“If you are able, please rise.”

During any worship service, Jews do a lot of standing.  There’s the Amidah, “the standing prayer” at the core of each service. We stand when doors of the Holy Ark containing our Torah scrolls are opened. We stand to recite the Kaddish (a memorial prayer.) We stand for (non-memorial) Kaddishes that punctuate various transitions during the worship service, conclude of a brief period of learning within a service, or celebrate the completion of an extended period of study of certain texts. We stand for the Kiddush which is a prayer recited over wine or grape juice and is not to be confused with Kaddish. We stand during the hakafah when the Torah is walked through the congregation. During the High Holidays there is even more standing. 

So it was, during this past High Holiday season, that I became vexed at a woman who remained seated during an entire service. She didn’t seem to have a physical limitation; there was no walker within reach or cast on her foot. When we stood in unison to recite the Amidah, she sat.  When the ark was opened, she sat. When the congregation rose for the memorial Kaddish, she sat. Not only didn’t she stand, but she never opened a prayer book, opting instead for her Kindle.  Perhaps she had a vision impairment and had downloaded the service on her e-reader so that she could enlarge the type? No, she was just reading a book. Not The Book. I was waxing wroth big time. Why was she acting with such obvious disrespect?  She had to be Jewish. No non-Jew would have behaved so obtusely.  

Then the words of Rabbi Alicia Magal came to me. She leads a congregation in Sedona, AZ where the average age of the worshippers is in the 60’s. Inevitably someone is recovering from surgery. Or has taken a tumble on a hike and is casted or bandaged. Or endures some other infirmity and can only rise in his or her heart.  Rabbi Magal’s invitation is always phrased thus, “If you are able, please rise.” 

It occurred to me that perhaps the woman two seats over simply wasn’t able to rise, for whatever reason. Physical impairments are not always visible. Emotional ones even less so.  Perhaps she hadn’t attended synagogue in years due to some tangled tormented emotional pain and resentment. Showing up Rosh Hashanah morning was as far as she could rise. Perhaps she was there out of deference to her husband and some grand bargain they had struck: she would attend but would remain seated and take refuge not in the prayers but in her Kindle. Perhaps she remained seated simply to mirror back to me my own pissy judgment.

That realization sent me on a train of thought about this coming year and the inevitable expectations I will place upon those in my circle. I began considering the ways I have expected others to rise to my standards and my subsequent judgments when I perceived they didn’t. I pondered the unknown and unconsidered ways I surely had not risen to my loved ones’ hopes this past year and began to consider how I might rise to them in this New Year.

“If you are able, please rise.” How many times is each of us just not able? Not because we don’t care but because of some inner barrier, known or unknown, that disables us. How many times do we rise but it just doesn’t look like it from the outside? How often have I refused to rise simply because I didn’t wanna? How will this year be different?

The woman two seats over will never know the impact she had on me. I am grateful to her for rising that Rosh Hashanah morning to attend synagogue. Sitting through the entire service, she invited me to rise. I pray to be able.

The many faces and many languages of Debra Darvick

HIGHLIGHTING DEBRA’S CREATIVITY—We have several fun ways for you to enjoy Debra Darvick’s creativity this week. First, please read our Cover Story about Debra’s book, We Are Jewish Faces, a colorful picture book of Jewish diversity. We are celebrating with Debra the news that her book has been chosen by the worldwide PJ Library for distribution in 2019! Please, share this news with friends.

IMAGES ALSO TELL A STORY—Debra’s multi-faceted media work also includes the creation of a set, called Picture a Conversation, that may look like a stack of beautiful full-color postcards at first glance. In fact, each card’s image prompts people to think about several questions, which are printed on the back of each card. Here’s more about the history of this unique project. But what are the limits of picture-based reflections? Well, Debra has just written a column about communication with her infant granddaughter—which includes a great little story about sharing an image across generations.

