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Unmoored

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My parents in Moscow, late 80s or early 90s. 


Everything feels unfinished. Every thought that comes to mind is a sentence half-spoken. I jot down one clause -- "the death of a parent casts a long shadow" -- and then I don't know where to go from there. 

Pesach is coming sooner than I think. I start a seder menu, then my efforts trail off. I'll have one vegetarian, one picky eater, and one diabetic. I can't think of a good main course to suit all of us.

I open a book I've read before, Black Sea, by Caroline Eden. It's a travelogue with recipes. She writes about how surprisingly Jewish the food of Odessa is. Tsimmes and forshmak are Ukrainian foods.

She describes sunny afternoons, the still air of quiet museums, pastel-colored architecture slowly decaying, literary stories of ice cream. Today the streets are filled with sandbags and barricades

At the end of the Odessa chapter she offers a recipe for black radishes and carrots with caraway and cider vinegar and honey. I have those things! But what to eat them with? I run out of steam again.

Why am I struggling to concentrate enough to get even the simplest things done? Why does everything feel dulled? My friend's reply is gentle: "Do I need to remind you, you're still in shloshim?" Oh.

This feels different from grieving my mother. When Mom died, the sorrow was sharp and intense, the emotional equivalent of a gaping chest wound. Dad's death lands differently, but it still lands.

I keep returning to the mental image of a door closing. I feel like a game piece that has been invisibly advanced on the board. As though my parents, when living, had stood between me and mortality.

In some ways, they're always with me. I greet Mom when I pass by her photo, or her honeymoon purse from 1954, or the ceramic mezuzah in my hallway that came from her desk. I talk to her all the time.

I will learn to talk to Dad, too. And yet I can't call them on the phone or hug them. Their siblings are still here, and of course my own siblings are still here, but my world feels qualitatively different. 

Yes, this twitchy sense of distraction and incompleteness is grief. My world has shifted on its axis and I haven't altogether regained my footing yet. I feel unmoored and drifting in my little boat.

I'm not lost; I can see the shore. But I don't have a paddle, and I don't think trying would get me there anyway. I have to trust the tides and the simple passage of time to bring me home.


Graveside


Rectangular hole.
Pile of earth
draped in astroturf:

like a challah
shyly enfolded
while we bless

candles and wine,
like a Torah
covered for modesty.

This pine box
is a cradle
for an empty shell.

What's left after
what made him
my father,

big
and alive,
is gone.

 


The scene was exactly as I expected: a dark green tent above an array of folding chairs, a large rectangular hole in the ground next to a pile of earth discreetly draped in astroturf. I braced myself.

And then I noticed. The hole is over here, and the tent, and the astroturf. And their shared headstone, with Mom's name and dates engraved on it, is over there -- some twenty feet away.

"They dug the hole in the wrong place," I said, out loud. Disbelief gave way to laughter, edging up to hysteria. One of the undertakers had a phone to his ear, pacing and gesturing as he spoke.

As each of my siblings arrived, and my father's siblings, I watched as they went through the same mental process. Here's the hole... but wait, there's the headstone. Something's wrong. They're not together.

I decided that my parents were relaxing on lounge chairs in olam ha-ba, cocktails in hand, laughing. "Never mind the weather, long as we're together," I sang, imagining Mom singing it to Dad. 

It took a while to disentangle, but it turns out that my father's grave was dug in the correct place. The grave where we buried my mother three years ago...? That plot turns out to belong to someone else.

Two days later, a few of us reconvened at the cemetery to consecrate Mom's new grave. The headstone was moved too; now it sits like the headboard of a bed. They're each buried on the correct side.

I sang El Maleh Rachamim over my mother's new grave, planting my feet to draw strength from the earth. Two parallel mounds of earth, as though we had just tucked them both in together to sleep.

 

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The history of the bagel and the antisemitism of now

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On Shabbat I was reading up on the history of the bagel, and I ran across this: 

In that era it was quite common in Poland for Jews to be prohibited from baking bread. This stemmed from the commonly held belief that Jews, viewed as enemies of the Church, should be denied any bread at all...

The shift started to take place in the late 13th century [with] the breakthrough code that came from the Polish Prince Boleslaw the Pious in 1264 that said, "Jews may freely buy and sell and touch bread like Christians."

