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Good People

It is in these days of “awe” that we ponder being good so we can be written into the “Book of Life”. As early as Hebrew kindergarten, our teachers drew mammoth books that sprawled across the green chalk boards and pointed to the pages wherein our names might be inscribed. Of course, there were rules that permitted us entry: prayer , good deeds, atonement, confession. And so the high holidays are the few days of attendance at synagogue where there is almost a full contingent of worshippers hoping that their presence will besiege G- d to grant them if not long life, at least another year on this earth. I think the dark and ominous Hebrew school image pervades the minds of many. However, for others as we discussed yesterday at my sister-in- law’s after shul lunch, there is a sense of community fostered in places of worship, especially at the thought of momentous events: an opportunity by choice to congregate with those related by religion or choice of religion.  
 

I’ve said it before : that Elyse Goldstein, the rabbi, who recasts a church on Bloor Street into a place of Jewish worship is able to flawlessly create that community, to welcome all who would like to come , gather, pray, attend and enable them to feel they are part of something bigger than just themselves. Having departed a more organized Conservative synagogue years ago, we have followed her throughout the city, when basketball hoops were adorned with flowers and purple convention centres made room for the overflowing mass of attendees.

 Surprisingly on the first day of the High Holidays, the Dvar Torah which is a commentary on the Torah reading was for the first time in my years of attendance -disappointing. Usually the speaker will reflect on an idea, even a personal experience and move from the self outward towards a scholarly or universal comment, spurred on by the portion of the day from the Torah. This time, the speaker focused on and about himself, forgetting his responsibility to the community to broaden , to enlighten, to move outward. I’m quite sure he felt others would see his story as emblematic , even iconic. Instead it was thin, self- serving. Instead of fast attention to new insights, people fidgeted, looked away, were disappointed. At least, we were even annoyed, as he had used the wise and painful words of a former speaker in years past to introduce his talk. So instead of a probing search that introduced a connection to inspire, we were given something that was not in the same class, even ballpark, as previous heartfelt messages.

But also, fortunately, yesterday on the poorly attended second day( people must feel one day will suffice to secure their life in earth), the second Dvar Torah  presenter played on the meaning of Heneni,  meaning Here I am, the words used by Abraham when G- d bids him take his son to slaughter. (In a provocative way, Jonathan Safran Foyer has used the expression in his novel, playing off this exclamation that suddenly initiated a cessation of all activities ,causing Abraham to stand rock still ,listen and become accountable for his actions.). As well,at Goldstein’s place of worship, a rabbinical student provided a riveting story, worthy of Ira Glass’s NPR entitled, “ I walked into San Quentin jail.” Lenzner( spelling apologizes) addressed “ the torah within” as he recounted the “ Torah stories” shared by people he met en route to the jail, their special sparks, and godlike qualities. Removed from the vagaries and daily concerns, we were reminded of youth as the torch- bearers into issues of social justice, thoughtfulness and reflection.
Yet,  in this era of cell phones, people are primarily concerned with themselves and have to be told to turn off  the damn things. As I  ruminate on the contrasting speeches, I think  of Transparent whose ground breaking work in television showcases trans people and  I experienced dislike for the characters in the show. I never responded to the Seinfeld people either,  judging them selfish, self- centred types whose own reoccupations with themselves  most often  overtook the interests or concerns of others. Yet in their defence, usually they were a funny outrageous lot. Yet Transparent’s people continually wound , hurt and disregard the feelings of others. The topic ,of course, is serious stuff so as a spectator to their unravelling lives, I have empathized,  considered and felt myself open to their inactions. But I have noted Maura insisting on a Kaddish at the end of an inspiring community havdalah that turns the end of the Sabbath into a dirge- even as the rabbi tries unsuccessfully to stop him. In this case, I don’t disagree on his insistence of wanting to honour the dead, but woefully, it is the time and place , forcing her own desires on everyone else, asserting them over any one else’s, ignoring the rabbi’s voice, deaf to the pleas entreating, “Please stop!” We see this time and again in Transparent where individual needs impact painfully on others, no one apparently self- reflective enough to put another first.
Here I am not being critical of this community as Seinfeld’s and people we meet every day share in this me- first attitude. Sadly, it is these aspects of human behaviour that rear their unkindly heads.

