Sunday, March 27, 2011

Daily Trek on Amtrak

I travel from Philadelphia to New York City four days a week to work at the Jewish Education Project. On the best day, the commute on Amtrak coupled with Septa and a drive to the local train is four hours. On most days it is closer to six hours.

Why do I do it?

A personal reflection:

My childhood bedroom was lavender, a color of the 60's. Mom-Mom, my grandmother, a drop over five-feet, would sing me love songs at bedtime. The love songs were of Jewish life and laughter. "A clena bisel, shana punim, the Rebbe elimelech" were woven into the blanket she placed over me at night. Her stories of the dirt floor house where she grew up in Russia were like movies. I saw it all, including her father Rabbi Ben Zion Shimon, his wife Sara Raizel and all the children when they walked on the rocky roads or sat by a fire.

After Ben Zion Shimmon was killed by a runaway troike (a flat bed cart pulled by a horse), she told me, the family came one by one to America. Only Uncle Maishel went to Palestine. Years later I learned that he was an early resident of Kibbutz Geva, not quite a founder, as I thought the story had been told.

The last to leave Russia, were my grandmother, her sister Anna and their mother, Bubbie Kohler. The three of them, taken across the border by a guide, bribed the guard to get out of Russia. A train and a boat carried them to the door of family in Maryland. "The inspector would come to the factory where I worked," Mom-mom said, "I was only 13 so they would hide me in the closet because children weren't allowed to work."

"My mother used to teach Hebrew to help make money for the family. Who needs feminism?" Mom-mom said proudly, "My mother was a woman who worked and knew Talmud."

Mom-mom, with wrinkles, and teased dyed hair, told me about walking miles to save nickel carfare, of living in an apartment with an outhouse and her siblings working to help one another. Not sure if any of the details I recall are true. Possibly they are conjured mist leftover from childhood. Was Mom-mom really bullied by Russians for being Jewish or is it a memory created out of story and song?

As for me, I could see heaven when I was a girl. I could see the beds lined up with all my ancestors in them.
A pleasant place to visit my Uncle Sydney, and Pop-Pop and Bubbie Kohler. "Dear God," I learned to say at a young age.

The lasting impression:

Being Jewish: the core.
Meeting obstacles: daily bread.
Family: essential for survival.
You are here: because of the people who came before you.

Growing older:
When the backdrop of Elvis was replaced by the Rolling Stones and flower-power-orange, Mom-mom's bedtime melodies stayed. Suburbia's demand for piano, ballet and acting classes, and shopping at Blum's Department Store, didn't drown out the importance of trays of gefilte fish, reading the newspaper through a Jewish lens, and folding-chair seders.

My mother darted off to Ort and Hadassah meetings. And a record player went round and round in our kitchen with phrases like "Ema Metzazeleen" supporting my mother's unsuccessful attempt to learn Hebrew.

At the age of 43 my mother died suddenly. We all went to Temple Adath Israel on Lancaster Avenue to say Kaddish. It felt like a lie. Affirm faith in God when my beautiful, nurturing, tender mother was gone after a week's illness?

Today, Elvis, The Rolling Stones, lavender and orange have been replaced with the color of speed and technology. And I've aged quite a bit since standing, abandoned, with the Kaddish. Singing, praying and chanting are now calms in my storm.

I'm glad I learned at a young age to say, Dear God. I still say it regularly.

My youngest son is now twenty. At his bedtime I used to sing "Rebono Shel Olam," using a melody Cantor Boris Kaskansky taught me. "It is a melody that was handed down from the middle ages," instructed the Cantor. I believe him. Then the prayer I'd say with my son began, Dear God. At the end of the Amidah, and before I go to bed at night I say the same prayer.

This is my blanket of blessing.

Of course I take the daily trek on Amtrak.

What exciting work:
To help
children create their own blanket of blessing from Jewish ritual, story, song and family,
meant to sustain them through the changing colors of time.