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Mrs. Medina and Her Candles, David and His Grandfather's Yalmukas
|Rabbi's Corner - Rabbi\'s Corner|
I’d like to tell you two stories at this solemn time before Yizkor on Yom Kippur.
One is from an experience I had in my late grandmother’s apartment; the other is from my father’s notes, as I’ll explain in a couple of minutes. Both stories are about remembering and keeping, about what remembering means. Yizkor means to remember. But what does it mean to remember? That’s the question I want to pose to you at this hour: What does remembering mean?
My grandmother lived on Riverside Drive in Manhattan and her next-door neighbor was a wonderful elderly Hispanic lady named Mrs. Medina.
When I’d go to my grandmother’s apartment for Shabbos dinner every Friday afternoon, Mrs. Medina would always be there, talking with my grandmother about this and that. But when sunset came, Mrs. Medina would excuse herself.
It took me a number of times for me to notice the pattern. But finally I asked her, “Mrs. Medina, why do you leave every Friday at sunset?”
She said, “I have to go to light my candles.”
My brain lit up. “Mrs. Medina, where do you light the candles?”
“In the pantry,” she said.
“Mrs. Medina, why do you light candles on Friday at sunset in the pantry?”
“Because my mother did. And her mother did.”
“But why, Mrs. Medina?”
“It’s our family custom.”
When I suggested that Mrs. Medina was the descendant of Jewish people who had to convert to Christianity in Spain and then secretly practiced their Judaism, and that over the centuries her family did not remember why they were lighting the candles in secret in their pantries every Friday evening, Mrs. Medina could not have been more furious. She absolutely denied the possibility that her ancestors, even five hundred years earlier, were Jewish.
I tell this story today because Mrs. Medina’s family kept the ritual of lighting the candles but didn’t remember that it was to sanctify the Sabbath.
Keeping, by itself, is nothing.
Keeping and remembering are both necessary.
That’s story #1.
My parents recently moved out of our ancestral house and needed to downsize, so my father gave me all of his papers from his life as a rabbi. Little by little, I’ve been going through his things, and I found this story. I mention this as introduction only because I don’t know the people involved and my father doesn’t remember who told him. Maybe someday I’ll discover who is speaking.
I’m going to read the story in the first person as I found it.
I remember the day very well and I remember how I felt, as well. My grandfather lay dying in the hospital. No one would admit to that fact, but it was a foregone conclusion. I was studying in college at the time, while living at home. Grandpa called me at home one afternoon from the hospital, before mom and dad got home from work.
"Go to my house. In the chest of drawers, in my bedroom, in the top drawer, in the back, is a paper bag." He sounded so weak on the phone and I could tell that he was having a hard time getting so many words out at once. "Don't open the bag! Please bring it to me, here," he rasped.
So there I was, feeling very embarrassed, carrying an old, soiled paper bag into the hospital. It was too big to hide in my pocket and as I walked down the hallway to his room, it felt as if everyone was looking at me, casting critical glances at me, as if they were saying, "Why'd you bring that dirty old bag into our clean hospital?"
Finally, I reached the safety and privacy of grandpa's room.
"Shut the door, Dovidal." He always called me his Little David in Yiddish. I remember resenting it. I was a junior in college. I was no longer anyone's "little" anybody. Still I must say that he was very glad to see me.
"Come, sit next to me, on the bed." My grandpa was once a big man. As he lay there, so close to death, he looked so small and fragile. Even so, his eyes had not lost their sparkle and their charm. As I sat there, he gave me one of his patented penetrating stares.
"Dovidal, you know that I don't have much time left on this earth, don't you?” I did not answer. I just looked down and my face got all red.
"At least you don't try to deny it to my face like your parents." Grandpa paused, as if to catch his breath. "Oy Dovidal, Dovidal." He breathed my name more than said it.
I knew exactly what he meant whenever he did this. You see, Grandpa was a very religious man. For as long as I can remember, Grandpa and Grandma, too, when she was alive, always kept a Jewish home. They refused to drive on Shabbat. Instead, they used to spend Saturday morning in shul. When we would drive over on Saturday afternoon, we had to be careful not to turn the lights on or off. And we certainly couldn't watch television there. This was really upsetting to us when we were little. When I was about halfway through high school, Grandpa used to pull me aside and started to teach me some Torah. Sometimes, we had these long conversations, arguments really, about God, about Jewish history, about the need for ritual. Even though Grandpa was a businessman, he was very learned, having spent considerable time in a Yeshiva before the war, you know, World War II.