I was taught somewhere that Hillel, the sage was asked to teach the entire Torah while standing on one leg. Non- plussed, he replied: “That which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah, The rest is commentary. Go forth and study.” I like the wisdom and the simplicity of the statement. But I suppose that means to think before acting, contemplate, be mindful, reflect.

For my parents  on these high holidays, they sought the community of one another. They did not attend synagogue, even as both sets of grandparents had been the founders of two established synagogues in Toronto when immigrants arrived. My father felt betrayed by G-d by his polio so he found his own way of praying as he still considered himself a Jew. He and my mother would spend the two days in Agawa Canyon or some other beautiful place in Northern Ontario, appreciating the fall weather, riding a train into the landscape, participating in their own way in the coming of the new year. They did not work on that day, as Sandy  Koufax refused to play the World Series game. They chose to be part, yet apart from the larger Jewish community. And I have no problem with that.

My father demonstrated that to be a good Jew meant to be a good person and he lived that mantra in his speech, interactions, behaviour and decorum. The essence, I believe, of Rosh Hashanah and the days of awe leading up to Yom Kippur, with the ritual cleansing by fast. For him, his life was humble, exemplar. Without fancy dress, elaborate words, over bearing presence and certainly no public declaration of “ his goodness”, he did what he did. So too, do numerous people who do not use the pulpit for self- aggrandizement. And worse yet, many do not even realize they do. As the first speaker at the pulpit for the Dvar Torah did.

Yet at City Shul, it is also community and the weird connection that is sustained by everyone reading the same words , whether in San Diego, Berlin or Jerusalem, at the same time, coming together for the same purpose: to greet another year with thoughts of the past year and how we might atone, go forth, improve ourselves by our actions.
In truth, humanity is expressed by simple gestures. Last week I received a note from a fellow who had worked with my father in 1950, a note that opened a river of emotions and allowed me insight into my father that I had forgotten. Instead of parents and protectors, my hardworking good parents were warm, bubbling , reserved but friendly people: a perspective we tend to overlook or forget as the years go by, solidifying  them into stereotypes and moments that have come to be frozen in our heads. Harry( Harold) gave my sister and me a precious gift, a renewed way to remember them. His kind gesture meant the world to us. It is in this way, that kindness, remembrance, renewed thoughts and feelings can occur in the new year: to trigger by reflection a way to move ahead.
As it is written,

Our origin is dust,

and dust is our end,

Each of us is a shattered urn,

a grass that must wither.

a flower that will fade, 

a shadow moving on, 

a cloud passing by,

a particle of dust floating in the wind,

a dream soon forgotten.

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A Simple Spring Morning

I remember from my Hebrew school days one of the first prayers we were taught. It had to do with gratitude that we had actually awoken and were being given the privilege of another day. However, on some grey days we wish we could burrow deeper beneath the covers and forgo the interactions and onslaughts that arise in everyday living. But at the early indications of spring, our hearts feel brave enough to take another chance and face the world. The sight of a tiny pink bud emerging or a patch of muddy grass is cause to sing – and even smile.

Yesterday I had lunch with.my mother’s best and truly only friend. My mom would say if you have a friend like Mary, you don’t need anyone else. And she was right, of course. Mary was there every Tuesday evening to take her for fish and chips, supporting my mother’s faltering body up the stairs to the same restaurant that greeted them as old and valued friends.Mary no matter the weather was always there. Where I once considered Mary unsmiling and cheerless, in my infrequent lunches with her since my mother’s death, I find her laughing, charming and friendly, really delightful. She tells me she was my mother’s confidant, which of course I knew.

But as I get older, I wish more and more that I had probed deeper into my mother’s thoughts, stories and history. For now the few scraps I recall are in deed fragments, not well remembered because I was enduring not really listening to the descriptions of Poland, or family fracas, or who was married to whom. All these pieces make for a Jewish geography and in that, my place, my identity in a family tree that although specific to me, crosses branches with others in unexpected ways.  

Last week at Pusateri’s, I ran into a second or third cousin on my mother’s side, Pauline, the lovely daughter of more than 80 year old Bertha who still travels the world by herself- to India, and this spring back to her home in Paris, France where she plans to go with her grandchildren to aid them in discovering their origins. It occurs to me that both Pauline and I, Patricia, are named for the same person, her grandmother, reportedly patrician, who lost her life in the camps or the gas chamber.Her father was the nephew of my mother’s father,I think, my grandfather bringing as many landesman and kin to Canada as possible.

