Reprinted from this week’s Jewish Standard.
On Shabbat morning, August 8, 2015, my mother died. On Sunday, October 16, her gravestone will be unveiled. Here is the eulogy I delivered at her funeral.
“My mother, my teacher,” is how we refer to our mothers when we pray for their blessing in the Grace after Meals.
My mother unquestionably was my earliest teacher, but those earliest lessons date from long before my memories coalesced. What I can remember, though, what stands out for me, and what I want to share, is what my mother taught me in her final months of cancer and illness, through both example and conversation.
We were walking the fifth floor hall of the Highland Hospital in Rochester three months before she died when she told me a story about a time in my life in which she was my mother, but my memories were not sticking. I was about two months old when she and my father and I moved from Atlanta — my parents’ hometown — to Chicago, where my father was studying for his doctorate at Northwestern.
“I went to the park with you to make friends,” she told me.
She discovered, however, that on the park benches of Evanston, friendships didn’t form easily. Wives of the upwardly mobile medical and law students weren’t eager to share an afternoon with the wife of someone whose husband was headed for a career in academia.
But my mother persevered past the rejections.
She kept introducing herself to the women in the park until she found friends.
And then, having found friends, she kept at it.
Two years later, we left Chicago.
“I couldn’t believe the number of women who came up to me and said, ‘You were the first person to introduce herself to me at the park,’” my mother told me, some 49 years later.
This hadn’t been easy, she said. She was naturally shy.
That my mother was determined I knew. That she was shy — well, that was a surprise. Making friends and reaching out to people had become a habit.
Another story about my mother’s determination. As she wrote in her memoir “With An Outstretched Arm” — I think she would want me to squeeze in a plug for her book here — my mother was given a Reform Jewish education that left her deeply dissatisfied as she grew older. One hole in her childhood curriculum, which she sought to remedy in herself and in her children, was a lack of knowledge of Hebrew.
She sent us to Jewish day schools. She studied Hebrew as an adult three times. The first time, she was a masters student in Old Testament theology at Emory Divinity school — that was the closest she could get to a Jewish studies degree in Atlanta back in 64. There, she studied biblical Hebrew.
When we lived in Cleveland she took classes in conversational Hebrew at the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies. And then, when she retired, about 10 years ago, she began studying with a tutor every week.
In the following years, I saw her collection of flashcards swell. It outgrew its initial index card box, and then my father crafted a fine wooden case that could hold thousands of cards, which, she told me, she would review as she brushed her teeth.
I had no idea of how much progress she was making until the last year of her life. As my mother grew sicker, I spent more time in Rochester. Visiting without my children, not on holidays, I stayed with her as she went about her ordinary life. So it was that one Sunday I joined her at a meeting of Ivrit b’kapit— the Hebrew coffee klatch she had organized with an Israeli friend at a nearby coffee shop. I discovered that my mother could carry on a Hebrew conversation for an hour. If only she could have done that when I needed help with my third grade Hebrew homework!
A couple of months later I was in Rochester when my mother came home from the hospital and moved into our living room. She was too weak to walk up the stairs to her bedroom, so we set up a hospital bed for her downstairs. That first night, I slept on the couch next to her in case she needed anything in the middle of the night.
She indeed woke up. Then she couldn’t fall back asleep. It was a Friday night, so one of us suggested studying the week’s Torah portion. I began reading her the verses in Hebrew. She translated. I helped her with some of the grammar, but she was able to hear and understand the Torah in Hebrew.
She had been determined to learn Hebrew and she persevered and she succeeded. It was an inspiring lesson.
The next morning I received a third lesson from my mother. I met the Shabbat morning Torah study group that had been meeting at her house for over a year, since she had become too ill to walk the mile and a half to synagogue. It was clear that my mother had become close friends with the women in the group, most of whom she had known only casually beforehand. It was a lesson in how to handle obstacles. Weakened by cancer, she could no longer attend synagogue. That became an opportunity to do something new, to grow in another way.
When she was in the hospital a couple of months before her death, she similarly reached out rather than retreating inward. Her ability to make friends, so hard-won in Chicago 50 years before, was manifest as every new nurse came on shift. Her warmth and curiosity came through, despite the pains and indignities of her hospitalization. The nurses she met became friends — and the subjects of one of her last pieces of writing.
In the spirit of my mother’s profession as a writer for non-profit organizations, it seemed appropriate to conclude this remembrance with a call to action. One of my mother’s great sources of satisfaction after her retirement, and one of the pieces of her life she was saddest to let go when her illness constrained her, was volunteering to help second graders learn to read. Each week during the school year she visited a second grade class, where she spent time working one-on-one, helping a child sound out words. Her volunteering was the local equivalent of our Bergen Reads program of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. To find out how to be a Bergen Reads reading buddy for an hour a week, contact Beth Figman at 201-820-3947 or email@example.com.