(Source: The Secret History of Bagels in The Atlantic. Bagels: A Surprising Jewish History at Aish is also good.) I'm always a little bit horrified to discover yet another way in which the Christian world has mistreated Jews. Even when I think I have a handle on antisemitism, there's always more. 

My first reaction to this cropping up in the bagel article was disbelieving laughter: seriously, not allowed to buy, sell, or touch bread at a bakery? I'm not surprised that we weren't allowed to bake commercially. I know we were banned from most trades in Europe. But not even allowed to pick up a roll?

The laughter is a defense mechanism, of course. Behind it are rage and tears. I'm reading about the history of the bagel as Putin gaslights his nation and the world, making the absurd claim that he's destroying Ukraine in order to rid it of Nazis when this could not be further from the truth.

I'm reading about the history of the bagel as I also swim through Twitter threads where (some) Christians are refusing to understand how trash-talking the Pharisees harms Jews. (Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg / @TheRaDR has written beautifully about this -- see this excellent thread.)

I'm reading about the history of the bagel as I struggle to adjust to new security protocols at my small-town synagogue. Bulletproof glass, panic buttons, trainings on how to identify threats and how to stanch bleeding, just in case we become the next Colleyville or Poway or Squirrel Hill.)

It's safer now to be Jewish than at most points in our history. We're less likely to be killed for being who we are. (Less likely doesn't mean impossible, but our odds are better.) Still, I suspect a lot of people who aren't Jewish don't understand the weight of collective trauma from centuries of this.

"Not allowed to bake commercially or touch bread" is laughable, minor compared with pogroms and blood libel and Eastertide massacres and all the rest. (See, e.g., Hundreds of Jews Massacred in Prague on Easter, 1389; Lisbon Easter Slaughter, 1506, Kishinev pogrom, 1903.) But it's all of a piece.

And that's why sometimes little examples of antisemitism in our daily lives can tip us over the edge into a kind of post-traumatic stress response. Because other people's hatred of Jews, historical and present, is in the air we breathe. It shouldn't be, but it is, and it unconsciously weighs us down.

For years I resisted creating an "antisemitism" category on this blog. I wanted to focus my attention on what's beautiful and meaningful and rich about my traditions, on Jewish joy and spiritual practice and resilience, not on those who hate us. But ignoring antisemitism feels irresponsible to me now. 

How do I walk and work and pray in this world, knowing that this ancient irrational hatred -- visible throughout our history in ways both big and small -- persists and might touch my son, or the Jews-by-choice whom I welcome into our covenant, or any of us? With the quiet defiance of making bagels.

I'm being flip, and I'm also telling the truth. I make these pumpernickel bagels. (Which I've made before.) And I bake challah most Fridays. And make gefilte fish at Pesach. And keep Shabbat. And sing and pray, and build a sukkah each year, and teach my son to be proud of our ways.

The only way I know to respond to "Jews will not replace us," to antisemitic caricatures in books and video games, to all of this, is by doubling down on Jewish spiritual practices and values -- continuing to be who we are. So this morning I made motzi over my own bagels, and I savored every bite. 

 


Perpetual fire

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"A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out." (Lev.6:6)

 

Kindling is easy.
I nudge a lighter
with my thumb:

instant flame for
the shiva candle
on my counter.

After seven days
that flame dies.
Does my father

recede further? No --
his eyes are gone
but not the spark

that lit them.
The altar is gone;
the fire's not.

The Temple's gone
like dad's body,
returned to earth.

The Shabbes table
is an altar now,
complete with salt.

There are candles,
but they aren't
fire forever burning.

The fire forever burning
is the fact of Shabbes,
the act of Shabbes.

And my father?
Cigar smoke lingers
like priestly incense.

If I can
hear his voice,
remember his laugh

he's still here
though I can't clasp
his hand anymore.

We remember Shabbat.
We remember our dead.
The fire does not go out.

 

This poem serves as my commentary on this week's Torah portion, Tzav, offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel and cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog there.

Written in memory of my dad Marvin Barenblat z"l, for whom I've been sitting shiva all week.

I'm particularly fond of the Torah poem for this parsha that appears in 70 faces, too: Tzav: Command


Marvin Wolfe Barenblat z"l

Collage

Top row: wedding and honeymoon in 1954, and in the middle, a party at my grandparents' house in 1956. Middle row: Dad and me, circa 1976, 1984, and 1980. Bottom row: with my kid in 2014, with Mom and kid in 2015, with kid and me two weeks ago, not long before the end.

