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Beginnings and endings at Rosh Hashana

T.S. Eliot once wrote

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time. ( The Four Quartets)

The season of autumn is perhaps correctly dubbed” fall”. It is that midway point between summer and winter, the leaves burnished, the flowers fading, the end of sunshine and the commencement of a more somber quiet time. Fittingly for Jews, it is Rosh Hashana, the new year, days that herald the excitement of new beginnings but also atonement and reflection on what we have been less than proud of during the year. Coupled with the fading light of the day, it is a sobering time. Yet, there is an anticipation that we can renew and improve ourselves.

For me, the days of food preparation for the big supper is a combination of old favourites of the perfectly stuffed turkey, but also another attempt to emulate my motherinlaw’s perfect gefelte fish . Mine either lacks correct spicing or is too watery. Usually the food receives compliments, but at my table, I believe the fish is consumed as part of the new year’s pattern that fish precedes soup which proceeds kugels, en route to multiple deserts.( I heard once of a family that had deserts for supper one night a week and thought that sounded delicious😋). I wonder if some special ingredient is missing from my fish.

My buby Molly was legend in her realm of cookery, but my aunt Goldi confided that the” family” cabbage rolls were transmitted to others without the squeeze of lemon so that the original recipe could go to the grave with the original chef who no doubt thought it a family secret to forget one ingredient. So like a story whose sections are embellished or deleted in the telling, some recipe are not transmitted – even between relatives- completely in tact

And because I always leap to other places, my mind flies to the whispered repetitions of coveted foods in women’s sections in concentration camps during the Holocaust where a scrap of paper or shoe leather was the repository for a special dish. This reconstruction of a lost moment, a treasured memory of a tangy smell, a delighted taste stimulated the beloved faces and cherished voices of family, and a necessary hope that life would eventuall resume. The food, the preparation, the coming togethers were only just stalled until mothers, fathers, children, the entire mishpucha could once again reunite for the holidays and be together, safely around the table clothed table.
At this time of year, I too hold close the memories of my parents and the Rosh Hashana dinners at their house. Never a thought was given to the work it took my mother to rise early in the morning or fall into her bed at night after the last plate was washed or dried. There were squabbles over who would sit next to my father who always commanded the head of the table. He quickly and quietly beamed at us, taking our families all in while saying the few prayers over apples and honey. My mother darted back and forth with food, serving and perching frequenting. Her mother, I recalled, disappeared into the kitchen to eat by herself, no doubt collapsing into whatever chair she could find: to suck chicken feet, I recall – if I glimpsed her behind the swinging door to their dining room where uncles wore fedora hats and aunts wore special dresses, and cousins waited expectantly for he moment when they could leave the table and play games without adult supervision. 

We were not religious people but we came together as a family at the holidays. These suppers reminded me of Bella Chagall’s memoir Burning Lights as she narrated the annual celebrations in the shetl,Vitebsk, the end of the harvests, family arriving by horseback and carts and women labouring with heavy pots, and unending dinners that featured many many dishes.

Years ago my son invited his school friends from Vancouver and I set myself the task of seeing how many different kugels I could make: fortunately all but the potato could be frozen. From zucchini to eggplant to sweet potato with raisins, I scoured books that offered an impetus to create the puddings. Finally at table, we would chortle, attempting to identify the vegetables that all began and ended with eggs, onions and matzoh meal. Since then the meal has been pared down with only two potato kugel, one sweet , one plain, 3-4 fruit pies and of course a honey cake and at least one other completing desert contributing to eating ecstasy. Maybe the strangest event culminated in the sudden delivery of grandson two when the supper concluded. No doubt he could no longer battle all the kugels crowding his space and so decided to exit 6 weeks early.

But as well, this time of year holds unforgettable events- sad events that marked our life. My father succumbed to polio one labour day weekend when I was 18 months old. Interestingly, no one ever mentioned had Rosh Hashana been “early” or late that year. I imagined his family’s dinner seated more quietly than usual, especially my buby Molly at the edge of tears, and my mother clutching me as I squirmed in her arms. And my mother many many years later shortly after hearing the shofar blown in her hospital room passed too. She always was anxious around this period of transition.