For better or for worse, I was the only one who was interested in religion so I was the one who talked with Grandpa about these things. In the year or so before he died, we even sat down and studied some Talmud together. His eyes always twinkled with delight while we studied. But when I had to leave, his eyes always welled up with tears and his face took on an expectant look, as if to say, "You will come back to do this again, won't you?" I'd give him a hug and say, 'See you on Thursday, Grandpa.' Then he'd smile and dab away the tears with his crumpled handkerchief.
Whenever he breathed my name and punctuated it with an "oy," it meant that he'd given up hope of ever convincing my parents or my brothers and sisters of becoming observant. I was his last hope. I was his future.
Taking the soiled paper bag from my hand, that day in the hospital, he opened it and took out a very old, cloth yarmulke. "You see this," he said.
"This yarmulke I had with me throughout the war. When I was in the concentration camp, I kept it hidden in a secret pocket in my coat. Every morning, I forced myself to get up as the sun was rising. I would lie on the shelf that was my bed and put on this yarmulke. Then I would say as much of the prayers that I could remember by heart. Some mornings, I cried to God more that I prayed, but always with this yarmulke on my head."
He reached into the bag and pulled out what must have been a beautiful white yarmulke. Now, it was no longer white; it had turned brownish with age. As he held it up, he smiled and tears started to drip from his eyes. "I wore this yarmulke when I got married to your Grandma, here in America, on the Lower East Side. Oy! I miss her very much." He clutched the yarmulke close to his chest and closed his eyes. "Every time I pick up this yarmulke, I can see her as a beautiful bride. I can see her watching you when you were little, learning to walk. She loved you very much." Now it was my turn for my eyes to get teary.
Again, he reached in and pulled out another yarmulke; this one was bright orange. I was a little stunned to see such a flaming colored headpiece come out of Grandpa's bag. "Not your style, eh?" he asked with a twinkle in his eye. "I wore this at your mother's wedding to your father. It was a very happy time for all of us."
Next he pulled out the yarmulke he wore at my Bar Mitzvah service. I recognized it immediately. Grandpa was the one who taught me to read the Torah and Haftorah.
"Just by looking at your face, I can see that you remember those days well." Grandpa had a way of reading your innermost feelings.
One more time, he reached into the bag. This final time he pulled out a beautiful knitted "kipah." This was a crocheted Israeli yarmulke. After his trip with Grandma to Israel, this was the kind of yarmulke he liked to wear, except he insisted on calling it a "kipah."
"This one I've been saving for now," he said softly. "For over 40 years I have been collecting these yarmulkes and the others in the bag. Each one helps me remember a special time in my life. Some remind me of special people, like your Grandma."
He paused and picked up his wedding yarmulke again. Then he turned to me and continued. "Now I am giving my collection to you. You are the future, but to be the future you must be linked to the past. To continue what I am, what I was, you must have something of me. Something from me. In your head, you contain ideas that I taught you. Now that you have my yarmulkes, you will also carry with you the memories of my past."
"This kipah," he said as he picked the Israeli knitted one, "is new. It is for you to wear now. Here, try it on." Need I say that it fit perfectly?
"Thank you, Grandpa."
He slowly returned the other yarmulkes to the bag. When he finished, he looked up at me with that same teary-eyed expectant look he'd used so many times before. I suddenly realized that there was not going to be a "next time." I knew that the answer could not be, "I'll see you soon." I knew that a different answer was in order.
"Yes, Grandpa," I said. "I'll try to be that future."
He just smiled and put the paper bag of memories into my hand.
Grandpa died two days later.
That was many years ago. Now I am married and I have children of my own. And I remember that day very well and I remember how I felt, as well. But I must tell you that on that day I started my own collection of yarmulkes. Some are the Israeli kind, some are velvet, and some are made of cloth.
Since that day I have tried to be a religious person like my Grandpa. I have studied Judaism and I make sure that my kids get a Jewish education. Now, when I look at my children, I am looking at my future.
