It was about a year and a half ago that my mom’s sister was diagnosed with a brain tumor. My experience with my extended family has always been limited, but my Aunt Lisa had let me stay with her during my first month when I moved to New York and we had formed somewhat of a connection. Unlike my isolation, my mother always has kept in touch with all members of the family. The oldest of four girls and a brother, growing up my mom often times had to be the parent to her siblings (for reasons I won’t go into).
Needless to say, the news of my aunt’s condition was difficult. Though she never let on, mom has always been a protector, trying to shield me from saddening or troubling news. But when her youngest son has dived head first into an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle (not really, but I’m sure that’s how she sees it) the topic of God and why bad things happen to good people is bound to come up. At least that’s what I was anticipating. For the most part, that sort of anger fueled challenge of God’s justice never came up. What did come up was the concept of prayer.
Despite having the least amount of formal Jewish learning (my siblings and I were all sent to reform Sunday school and my dad had the equivalent in the 1960’s) there is no doubt in my mind that my mom is the most spiritual one in the family. Where I’ve felt alienated from family, she felt alienated in a prayer service. But she’s always yearned to be able to participate. So a few months after the diagnosis (I didn’t want to ask too soon so it didn’t seem like I was pushing an agenda) I proposed to mom, “Would you like to learn the refuah shlema prayer?” (The prayer for healing).
I mean how could she say no? A dedicated hour once a week to Facetiming with her son? It’s every Jewish mother’s dream (barring grand children or an MD). And so we did. First with the transliteration, then slowly starting to introduce in the letters, then the vowels. And this opened the door for other Jewish concepts and learning. “What do you mean we’re doing this ‘in the merit of…’? Shouldn’t we be doing mitzvahs for the sake of doing good?” and “What’s so important about their Hebrew name? Doesn’t God know who we’re talking about?” (Actually that last one was my dad’s question).
Needless to say, a deeper and more open relationship has started to form. Something that hadn’t been there since before the inevitable adolescent break away. But I’ve been most surprised by her resilience. Mom’s not the fastest learner. She still thinks my friend Feiya’s name is Theiya, and I have distinct memories of her with the remote control, waving it like a magic wand as she waits for the TV to flip to the channel she just entered. (When pressing the enter button would make it happen instantaneously). But I knew through repetition, inability can lead to mastery. Even if it’s just memorization. And even though she struggles on every new prayer we learn, to hear her fly through the refuah shlema is rewarding to say the least.
So a few months ago when I was asked by my good friend and president of the Community Shul, Saul to speak for a few minutes about Toras Chiam (Torah for Life), the only thing I could think of was the story I’ve shared above. But what was the lesson from this experience with my mother? You can’t just wait for a family member to get a terminal illness (God forbid) to spring Jewish learning on the other grieving family members. Jewish outreach in Hebrew is called kiruv. It literally means to bring one close to God. And I’ve never been terribly comfortable doing that in any broad sense. But what I realized, and then said over at shul, is that going out there and hitting people with opinions about religion or politics or even pointing things they may be doing wrong, tends to not go over well. Nobody wants to hear it.
But there’s a chance that there is at least one person in your life who is open to listening to you. It might be a trainee you’re mentoring, an old friend. In my case it was my mother. And to start there. Starting small. And with the intention that it is an offer. Not an insistence, not as a hard sell. But out of concern, love, and friendship. That’s how a strong genuine connection is made.
Aunt Lisa passed away in June. It was over Shabbos so I missed my mother’s phone call. Needless to say there is a complicated mix of emotions that accompanies the grieving process. So we put a hold on our Facetime learning. But after my nephew was born (merely a few weeks later) my mom was ready to come back. And this time to learn something she has always felt compelled but intimidated to learn. The mourner’s kaddish.
On Saturday my mom is turning 65. I did this post as a love note to her. Mom, I love you and cherish the time we spend together and the new dimension of the relationship we’ve discovered. You’re the most caring, loving, and sacrificing person I have ever known. Every time we recite the refuah shlema prayer together, your insistence on recalling every name you can think of is a testament to all I’ve said above.
And as a bit of a coda, I was leaving shul last week and a congregant stopped me. “Hey you did that talk about your mom a few month back, right? Well just so you know, you inspired me to connect with one of my friends who had never learned Gemara. I had never taught Gemara, but what the hey right? He and I are learning together now. So you and your mom get all that schus (merit).”
This was such a beautiful and touching post. May your learning with your mom and the inspiration it gives other be a merit for you, your mom, and your aunt’s soul. May her memory be a blessing.
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What a lovely tribute to my dear friend Ragen. Happy birthday Ragen. I love you, Marsha
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Beautiful post, Ben. Kol ha kavod to your mom for being open to prayer despite a lack of Jewish education.
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