Pssst: This turned into quite a long post (just so you know what you’re getting yourself into):
I always think of this time of year as being “loaded” for me. Memories of the magical Christmas mornings of my childhood are now laced with a sense of loss, anger, confusion, and ambivalence. I didn’t know, as a girl in her new feet pajamas, as a girl who couldn’t wait to plug in the lights on the tree, who played carols on the piano, who made stained-glass cookies and unpacked the familiar ornaments and waited up late to see if Santa would take our offering from the mantel (he always did), who raced downstairs at dawn to see the mountain of presents that appeared overnight, during those few hours of sleep before the morning of wrapping paper, bacon and eggs, and braided raspberry marzipan bread, which my mother made the night before and rose early to bake. It was a special time for me and my sisters growing up, for the whole family. There was just one little catch: We were Jewish. We were Jewish and I didn’t know it, wouldn’t begin to sense this disconnect until I was a teenager – which is typically when I always think of my story as beginning.
Some of you know that I am in the slow, mysterious process of sorting through a lot of my writing – much of which has happened right here on this blog – to glean what manuscript, what book, lies contained here. I know it will come, is coming; something is gestating and my job is to nourish it and myself, to carry it to term, to give birth to it and share it with the world. It doesn’t have a due date, this book-baby; it doesn’t have a name. But it has been kicking at me a bit harder lately.
Late last week, I spent several hours holed up in my study, wildly mapping out the concepts and themes that call me, that frame so much of my writing. What I wound up with was impossible to deny or ignore: The themes, the framework, the container for my story is a Jewish one. I have avoided it assiduously. I have written about mindfulness here, about intentionality, about second chances and practice; I have written about being a mama and a daughter and an achiever and a seeker and a friend; I have written about trusting the Universe and talking to the angels; I have written about blessings and babies. And what stared back at me Friday, after so many hours of following my instincts, was that each of these – every single one – has a Jewish name, a Jewish equivalent, a Jewish home. Kavanah, Tikkun, Brachot, Mitzvot, Avodah, Shabbat, Tshuvah, the Book of Life…
I grew up in a Jewish home and I did not grow up in Jewish home. I grew up not knowing I was Jewish. It was not a secret. My parents would, or might, say that we had a very Jewish upbringing, in that the values we were raised with are deeply in sync with traditional Jewish values – of learning, of community, of artistic expression, of home and family and tradition. There was just one catch: There was nothing Jewish about the traditions I grew up knowing and loving. This does not take away from how real and special they were. Indeed, they shaped me. I do not wish I had had a different life. How could I? But I do feel some longing now, some loss for the absence of self-knowledge I had – Jewishly speaking – as a child. I know I was searching for it from as young an age as five or six, when I developed an interest in God, in Tarot cards (due to an influential babysitter), in death, in writing. But I had no words, no context, no sense of connection to a people or a story, until many, many years later.
I have debated whether this is the story I need to tell, to write. It is safer, more cozy and comfortable, to write about my everyday life now. And I realize it’s not an either/or. But when I saw this wall of Jewish words and themes, values and concepts, practices and principles, staring back at me Friday, I knew I could no longer avoid the topic, knew I would probably have to begin, begin writing something new, something new about something old, to be woven in with what has become my present-day life. For how can this life make sense without its antecedent, its ancestors, this history, the context for all that is, a nest, a womb?
Here is the wall of words, themes:
And here are the paper snowflakes we made Saturday morning with the girls, full of challah french toast:
Here is what Aviva calls “The Big Wall of Art”:
And her own story unfolding:
Here is Pearl, watching her efforts take shape:
And the result, sweet to eat and share:
Here’s the living room at its absolute cleanest:
And here’s why we bother, with any of it:
This home, these girls, my Jewish heart; the calling to be a rabbi that I buried – I thought – once and for all; the soaring sensation I have when we dance, when the music and song fill this space; the awe I feel when Aviva writes, “I like to light the menorah. When I light the menorah, I feel like my ancestors are watching over me;” the amazingness of this journey, the story of two Simmas, the connections broken and repaired over three or four generations; the abandonment and the return home – for all of it, for all of it I am grateful. I am ready, ready to find my way into this story, to own it, to let it be told. I hope that one day it will be a story you can read between two covers, under the covers, the old-fashioned way. I wish I could tell you when this will happen, how it will happen. But these are not things I know.
In the meantime, I’ll let Aviva hold the camera, let her keep reminding me that she is having her own childhood. She is seeing the world through her very own eyes, seeing me dance, dance to “Sim Shalom” – Bless us with peace each moment and in every hour. She is not confused. She will have other legacies to wrestle with and come to love or forgive. And finally, what is clear, is that the distance between me and my Grammy – that matriarch who abandoned Judaism for Christian Science – is not nearly as big as I think. In fact, we may just be coming full circle.