I don’t “daven” or pray like I’d see my Grandpa Sam do in our study. I’d peak into the room next door to mine, and see him holding his worn prayer book, hear a low hum as he mouthed the Hebrew words, and watch him rock gently back and forth. Even in temple, while I often read the Hebrew, my mind wanders. I may think about what worries me, the people I love, or sometimes, what I’m going to eat after temple.
I still feel Jewish at my core; I turn to Jewish rituals for comfort, and even my sense of humor seems to be kind of Jewish. I guess I feel Jewish the way some do about being Italian, French or Mexican, embracing those countries’ customs. I have never thought of myself as Russian, even though both sides of my family originated there.
When my mother says in August, “what are we doing for the holidays?” I know she means Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, followed by Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of Atonement. “What can I bring?” she’ll ask, even though we know it’ll be brisket. When I smell it cooking, with a mixture of Lipton Onion Soup and other seasonings, it brings me back to my grandparents’ apartment building in Rochdale Village, Queens, as the elevator doors opened, and I took in whatever was on my Grandma Ida’s stove. It makes me miss my grandparents’ voices, their English infused with Russian and Yiddish. “Robin”, they would say, as they rolled their r’s and kissed me.
I always serve apples and honey, symbolizing our hope for a sweet new year, and I still plead with my now adult children to have at least a bite. Will not eating this really make things go wrong? I don’t want to chance it.
I remember planning the briss of our first born, Sam, and ordering the lox, bagels and babkas from Zabars, just around the corner. The traditional food felt as important as the religious component.
Grandma Ida called me over just before the ceremony was to begin.
“Robin” she said.
“Your mother in law, she loves herself.”
I waited for her to continue
“Her skirt is up to her pupik”
and then she quickly turned her attention to the mohel and my father, who held Sam proudly.
After my father died, I said Kaddish, the Jewish mourning prayer, daily for a year. I used the Gutterman’s Funeral Home handout and I said the prayer alone in my apartment, not with the required minyan (at least ten adults). Somehow, this made me feel closer to my Dad.
Sometimes, when I am in a place where there are very few Jews, like even some Westchester, New York towns, or country clubs, I feel uneasy, like I don’t actually belong and everyone knows it. Maybe it’s because so many of my family members perished or were persecuted because of their faith, even though I personally have been unscathed.
Seeing a synagogue, particularly in an unfamiliar town, reassures me that I am not an outsider or alone. So when my daughter got sick as a college freshman in Evanston, Illinois, I was so relieved when I called Kaufman’s Deli in Skokie and they reassured me they would deliver chicken soup to her dorm. “Jewish moms need to help each other out, especially when one is far away ” they said.
Hannah called after she received the delivery, which by the time I hung up with Kaufmans, included a brisket, challah and cookies too. She was with her roommate Paige from Toronto, Hailey from Ohio and Lilly from Manhattan. “This feels so homey” they all said on speaker. “Thank you so much from all of us Jewish girls out in the midwest.”
And I said thank you to all of my family and to our history, for all those pieces of tradition that can make my daughter feel at home, even when she’s far away.