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It Takes a Child

Debbie Maimon

Brenda's Story
(Names and identifying information have been altered.)

A while ago, if someone would have asked me for my life story, I would probably have started off with my childhood in Queens. To go further back than that would mean bringing up my parents' Israeli and Iraqi backgrounds, which might give the impression-G-d forbid-that my family was not wholly American!

That was a sensitive point for many of my siblings as we were growing up. We loved my parents, but my mother's Israeli accent embarrassed us and with my father-well, besides the accent, it was the way he stuck out as a foreigner-and specifically a Jew-that made my brothers uncomfortable.

We'd bring our friends over-it was an Italian neighborhood, so of course we had Italian friends-and my father would grumble under his breath, "Why don't you have any Jewish friends?" That was typical of his confused way of raising us. I mean, what choices did we have, living where we lived, going to the schools we went to?

Tradition was important to my father-but he wanted to pass it down by rote, without rhyme or reason. He either didn't know, or chose not to explain what was behind the rituals he wanted us to keep. That just didn't go over with my brothers and me. What on earth did we need dietary restrictions for when all our friends could eat out at the corner pizza parlor? What use did we have for going to synagogue when we could barely read Hebrew, couldn't follow the services and were bored out of our wits?

I have a feeling that my father would have sent us kids to Jewish schools if he could have afforded it. But the shortage of money, and the fact that my mother, who had been raised in a very secular home, was not in favor of it, ruled out that possibility.

To accommodate my father, we had two sets of dishes, for milk and meat. But to accommodate my mother, we ate non-kosher food on them. Because my father insisted on it, we kept Passover. We went without bread, and took the toaster down to the basement. But since my mother knew so little about how to keep it, ninety nine per cent of what we did and what we ate during the holiday was almost certainly forbidden.

There was no Shabbos in my home because my father felt he had no choice but to go to work on Saturday in order to support his family. It was only at the end of his life, when he was too old and weak to continue working, that my father began to observe Shabbat and other Orthodox rituals, the way he had done as a boy in Baghdad. By then my mother had passed away, and my brothers and I were all married-to non-Jews.

From Six Children, Not one Jewish Grandchild

Every one of these marriages was a blow to my father. The idea that from six children of his own he would have no Jewish grandchildren was a source of anguish. It was only later in life that I understood his pain.

He railed at us for deserting our faith but I saw nothing wrong with marrying a Christian. My brothers and I were not interested in perpetuating my parents' weird blend of Israeli-Sephardic Jewish tradition and culture. We wanted to be all-around American kids, free of my parents' baggage.

To give you an idea of the "dual personality" of our home, my father made all us say "Shema Yisrael" when we went to sleep at night. So even though we understood not a word of it, and were completely ignorant of any other of the prayers, my brothers and I said Shema Yisrael every single night.

(When I grew up and was already living on my own, this practice stayed with me. Somehow it had gotten under my skin and I couldn't ditch it. Strangest of all, even after my marriage to a non-Jew, I kept it going.)

It was only as I grew older that I realized how my father's brand of Judaism reflected his own conflicts about his heritage. When he was already very old, he once told me the details of how his father had died. Until then, all I knew was that my grandfather had been killed in an anti-Semitic disturbance in Baghdad in the 1930's. Now I found out how. He had been dragged off a bus by Jew-hating thugs and beaten to death.

Terrified for his life, my father, who was then in his teens, had fled with his family to Israel. In the scrambling around for means to support the family, he and his brothers abandoned the religious lifestyle they had lived in Baghdad and gradually adopted the secular values of their new homeland. The next generation was of course much further removed from the old ways. None of my Israeli cousins on my father's side are religious today.

What is strange is that the pattern of each generation drifting farther away from Judaism was unexpectedly broken with my daughter, Shari, who, when only ten years old, decided to keep Shabbos.

I was divorced at the time, and it was just the two of us. Shari had been enrolled in a Jewish Day School when she turned four. The public school kindergarten I had chosen for her was already full when I went to apply. The day school was close by and had an excellent pre-school program. I signed her up, convinced it would be for just one year.

A Daughter's Dilemma

But Shari blossomed there. She loved everything they taught her, from the little friends she made to the Parsha stories to the Yom Tov songs and arts and crafts she brought regularly. I was so happy for her. I didn't foresee the dilemma that lay ahead until it was too late.

It all came to a head one Saturday when Shari was 11. We had planned a family outing at the beach that day with a bunch of Shari's cousins, aunts and uncles. Shari had been observing Shabbos for several months at home. When plans for the trip came up and her cousins urged her to come along, she was very torn. Finally, at my prodding, she relented and said she would. At the last minute, though, five minutes before our ride came, she had a change of heart.

I can't go. I can't go into a car on Shabbos, she cried.

