A Tale of Two Grandmothers

October 19, 2014
My Two Grandmothers

My Two Grandmothers

A student asked me today, “What can I do, when both sets of grandparents go crazy with gift-giving in December? It’s as if it is a competition!”

The question set me to thinking about my grandmothers. Before I go any further, I want to be clear: I loved both my grandmothers and I know that they both loved me.

Due to circumstances, I didn’t get to see much of one grandmother. She traveled a lot, and sent me beautiful dolls from every place she visited. Those dolls enriched my life: I learned about other cultures, about climate and geography. I kept the dolls in a cabinet, and enjoyed looking at them and dreaming about all the places they represented.

I have only a few vivid memories of that grandmother. She hated waste (we’re alike that way) and she thought I should take French in high school (I took Spanish.) The conversations I remember best are from a train ride we took from Chicago to San Francisco. I remember that she taught me how to play canasta. She always kept ginger ale for children. Other than that, I don’t remember a great deal about her, which is really quite sad.

My other grandmother took me along on errands. I learned a lot of my values from her, just watching the way she treated people. I saw her give money to poor people when they asked for help. When there was an obituary in the paper about someone she vaguely knew, she’d say, “Get dressed up, we’re going to the funeral home!” She taught me the power of simply showing up.

She loved to drive a little (maybe a lot) too fast, but she taught me to drive after my father had given up in despair.  I still hear her voice when I have to wait a long time for a left turn: “Just wait, Punkin, the right opening will come. There’s no rush. You’re doing fine.”

She always told me what I was doing right; her silences told me what I was doing wrong. When I became an adolescent, she had a lot to be silent about, but she persisted in telling me when she was proud of me. The only painful memory I have of her was my own failure: when she was dying she tried to talk to me about death, but to my eternal regret, I changed the subject.

So this is what I told my student: If the grandparents want to compete, you can’t stop them. But remind them that the way to “win” the competition is with relationship: get to know your grandchildren. Let them get to know you. Share your values by example: don’t tell, show. Expensive gifts are not memories. Tell stories. Take them along.

My grandmothers died two months apart, in the spring and summer of 1974. One I remember faintly with fondness and gratitude; the other is key to the person I grew up to be, and I mourn her still.

The photos above are the only ones I have of either grandmother. Neither conveys their true beauty. 

 


Why I Don’t Have a Christmas Tree

December 25, 2013
christmas at home

This is not my house. (Photo credit: rzperllian)

My last Christmas tree was in about 1992, I think. My elder son asked me why we had one if we weren’t Christians. I had not identified as Christian for about seven years, and I decided he had a point. I never celebrated Christmas again in my home.

The kids did not seem to miss it. Their birthdays both fell right after Christmas, and they’d always been overshadowed by that other guy’s birthday. From that year onward, I focused on a big celebration of their birthdays.  They got presents, we had cake, and it was good.

So when I became a Jew, Christmas was easy: I’d not been observing the holiday for years. For me it had been a religious holiday, and once the religion dropped away, I discovered that we could enjoy other people’s decorations. When people asked about it usually Aaron would pipe up with, “We’re not Christians.”  My younger son enjoyed celebrating with Christian relatives, and that was fine too.

So when I discovered that some Jews have Christmas trees, I was a little confused. Why do something at considerable trouble and expense while insisting that it doesn’t mean anything? I’ve never completely figured out the answer to that one.

Now that I’m a Jew, I celebrate Chanukah. I like the idea of a festival of rededication, especially at a time of the year when Jewishness seems to disappear into the dazzling show. I don’t pay a lot of attention to the officious folk who sniff that it “isn’t a Torah holiday.” Partly that’s because they don’t act so sniffy at Purim, which isn’t a Torah holiday either. And partly it’s because I think there’s something in the human spirit that cries out for shining lights and gathering when the nights are long and longer.

I still love those bright shining lights, whether they are for Chanukah or Christmas. My neighborhood is full of lights, and I love them all. But my home is a Jewish home, and I can’t imagine putting up a symbol of someone else’s holiday. This is my mikdash me’at, my little sanctuary, and I work to make it bright and beautiful with Jewish symbols and customs, sweet and savory with Jewish smells.

Those are bright enough, sweet enough, and  warm enough: good enough for me!

 


Chanukat HaBayit

December 1, 2013
Lighting the Menorahs at the End of the Housewarming

Lighting the Menorahs at the End of the Housewarming

I’m feeling tired and happy. A lot of work came to fruition in the past few days.