 

1. 

We buried my father, Marvin Wolfe Barenblat z"l, on Friday. He was eighty-seven years old. He was generous and funny and opinionated. It will be a while before I really understand the spiritual impacts of the fact that that both of my parents are now gone.

There are so many stories. How he grew up in San Antonio with immigrant parents. How he met my mother. Work and travel and parties. (Everyone agrees that my parents knew how to have a good time!) The places he went, the stories he told, the bargains he struck. His gregariousness. His smile.

Mine are small stories, the stories of a youngest daughter. Just as the photos above are photos that are not necessarily representative of the whole: these photos show my parents as newlyweds, then my father and me, then my father and my child. These vignettes are the picture of his life that I can most easily paint. 

2. 

One of my earliest memories is waking up in the morning and taking my clothes into my dad's walk-in closet to get dressed there. I remember Dad splashing water at the fogged-up glass doors of his shower, and making faces at me, and making me laugh.

When I was five, my parents built a lakehouse on the Guadalupe where it feeds into Lake McQueeney, and we went there often. I used to feel sorry for our cat Leland who would yowl in the car, so I'd let him out of his carrier and he'd walk across the dashboard and Dad would yell. (Dad complained about the cat, but in early mornings he'd beckon, "c'mere, Lele," offering a ramekin of milk.) On the way to the lake we'd stop at a convenience store to get ovals of hard spicy cured sausage hanging on strings.

I remember Dad driving the boat in the evening, maybe with scotch and soda in a Texas-sized styrofoam cup that said Dad's Roadie. (Mom had those cups printed for him, back when it was legal to take "one for the road.") I remember him perched sideways on the side of the boat, his hair windblown, pushing up the throttle to pull whoever was about to ski next. I also remember that he would get frustrated if someone was struggling to get up on skis, and I never wanted him to be frustrated with me.

3. 

Dad encouraged me to try new foods. As a child I craved his attention, so I became an adventurous eater. I especially enjoyed escargots (and the joke he would tell, the one with the punchline "look at that S-car go!") He always let me taste his wine. As a little girl I remember chirping, "My favorite wine is Chassagnet Montrachet!" to the amusement of his friends. Relatedly, he taught me the names of big wine bottles -- magnum, Jeroboam, Methuselah. 

The year I was ten we lived in Manhattan. Dad spent part of that year in traction with a ruptured disc, but most of my memories of him from that year are of Dad enjoying city life: smoking his cigar on the tiny balcony of our 37th floor apartment, or taking Mom and me to the theater and to as many restaurants as we could visit. There was a Chinese place he really liked called Pig Heaven. For a treat, he would take me to Serendipity for frozen hot chocolate.

Once when I was a teenager my mother was away and Dad took me out for dinner. I dressed up, in a denim miniskirt and big flashy earrings and lots of eye makeup. We overheard a scandalized fellow customer -- "Look at that man, isn't he embarrassed to be out with a girl that young, she could be his granddaughter!" He thought that was hilarious. When I was 14 and we visited Egypt, Dad joked with merchants in the Cairo souq about whether he would sell me if they offered enough camels. 

4. 

Dad had a notorious temper. (When he pitched a fit, Mom called it "having a piñata.") Relatedly, he disowned me on my 18th birthday because he was mad at me. A week later he took me out for enchiladas at Brown's on south Hackberry, where his father used to take him, and he told me, "I wouldn't sell you for $100, kid." That was his way of apologizing.

A number of years later he also took me for enchiladas at Casbeers, which sparked a poem. Both of those establishments are long gone now. Dad knew San Antonio inside and out; aside from one year in Manhattan, it was his forever home. He'd worked in construction with his father as a newlywed, and he remembered before all the elevated highways changed the shape of the city. He used to drive around and reminisce -- that's where we used to live, my mother had a chicken coop in the back yard...

When my parents were young they traveled to Acapulco with friends at least once a year, and to Las Vegas ditto. Later in life they traveled the world. They went to Kenya with two couples in 1982 -- their friend Sy was a hematologist studying blood-borne diseases in primates -- and they stayed at the Treetops lodge. They went to China with friends around then too, and when they came home they showed slides on the dining room wall.

