by' Jen Chau
Now, if you don't know me well, you might be wondering why I am writing about Rosh Hashanah. If you do know me well, then you know that my mom is Jewish. That I am Jewish. I am not religious and never have been. Still, a lot of Jewish holidays and traditions are meaningful to me. I grew up with them and they hold feelings of love and family for me. I am what you would call a "high holiday Jew." And even that's being a little generous. Past experiences of exclusion have left me feeling quite distanced from the Jewish community. That...
...and then there was Rita's passing...
My beautiful grandmother, Rita. She would sing in the kitchen as she shaped matzoh balls for Passover, hamentaschen for Purim. I'm realizing how big of a culture-keeper she was for my family. As a child, there wasn't anything better than being at Rita and Iz's place for Passover dinner. She merrily put out dish in front of dish - first the beautiful seder plate complete with her homemade charoset. Gefilte fish, hardboiled eggs, and the best matzoh balls ever (rock-hard. the way they should be :)). Then brisket, turkey, potatoes, yams, noodle kugel, and a homemade pie to tie up the meal and send us all to the deep brown carpeted floor of the living room for a nap.
Passover was always my favorite because the family - my Jewish grandparents, my parents, my brothers, my aunt, uncle, and cousin - would all come together. And we would laugh. Boy would we laugh. We laughed at my grandfather's Hebrew pronounciation, we laughed at the seriousness of it all. We died laughing when we couldn't keep from laughing anymore. It was that really good forbidden kind of laughter...the kind that you tried to hold in during class, the kind that gets better and better mainly because you're not supposed to. It felt like we were in school and Iz was dropping the knowledge. The knowledge being Hebrew prayers that none of us understood of course (a major criticism of Jewish education), but dropping the knowledge no less. It was in his attitude, and he was serious about it and serious about getting through the lengthiness of it all. He never looked up from the Pathmark brand haggadah until finally everyone's cracking up got too distracting to continue. And when it was officially over and his thick black-rimmed spectacles finally came off to signal that he was done reading the blocky Hebrew, kids and adults let muffled laughs explode. It was all good natured, though not very respectful to Iz's process I suppose. I would think he enjoyed that we were having so much fun....but kept the seriousness up for appearance's and tradition's sake maybe?
Then during dinner, we laughed at the same things we laughed at every year. A script that never seemed to get old. A comforting repetition. We laughed when my aunt or grandmother would ask my mom to pass a potato and got it thrown/dumped/flung onto their plates instead. We laughed at my brothers' slipping and sliding yarmulkes that wouldn't agree with their slick black "Asian hair.'" Everything was funny and we loved being together. It was one of the most joyful times we had as a family. And it was guaranteed. Perhaps that's what I miss...guaranteed family joy. :)
My grandfather, Iz, really ran the show as far as the seder went, and Rita sidekicked with a great sprawling dinner every time. That changed when Rita passed away a couple of years ago...actually, way before that, when Alzheimers came and made her forget how to cook. It seemed that Iz was so heartbroken by Rita's condition that we couldn't continue, shouldn't continue, business as usual. Little by little, Passover - the way that we had always done it - faded. I know that change is inevitable and that we couldn't have had those dinners forever, but I don't think I ever realized the loss until now.
This is all currently swirling around for me because it's Rosh Hashanah and I look around and realize that the Jewish-ness in my family is almost completely non-existent. This makes me miss Rita. A lot. And I really do feel a sense of loss. Some holidays brought my family a joy and togetherness, unparalelled. Sure, we have different things that make us happy now, but I can't help but wonder about this loss of tradition. Of culture. Each generation getting a bit farther away (which is probably not special to my family, but all families in some respect, unless there's a huge effort to retain all important traditions). Granted, my generation (my brothers and I) had early experiences of being discriminated against by the Jewish community, so it's easy to see why it doesn't have such a huge role in our lives now.
And then it's amazing how the feeling of something being taken away from you or taken for granted can propel you to hold on even tighter. Appreciate it more. Grab it and bring it back. Want to name it.
There was a work function planned for tonight and there wasn't a ton of consideration (at least of which I was made aware) that tonight, the Jewish team members might be celebrating the new year. This happened the last time we all had the opportunity to come together, but for Passover. Then, I gave folks a pass in not asking me if it was a conflict - people didn't know that I am Jewish (though you should never assume - Jews come in all shapes and colors!). But now, the same people knew and still, the bonding activity was scheduled on a major Jewish holiday. I have this perception that people don't think it really matters to me. Because my last name isn't Jewish, because I don't always talk about being Jewish, because I don't go to temple. Ok fine, because I don't "look" Jewish. Because of all of this, I'm not really recognized as being Jewish. I'm not really taken into consideration. Now, it's possible that this isn't true...that planners were being really thoughtful. If so, I'm glad, but if you don't reach out to those who are potentially impacted, then they never know just how thoughtful you were being and it almost doesn't matter. I love my co-workers and still, I'm disappointed about this.
Though, here's the silver lining. I always try to find it. :) LIke I said, when you realize something is being taken for granted, it makes you look closer (i.e. Why aren't people seeing it? Why is it important to me that people do? What is this all about?). This recent feeling of not being seen (it's been a while since I've felt this...) has made me re-examine the importance of my Jewish culture to me. All of my life, people have told me that I don't really belong, that I don't really look, sound, act Jewish. If you get messages that you don't belong long enough, you start to believe it (especially when these messages start at a very young age). I let the lack of acceptance drive my own connection to Jewish culture.
Then there was losing my grandmother. I sort of followed my grandparents' lead (and I think my mom did too, though she makes some effort to continue certain things) and there was a slight family confusion about what to do once she was gone and my grandfather seemingly lost interest. So we did nothing. During the last several years, I have watched as seders get shorter and shorter and chanukah disappears completely. I also did nothing more than acknowledge this.
I feel strongly now that when something is important to me, I can start new traditions. I don't need permission, acceptance, or acknowledgment in order to be who I am. To celebrate something that has meaning to me. Something that honors my family and its roots. I can recall the joyful dinners that my family once had and infuse new events with that same togetherness and energy. *I* can do that and don't have to wait for someone else to make it happen. What was I waiting for? I guess maturity is knowing what's important to you...I'm getting there. :) I don't feel serious about going to temple - for me, the meaning is in my family. The connections I make over dinner. And sharing. And laughing. Being together.
Tonight, I did a bit of reflecting on the past year as you should during Rosh Hashanah, and then had dinner with my brother Dave. As I sat in the bustling deli with him, downing our knishes, talking and laughing, I felt joyful. The same kind of joyful that Rita and Iz facilitated at their dining room table way back when.