This information is only a casual whiff from the past and I have hardly wanted more as it seems everyone in the European shetls were somehow related and entwined with their cousins so unraveling the roots leads to maladies and conclusions one would rather not know: as in the familial tremor that afflicted both my mother and Bertha. And lately I’ve heard claims my youngest cousin in California had fallen victim to the family heirloom of “ the shakes “ as my mother called it so he can no longer practice dentistry. How she dreaded any emotional encounter that caused her head to independently bob yes when she was responding no, the recipient clearly confused.

Yet there are also positive good stories of loading up a truck ( a la Jed Clampett) and heading off to Etobicoke for Sunday picnics, the whole mishpucha.

And there is merit in unwinding some family history, particularly as one gets older – or if not merit, at least interest. Because unless you glance at your grey hairs or trip over fragile feet, you do not consciously think of yourself as aging. The sweet flowers outside my window are still the same, whether encountered by a seven or seventeen or seventy year old. The pleasure they offer remains neutral , but as the mystic artist Blake was aware one can” … see a world in a grain of sand “, the eyes continue( hopefully) to perceive them anew each spring, perhaps first as harbingers of new commencements, and later, as we make associations with other springs, imbuing them with memories, good or bad, happy or sad . But outright, they signal the possibility of fresh opportunities.

Perhaps that is why I’ve come to love California where every day flowers such as birds of paradise or lilies continually lend promise to the saddest of moods, keeping us in a persistent state of beginning. As Tennyson surmised a lotus land. Here in Canada, it is the spring that fools us, tempting with peeks of purple and yellow that life will renew. In any case, I wish I had listened and questioned my mother more, noting how and what she focused on as she aged, her world changing and how she pereceived herself in that transformation.

Too often I did not want to hear the family stories, shielding myself from the pain, hurt and anger at her treatment by the family, particularly their disregard once my father came down with polio. Even as I write this, I feel myself bristle. She would proudly relate with a tiny chuckle the story of  The Little Red Hen who eventually did it all by herself. And that was what she accomplished so her own little family of husband and two daughters could endure. And so she bravely soldiered on.

 But her meta thoughts… I should have opened myself to them, not pushed them away with a yawn. How did my mother process and think about her thinking about the twists and upheavals in her life? I think she could have stood at one or several removes, philosophically taking it all in at an impartial distance: that she did with my cruel grandmother who tore books from her hands and continued to berate her. Older, my mother would extol her mother’s acceptance of relatives who descended upon her- uninvited by my grandfather- for whom she shopped, cleaned, cooked, gave sanctuary, even making her own children sleep nose to toe. My mother seemed to project another, a softer picture of her mother, once beautiful, an immigrant with few choices but who had become hard and hardened, much like a server or hidden downstairs maid to the overflow of encroaching relatives. In my unforgiving mind, I recall a small purple African violet offered to my grandmother on Mother’s Day harshly pushed away and the chant to my mother, “ Send her to commercial. She can be a secretary.” Which thankfully my mother did not do. I would have been interested in how my mother saw the spring flowers, how they spoke to her.

As I age I do comprehend better. My mother confided that music had helped her so much , especially as she aged although she continually lamented that her operatic voice had been squelched by her mother. I think music had become her Mindfulness meditation , lifting her from her confounding drudge , her growing infirmities of age. She explained it had transported her away from daily depressing thoughts and rigours of her life. It renewed her hope, obliterating much else.

I truly believe that for baby boomers, especially getting older is a shock. We foolishly never believe we will be taking a back seat and become weary. Sudden or chronic pains persist in surprising in spite of the fact that even a washing machine rarely endures more than a few decades, and its parts are/were- metal that will inevitably wear or rust or disintegrate.

Part of our disillusionment comes from turning our eyes to the world ,as our parents and grandparents did, still plagued by war, famine, poverty, pollution , corruption terrible, terrible strife that even now threatens to expunge us from its midst and an idiot as master of the so- called free world. It is enough to encourage us to crawl back beneath the covers and turn away from the spring flowers, shattering our innocence forever.

And yet… soon other blooms may join those first flowers of spring , and heavy coats being shed, ,we can swing our arms and walk freely in the sunlight, pretending there is promise in the awakening spring.

