Friday, February 27, 2015

My Mother's Shabbat Candles

In memory of my parents, Rabbi Benjamin Miller and Jeanette Miller, whose yahrzeits occurred this past February 15 and February 22, respectively.

While going through the contents of my piano bench one evening, I discovered the sheet music to a piece I used to play constantly when I was in high school.

Among the smiles
Among the tears of my childhood’s sweet and bitter years
There’s a picture that my memory fondly frames
And in it softly shine two tiny flames
My mother’s Sabbath candles . . . 
(Jack Yellen,1950) 

I placed this decades-old song above the keyboard and began to play. My fingers traversed the black and white keys easily. I recalled the living room scene where my mother would sit on the flowery upholstered couch across from the piano and listen while I practiced. Often, she was tearful; mostly, she was just speechless.

I witnessed my mother lighting and praying over the Sabbath candles every Friday night for the 22 years that I lived at home. She succeeded in fulfilling the commandment to light the Sabbath candles almost 5,000 times during her 95 years; I believe she never once missed this reverent act. When I got married and left the warmth of those Friday evenings, I took the ritual of lighting the Sabbath candles into my home, and it became one of our cherished family traditions.

My aging parents moved to Philadelphia from the Bronx to be near my oldest sister, Khana, when they needed extra care. For the next eight years, they lived in a large one-bedroom apartment that included a small, square kitchen that could only accommodate their dishes and appliances. There was no breakfast area and no real table, so a shelf was built specifically to hold my mother’s two Sabbath candlesticks.

My father’s yahrtzeit, the one-year anniversary of his death, occurred the Sunday before my mother died. She had struggled to live without him throughout the year. Now, another year was beginning. How many more Sabbaths would she need to observe without him? The week before, I had stood next to her in that kitchen, and the two of us had lit the Sabbath candles together. My childhood memories melted into the candle wax. My mother leaned on me as she waved her hands in front of the candles to usher in the light of the Divine. With her eyes closed, she continued the tradition of her foremothers, mumbling the customary Hebrew blessing while her heart cried out with silent grief.

My mother died the following Sabbath in the early morning hours before dawn. I was not with her when she lit her candles for the last time. But my father’s spirit stayed to bless and temper her Sabbath sorrow. He resided in the tears that fell onto my mother’s apron and sanctified the windowless space. I can picture my parents leaning on one another and waving their hands toward the light. Perhaps the glow of the flame was my father’s soul longing to be at home again with her. Perhaps it was my mother’s longing to be at home in his soul.

Maybe both.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Shabbat with my Grandchildren

They sat on my couch lined up like a row of boats in the harbor: boy, girl, boy, girl; six, eight, eleven and twelve respectively.

With the Shabbat candles lit, we sang the welcoming Sabbath hymn, I gave them each a hard cover siddur (prayer book), and together we created our home-centered Friday evening service.

“What prayer would you like to sing now?” I asked.

My four grandchildren have been singing and studying the Jewish liturgy since birth. Their parents celebrate Shabbat with them every Friday night, and the tunes and the words have been etched in their hearts and minds for years. How did I get so lucky to be witness to the next generation of Jewish youth?

As I listened to my grandchildren recite the prayers of our age-old religion, I realized that passing down the traditions of our ancestors is accomplished with one teaching moment at a time.

It may begin with a Jewish lullaby or the taste of a braided challah. The glow of the Sabbath candles or the recognition of a Hebrew letter. These are the sights, the smells, the sounds of our Jewish heritage.

I can see beyond this Shabbat and perceive a Jewish future where my four grandchildren are leading the way.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Portraits of My Father

I could look up the year of my father’s death, but what does it matter? On a cold February day, five or six or eight years ago, he passed away. What matters is how the grief has changed me. After all these years without his physical presence, our relationship continues.

Is it normal to bring into focus his funny face every time I think of him? What did we both look like when we were younger? What does it matter? Now, all that I can imagine is an ageless father who stopped growing old and never was young enough to be my "daddy."

Sometimes, I see him pulling out a Cuban cigar from his pocket, and, in slow motion, lighting up on a corner street in the Bronx. Sometimes, when I walk into a Dunkin Donuts store, I continue ordering him his favorite, the original donut and a large black coffee, no cream, no sugar, but hot enough so he could feel the warmth on his dentures. And sometimes, I picture him standing in the living room, with tallit and tefillin wrapped around his arm and forehead.

Morning after morning, he appeared as my first vision. He appears again as I conjure up his funny face.

Whether my father was eating, smoking, praying or laughing at his own jokes, he was and always will be moving portraits of love, compassion, wisdom and joy.

Friday, February 6, 2015

PhD-Level Compassion

David introduced himself before the lecture began. A high school junior from Winston-Salem, N.C., he was spending a semester at the School for Ethics and Global Leadership. We were seated in the second row of the Helena Rubinstein auditorium inside the United States Holocaust Museum, where Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, would attempt to answer the question: "Can Atrocities be Prevented?"

Mr. Al Hussein, the former Permanent Representative to the United Nations from Jordan, is a Muslim. His portfolio includes peace building and accountability for human rights violations. He crafted his talk with published research, quotations from Primo Levi and Viktor Frankl, and court records from the perpetrators of the holocaust atrocities. Every day he concerns himself with suffering on the ground. His distinguished, calm demeanor relaxed us even though the subject was dark and dismal.

I am increasingly supportive of the proposition that education of any kind, if it is devoid of a strong universal human rights componentcan be next to worthless when it should matter most: in crisis, when our world begins to unravel. . . . We need people who are kind. People with PhD-level compassionPeople who feel joy, and generosity, and love, and who have fully integrated the values that are essential to life in freedom and dignity. We need people with a strong moral compass, and we need to help to build – or rebuild – that compass with education that includes a deeper moral content.

We applauded his simple truth but reacted with public cynicism and frustration.

I asked my high school friend what he had learned from the High Commissioner.

"I have to tell you that I go to a Catholic parochial school, and although I get a good education, the emphasis is mostly on getting good grades. I have learned more about ethics and morality in the two weeks that I have been here at this program than I have in the two years that I have been in high school. The Commissioner is right. We need to teach about basic moral values, human rights and ethics in schools everywhere, not just at the School of Ethics and Global Leadership."
David from Winston-Salem, N.C., is on his way to earning his PhD in compassion. He gave me hope in the midst of communal despair.