I said it was too late for me to cancel, everyone was counting on our being there, and that I couldn't let them down. I said she could stay home if she wanted. She agonized over it right up until my brother and sister-in-law arrived with the kids and I started loading the picnic things inside their car. At the last minute, biting her lip, she climbed into the back seat with her cousins.

But it was pure torment for her. She cried at the beach and wouldn't go into the water. She just lay on her towel in the sand, miserable and full of guilt, not talking to anyone. I thought, what am I doing to this child? She believes in something. Whether it's right or wrong, true or false, how can I force her to go against her conscience? I will never again put her into this position, no matter what.

A couple of weeks later, Shari and I went to our first Gateways seminar. It had been billed as a 4-day exploration of Judaism with first class hotel accommodations and a fantastic children's program. I was on my guard, knowing that the rabbis running the program would be giving an Orthodox slant on everything.

But I quickly got over my reservations. Just the warmth and rapport, the meals and the good feeling in the air would have made it worth the money. But what really happened there went beyond good company and fabulous food. It was like watching a very blurry picture come slowly into focus. Like standing on a mountain top and for the first time, getting the full sweep of where you came from.

Unscrambling The Confusion

All my life I had kept bits of pieces of Judaism like random pieces of silverware that don't match up. Two sets of dishes for milk and meat-but nothing kosher about the food that went into them. A set of Passover pots and pans-but don't even try to imagine what was cooked in them. Shema Yisrael at bedtime, but not a drop of Jewish education that could explain the significance of those words.

The Judaism I grew up with was so arbitrary and confusing I never had the patience or interest to learn anything about it. Now, I began to see where Jewish laws and rituals fit into a grand scheme, and some of the reasons behind them. I learned that Jews throughout the ages, for over 3,000 years, in every corner of the world to which they had wandered, had been practicing-and still practiced-these laws in the exact same way, with all their hundreds of details. Like the rabbi put it, my grandfather from Baghdad could trade "identity cards" with a Jew from halfway around the world-and from a different century-and they would immediately recognize each other as brothers.

Their Judaism was not a mixed-up hodge-podge like I inherited from my father, but an orderly system built into day to-day living. A system that was portable, from one country to another, across oceans and mountains and major cataclysms, across centuries right into today's world.

My grandfather in Baghdad, like his grandfather before him and all the way up the chain of generations, had celebrated Passover as a prime opportunity to pass down a precious legacy from father to son. Not nostalgic mementos of the long-lost world like it was in my family. Not a watered down attempt to salvage bits and pieces of a broken tradition, but as the most important gift a father could give his child.

To hear Rabbi Ordman conclude one of his lectures with the one line of the Bible I knew in Hebrew-Shema Yisrael-was spine-tingling. But it was learning that these particular words are so central and holy to Judaism that brought tears to my eyes. Who knows if it wasn't these very words I whispered every night -without my ever knowing what they meant-that helped me through so many difficult times in my life.

Sometimes It Takes A Child

Sometimes it takes a child to make you see straight. It was Shari's embrace of Judaism that slowly opened my heart to it. She also had an innocent belief in a soul existing before life-uncanny, because no one ever taught it to her-that kindled my own belief.

When she was only four, Shari said to me, "You're my mommy, because before I was born, I picked you." A few years later, when she was old enough to know why her family was so small-just the two of us-and old enough to feel the loneliness of it, she said something like that again. This time it was during one of those moments when life seems so heavy it just sort of drags you down.

"Mommy, you know something," she said. "Before I was born, I picked you. Even though I knew you would get divorced and I wouldn't have a father, I picked you to be my mother."

Of course it brought me to tears. I don't imagine getting picked for anything in the world-even president of the United States-can be as glorious as getting picked as mother-of-the-year from your own child. But beyond the emotional high that washed away all the heaviness of a moment before, was the sense that there was much more here than a child's way of saying I-love-you.

That feeling crystallized over the Gateways weekend as I learned about the strange and miraculous survival of the Jewish people that defies all logic. In my own family's history, it couldn't be more clear. My grandfather was killed by Jew-haters. In reaction, his children fled from their homeland and in the end, from their heritage. His grandchildren were almost completely assimilated and most of their children were not even Jewish.

And perhaps in reaction to that, a descendant was born to my grandfather-my daughter Shari -who, against all logic, returned to her family's lost heritage. How did such a thing happen? Why? Perhaps because G-d had pity on my grandfather's soul and sent a child like Shari here so that his life and death would not be in vain.

So that at least one link in a family chain going back countless generations would survive and eventually, with G-d's help, would guarantee Jewish survival to many others.

With the help of a follow-up learning program arranged through Gateways, Brenda began observing Shabbos and studying the laws of kashrus and Jewish holidays. A few months ago she redid her entire kitchen so that she could start keeping kosher using appliances that had never been in contact with anything treife. Last month she and Shari attended the Gateways December seminar, where in addition to cramming in as much learning as possible, she generously granted the interview that made the above article possible.

Reprinted with permission from the Yated Ne'eman.



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