My mother, of all people, is the one who is at the edge of my thoughts during these days. There is so much I would share with her, questions I would ask ( about knitting, for example), so many fears or doubts I would look to her for assurance : that all would be well and turnout fine. And yet, she was fearful herself, often struggling tenuously to hold our world together like a jigsaw whose pieces might suddenly fall and need to be reassembled by her able handling and rearranging of our lives, a task she completed , like  The Little Red Hen story she never ceased to cite: “ALL by her self”, she would loudly affirm

If she were still on this earth and we were meeting at Tim Horton’s for Saturday lunch, I might behave slightly differently, not avoiding difficult conversations, attempting to banish them into non- existence, maybe probing deeper beyond the usual statements to really understand what she believed she had lost or forfeited  throughout her life. Not merely scoffing at her refrain that she had been a failure and wished she had been a nurse or an interior decorator, “ I would not counter now, to change he subject,”Well, an orange cannot be an apple”. Often I was afraid to listen, not wanting to be touched or hurt by some detail.

Once while my parents were away on a little trip and I stayed behind, I opened the bottom door of a dresser in my parents’ bedroom. Heaped inside were the remnants of their life before and during my father’s polio. I read the barely readable postcards sent from Riverdale hospital where he spent 9 months when he was only 28 years old, robbed of the muscular power of his limbs. With my father’s right arm destroyed by polio, he had attempted to learn to use his left. In their exchanges, they write my name as “Paddy”, as an Irish person would. Or maybe the crosses on the t’s are sloppy and resemble d’s, but the postcards break my heart as I glimpse the broken communication between my parents. My tears overrun my eyes as I sense the immense difficulty even a few words had taken to produce their daily interchanges, but I sense in the scribbled half formed letters the depth of my father’s love for my mother: whose countenance even when he was in a coma could produce sensation on his face.

 In my talks to my mother I did not want to re- experience these knives of pain and so we did not unshovel the past.Selfish as that may have been in my part.

So I approach new year with a mix of emotions, grateful but longing for my mother’s company, pondering my relationship with my father, but also anticipating a supper with most of my children and grandchildren present, observing their fingers coated with honey , and their chomping the Macintosh apples carefully chosen by my husband. I enjoy the look of the table with my grandmother’s silver and her fine dishes: ones I continued to refuse from my mother, but am so glad I finally belligerently accepted, even as they are ornate,  and not my style at all. Still I can appreciate their quality and ruminate on their history as evidence of immigrant acculturation in Toronto. I wonder what stories the plates hold, remembering what my mother had related to me: that a peddler would come to the door weekly, selling one precious spoon – and my grandmother would save and save until she could afford to purchase one here, one there , until she had enough to complete a full set.
No wonder that even at 90 my mother stooped to pick up a penny!
 In a recent Canadian Jewish News story, I read of a family setting aside their “ brogus” at holiday time so that bad feelings could be relinquished as the new year arrived. Yet, my mother and aunts related the weekly family gatherings of my father’s Rumanian family where everything new was mocked, such as the washing machine and refrigerator, how my grandmother was squandering money in pursuit of modern appliances, and how the brothers and sisters closed ranks on my buby Molly, making her daily existence so much more difficult. 

I wonder what my grandchildren will take from my suppers. Will they joke about the kugels, the unending offering of deserts, some strange detail that I recalled such as my own other grandmother’s delicious handmade wine from purple plums or the rollicking fun I shared with my cousins. Or the disgusting slurp of sucking chicken feet? With part of my family in Philadelphia, I feel the circle is incomplete, a gap between the beginning and the ending. We will fill that absence at the end of the week when Thanksgiving fortunately intrudes, but of course it cannot be the same. It is not that I am a religious person who looks to the suppers that fall at dusk as the commencement of the tradition.Rather, it is the meaning of passing down a closeness, a memory of what it means to participate in an event- even briefly -that is initiated by an old story, be it true or exaggerated, a story that interrupts the workday to stress what is the most important in life, that “time out of time”,as Eliot might conjecture,
” at the still point of the turning wheel”.

A Rosh Hashana Reflection on sensitivity and growing up

Maybe it is called Writer’s Block, but lately although I happily edit my blogs, embroidering them or scratching out some, I am not finding too many new topics. Applause? I shutter to think that I re-edited a blog a few weeks ago that had all ready been published ( mea culpa, please forgive me!!!) Enough all ready, do you think? The topics I usually pick over have been dissected written about, and likely have gone longer than they should have. But in my own defense, themes and topics reappear over and over again and with –perhaps the exception of technology or new scientific discoveries- everything has been said, only to be rehashed, repackaged or a new perspectives provided by brighter( or lesser) eyes.