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE! Every week, we share a Front Edge Publishing column full of news and tips about professional media. This week, Marketing Director Susan Stitt writes about how the authors we publish are doing in their efforts to present engaging Amazon Author Pages. As it turns out, Debra Darvick is No. 1 on Susan Stitt’s list of great examples.

Want to learn more about publishing today? Please, share this home address with friends: www.FrontEdgePublishing.com

David Bergman, of blessed memory,

When I met David Bergman, before I even began to interview him to include his story in This Jewish Life, he said me, “Never refer to me or anyone else who was in a concentration camp as a “prisoner.”  A prisoner has been incarcerated for breaking the law. We were not prisoners; we had done nothing wrong.  We were captives. We were held captive.”

Mr. Bergman survived what he called a “Ring of Fire” and for as long as I knew him, he was eternally on a quest, as you will read in his story, to understand why he survived.  Why had he lived, time and again, when others had not?

I do not know that Mr. Bergman ever found the answer that stilled his inner quest. For me, because he survived, I have been able to study and learn from  his son, Rabbi Aaron Bergman. So have my children and my husband. Martin and I took classes with Rabbi Bergman’s wife, Ruth, who in her own right is a superb teacher. Ruth and Aaron have four beautiful daughters whom I can only assume have brought joy and naches (Yiddish for the kind of pride that makes you burst with delight from the inside out) to everyone who knows them.  May his memory be for a blessing

It is in Mr. Bergman’s memory that I post his story here.

 

RING OF FIRE                                                                                                                                                   the story of David Bergman

When I was about eight years old I asked my rabbi, “What does God look like?” Sixty years later I still remember his answer.

“I cannot tell you what God  looks like,” the rabbi said, “but when you take your last breath, you will see God.  You will  see a ring of fire and there you will see God in the middle of it.”  As a child, I visualized God’s ring of fire being about as big around as the wooden rain barrel we kept outside the doorway between the garden and the back entry to our home in Bockow, where I lived with my parents, grandparents, sister and brother, in the Carpathian mountains of Czechoslovakia .

I never questioned whether God really existed in a ring of fire.  I visualized the ring of fire even though I couldn’t visualize what God looked like within it.  When you’re that young, you obey your parents; you trust what they tell you.  What they say is emes, the truth, and that’s it.

Five years after that conversation with my rabbi, I was thrown into a ring of fire much larger than our rain barrel.  The ring of fire encircled concentration camps and extermination camps.  The ring of fire encompassed unspeakable cruelty, humiliation, the darkest and most brutal side of humanity imaginable.  It was a ring of death.  And just like my rabbi told me, God was right there in the middle of it.  I am here to tell of it and because I am, I cannot but think that God was there, too.

I have not been so much concerned with the question, “Why did God allow the Holocaust to happen?”  From what I have seen and experienced, I have to say that the urge to kill and the urge to be compassionate are a combination of inborn traits and external environments.  God planted within us the capacity to be cruel or compassionate and  the ability to choose the path we want to take.

The question I have wrestled with all these years is, “Why me? Why did I survive?”  After years of pondering this I have concluded that God doesn’t give us the privilege to know why.  All we are allowed to see are the results.  If you try to answer “Why?” all you can come up with is speculation, a belief, and a guess.  God only allows us to see the results.  Those results can be survival, Israel, or our grandchildren; it’s up to us to see God’s results.  What I am aware of is that the answer to the question, “Why did I survive?” is a series of extended events, one result after another that kept me alive.  “Why did I survive?” is the relationship I forged with God within the Holocaust’s ring of fire.

When the doors to the freight train opened in Auschwitz, my eyes were filled with scenes of beatings.  Of shootings.  Women, children, and old men cut down by bullets and clubs.  It seemed no one was to be spared. In a single moment, everything

I had read and learned in cheder:  following God’s commandments, praying twice a day — all of it went blank, as if it never happened. In its place  a new force of survival took control of my life.  I wasn’t even aware of it.  I had no time to think.  Survival was everything.  I went from having a family to suddenly being thrown into hell; from somewhere deep within me there came a strong desire to live.