During the years when he owned a crystal import business, they traveled in Eastern Europe several times a year for work. Once I was with them on a business trip there, and Dad took me to a place in Frankfurt that served the very best schweinshaxe -- pig's knuckles -- so I could try them too.

5. 

So many of my memories of Dad involve food. He snacked on spicy pickled okra, and on Ba-tampte pickled tomatoes that he cut into quarters and ate with a fork. He never cooked, but was a master at the grill. At the Barn Door, he used to eat steak basted in butter alongside twice-baked jalapeño potatoes stuffed with cheese. He'd grown up kosher, but my parents never kept a kosher kitchen. (Though when some of their kids became kosher, they made sure that family meals were kosher so we could all eat.)

In my childhood home he always kept a box of See's toffee that came with a tiny golden hammer. He pretended it was our secret and Mom didn't know it was there. That felt conspiratorial and sweet. When I was in college he sent me boxes of that candy, much to the delight of my friends. Later in life he ordered Enstrom's toffee to arrive at my door and my sister's door every December like clockwork. He loved being able to give people food or wine that he knew they would enjoy.

When I was in my twenties, my mom encouraged him to come north and visit sometimes without her. Once he and I walked from my office to Jack's Hot Dog Stand a couple of blocks away. It was a beautiful but frigid January day, with a crystal-clear blue sky and a wind chill around -20 degrees. For years he marveled about it, retelling the story again and again: "That sky was Texas blue, but the air was so cold it was like being smacked in the face with a frozen porcupine!" What a turn of phrase. 

6. 

In the last 20 years or so, Dad came often to seders at my sister's house. He used to comment on how different our seders had become -- his childhood seders were speed-sung in Yiddish! He spoke some Spanish and some Yiddish because those were languages his parents spoke. I'm told he gave his bar mitzvah speech twice, once in English and once in Yiddish.

His parents died on the same day in 1971. He told me that though he said daily kaddish for eleven months when his parents died (because he knew it mattered to Nana and Papa) he didn't care if his children did the same -- unless we would get something out of it, in which case he wouldn't stop us.

Dad used to tell me that being a Reform Jew was the best thing in the world because as long as you paid your temple dues, no one would tell you what you could or couldn't do! That made me laugh at the time, though in retrospect I hear something deep in it: for him, what mattered was supporting Jewish community and taking care of that community, not whether or not you kept Shabbes or kept kosher.

I remember sitting with him on a patio in Hot Springs, Arkansas, when I was in my early 30s (so he was in his early 70s.) We were there for the wedding of a cousin who, like me, bears his mother's name. He was wearing a warm brown blazer, smoking a cigar, and enjoying the crisp cool air. He told me he'd had a great run, and wouldn't mind dying whenever the time came. I've thought of that often lately.

7. 

Dad hated that Mom got sick at the end of her life and that no amount of medical intervention could save her. He would sit on his smoking porch with a cigar and shake his head and mournfully say, "I just don't understand how something like that could happen to someone as good as her." After she died, he visited her grave every day except for Saturdays when the cemetery was closed. 

When we visited him last, about ten days before the end, Dad was frail and confused and skipping around in time, asking where Mom was or speaking earnest paragraphs of word salad. But he managed to ask me if I needed anything -- trying to take care of me to the very end. He was charming and flirty with his caregivers.

He told his favorite caregiver that I was his youngest daughter. "Yeah? What's her name," Eddie prompted. "You ask her!" he retorted without missing a beat -- he couldn't remember my name, but he knew I was his kid. He also said to her, "You know what my daughter does?" (No, what, she asked.) "Ask her!" He couldn't remember the word rabbi, but he wanted Eddie to know that what I did, mattered.

The last day I saw him, I sang a line of "Hey, good-looking, what'cha got cookin,'" -- released in 1953, when he and my mom were courting -- and he sang the next line back -- "How's about cookin' something up with me?"

That morning he said something like, "If I weren't here, none of you would be in jail," gesturing around the room. I asked him if he felt like he was in jail and he shrugged. I told him that we were all there to be with him, and he smiled. But looking back, I think he knew that his life was ending -- I think "jail" was his body, after COVID and a heart attack and a stroke and everything else -- and he was ready to go.


Six million

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I've always felt the shadow presence of the six million. I grew up steeped in stories of villages, communities, lineages destroyed. My grandfather made it, but his family didn't. Six million Jewish lives ended by Nazis -- their absence was palpable. Silence where there should have been song. 