Yes, I remember that day very well and I remember how I felt, as well. And that feeling is still with me.
I bet that you have a collection of yarmulkes in a drawer or an old bag.
Do you look at those yalmulkas?
Do you remember when you collected them?
Do you remember those days of simcha, of joy?
Are they bittersweet, as you long for the people whose names are imprinted on those keepsakes from those weddings and Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies?
Or are they savagely ironic when you think about how a lot of things worked out?
In the first story, Mrs. Medina did not even remember her Jewish ancestors. In this second story, the grandfather remembered everything. And he kept those yarmulkes and he kept the Sabbath. And his dearest wish was that someone would go on remembering and keeping.
In Mrs. Medina’s family, it didn’t happen.
Because of David, and only because of David, it happened in his family.
How sad it is when only one member of a family keeps Judaism going.
But how wonderful it is, even in those families, that someone will remember and keep.
Most of us know the Ten Commandments. We know that one of the commandments concerns the Sabbath day. The interesting thing is that in one place in the Torah, the commandment is to “Keep the Sabbath day;” the Hebrew word for keep is Shamor. But in another place in the Torah it says Zachor et yom Ha-Shabbat “Remember the Sabbath Day.” Jewish tradition was wise enough to see that it’s not a contradiction but a miracle. As it says in Lecha Dodi, the beautiful mystical prayer we say on Friday nights, Shamor ve-zachor be-dibbur echad “Remember and Keep in one Divine word.” We can only say one word at a time. But G-d can say two words at the same time. But why? What was this miracle about? Zachor is the same root as Yizkor. Yizkor and yishmor be-dibbur echad. If you want to remember your loved one, you must keep their memory alive by doing that which they can no longer do.
So let me be perfectly blunt:
Right here, right now, are you David or are you Mrs. Medina?
Are you here to do your part to perpetuate your Jewish legacy, or are you just doing some quaint Jewish rituals that you don’t understand and can’t be bothered to learn about?
Don’t tell me that you remember your loved one if you have turned your back on how he lived.
Don’t tell me you remember her if you don’t keep any of the traditions and customs that were so important to her.
Don’t tell me you remember him if you have compromised and accepted and made your peace with all sorts of things they never ever would have accepted.
And despite the fact that people get mad at me when I say this, I’ll say it again: Don’t tell me you remember them if you can’t be bothered to keep even the most basic rituals in their memory.
Remembering requires keeping.
Remembering is easy; keeping requires effort beyond a nice thought here or there.
And now let me open this wider and include some of the thoughts I’ve tried to bring to you during these Holidays.
Don’t tell me that you remember what your parents did for you and sacrificed for you if you can’t bother to do and sacrifice for them. Your parents would have taken you to Mongolia. And then we can’t even visit our parents when they get older? Then we simply can’t be bothered?
Don’t tell me that you remember the Holocaust if you are not a part of the Jewish people.
You see, the Jewish people is unbreakable. The world hates us, creates lies about us, blames us for things that are simply bizarre. But after everything that they can dish out,
we’re still sitting at the table in the presence of our enemies, eating and drinking in celebration of life.
The question is not whether the Jewish people will survive. We will. The question is whether you’ll be a part of us, if you’ll be David, wearing the yarmulka his grandfather gave him, or if you’re going to be Mrs. Medina, keeping a family ritual and not even knowing who she is.
Some of us are so sure of ourselves when we turn away from our Jewish heritage. We pretend to remember but we don’t keep anything so who exactly are we kidding? G-d? Our ancestors? If you don’t keep, you don’t remember. Once in a while, doubt your decision to turn away. What have you replaced Judaism with? More Solitaire on your computer? Instead of Solitaire, play I Doubt It. Doubt yourself and your failure to keep Judaism alive in your life.
And while you’re remembering, remember the heroes of your life. Understand that they aren’t perfect, but that they are heroes for trying to give you a good life.
And every morning when you wake up, pray that you will live that day with a Jewish perspective, which means that you will live Hayom, for today, to make each day everything it can be, and thereby pursue and find happiness.
Keep and remember in one Divine word. Remember the people you are thinking about today by keeping them alive, by living as they lived, so that those who come after you will remember you and will keep our faith alive, as we move, always forward, into the future.