In the midst of all the chaos I heard a voice telling me to get out of the children’s line.  It was a silent voice; the words were in my head like when you are hungry and you hear an internal voice saying, “It’s time to eat.” You don’t hear it but it’s a silent signal.  Well, this was the same type of voice signaling me that I was in danger.  “Get out of the children’s line,” it said.  And there in the line I had a conversation with this voice.

“How do I get out of the line?” I asked it.

“The guards are watching you now.  But see how they are beating the children? See the adults trying to go to the children?  When the guards are occupied with them quickly run to the adult side.”

I have no proof that there was a voice.   At the momentI wasn’t even thinking that I was communicating with God.  All I have are the results.  I am here.  Within two hours, those in the children’s line were all dead.

And so I followed the voice’s command, waiting for the guards to be distracted and then making my move to the adult line.  When I did, I found my father.  But don’t think that being in the adult line meant I was safe.  In the adult line it was look and point, look and point.  The Nazi officer quickly appraised us and pointed us to life or death.  With a flick of his hand he wielded a malevolent inversion of God’s power.  When it came to my turn the officer stopped.  “What are you doing in this line?” He growled.  “How old are you?”  As I was about to admit my age, the force inside me suppressed my voice and prevented me from speaking up.

Standing beside me my father sensed something was wrong and told the guard I was fourteen.  I wanted to shout the truth; my father had never lied in his life and there he was lying to a Nazi officer!  I didn’t know then that I was standing between life and death.  The Nazi officer ordered my father and me into the work line.  Shortly afterward, my voice returned.

We were seven days in Auschwitz when an officer entered our barracks and ordered me, my father and fifteen others onto a freight train that would take us to a work camp.  When the door was bolted shut and the train began to move, my father announced to everyone present, “Today my son is bar mitzvah.” I had completely forgotten about it, but my becoming bar mitzvah meant so much to my father that he risked his life, hiding a small bottle of wine in his clothes.  He passed around the bottle of wine.  They all took a sip and made a toast to me in honor of my bar mitzvah.

Three hours later we arrived in the work camp of Plaszov.  We heard that only those who have a trade will survive.  When they asked for tailors my father stepped out of the line.  When they asked for bricklayers the voice returned to me once again, telling me to raise my hand.  And so I did and was put to work as a bricklayer.  I followed what the others did — mixing cement and placing the stones to build walls. Five, ten times a day we walked from where they mined the stones to where we built the walls.  After three months my father and I were separated.  I never saw him again.

By May of 1944 the Russians were getting closer and the Nazis sent me from

Plaszov to Gross Rosen, another extermination camp.  By this time I knew my life depended on convincing the Nazis I was old enough to work. The voice returned to me.  “Tell them you are sixteen.  Look them straight in the eye; tell them you are sixteen and do not break your focus for a moment.”  When you look someone in the eye they have to look back.  I must have convinced him that I was sixteen because he  let me go to the work line.

Was the voice of God helping me to survive?  I know I didn’t do it all on my own.  I have the results.  There I was, thirteen years old, not knowing why I was there, why I was being exposed to such horrible things.  But I didn’t have the luxury to dwell on such thoughts.  There was not time even to give thanks when each time my life was spared.  This was survival.  Do you want to live or do you want to die?  If you want to live, focus on survival.  I wanted to live and that phrase “I want” became the hallmark of my survival, the connection to the voice that kept me out of death’s grasp.

In Gross Rosen and then again in Reichenbach I had close call after close call.  One day I was standing in roll call waiting to be sent to work.  We had strict orders not to move, not to look in any direction.  But when I heard a noise in the sky, I couldn’t hold back.  I looked up to see American bombers streaking through the sky.  I gazed at the sky with envy, just wishing I was in one of those planes.

