There are Jews who never step foot inside a synagogue, know little about the religion, its rituals and beliefs. But if asked, they’d identify themselves as being Jewish and, in fact, argue they are just as Jewish as black-hat wearing Chasids who are Shomer Shabbos.
Judaism is lots of things – a religion, a culture, a state of mind. It’s something I began thinking about several years ago during a trip to Israel when it became clear that the majority of Israelis I came into contact with were obviously Jewish, but also cosmically secular. So I was left wondering what it really means today to be a Jew.
All this philosophical musing has surfaced in a much more personal fashion in recent months as my mother continues her slow, relentless march into the darkness of dementia. My mom, who is 87, was raised in St. Paul, Minn. Her parents were immigrants to America, just a step removed from the shtetls of Eastern Europe.
Their links to Orthodox Judaism – observing the Sabbath and holidays, keeping kosher and adhering to other esoteric rituals – slipped away over the years. By the time my parents met, wed and started a family, they were solidly Conservative.
While my father attended shul and was active in synagogue politics and such, my mother practiced her Judaism in a much more amorphous fashion – she cooked and ate Jewish food, decorated the house with Jewish icons and artwork, spoke a bit of Yiddish and played mah jong. She attended High Holiday services, at least for a few hours each year, and sort of fasted on Yom Kippur.
She knows little about the Torah, Jewish rituals and holidays. But until recently she could roast a chicken or brisket and make a kugel that was spiritually inspired. Everything about her, essentially, was Jewish and, for better or worse, all her friends were Jews.
Several months ago, after we had moved her to an assisted living facility, I found my Mom sitting alone in her room. She seemed anxious and upset and after only a few moments she broke into sobs. Her life was already becoming hazy and out of focus, but there were moments of stark lucidity when she realized who she was and where she was headed.
“I just feel so alone,” she had said that day, then added, “and no one around here is Jewish.” She was right. The facility was bright and airy and filled with delightful people. But there were absolutely no cultural icons or images, foods, rituals or friends to bring her comfort.
We tried to add a few “Jewish” touches to her small space – little drawings from the grandchildren, photos of a trip she had taken to Israel years earlier, matzo ball soup from the neighborhood deli and a brightly lit hanukkiah that we placed in her window on Hanukkah.
But our efforts were too little and too late. Just a few weeks later she had already reached that place where her life was now a fading memory, mostly white noise filled with static. Yet it was still a shock, at least for me, when I walked into one of the facility’s public rooms and found my Mom sitting with a group of other residents, all singing “Amazing Grace”.
In the months my mom has been in assisted living, there have been church services, youth groups passing through singing Christmas Carols and chaplains offering spiritual advice and healing. None of these activities involved my mother. But Christian life was part of the fabric of the place.
So it wasn’t all that surprising last week when my Mom, clearly confused, told one of my brothers that she needed to go someplace. When he asked where, she first said to the library, but then added, no, she “was going to church.”
All that will change today when we move her to the William Breman Jewish Home here in the Land of Cotton, one of the premier care facilities in the area.
In a real way, I like to think, she’s returning home. That becomes immediately clear when you spot a mezuzah on the front door, the little touches of Judaica that are about and the small shul off the main corridor of the facility.
It’ll also be nice that ham sandwiches and bacon won’t be an option any longer and, once again, brisket, kugel and matzo ball soup will be on the kosher menu. That she’ll be dining each day with dozens of other Jews is the proverbial, ahhh, schmear on the bagel.
My hope, a silent prayer really, is that a bit of light still shines along the dark path my Mom is walking and that one day soon, if only for an instant, the savory smell of Jewish cooking or perhaps a small phrase of Yiddish being spoken around her or the cheerful sounds of Jewish day school students singing a Yiddish lullaby or Jewish song will remind her that she’s not alone.
So what does it mean to be Jewish? For my Mom, at least for now, I hope it’s about finding a place that is warm and safe, filled with a bit of yiddiskeit that reminds her of home. And for me? Observing the Fifth Commandment.
THIS JUST IN: Unfortunately, Mom will have to wait another day or two before dining on brisket and matzo ball soup! After posting this blog entry, there was a bit of a crisis and Mom was taken to the emergency room of an area hospital. She has been admitted for observation of a gastro-intestinal problem – I'll spare you the details. Once released, we will move her directly to her new home.
FOOD FOR THE SPIRIT: Nothing like a hot bowl of matzo ball soup (photo above) to feed the soul and connect a member of the tribe with their Jewish roots.