And it is not as if I don’t feel anything, or I am merely regurgitating. If anything I am overloaded with emotion these days so that it is practically dripping from me.

I read Rucsandra’s, my Pilates’ instructor, blog on gratitude and think her logical steps should make me shake off my anger or disillusionment in 90 seconds or so, freeing myself of angst or ennui. Yet it seems to have taken up residence like the Rosh Hashana tunes that will not depart my head for weeks, these overrunning my body, and at night leaking from my eyes.

I have always felt things intensely, my father frustrated at my being so sensitive, obviously a bad word. Even in early pictures, I am cuddled against a couch, small and separate, curly –haired and all ready introspective. No smile. My mother said she was worried about the effect my father’s polio, his disappearance to Riverdale Hospital might have on me as a child. I seem to have weathered it better than my sister who was unceasingly in need of his approval and love. My reaction was one of disregard, sarcasm. My own sweet personality absent replaced by bitter reaction to his absence? For always, when trying to make sense of who we are and all of our whys, we ponder nurture versus nature and likely there are equal amounts of both with likely nature putting a spin on the latter. These days, it is discussed under the term epigenics.

As an adolescent I might soar in spirits, but a subtle or even unexpected look might cause me to plummet and so I coined the expression “the bit of dust in my contact lens” to suggest that a joyful moment could be spoiled in an instant by a surprising gust of wind that interrupted or interrupted delight .And so I might be crying again. But as a teenager, I did not cut myself or act out as adolescents do today although I often chewed savagely at the inside of my cheeks.

I think I was an adolescent who felt things very very deeply. They called me Pat the Brat although my protestations were small. I laugh now to think that on returning from California at the beginning of Grade 11, my parents despaired of my change. That I tossed off words like “bitchen” and “boss” and I knew how to apply eyeliner. And that seemed to condemn me as “bad”. And my few former friends looked askance or totally ignored me for this unscrupulous behaviour. But those were the days when my cousin Allan came home to visit his girlfriend Ricky in winter, and all the family was aghast and atwitter because he dared to wear white pants in winter. My change in words and his predilection of attire sent volleys of outrage to those who preferred to condemn rather than smile, accept or extend their vision of what was appropriate: like teahats donned only at Easter parades and at bar mitzvahs.

I had supports in my adolescence: my special aunt who made me feel “sensitive” was not such a bad thing; my mucka-pucka or scribbles at art, my love of reading and my mother’s suggestion to join B’nai B’rith to socialize. I received praise from school in the realm of languages and English and so despite the horror of the social scene at Forest Hill, I did not mind going to school, even experiencing support from the Latin teacher affectionately known as “The Whip” who could reduce all the naughty confident full of themselves boys and girls to tears. How I appreciated her and the English teachers who were as strange and eccentric as I believed myself to be. My favourite was an Ichabod Crane character who wore his molars encased in a gold ring, and mesmerized us with talk of books and Broadway. Those were oases, for in the science and math classes I wished myself far far away from concepts and equations and jeers.

At university, I could wander under the arches, sit in the grassy quadrangle, flirt in the refectory. Lunch with my friends, adopt an air of insouciance, and being introverted beneath my bangs that eclipsed my eyes sheltered me so I could pretend to be sexy and knowing. There with friends and art history classes so I felt in control of my life, floating on clouds of fresh ideas and laughing chums with whom I could share. Fridays at The Coffee Mill ,the meeting place to ponder and assess the pleasure of the weekday, unconnected to the pains of the world. Except for Saturdays when I rose early because I worked in the Notions department at Eatons downtown: that was the pattern of my days. I somehow felt like the balloon that lightly drifts on the currents of soft breezes, willing to go with the streams of light and air and breath, floating, responding, just being.

It was a new and wonderful experience: to feel I belonged and to have friends at university, truly the wonder of my short life so far. I don’t know if it was the times , the hippie seventies of carefreelessness or just me. At night there were my irrelevant parents who made no demands on me and during the day there was downtown, concerts or Yorkville or parties, often achieved by hitchhiking or loading into a friend’s friend’s car, and heading off in a pack . The cold winters did not seem to bother me and in spite of spending long hours in my room usually pulling out the miscreant too kinky bits of hair, I took pleasure in my existence, encased in a bubble. What was I thinking as I pretended to study: What to wear on Saturday night? Whereto travel in the summer? What time to meet my friends?