Suddenly the Nazi officer saw that I have disobeyed a rule.  “Schweinhund!” he bellowed.  “Pigdog!  Why are you disobeying me?”  Club in his hand, ready to beat me to death, he waited for me to answer.  And the voice that had guided me every step of this nightmare said, “Focus on his eyes and stay silent.”  You can imagine the restraint it took not to stammer some excuse, not to plead for mercy.  The entire camp was looking in our direction.

“I’ve got news for you,” he barked.  “You’ll never make it out of this camp alive!”  Still I didn’t answer and the voice inside my head said,  “You will be free again and you will see their mighty country destroyed.”  And all of a sudden the commandant turned around and walked away from me!   No one had ever defied a Nazi officer and lived.  But I had.  I listened to the voice and I survived.  But I knew I was living on borrowed time.

I was not Reichenbach’s only only underage captive.  In an effort to flush out those of us who were under sixteen, the Nazi camp commandant  promised extra food rations to any captive who turned us in.   In this way, I and about fifteen others were  pulled from the work group to be shipped to an extermination camp.  Facing death, I focused as hard as I could on the desire to live and be returned to a work group.  “I want to live.”  “I want to live!” I repeated again and again to myself.  All of a sudden I began feeling pulsations, similar to electrical shocks emanating through my mind like mysterious Morse code messages.

Then someone in a work detail suddenly fainted.  Instead of choosing a captive from the line of replacements, the Nazi camp commandant went from one end of the camp  to the other and stopped right in front of me and ordered, “Heraus!”   “Out!”  He could have taken any of the captives standing nearby.  He could have chosen any one of the youths  from the group I was standing in.  But he didn’t. He came at me with an angry voice.  He seemed to be moving against his will, like someone was forcing him.  And he ordered me back into the work group.

I have wrestled with this issue for decades.  What made the Nazi commandant walk across the entire camp, stop right in front of me and send me in as a replacement for the man who fainted?  Those youth I had been standing with were all gassed.  I got back to work exhilarated, if exhilaration is possible in such a circumstance.  My elation lasted only moments.  I knew this Nazi camp commandant was obsessed with not allowing children my age to survive and I wondered each morning if it would be my last.

From Reichenbach, I and a hundred and fifty others were sent to Dachau.  I escaped the crematoria by yet another miracle.  During that seven-day journey, we received no food.  Why feed those who can no longer work?  I had passed out  and, being taken for dead, was placed on a wooden stretcher bound for the crematoria.  A worker saw my hand move and smuggled me into a barracks where he and other heroic captives shared their meager rations with me so that I could survive.

Two months later I was liberated.  I came to America and during the Korean War was drafted into the Air Force.  I was sent to Germany and just like the voice predicted, I saw with my own eyes the destruction of that once mighty and forever horrible country.

Some people are given the gift of creating art or music.  I was given the gift of survival, the ability to visualize what I wanted.  When my feet were cut and bleeding I saw them whole and healing.  Never once did they become infected. Never once in fourteen months of captivity did I have a cold or develop any of the diseases raging through the camps.  Never once did I have a nosebleed, something that plagued me before the war and after.

In captivity I had the choice of striving for survival or giving up.  God didn’t come and tell me, “Give up or not.”  He left it up to me; he built into me a striving for survival.  The voice is with me to this day.  In the morning I am in pain from arthritis, but I want to walk.  I want to be with my beautiful granddaughters.  And so I walk despite the pain and boom! the pain is gone.  I chose to marry.  I choose to enjoy my grandchildren.  I choose to balance my terrible memories with things that give me pleasure.

After all these years I have concluded that the “I want” element that sustained me is actually the soul and the spirit of our being.  It is the pipeline connecting us to God.  When I was in captivity and said to myself, “I want,” I was actually reaching out to God, asking God to give me whatever it would take to survive.  And sure enough God was always there for me when I reached out to Him.  Within the ring of fire I drew not my last breath, but my next.  Again and again and again.

 

This Jewish Life, Stories of Discovery Connection and Joy contains 54 stories of transforming Jewish experiences.  Learn more here.