First, I came very close to my goal of posting to this blog every day for the month of November, despite the move, despite everything. I missed one day near the beginning, but otherwise, good.  I think the alternative was letting it lie fallow while I went crazy with everything else.

Second, we had the housewarming, the first Shabbat Afternoon Open House. The whole neighborhood was here, and a lot of students, friends, family. Our “Abraham’s tent” with four sides open wide is launched. I’ll continue blogging what I learn about doing Judaism with friends, teaching the process of keeping a hospitable Jewish home.

What did I learn yesterday? That not everything has to be perfect. There were a number of things that were not picture perfect, but that was OK. People had a good time. The neighbors had a chance to compare notes on Linda and me, on the house, and to update each other on all the news. My students know how to find me now, and they are looking forward to classes here at the house. My friends were here with love and support.

We finished the day with havdalah (hahv-dah-LAH) and menorah lighting, very appropriate. Chanukah means “Dedication” – it’s a memorial of the rededication of the Temple long ago – and yesterday was a celebration and dedication of our new home.

Welcome!


Fourth Night: Chanukah Takes Its Time

November 30, 2013
DSC_9494

(Photo credit: heat_fan1)

Tonight is Night Four of Chanukah: one whole side of the menorah will be lit, and then other half left in darkness.

Two great teachers had an argument about lighting the menorah. Shammai argued that we should light all the candles on the first night, and then decrease by one candle each night. Hillel disagreed, saying that we should begin with just one candle. The academy voted, and Hillel’s view prevailed. Later his students taught that we light that way because in matters of sanctity, we always increase.

Tonight we will be at the middle point, where light is balanced with the dark. We have seen the lights increase for the past four nights, but there are still as many empty sockets on the lamp as there are candles burning.  Chanukah takes its time! We are not allowed to rush it, to light more candles than the day provides.

We are accustomed to speed; Chanukah calls us to slow down. We light the candles, and we may not perform work by their light. So life stops for a little while, and we pay attention to one another, or we play. For eight nights, we have to stop and enjoy ourselves: poor things! We have to stop working!

In the age of smartphones, this is no small thing. Perhaps the best gift of Chanukah is the habit it offers us: for a little while, every night, we pause–  to play.

 

 


First Night, First Light!

November 27, 2013

Tonight is my favorite night of Chanukah: the first night, when two little candles shine in the dark.

We light the first, the shamash (SHA-mash) “helper” candle, then use it to light the first of the eight candles of the festival. The two are almost silly looking, standing up tall and proud in an almost-empty menorah.

Every year, those little candles inspire me. They stand up bravely, lighting up the night, holding up the hope for brighter nights to come. They don’t apologize for standing almost alone.

They remind me of the people who stand up for what is right, long before it is popular to do so. They shine their light regardless of who is looking or who might laugh. They shine and shine until their wax is gone and they sputter out. And then the next night – a miracle! – we light again, and there will be THREE candles standing against the dark.

Let us all be brave as those candles of the first night: Shine your light no matter who shines with you. Stand tall and be proud to stand, no matter how dark the night.


The Gift of Attention

November 25, 2013
Christmas lights on Aleksanterinkatu.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I noticed it last night – I logged in to maintain things here on the blog, and spammers had been everywhere, leaving “comments” to advertise things.  The tsunami of advertising for the holiday season is upon us.

What do the people you love really need? What do you genuinely need? These are good questions to ask right now, before the advertisers take over our brains. Most of us do not need more gadgets, more clothing, more dust-catchers. Some are already drowning in things they do not need.

When I am in a public place, I can’t help but notice the children who act out to get attention. I was lucky in my new motherhood that someone pointed out to me that I only paid attention to my toddlers when they did things I did not like – so they were very aggressive about doing things I didn’t like.  It took some practice, but I learned to use my attention as the potent reward it was, paying attention to behavior I wanted to encourage and removing my attention (with time-out, if need be) to discourage misbehavior.

Children need attention. The very best time to give them attention is when they are doing things that we want to encourage. But if the only attention they can get is negative attention, they need attention so badly that they’ll settle for that. The choice is up to the parent or caregiver.

We all need attention. When was the last time you felt like someone truly listened to you, and took in what you were saying? When was the last time you sat quietly and listened to someone else? What if, instead of giving gifts, we paid attention to the people we love?

What if instead of receiving gadgets and tchotchkes, we got the pure undivided attention of those we love most? How lovely would that be?


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