This morning the Washington Post reports that the global death toll from COVID-19 has reached that same awful number. How will the world be shaped by these six million deaths and the absences they leave behind? How can we begin to grapple with this staggering amount of global grief?

My father is slowly dying. Over the winter he survived COVID, and both of the hospitalizations that ensued. But the virus and its complications changed the amount and quality of time he has left. Surely countless others are in that same position: death hastened by COVID, even if not caused by it.

No one wants to sit with this grief. We want to celebrate things reopening. Return to restaurants! Shed those masks! Don't we want to be together? I feel it too -- the bone-deep yearning for a post-pandemic world. I am not an expert, but I'm pretty sure we are nowhere near a safe post-pandemic yet.

Many of us are anxiously watching Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the concomitant misinformation war. And the normalization of white supremacy and calls for political violence here, which tend to go hand-in-hand with antisemitism. (If your anxiety levels are skyrocketing, you are not alone.)

And yet I wonder whether the relentless headlines are keeping us from the grief work this moment asks of us. It's March again. Two years since this pandemic began turning the world upside-down. How can we sit shiva for six million? If we don't find space to grieve, how can we ever hope to heal?


From Ukraine

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One of the books I brought back from my mother's library is The Bewitched Tailor by Sholom Aleikhem. That's how his name is spelled on the cover. Inside I see his name and another phrase in Cyrillic letters. There's no date of publication, and I don't know when or how the book became my mom's possession.

In the back of the book, it says Printed in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The publishing house -- Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow -- was a state-run publisher (of course it was), founded in the 1960s. That's probably when this edition, illustrated with woodcuts by Y. Krasny, saw print. 

Shalom Aleichem was his pen name. His given name was Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich. He was born in 1859 in a small town in what is now Ukraine. After witnessing the terrible pogroms that swept across the region in 1905, including Kyiv, he emigrated to New York in 1906, and died there in 1916. 

The last place I traveled before the COVID-19 pandemic began here was to see my niece in the national touring production of Fiddler on the Roof, the classic musical based in Aleichem's stories. It's set in Anatevka, a fictional village based on Aleichem's experience growing up as a Jew in shtetl Ukraine.

I remember being nervous that day. I was slightly anxious about traveling to Boston given whisperings of the virus, though we didn't yet know that COVID was airborne, so I had no fear of sitting in a crowded theater! Mostly I was nervous that my son wouldn't like the play. I so wanted him to like the play.

Fiddler on the Roof is a classic of Jewish American theater, of course. But more than that, it tells a real story about the real kinds of things that happened to real people, including my own forebears. My grandfather grew up in a shtetl in neighboring Belarus only a few years after Shalom Aleichem fled.

My kid loved the play, though he recoiled in horror when the Russians smashed up the wedding. That kind of casual, callous antisemitism was completely foreign to him then. He's a few years older now, and has learned more about a lot of things. He knows who Putin is. He knows what Nazis were, and are.

Aleichem left Ukraine after the 1905 Kyiv pogrom. Wikipedia says the perpetrators of those pogroms blamed Russia's problems on "the Jews and the socialists." Once I would have rejoiced that those kinds of views were history, and better yet, they were somewhere else's history. Lately I'm not so sure

When I picked up the book, it didn't evoke current events for me. Russia hadn't yet attacked Ukraine. I brought it home because I'm a rabbi, and a student of Jewish literature, and also it was my mom's and we are beginning to clear out their house. Now it might as well be bound in yellow and blue.

A friend noted recently how many people seem to want to claim or find a connection with Ukraine now. I don't think that's a bad thing. The real work, I guess, is figuring out how to feel that connection across the globe, not just with people in the places that were home to my literal or literary forebears. 

 

 

Worth reading:


Keys

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Old barrel keys are heavy in the hand. Most have a round or oval bow, though two brassy ones sport criss-cross shapes instead. All have rounded shafts, pin holes of varying diameter, and idiosyncratic teeth. Shaped entirely unlike the keys I can get copied for a buck-fifty at the local hardware store. One is stamped J. MICHALIK PRAHA. Did that key travel with my mother and her parents in 1939? So did the sideboard where I keep china, the one with a cabinet to which I long ago lost the key. I try every key twice, but the Czech cabinet remains locked. Maybe it's better that way. I know it contains the silver goblet from my wedding, a marriage long ago undone. No one gets to know what else might be inside.