My Friends Were Right

“There’s nothing like it,” my friends began saying. “Nothing in the world!” They weren’t talking kale or cilantro. Or the season’s best read. They were talking grandchildren.  Yes, grandchildren.  “Just wait,” they’d say, smug with a knowledge that admittedly I didn’t possess.

I did have 63 combined years of parenting my now-adult children. That’s more than a fleeting familiarity with being utterly smitten-drunk in love with my babies. I know the elation of that slew of firsts — smiles, hugs, laughs, raspberries, teeth, steps.  I can revisit the highs of hearing my kids’ first words because I still have the journals recording their mamas, dadas, I wuv ooos, and nos! How much more love could my heart generate? Or need to?

And then Olivia was born. My friends were right. Each and every one. There is nothing like it. Nothing in the world. Olivia disappears time. I am with her and the world drops away.  I watch her, love her, play with her fully in the now.  Forget meditation. Forget  mindfulness practice and yin yoga.  When I am with Olivia, I am alive within every moment as if as newly-arrived as she is. Whether we’re rolling a ball down an improvised slide, or clapping hands, or trying to catch a ribbon of water as it falls from the spout at bath time, that’s all that exists. In tandem we discover the world — a magical universe of unfurling surprises.

My heart has no assignment but to love. It isn’t obsessed with schedules or deadlines. It doesn’t future-fret about college or carpools. It neither second guesses me nor sinks in the face of newbie insecurities.  There’s no obsession over milestones. Olivia’s teeth will come in when they are ready to emerge. She will crawl when she’s ready to locomote. She will speak when speech clicks for her. She will walk when crawling no longer serves her. While those milestones wait in the wings, all I am called upon to do is love this delicious sweet bundle of squeals and grins, luscious wrinkles and dreamy softness.

As a new parent, I glommed onto something Mr. Rogers said about becoming a parent giving you a second crack at your own childhood.  I well nigh engraved that one upon my heart.  My kids and I delighted in bugs and bunnies. We read endlessly. We danced in the rain and played dress up. With the help of wise therapists, I healed childhood traumas striving to become the kind of parent my children deserved to have.  Rain puddles aside, my reality never wavered —   I was first and foremost a parent.  My job was to guide and discipline, to role model the kind of people I hoped my children would become.  I traveled a road much taken yet one not infrequently marked by uncertainty, fear, delight, passion, confidence and self-doubt.  Somehow we all made it through.

In those early years, I wrote in my journal, “Oh, I just wish I could have perspective.  I just want to know it will all be OK!”  Such innocent and impossible yearnings.  For perspective belongs to the time-weathered. Perspective now lies gently in my hand, the same hand that once gripped a pen as if it were a magic wand, as if inking a mere word on a page could manifest it into my life.

I have joined that club my friends so lovingly and smugly knew would change my life and     I have no idea if it will all be OK.  We have escaped many sorrows; others rained down upon us and upon our children. Today, we prevail. Tomorrow, who knows?  But in this moment, everything is OK. Unfettered by the worries that forest the landscape of parenthood, I simply witness and cherish each of Olivia’s moments.

Mr. Rogers was right. Becoming a parent gives you a second crack at childhood.  What he didn’t say was that becoming a grandparent gives you a second crack at parenthood. Becoming a grandparent allows you to walk beside the young mother still within you, healing her and praising her, comforting her and celebrating her and sometimes, when the moment is right, gently and respectfully sharing her hard-fought wisdom with the generation now coming up. Nothing beats that. Not even kale.

Who Pays for the Tombstone? Who Attends the Wedding?

