Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Polishing the Silver

Every Erev Yom Tov (day before a major holiday), I polish the silver items in the apartment that are looking tarnished. Lest I sound like Lady Di (l'havdil) or something, I would like to clarify that I am talking about three items: a kiddush cup, candlesticks, and a candy dish. A dear friend gave TH and me the kiddish cup for our wedding, and it has our Hebrew names engraved on it. The other two were my grandmother's.

The holidays, and especially the High Holidays and Pesach, remind me of my grandparents. Both sets of grandparents lived in the same state, about an hour apart, so we spent one day of Yom Tov with my mom's parents and one day with my dad's parents. (Yes, I used to ride on Yom Tov). Aunts, uncles, and cousins lived nearby, so holidays were filled to bursting with family. These celebrations go on today, but without my grandparents, z"l (may their memories be a blessing).

I loved all of my grandparents, but I was especially close with my grandmother, my father's mother. One of the reasons for this is that she lived the longest, until I was 27. This gave me the opportunity to have a relationship with her as an adult. When I was in grad school and she had to spend a lot of time in the house because of her health, we used to talk on the phone three times a week. In the process of this relationship, I figured out the other reason: We had a lot in common. We both loved foreign languages and reading fiction, old friends and long conversations, and we both had old-fashioned taste. We were also both deeply committed to Judaism. None of that captures the fact that she got me. She got me. It is very rare for people to get me, but she did. I don't know if this has ever happened to you, Internet, but when I look at my father's maternal side of the family (my grandmother and my great uncle and his children and grandchildren), I think, "So THAT'S how I got this way." Everyone's family is pretty crazy, and so is mine. My extended family is made up of people who are crazy in different ways, but my grandmother's family is crazy sort of like I am.

My grandmother did many things for me. Right near the top of that list is the fact that she accepted my becoming more observant. She grew up nominally Orthodox, with a traditional father and an adamantly American mother, for whom I am named. She went to a type of American cheder, and I once found her first Hebrew primer, or maybe it was her prayer book. She never lost her ability to read the prayers or her deep commitment to Judaism, but Orthodoxy did not make a lot of sense to her. It meant no role at all for women, something that her own mother could not abide, either. So she and my grandfather, who had little Jewish upbringing, joined a Reform congregation after they got married. She was active in the Reform movement for the rest of her life, giving it both her time and her money, and she eventually became the grand old lady of her Temple, the one rabbinical candidates had to impress if they hoped to have a shot at getting hired.

My increased observance was incredibly puzzling to her. There had always been an observance gap between her and my grandfather on the one hand and my nuclear family on the other, because we kept kosher (as did my mother's parents), and they didn't. By "kept kosher," I mean that we were kosher at home but ate out vegetarian in restaurants, and when my brother and I were younger, we were allowed to eat meat out as long as it was not mixed with dairy (I stopped doing this around the time of my Bat Mitzvah). But there was still a big cultural difference there, and seeing my grandparents eat shellfish was pretty weird. My parents sent my brother and me to a Conservative Day School, and so we had a fair amount of Jewish knowledge that my dad's parents didn't have (but my mom's side of the family did), which was also a bit strange. When I stopped eating meat out, I just ate something vegetarian at my dad's parents', but observing Shabbat was in an entirely different league. Unlike keeping kosher, observing Shabbat is, in my opinion, a marker of Orthodoxy in American Judaism. My grandmother didn't get that.

But she adapted, and she did so after the age of 75, which I think is remarkable. Starting after I graduated from college, I used to stay with her for the weekend every once and a while. Friday afternoons involved a trip to the bagel store to get bagels and lox and one to the supermarket to get kosher cold cuts and any other food I needed for Shabbat. We made sure to cook everything before sundown (toward the end of her life she had someone to help around the house), and we lit candles and had Shabbat dinner together. Saturdays we slept in, I davened (prayed), and then we took it easy, resting, talking, and reading. Her apartment had a terrace, and we used to sit on it, while I would ask her questions about her childhood and young adulthood. She was reluctant to answer many of them, as was and still is common among many people of her generation ("That's all in the past now. Why worry about it?" is something you may have heard, Internet, from your own parents and grandparents), but she did answer some. Then, after Havdalah, we would watch TV. Sunday we would go to a bookstore, of course, and then I would head to the bus station. She would sometimes make a crack or two, but they went very smoothly. I did not realize how special that smoothness was until my father pointed it out to me when I was frustrated with TH's family's resistance to my observance.

I loved those weekends, and I miss them. Shortly before she died, my grandmother gave me the candlesticks that I light every Erev Shabbat and Yom Tov. They were not the ones that she lit every week, but, rather, a spare set, which she had been given by her father around the time of her Bat Mitzvah. (I got the candy dish after she died). I think of her when I light them, and when I polish them.


Anonymous said...

Those are very special memories - you are very fortunate to have them. It is so valuable to be able to build a deep relationship with a grandparent, based on more than just being one of the children, but with a full friendship component too.
Shana tovah

Shira Salamone said...

I have fond memories of my grandparents, and wish our son had been that fortunate--my husband's father died when he was a baby, his mother was not well eoungh to have a real relationship with our son, and my own parents made aliyah when he was a toddler. You and I are very lucky to have such fond memories of our grandparents.