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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

My Grandmother's Passing

My Jewish grandmother, my father's mother, died on Sunday at the age of 92. Grandma Pollins was my strongest link to my Jewish heritage. Now, in the wake of her death, I find myself wondering what, if anything, connects me to Judaism and the Jewish culture.  

My father wrote in an email to friends and family:

"We sat with my mom and sister all day Saturday. Although she was in a lot of pain and mostly out of it, my mom momentarily recognized me, said my name, and smiled. During our vigil on Saturday, I tried to make some sense of life and death. I was looking for some evidence of a spiritual world to which my mom was hopefully entering. I must report I did not find any. I still believe, though, that our life here on earth does have meaning and is part of a grander plan that is a mystery."

This is how I was raised by both my father and mother. I was not raised with a strong religious sense. I was made to know, however, from an early age, that the world is full of magic and mystery. This is how I hope to raise my children.

I spoke to my Grandmother a week ago. She was lucid, but immensely sad. She cried for the entire conversation, even as she affirmed, again and again: "I've lived a beautiful life, Seth. And I love you so much. Your wife is so beautiful. And your baby will be beautiful. And I love you so much."

For thirty minutes, she recited some form of this affirmation, over and over and over. I just kept saying, "I know, Grandma. I know. I love you too." Few people in my life have adored me so completely as my Grandmother.

It struck me, when I heard of my Grandmother's passing, that, inevitably, my daughter will grow up without much of a sense of her Jewish heritage. When I think of my connection to my Jewish family, I  think in terms of culture and bearing: a gregarious, frantic way of moving through life. I think of the nervous stomach I've inherited from Grandmother. I think of my inordinate passion for chicken, especially the fatty parts.

None of this, obviously, is necessarily Jewish--but it is, to me. The way my Jewish grandparents moved through life, the way my Dad, in protest and submission to what he inherited from his parents, moves through life, the way I move through life: this is all I know of what it means to be Jewish. 

And yet, my father, despite his obvious Jewish bearing, is not exactly a steward of Judaism. My Jewish family, my aunt and uncle and cousins, are close in heart, but distant in space.

Of course, I will continue to light the Hanukkah candles and recite the Hanukkah prayer. I will continue to celebrate Passover. I will continue to eat the bitter herbs, dipped in salt. I will continue to drink the wine, and dot my fingers into the glass and onto my plate, pronouncing plagues as I do so, "Frogs, Locusts, Boils..." I want my daughter to experience these rituals.

But there will be no one in my daughter's life who will be capable of teaching a larger sense of what it means to be Jewish. There will be no one as essentially Jewish as my Grandmother (or my Grandfather, who passed away a few years before).

Among so much else, this feels like a loss to me.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Jamaal May's Facebook Status Updates

My buddy and Warren Wilson classmate, the poet Jamaal May, writes some of my favorite Facebook status updates. They're are almost always funny and thoughtful, and often challenging. If Facebook status updates are a viable and distinct genre (and I believe they are), Jamaal is a master. Here are a few recent examples:

"What percentage of people who describe themselves as "blunt" and "outspoken" are just tactless assholes who are too lazy to work on that shit. Gotta be up in the 90s right?"

"My compulsion to multitask has resulted in me failing at making tea not once but twice this morning. Once when the boiled water sat alone until it was no longer boiled, and once when the smoke alarm informed me that all my water was now steam. Might as well do away with the pretext and just have this shot of whiskey straight."

"I'm surprised how many strong fiction writers don't seem to know 'black man' or 'arab woman' is not a complete description of a person's look to anyone who dosen't think all non-white people look the same. When I read 'Asian boy,' I can't make out a face. I don't even know what stereotype I'm supposed to be seeing, because if he's from Japan he's not even going to look remotely like a Bangladeshi boy, for example. It's not just an identity politics, race relation, or whatever the BS panel buzz word is this week, issue. Never mind me taking offense, (especially since that's written off as being 'too sensitive' these days) it takes me out of the story. It's at the very least a basic craft issue and I find it bizarre people aren't learning this in their creative writing programs. Could you imagine workshopping a story with a white narrator who describes ever secondary character he encounters as 'the white bank teller,' 'the cute white guy down the hall,' 'the white mechanic...' Umm... actually, I kind of want to read that story."

Jamaal