***

To lend our hearts and spirits wholly

To the influence of mild-minded melancholy;

To muse and brood and live again in memory,

With those old faces of our infancy

Heap’d over with a mound of grass,

From Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Lotos- eaters

Naming and Food 

My new granddaughter’s name in Hebrew is :Tova Shoshanna. The first name “ Tova” means good and the second, Shoshanna ,connotes for my daughter a happy memory of a beloved Hebrew school teacher who showered her students with delicious delicacies, thereby making after school learning sweeter.

I like the idea that Jews are, in a sense, double agents, in that they have public names, but also private secret ones in a foreign language, Hebrew, as if a secret code ring will only reveal their true identity to the persons who know the covert language.

People play fast and loose with the naming, some insisting that the letter of the English and Hebrew be the same so for example, the” J” in the English one Jordan and the Hebrew one Joseph ( actually Yosef) be related by the first letter of each. When I named my children, I wanted the meaning of the names to coalesce so that Jordan’s second name Bryan, strong, warrior, and meant the same as the name Israel,  ( written in Hebrew or Yiddish -Ysrul, for the person named) .

Yet totally unrelated, my grandfather’s name in English was Sam, no doubt , someone assigning the Jewish monikers, Sam and Sarah, to all Jews, even though my zaida had arrived from Romania early in the 20 th century, not post war. What connection had Sam to Ysrul- a name my daughterinlaw insists does not exist at all !(curious and curiouser, says Alice).

And because the vowels in Hebrew are added at the bottom of the letters in Hebrew, Ithought I would again play with the interchange between the English and Hebrew names so that I changed my grandmother’s name Molly to Amanda for my elder daughter, Ariel’s second name, (which for some reason she deplores) and which means well loved. But Sam/Ysrul’s wife was Molly, Malka, or queen in Hebrew (someone more than a hundred years ago following the first letter “M” rule) so I figured in my own strange logic that since there are no real vowels in Hebrew, I could transliterate and add the” A” to Molly’s” M “and make it Amanda. Besides queens such as Purim’s Queen Esther were extremely well loved as in Amanda.

And similarly , my husband Howard’s Hebrew name is El Channon, the El disappearing into the first consonant “H” for Howard so his mother must have figured likewise. In the end, the child winds up having two separate names, usually only being called the secret one in a Hebrew Schoolroom when he or she is called formally to the Torah.
Or to confuse even more, if the English name given is actually a Hebrew one such as  Orly or Shira , it stands in both languages.

I like the idea too that Shoshanna is associated with a delightful food experience for my daughter. When I taught English at Northern Secondary, twins Helen and Mia, who worked at Phipps bakery were given the cakes that did not sell after two days. Over German chocolate cake or peach pie, we would discuss Shakespeare or Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale, lessons made more palatable by an atmosphere that included coffee and cake. The entire tone of the classes changed. Instead of bleary sleep-filled eyes and lax limbs, students perked up in their early morning class, providing powerful insights to discussions. I too looked forward to the excellent bakery’s leftover treats that could feature foamy meringue, streams of bursting blueberries, and gooey moist caramel embedded in their baked goods. I am forever a patron of the bakery restaurant pondering which to select for my family’s birthdays, such as The Celebration Cake or Dad’s Special, their offerings as delicious as they were twenty years ago.

As well, sharing a desert or a meal seems to me an important feature of bonding to Jewish families. Marc Chagall wife’s memoir,Burning Lights from her life in Vitesbek, Russia, evoked for me the holiday meal, of a clan gathering and being together so many years ago. And for secularized Jews who may go light on the services, meeting for the family meal to inaugurate the beginning of a new year( Rosh Hashanah), or commemorate a biblical tale or triumph over slavery such as Passover , is based on our coming together to eat symbolic foods.There is the lamb shrank, the bitter herbs and the all time favourite of Chorosets, which is a mixture of apples, nuts and wine to commemorate the mortar Jews were forced to make for their bricks in Egypt under Pharaoh.

My favourite story concerns one of my grandsons on Passover. Thinking it great fun to dip fingers into the wine glass when reiterating the Passover Plagues, but not comprehending the Hebrew words, he enquired what were the words we were singing out, associated with dipping his fingers. Solemnly explained, they were the plagues of grasshoppers, darkness, frogs, locusts… death of the first born, he stopped and open mouthed, eyes huge, announced , “Those are not good things.” Indeed, they are not.

