This weekend I visited a cousin of mine who was very close to my father when he was in his early twenties. He went to this cousin’s family every week for Shabbat dinner when he was in medical school, since they lived close to the campus. Fifty years later, here I was, attending a Shabbat meal with this very cousin and her daughter’s family. While my cousin lived close to my father’s medical school back in the day, for the past 40 years or so, she has lived in Atlanta, where she and her husband raised her family, and her daughter and her husband are currently raising theirs. That last time I was in Atlanta was for her middle son’s bar mitzvah 25 years ago.
Shabbat has a beautiful way of slowing the world down, cultivating meaningful conversations and enriching bonds. It did this for my father and his cousin fifty years ago, and it did this for me and this very cousin and her daughter’s family this past weekend. Over Shabbat I had great catch up conversations with my cousins, as well as many conversations about my father and my grandfather and how exactly our families were related (in a nutshell—the blood line is thin, but the heart, i.e. the emotional connection, is strong).
My father’s cousin not only gave me the gift of cherished memories of my father, but also a fresh perspective on my life. Having grown up in NY, she recognized the social trends of the Orthodox community there and was not surprised when I told her that I sometimes struggled with fitting in. She said that those whose parents, or even grandparents, were in the Orthodox community, fit right into the “in” crowd, while it was not as seamless for those who grew up somewhere else or were not originally part of the Orthodox community. She saw it in my father when he came for Friday night dinner during medical school—he had grown up in Yonkers, as opposed to Riverdale, Teaneck, or the Five Towns, and she could tell he was on the outskirts. If you know me, you know I love having things in common with my father (e.g. nutrition, jogging, etc), so having this sentiment in common with him was very validating.
Along with the above experiences and conversations which enlightened, inspired, and grounded me, the rabbi’s sermon at shul on Shabbat was very meaningful to me. It was based on a recent document put out by the Orthodox Union (OU) regarding the role of women in shul and the Jewish community. He focused on three positive points that were made. Two of them particularly spoke to me. The first, that women should be encouraged to pursue roles in the Jewish community in which they are leaders in spiritual growth and teaching Torah. The second, that they should have titles for this. What sprung to my mind was the Graduate Program of Advanced Talmudic Studies (GPATS) at Yeshiva University (YU). This program was not yet created when my mother was a graduate student obtaining her masters in Jewish Education from the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS).
To this day, my mother is trying to find her role in Jewish education. And while she would have found it sooner if she hadn’t selflessly dedicated herself to staying at home and raising my brother and me, she also surely would have discovered it sooner if the GPATS program were around when she was a graduate student, during which time the YU masters program in Jewish Education did not teach Talmud.
After thinking about how my mother’s journey related to the rabbi’s speech, I thought of my own journey. After attending Orthodox Jewish day school from K-12, I attended a rigorous religious seminary in Israel, which has a bastion of inspiring, religious female and male educators, who teach in Israel as well as in the States, spreading the light and wisdom of the Torah.
Listening to the rabbi’s words, tears began to flood my eyes. At first they were tears for my mother’s own frustrations in finding her professional niche; then they were tears for my own struggles. When I attended seminary in Israel, I was at the height of my Jewish growth and learning. At that time, I never imagined that I could become so spiritually and religiously lost later on in my twenties. Ever since my spiritual descent, what brings me the most psychological pain is picturing myself before it all began; thinking about how much potential I had, how pure and good I was, and how much I have fallen.
For the remainder of the morning prayer service I was speechless since my emotions had flooded my being and left me in a state of shock and stillness. Then a congregant opened the ark and the concluding hymn which contains my father’s name was sung. That hymn, once again, comforted my soul, and eased me back into my surroundings.