Since 2013, I’ve written a monthly advice column for the Detroit Jewish News.  I love writing it and thought it would be meaningful and gratifying to expand the love to my Read the Spirit family.         You don’t have to be Jewish to have tsuris! (troubles, heartaches, problems.)  You just have to have a trouble, problem or dilemma that plagues you by day and disturbs you by night.                                  Write to me at deardebra at renmedia dot us or use the form that accompanies the column.               

photo credit: Emma Darvick

photo credit: Emma Darvick

Dear Debra

I am the oldest of three brothers.  Our middle brother died this year and it is time to order and pay for his headstone. Baby Brother says he does not have the money, but will reimburse me when middle brother’s estate is settled. I know very well that my brother could afford to contribute his share, but chooses to spend his money on lavish vacations, kitchen renovations and expensive designer clothes by Ralph Lauren.

Baby Brother has pulled this kind of shenanigans before and I’m tired of it. What can I do to make him pull his fair share in this?                  Big Brother

Dear Big Brother,

Start by dropping the terms Big Brother and Baby Brother, which reinforces the roles of responsible vs irresponsible siblings.

If you can pay up front for the headstone, have your brother sign a promissory note stipulating his commitment to repay you when middle brother’s estate is settled. Provide the executor of your deceased brother’s estate with a notarized copy of it as well. Your personal attorney can guide you here.

If by “shenanigans” you mean that your brother has wiggled out of other financial commitments, you may have to be prepared to pay for the headstone yourself, or take him to court. But if by shenanigans you mean he lets others make the first move and then ponies up, you can be reasonably confident you will be reimbursed.

Since Jewish law requires that a tombstone be prepared to mark the deceased’s burial plot, you might consider ordering one for yourself when you purchase the stone for your deceased brother. Should you predecease your remaining brother, you will not have to worry if he’ll come through.

Dear Debra,

Two days after I RSVP’d to my younger niece’s wedding, an invitation to her older sister’s wedding arrived!  These out-of-town weddings are six months apart.  We cannot afford to go to both.

I am peeved that my sister didn’t warn me before I RSVP’d. Wouldn’t it have been more considerate to space the weddings more widely or have one big affair since many of the same people will be invited to both? My sister has already made noises that she expects me to attend both.                                                                          Aggravated Auntie

Dear Aggravated,

Would that we could dictate how our hosts should organize their affairs. But we can’t. If the financial impact makes attending both weddings out of the question for your husband and you, perhaps you can divide and conquer.  Let your husband attend one wedding and you attend the other. Or let hubby off the hook and you attend both, kind of a one-for-the-price-of-two solution that also pleases your sister who is expecting you at both. Just be sure to let Bride Number One know immediately that you will be attending solo. Once you have decided how you will handle the RSVP’s, shift your attention from aggravation to celebration. Jewish weddings are called simchas for a reason — simcha means happiness, and that’s what every bride and groom is entitled to on their wedding day.

Dear Debra,

I am a long-time member of a committee at synagogue. Each committee member signs up at the beginning of the year for that year’s commitments.  The chair has this annoying habit of sending out reminders at least every two months. He knows I am happy to do this job, I have never forgotten and have asked him not to send me these reminder emails.  Shall I chalk it up to his eccentricities?                                Perplexed

Dear Perplexed,

I’d bet a dozen bagels he wishes he had a whole committee of folks who never needed reminding and never forget to show up!  Then he’d be free and clear to go fishing, read the latest New Yorker or check out a new restaurant in town. Even the most dedicated folks sometimes forget to show up and welcome extra reminders.

The committee chair has likely assembled all his volunteers in one address file. You don’t really expect him to include your name for the first mailing, delete it for all subsequent ones and then reinstate it the next year, do you? Next reminder you receive, simply hit the delete key, disposing of the annoying email and maybe your peevishness, too.  Better yet, before deleting the chairman’s reminder, hit reply and acknowledge all his hard work. What you call eccentric, I’d call practical. And often thankless.

 

Playing Favorites and Tortured by Texting…

Since 2013, I’ve written a monthly advice column for the Detroit Jewish News.  I love writing it and thought it would be meaningful and gratifying to expand the love to my Read the Spirit family.         You don’t have to be Jewish to have tsuris! (troubles, heartaches, problems.)  You just have to have a trouble, problem or dilemma that plagues you by day and disturbs you by night.  The reader who penned Problem Number Two, took this invitation literally.                                                                       Write to me at deardebra at renmedia dot us or use the form that accompanies the column.               