But the connections with food and love do continue. And I think fondly of finding something especially delicious to greet my grandsons when I get them at school. When the elder was at daycare, he developed a passion for macaroons, then just becoming popular. The tiny pastel- coloured gems were his delight for awhile. His brother, a chocolate addict is wild for the golden coins, Lindt bunnies and an entire wide range of anything sweet and chocolate. Tonight for their pickup, I made a special trip to the Chocolate Messenger to purchase the chocolate marshmallow treats adorned with multicoloured sprinkles. Their interest in cupcakes, even from Bakes and Goods, that uses Belgian chocolate and to my mind, the best bar none in the city, wanes and waxes. The occasional bag of sun chips or cheesies may suffice although I much prefer something homemade..

This is all to say that my daughter in naming her child reached deep into her store of memories that included a beloved teacher’s name, one that was fused with food. On Friday nights, my mother prepared her fricassee, chicken soup and roasted chicken, but her fricassee was outstanding. When asked what was the special ingredient she used, her answer was always the same: love.

What’s ( so) good about Rosh Hashana ( Part 2)

We were never shul goers in our family, strange in a sense since on both sides, the family were founders of both Beth Shalom and Adath Israel. In the latter, my grandfather’s steely haired and aristocratic looking brother lays claim to being one of the earliest presidents.

We lived across the street from the synagogue and my father, feeling betrayed by G- d when he lost the power of his legs to polio, refused to worship in the sanctified halls. Instead he would decry his credo and ethics as a good man, quietly instilling in us that a good person does not need to go to shul. And never was there a more honest, truthful or hardworking person than our father.

So growing up, In spite of having to attend Hebrew School three nights aweek, our true religious immersion consisted of the family celebrations of family feasts usually held at my grandparents house on Atlas, many children and grandchildren somehow fitting into a tiny dining room encircling a table that usually sat a handful now expanded to fit the needs of more than twenty, the men in hats, the women wearing bright lipstick and holding squirming babies. Only my grandmother after cooking and serving sat by herself in the kitchen, sucking chicken bones or just resting.

So perhaps it is the inheritance of family gatherings that has translated into my own enactment of the family meal:

I buy fish that is all ready chopped to craft my gefelte fish. I use a mixer to whip the whites of my eggs for my matzoh balls and I wonder at old stories of people who kept live fish fresh in their bathtubs for their appetizers, not wanting to think how that squirming fish was somehow subdued onto special holiday plates garnished with a medallion of carrot. I cook and freeze several weeks before, only leaving three days before the actual supper for the perishables such as potato kugel which must be made the day of. I ponder, truly amazed, how did they manage all of that exhausting work, standing, hucking, stirring, etc?

I love my Rosh Hashana table. It is set with heirlooms of my mother and grandmother, sparkling, glistening, light catching silver and treasures upon which I mount countless offerings. And always at the center there are purple orchids, pink roses and snowy dahlias, for me, the stars of the evening. The tablecloth is crisply linen and much like Downtown Abbey I try to align the forks and spoons, eyeballing them from the edge of the coordinating napkins.

When I was young, the grandkids would drop to the basement rec room at my grandparents as soon as possible , the oldest cousin ordering us around. And we adored him. Here at my table are only part of our brood because some live far away and others have not arrived into our earthly realm yet. My heart longs for those missing.

The day in synagogue also differs. Once members of a large synagogue, we have now departed, modern day nomads for a congregation led by a woman who can make any ragtag group feel like family. Whether a service is held in a gymnasium with basket ball nets festooned by garlands of flowers or in churches where the aleph bet cleverly hides Christian icons, she has magical ability to create community of diversity. We listen to two devor torahs that are so sensitive we want to wrap our arms around the speakers and hold them tenderly. My husband turns to me and whispers, These people are thoughtful; They are thinkers. Imagine the chutzpah to publicly interpret Sara’s treatment of Hagar as cruel or proclaim Avraham’s disobedience to G-d in sacrificing Yitzhak as his greatest moment, announcing that doubt in religion tempers fanaticism. I do not know any of the people who sit side by side with me but their greetings, their smiles are sincere and welcoming. I sometimes think I might join a study group here, but never do.

Yet my High holiday experience here brings me deeper into what I think a religion should be, with people who do not just repeat or spout paradigms, wagging their fingers and accepting without question the ways of the old and well troden.

Now I do not mind sitting longer, singing barely audible or nodding amicably to the participants here to whom I am joined. It is a happy pleasure I embrace every year. The blowing of shofar is long and sweet and I nod in delight, feeling this may in fact be a very good year.

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