When the rabbi agreed to come for my mother’s pizza party memorial, my sister, father, and I were surprised. Mom’s untraditional wish to be cremated and surrounded by pizza, something she was unable to eat towards the end of her sudden 4-month battle with Congestive Heart Failure triggered by COVID brought on by pneumonia which had taken her to the hospital where she caught COVID in the first place, was an unlikely service for a Conservative rabbi to lead.
Towards the end Mom experienced anxiety although she dismissed it.
“I don’t have anxiety!” She’d exclaim, shooing it – and me – away when I’d share the doctors’ notes to visiting nurses. But late in the evening, she confessed in a whisper that for the first time she could remember she was sometimes depressed. This wrung my heart. I couldn’t do anything about her physical illness but I became obsessed with finding a “cure” for this.
Although technically my family was dyed-in-the-wool New York City Jews, my sister and I joked we were really Jewish WASPs because we never discussed emotions. Mom mentioning hers now was the first time I could recollect. I struggled for words to bridge this gap.
A childhood chess prodigy, I put my chess-brain to work looking for solutions. Visiting with my new husband from our new home across the country, I had a limited amount of time to find one. I brought up meditation (there was only one in particular that she’d do and she couldn’t find it and I shouldn’t look) but when I enthusiastically tried to explain how it eased my mind she told me emphatically to drop it or get out. I pushed a breathing technique but her recent diagnosis of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease prevented this from working either. Unspoken between us was that this wasn’t some midlife crisis or a thing that could “go away.” Mom, always healthy, was 83 and ill, possibly dying. I was 40 and newly married, pregnant with our first child. I knew I couldn’t understand what she was going through, and wondered – what would have been like to talk about what our shared heritage meant to each of us, or discuss spirituality or faith?
Growing up my sister and I always knew we were Jewish. We also went to Christian Science Sunday School in the summers with our Jewish grandmother until she died when I was 8. In addition to observing Passover, Christmas was celebrated with our Jewish Aunt but after she died two years later we rekindled our Hanukkah tradition. Being Jewish, like getting Chinese food on New Years, was just what we were. It was present whenever my parents shared their childhood. Mom telling us repeatedly how antisemitism in America had caused more than one cousin’s death (including our cousin who was reportedly the first Jewish man to go to Cornell and die after being hazed there) mixed with stories of growing up poor in Brooklyn’s then Jewish neighborhood of Brownsville with Jewish gangsters who’d show up at the door needing jewels hidden, and summers spent in the Borscht Belt. Dad shared tales of his Lower-East side Judaism, and how much all the men drank during the High Holy holidays and at his Bar Mitzvah. My family was small. Without needing to be spoken was the reminder that those of us left in Europe most likely hadn’t lived past World War II. But what did being Jewish mean?
As Mom aged, it seemed to me that she got progressively more involved with her Judaism. We’d tease that every time she’d call my sister or I with book recommendations or shows she wanted us to see, it would always be Jewish-themed or by a Jewish author.
“It just looks good.” She’d protest. Still the newspaper clippings of as I termed it “anything Jewish in the news,” continued to arrive.
When I was 12, both my chess team and my professional acting career went kaput. I was bereft and longed for community. Only partially motivated by a secret crush who went to temple, I turned to Judaism. I told my parents I’d like to go to temple too. I found myself at the modern temple on the corner. It was admittedly more my speed than my crush’s temple would’ve been, both the Rabbi and the Cantor were gay women. I met my best friend and my family began attending temple on High Holy Days.
But now here we were at this incredibly important moment and I lacked the language to communicate with my mother. I longed to tell her of my own newfound, or re-found, spirituality, but wasn’t sure how to begin. Conversations were increasingly difficult. And asking where she found her comfort or turning with her to whatever sustained her seemed out of bounds for a daughter-mother conversation, or at least not ours.
Mom sent my husband and I home again. I was almost 8 months pregnant with our daughter.
“I should be taking care of you.” She’d protested.
“Does she have anyone to counsel her spiritually?” An older friend who was a Quaker inquired when I’d shared feeling especially helpless from so far away.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
She suggested a rabbi. Was that part of what a rabbi did, I wondered? I called Mom and asked if she’d like to speak with a rabbi. To my surprise, this was a suggestion she finally responded enthusiastically to. But how to find one?
I turned to Google.
Cold-calling my chosen rabbi from across the country, I explained our situation in a trembling voice and asked if he’d visit Mom. He’d responded he’d come right away, speaking with a compassion that moved me to tears.
The rabbi, a mild-mannered man of medium height and nondescript features, arrived and quickly charmed Mom, delighting in a tour of her original artwork.
“He talked to me like a regular person,” she said later, “not a sick one.”
The next time he visited, she was already in the hospital unconscious. Back North again now close to 9 months pregnant, I’d been unable to return to the hospital right after my sister’s shift ended. Rushing over, I learned that in my absence the rabbi had come. Finding her alone, he held her hand and recited the Shacharit (morning prayer).
So it was only fitting that he presided over her memorial. When we explained her desire to be cremated and surrounded by pizza, he’d nodded. Surrounded by a small group of our family, the rabbi spoke knowledgeably of Mom. Her love for her family and her grandchildren, her art and walking miles in the morning on the beach, then recited the Kaddish.
The Talmud says: The world rests upon three things, Torah (“teaching, direction, … and law”), avodah (“work, worship, and service”), and gemilut hasadim (“…those who in any of countless ways show personal kindness toward others”).
The rabbi’s time with us might have been a regular occurrence in his life as a rabbi, but for us, it was a mitzvah. Perhaps we never formally discussed our experiences of Judaism in our worlds together during that dark time, but we came together as a family anyway, and his mitzvah lightened us.