I cannot remember every minute, just an overview of pleasurable days as I recall my memories as an almost 67 year old who can romanticize or fantasize being a girl of 18 or so. And I smile to recall the freedom, the twirl of events that spun me in a cocoon of believing that life can get better and the darkness of high school had ended.

How do we become ourselves, growing into our skins? I used to think we were rather shedding all of our extra layers, a Giacometti sculpture, stretched long and lean and somewhat scary as the bones peer through, reminding me of The Who is Afraid of the Viriginia Woolf’s scene where very affectation is torn away to reveal perhaps “the horror, the horror”, the bareness, the skinny naked self when all the illusions cannot cover the thing/you itself/yourself.

Other times I reflected instead that the illusions we wrap ourselves in become who were really are, more garments of compassion and care : MORE layers we add to that core to flesh out the essence of ourselves and insight like heavy weights that slow us into more thoughtful moves and considerations. The thoughts and insights we glean or are offered by others that add to our understanding of human nature. Like my elder daughter’s or mother’s admonishments that now make me think before I speak thoughtlessly.

I suppose in the end, it hardly matters . We are, we act, we behave and people we love accept , restrict , remonstrate and usually forgive us and we try all again, all Sysiphusians attempting to get up that damn hill, only to fall back. Trying to balance the good , the bad and the ugly every day. Sensitive, joyful, accepting, pondering: the scheme of things

Dressing the Torah

There are different ways of being religious and spiritual. For me, I associate family suppers, the small rituals and suppers that occur at Rosh Hashana and Passover with the traditions with being Jewish. They recall for me Bella Chagall’s autobiography entitled Burning Lights in which she describes the boisterous meals in the shetl where families had to travel ( much like Chagall’s colourful vagabonds with their (peckalah) bags on their backs to gather with relatives: breaks from the work on harvests, or in fields or other physically-demanding work. Those gatherings, those reunions stand out in my mind as colourful, happily anticipated perennial events that marked and reinforced their lives.

We once had backyard neighbours who argued that you must attend synagogue to be Jewish, that humour and culture do not sustain the religion. Sadly the discussion turned angry with our neighbours, fuming and scorning us. So an interesting discussion dissolved into a fundamentalist rant. So much for Sholem Aleichem and stories of dysfunctional Chelm.

Strangely some years back, a workman who came into my kitchen, looked at my backsplash tiles and commented on how they looked so Jewish. Yes, the paintings are whimsical recalling yet again Marc Chagall, but what is Jewish about a shepherd with his lute, a sailor grabbing a lobster, or a person with a dish on his head? Maybe to some, that is Jewish humour. I don’t know.

In any case, suffice it to say, I don’t frequent the synagogue often. Even with my parents’ yahrzeit, I dislike being lost in the so fast paced speed and romp through the prayers that leave me continually searching for a familiar word gleaned in Hebrew School: that the experience is more a treasure hunt than an homage or call to remembrance, and it ends in my frustration and embarrassment. My husband usually kindly accompanies me and is able to point to what page, what line, what psalm is being chanted in the blur of flying pages by the person on the bema who usually sings rather nasally, occasionally calling out a page number. Perhaps he is aware there are lost souls such as I anxious for direction.

Yesterday was the final of day of my mother’s kaddish, and I expected it to be quite quick. But typically my sister, the shul-goer, did not afford me the correct information. So although she sat surrounded by all of her family including the 3 month grandchild, I was totally alone. Which was fine. There were a number of kaddishes said throughout the prayers, not just for mourners in an extended service; however, the prayers are almost all identical. As we began with the first, I felt myself overwhelmed in sadness and the tears began to drop from my eyes. I certainly had not expected this rush of emotion as my mother has been gone for slightly more than a year and we had done the tombstone ceremony just two weeks ago. So the stage had been set for another upheaval of deeply felt emotions.

