MY MOTHER WANTED TO BE JEWISH
She wanted to. She didn't know how. When she married my father, orphaned at four, who probably didn't know how either, she bought, or someone gave her, The Jewish Cookbook. It started with instructions on how to make chicken soup: "Take one old hen..."
My Aunt Celia, my father's oldest sister, did know how. She lived across the street from us, and she made kishka and slivovitz and pickled herring, and bought live chickens from the kosher butcher. So there were new pots and dishes and silverware to buy, dedicated only to meat or to dairy food, because the Jewish people never "simmered a calf in its mother's milk." My mother, the softest heart who ever lived, faithfully plucked and salted and rendered and separated, until Aunt Celia surreptitiously appeared at our back steps to ask for a ham sandwich, which of course we didn't have. By the time I was five, and had any memory of this, my mother used one pot and one set of dishes, and gave my Aunt Celia anything she wanted if we had it. Somehow her sweetness moved the butcher to give her the finest meat, the freshest chicken, free chicken feet for chicken soup, free liver and kidneys "for the cat" we didn't have, free gristly, marrow-y bones for the finest vegetable soup I've ever tasted, or ever hope to taste.
My mother had been raised, during her important teenage years, in Cuba, where she went to Catholic school and learned the Jesus fables, Christmas carols, how to be a Christian without being one. Always she had a fondness for the stories of the mother and the child, the birth in the stable, the softness and gentleness of most of the story. Here, in Staten Island, where she lived as a married woman, she longed to belong to something, some religion, but my father, the cranky prizefighter orphan, mad at God for good reason, disdained the Temple, acted badly there the few times he came with her, threw the rabbi down the stairs of our apartment -- could I be remembering this right? -- when he came for a donation. So we had no religion in our house, really, and my mother's dealings with God, if she had any, were her own, and strictly private.
In her last days, a local rabbi visited her in the hospital, and at her funeral, told me how he had admired her "courage." She had told him that she knew she had cancer, but pretended she didn't know to let us go on telling her that she'd get better. He told me that she was "so brave" that he used her as an example of courage to his congregants. She would have liked that, I think, though maybe not. She was so private, lived through us, was proud of us, though rarely, if ever, I think, proud of herself.
She was buried Jewish, of course, in a plot where she would be next to my father, and t o us, her daughters, if we wanted to be there. But our lives went on in their own ways. My baby sister was cremated when cancer took her life.
There's a spot dedicated to me, if I want it, in a fancy suburban cemetery, miles away, next to my own husband and daughter, already there.
So what is "Jewish," anyway? It's a long, long, long history of being "the other," a bone-deep idea of a God who's all-too-human, a feeling of difference and belonging, an almost uncanny ability to "know one when you see one," though the supposed outward signs are missing. My loving, emotionally lonely Mommy must have wanted to belong to that, to something, but all she could belong to was...us.
I hope that, in the end, that was enough.