1. My spouse’s parents play favorites with their grandchildren, and my children are starting to notice, asking why Grandma and Grandpa don’t pay the same kind of attention to them as they do to their cousins (and it’s not that these other grandchildren need them more for any apparent reason) . How should we handle this?  UnFavored

Dear Unfavored,                                                                                                                                                   Familial favoritism should be the 11th Thou Shalt Not. Has your husband discussed with his parents that the children have noticed the favoritism? If 1) he has and they haven’t changed or 2) he cannot or will not bring it up, then you have to take the initiative . Tell your in-laws that  you’ve missed having them around and would love to see more of them. Invite them to share a new family tradition — a weekly Skype or family outing. Hopefully they will respond in kind.  But if they remain scarce, you will have to help your children learn a painful and important life lesson: we cannot change others, we can only change our reaction to what life throws us. Be sure you give them the message, as much as is needed , that their grandparents’ behavior has nothing to do with them. They are the biggest losers for missing out on joyous time with some pretty terrific grandkids.

2.   My husband’s work expects him to be available 24/7. He sleeps with the phone beside the bed to catch incoming texts.  The problem is he doesn’t hear them come in; I do. By the time I wake him to take the text, I can’t fall back asleep.  Help! Sleepless

Dear Sleepless,                                                                                                                                                Even the Creator of the World granted Himself weekly rest after Her labors were completed!                        It seems quite awful that your husband has to be available 24/7. But since you didn’t ask me to weigh in on that one, I’ll keep mum. And here’s my advice on what you did ask about: Set hubby’s phone to vibrate and slip it beneath his pillowcase. If the sound of the incoming text doesn’t stir him, hopefully the motion will and the sound of the vibration will not disturb you. . You  might also  try sweetly whispering, as he is falling asleep, that you are turning his phone off (but don’t).  Perhaps the anxiety of missing an emergency text will prompt some part of his sleeping brain to keep one eye (or ear) open so you can keep both of yours shut.

My Third Mother Has Died

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My grandmother, Clara and my mother around me at my Confirmation.

I knew that the call, or email, would eventually come. Word that Clara had died.  She was over one hundred after all. No one lives forever. But when such news arrives it still lands like a fist to the heart.

Clara was the mother of my first love. She welcomed me into her family at a time when divorce had shattered my own and my parents’ attention was often elsewhere.  Like my grandmother’s, her love was unconditional, joyous, bottomless, steady. She was a Holocaust Survivor who told me she made it through by hiding in the forests. At sixteen I believed her. In my fifties I came across the truth and wept.

When her son left for college I would still visit after school every now and then, grateful to hang out, to be fed cakes and other sweets whose names had as many consonants as they had ingredients. When he came home on break I was ecstatic. Yes, for the obvious reasons but also because I could visit with Clara nearly daily. She wove me into their family as deftly as she sometimes braided my long hippie hair — into a crown ’round my head, much as her mother must have braided hers and her sisters’.

Her son and I broke up, stayed in touch sporadically, saw each other and one another’s families if our returns home coincided. He became religious and moved to Israel. He is now the father of many, a grandfather several times over. One by one, the dozens whom Hitler murdered are being given new life in their namesakes.  Clara once said that she lived so long because all of her loved ones had given her their years. No doubt in my mind that when the next great-granddaughter is born, she will be called Clara, or its Hebrew or Yiddish equivalent. Will she have Clara’s green eyes? Her beautiful smile? Her strength and ready love? I will never meet her but bless her just the same. Your great-grandmother was a wonderful woman, little one. She lived through hell and back. She came to this country to make a new life, a good life.  And she was a haven for a lost soul and whose light still shines upon me to this day.