I suppose the above requires some explanation. If you’ve known me awhile you’ll be bored by yet another telling, so consider yourselves excused.
I was ridiculously young to have really bad dreams. Pediatricians today would call them night terrors. But no professional was involved as that wasn’t done back then, and I didn’t scream to wake my parents. I couldn’t, because in my dreams I was already dead. I was always running and hiding from men in grey uniforms and tall black boots only to be chased down in the end. When I awoke it was to fire and brick walls all around. I’d be sitting straight up amidst the fire and yet knew I was dead.
I somehow remember this starting when I was about two years old—the time toddlers begin to differentiate from their mothers. Or maybe the bars of the crib around me had something to do with it. I certainly didn’t know then that my grandfather was a German Jew who’d been sent to America in the late 1800’s—one of the eras during which pogroms were common in the region near Austria where he grew up. He was sent away by his forward-thinking parents sometime after turning 13—the Jewish age of majority. He met Anheuser Busch on the boat and was offered a job as the beer-meister’s apprentice. A dutiful son, he turned that opportunity down to join an uncle who owned a small mercantile in Tennessee.
None of this was a topic of conversation within the family until I turned teen-aged and dragged small bits of it out of my mother. My grandfather, Leopold, assimilated and married a nice Presbyterian spinster. They had four children in their 40’s. The first was a boy, born dead. In Tennessee. Can you imagine the talk?
I never met my grandfather. It was years after his death that I developed what my father worried was a morbid fascination with the Holocaust (correctly called the Shoah—catastrophe). I hadn’t told my dad about the dreams because he was a sensitive man, and I worried about him, too. But I read everything I could get my hands on that chronicled Jewish persecution, the camps; even Mein Kampf, Hitler’s biography. By the time I was 8 or 9, I knew what I’d been dreaming about. It wasn’t until I came upon a description of what happens when a body is burned (tendons shorten and the corpse sits upright), paired with a picture of the inside of Treblinka’s brick ovens, that the cold stone of knowledge dropped. Someone, I don’t know who, had managed to share her experience with me.
So perhaps it’s inevitable I’ve spent the last years seeking a spiritual tradition that means something to me, especially as I’ve met mortality in the deaths of my parents, Brian’s parents, and in my own dealings with breast cancer. My father gave me a first understanding of what we call God. I’ve a clear memory of my six-year-old legs beside his long ones, climbing the steps to our Catholic church. Struggling upwards while I asked, “what is God?” All my life I’ve fallen back on his answer: “God is in everything. He is all around us.” I took that literally. And I’ve learned since that the Catholic church considers that view (monism) a heresy.
Well the heck with that. God, our existence, and what happens in death remain mysteries to which none of us have the key. I may not like the not knowing part, but I’m more comfortable believing there’s a power greater than myself that has something to do with our amazing universe than with the nihilism that marked my grief after my parents’ deaths. If a Greater Power is the Big Bang (and even that’s being called into question lately), then so be it. A Big Bang is certainly greater than I.
But I need something personal, something that relates to my inner and outer life. I’ve compared, contrasted, and participated in various Christian sects. Not feeling I belonged even in the Catholic tradition I was born to, I finally contacted a rabbi who’s part of Reconstructionist Judaism–a step to the left of even Reform Judaism. I’m in the midst of my second Judaism 101 class, and beginning to learn Hebrew. There is so much we don’t know, but I know this woman and this community wouldn’t refuse to break bread with non-congregants as did the priest who warned non-Catholics away from Communion at my dad’s funeral. (This guy wasn’t a Jesuit, by the way—they’re smarter than that).
I haven’t completed my conversion yet. I’m frustrated by the length of time that’s required to get there. But it makes a larger sense as my life as a midwife necessarily interrupts the process as one is required to participate in at least a year of Jewish life (festivals, holidays, and community within and without the synagogue), in order to make an informed and complete conversion.
One of the rabbi’s questions to our class is: “How do you feel about joining a persecuted people?” To that my answer is: I’ve been one all my life. First as my mother’s daughter, then as a midwife. What’s a little Judaism?😉