The usher appeared at the aisle and inquired if members of my sister’s family and she would participate in the service. They agreed and then she poked me to ask if I would like to “dress” the Torah. I say “poked” because one of my hearing aids is being replaced next week, so at present, I am only hearing in my right ear. I nervously agreed and when I confided to my sister that I had no idea what I should do, she affirmed that she didn’t either because women had not been given that role previously: Judaism has been under the domain of men forever although many sects and even this particular conservative synagogue has allowed women to participate and chant from the Torah in diverse ways, never foreseen in the original procedures.

So, the day for me was all ready feeling full of upheaval. But, I figured that this was an honour I must not forego and really how hard could it be to dress the Torah?

No one told me when I should go to the bema and I had to ask my brother-in-law, for I would not understand the barrage of words announcing individual singers or attendants to the protocol associated with the Torah that were intertwined in the prayers. I reasoned that I might be able to make out my Hebrew name, Pesah, but then no one had even asked for it. He explained I should follow his son-in-law who would be holding the Torah when I dressed it. So I waited and when Joe rose, so did I.

I mounted the stage and was about to sit when the rabbi indicated, No, that Joe would sit. Someone brought the Torah over and indicated that there was a soft band attached with Velcro that had to be wrapped around the body of the Torah. It was a soft colour like the colour of a doe and it had to be stretched a little to fit around the scrolls. Next there was the outer robe with beautiful fine red roses appliqued on a light sky blue gray-blue background. Slowly and lovingly, I eased it over the wooden handles that furl and unfurl the endless parchment of hand written words.

I realized almost immediately that I had done it backwards.

Would the next reader experience a shock, a surprise and on opening it be unable to read the portion correlated with the passage of days? Would I have to fast for 365 days: for, if you drop the Torah, I believe that is the punishment! What was the rule for contravening the Torah’s dresscode?

Someone in a hushed tone, noted that Yes, in deed, the external wrapping of the Torah had been reversed. So I carefully inserted my hands beneath the dress, making sure not to touch the sacred parchment in order to lift the covering, much as I would have eased a well worn cotton undershirt over the head of a small child afraid of the dark, smoothly, softly, murmuring calming words of support, love and encouragement so as not to disrupt the process of ensuring the garment had been correctly seated.

These were introspective moments as I took my time, was so careful not to actually touch, disturb or frighten the people who live in the words of the text, not wanting to jar them. I wanted to offer my care, my affection, my connectedness to them, my forefathers, my foremothers, their stories, trials, tribulations: the words that scribes had managed to record and travel through millenniums into the present. It was a moment out of time, the feeling of being able to somehow relate to books which are so much a part of Jewish history that explain ,perhaps, who we are, where we have been, our travails, our travels, our expectations, rites and rituals and so much more : and so much bigger than just – I.

I felt I had been given a tremendous honour and my dressing the Torah backwards had extended the moment, lengthened it for me alone, clasped me and included me – if only for a brief time- into something more mysterious than I could ever comprehend, into the incomprehensible, unbelievable world that I have almost always failed to fathom.

Many years ago when my son started Sunday school, he told us he was afraid to go back. Why, we queried. He said the teacher said that the following week the class would draw back the curtains of the holy ark in the sanctuary to see the bones of our forefathers and he did not want to see any bones. We laughed and said, Not bones, you silly, BOOKS.

And here for me were the bones and the books. I felt the tender love of a mother as I tenderly dressed the Torah, a habit I have performed over and over again for my children and grandchildren, and even my own mother. And I was, as well, confronted by the scroll, cousins to books that have been the basis for so much of my life: the narratives, stories, words that have inspired my aspirations, work and focus of my life; and my life’s passion as a former teacher, writer and policy-maker and… dreamer.

As I recall those moments that felt so calm, so peaceful, so disconnected to my earthly family, they suggested for me the time out of time I had once experienced when so involved with my artwork, that I lost “me” for a few seconds and then was saddened to return to literal time, preferring that sense ( or loss of sense) of being one with something ethereal outside and beyond time. I had surrendered consciousness of myself and only realized the sensation once my ego, the me of me was regained: but much preferring being encapsulating into the oneness of something much greater than just myself.

So the day was a surprise. I will not forget my mother: I loved her dearly and my unexpected gift of dressing the Torah will not make me a shul-goer, but I was given something very precious yesterday, something that may suggest what the mystics gleaned or the rabbis intuited and study, something that joins us to the past in an inextricable way that perhaps makes meaning of who we are, where we come from and where we are going.

I don’t know, but I was grateful for the experience.

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