My mother died on the morning right before Yom Kippur two years ago, and my sister and I were not at all surprised. Irreverent, quirky, and eccentric, my mother always kvetched about Yom Kippur and would have done anything to miss it. Dying right before the fast day, the holiest day of the Jewish year, meant my mother was up to her old tricks until the very end.
It wasn’t because she was anti-Jewish; she was fiercely Jewish, but she’d made up her own brand of Judaism. She always said that Jews should never apologize to God: God should apologize to the Jews. On Yom Kippur, instead of following a traditional fast, she sat at the kitchen table all day as if on guard, manning the telephone, reading the newspaper, and watching the news on TV in case something bad happened, primarily to her people. A first-generation American, she rebelled against her Polish-born mother’s traditions because she viewed them as a blend of superstitions and limitations. Yet she was still was my best teacher when it came to understanding what being a Jew was all about. To my sister, Cynthia, and me, she passed on an enormous sense of pride. Freud was Jewish! Ralph Lauren was Jewish! All the really talented people on “Saturday Night Live” were Jewish!
On Sunday mornings, armed with a cup of her strong, black coffee from her Corning Ware percolator that seemed about as ancient as the Dead Sea Scrolls, a sesame bagel with the insides pulled out and a cigarette burning, she’d comb the Style Section of The New York Times, studying the names and faces in every wedding announcement, making her own calculations. She counted how many Jews she thought were lost (if the couple was married by an officiating minister), who was gained (if there was only a rabbi) or if it was a tie (both a minister and a rabbi or a judge).
When Yom Kippur rolled around each autumn, her anger at God was re-ignited. On a macro scale, God let Hitler get away with the Holocaust; on a micro level, God caused her father to die of a heart attack when she was five, forcing my grandmother to raise five children on her own in the Bronx. Despite her outrage, my mother still trooped into the kitchen and followed my grandmother’s recipes for brisket, stuffed cabbage, matzah ball soup with matzah balls so light they defied gravity, and kasha varnishes. But she cooked while doing a dozen other things, so Cynthia and I held contests each holiday about who found the oddest item in her dishes: besides the usual stray hairs, we discovered cigarette ashes, a fake fingernail and a rubber band.
My mother claimed her belonging to a people who had lost so much to the world and who, despite it all, gave so much back to the world. She was convinced that a Jew’s inheritance was the task of setting things right, and took Cynthia and me out of school to attend demonstrations and marches for civil rights and liberal causes. There’s a Jewish saying, “if you save one life, you save the world,” and my mother taught me that with just your own life, you can try to at least improve something.
With her pulse on Jewish American culture, she offered her scathing critiques to anyone who happened to be within the circumference of her cigarette smoke. She railed against the stereotypes of the Jewish Mother and the Jewish American Princess because she sensed, far earlier than most social commentators, that these caricatures of Jewish women would push Jewish men away from Jewish women. Intermarriage statistics proved her right. That Jewish men laughed at Jewish women, distancing themselves, outraged her: she taught me that words have power.
She wasn’t too thrilled (to put it mildly) when I picked up and moved from New York to Israel, leaving her behind, even though she was the one who sent me to Israel when I was 16 in the first place. She ranted each time she called me, but she still paid for my four kids and me to fly back to visit her each summer. What was the lesson? You can—you must—rail against what is bashert, or fated for you, and then you have to do whatever you can to make things better.
The last conversation I had with her was right before she slipped into unconsciousness, the night before I flew back to New York to be with her. Cynthia—who took care of her better than the best of caretakers in her house—had set up Skype for her and I got to see her in her favorite armchair, the whirl of her oxygen machine stopping only so that she could smoke another cigarette. “I love you and I’ll always love you,” she told me into the camera. Then she shouted, “Cynthia! How do I shut this damn thing off?”
Rain pounded the roof, lightning flashed, and the thunder was louder than fireworks the night she died. It was the perfect theatrical exit for my subversive mother. In the morning, after her soul left for who-knows-where, after the rains moved on, and the sky went back to empty and blue, a rabbi came to the house to make funeral arrangements. He stood at the foot of her bed, talking quietly to Cynthia and me. I said politely to the rabbi, “I don’t think my mother would have wanted you seeing her when she’s dead.” And then I heard my mother’s voice, and I could have sworn I heard her grumbling, I didn’t want to see him when I was alive.
So, nu, as she would have said, she didn’t instill in me how to be a Jew in the conventional way. She didn’t teach me how to believe, but she taught me how to question. And is there anything more Jewish than that?