After many centuries of my family kicking around Poland and Lithuania (and Spain, before that), my European grandparents settled in Elmira, New York, where, in the early 20th century, both my parents were born.
My brother and I came along after WWII, and it was a swell place to live and grow up. The synagogue and our little Jewish community was, without any doubt, the absolute center of our lives, with all my conscious years filled with Hebrew School and weekly attendance at services.
My father made late, irregular appearances at services. I always
sensed that he regarded Jewish ritual with bemused, minimal
On the other hand, my mother's apparent belief in God was undoubtedly totally sincere and deep. There was no question that Saturday mornings (and often Friday nights)
were going to be spent with Mom at the schul, where we had our usual
The sequence, words, and melodies of the service were
absolutely, totally imprinted in me, and I am still astonished at
my continuing total familiarity with Hebrew. However, despite a sincere and deep fascination with both Jewish history and the music at services, I never quite got with the God program.
I remember Mom handing me a children's book entitled, "Let's Talk about God", and, after reading it, I think my reaction was pretty much, "you're kidding, right?" Sorry.
This is not to say that I have rejected Jewishness. On the contrary, how could my basic identity be anything other, even though my ritual participation in our Portland congregation hovers just above Absolute Zero.
A couple of weeks ago, I received a letter from my congregation, reminding me that my mother's Yahrzeit (translation: annual anniversary of a loved-one's death) was coming up, and, that her name would be read at services on December 6th. I put a note in my phone calendar at the time, and was slightly surprised when the reminder went off around 8 this morning.
Naturally, my first impulse was to guiltily delete the reminder, but I got dressed and made it to Saturday morning services today, and it was totally and uncannily familiar. My mother has been gone now for several years, but, as I was driving downtown, I remembered that this week is also the one-year anniversary of Sylvia, my mother-in-law, leaving this world, at 102.
Their death-dates are separated by four days. A hospice nurse told us, "there's something about 'two weeks after Thanksgiving'".
So, when it came time to say Kaddish, I was filled with the memories of Two Mommies, and I now know that this sense will, for the rest of my life, always be an event of early December.
Here's Sylvia, Thanksgiving 2013, two weeks before she died.
And here's a 1987 photo of my mother, Dorothy Barcus Lavine, happily holding her grandson Benjamin (who I named after HER father, Ben Barcus).