Lighting a Candle to Memory

Author Barbara Artson lighting a candleRecently I found myself lighting a candle as a way to honor someone who died and is deeply missed. For me, being Jewish is an ethnic and cultural identity—a connection to my history and to that of my kinfolk. So, I didn’t think of lighting a candle until my rabbi son suggested it might afford some relief, and it did seem fitting. I searched cupboards and drawers and found an African candle I had bought some time ago. I placed it in a favorite candleholder and held a match to the wick, enjoying the light and the richly decorated candle. I was thinking how right it was for the complex and bright spirit I was missing. It brought a feeling of solace—and my secular soul was struck by a forgotten memory.

I had a sudden mental image of my youthful mother in the kitchen of my childhood home, lighting the Friday evening Sabbath candles—an obligation she habitually performed every Friday night of her life—and there too was a vision of my old bubby (grandmother) benching licht.

The recall of ceremonies and practices I knew from a young age brings associations connected with my family’s immigrant history, and they are deeply ingrained and somewhat unconscious. This realization first came as I sat down to write my novel, Odessa, Odessa. Not knowing what I was going to write, I began to type as if by magic and wrote:

“Henya Chanah is a woman who no longer bleeds, so she puzzles over how this could have happened.”

In writing I began to grasp the significance and depth of my Jewish cultural heritage, as scenes and characters from nineteenth century Russia appeared from words that seemed to fall onto the page. I render Henya, the wife of a rabbi, over many years, as she and her family immigrate from the Settlement of Pale to a crowded tenement apartment in Brighton Beach where she lights the Sabbath candles.

“Traditionally, on Friday evening before kindling the Shabbos candles, Henya fires up the samovar by igniting a small piece of coal and pouring two quarts of water into the center cylindrical urn. She places the teapot—stuffed with black tea leaves from a small Russian grocery several blocks away, and whole cloves, and a pinch of cinnamon—on the crown of the samovar to keep it hot and ready to drink until Shabbos ends, marked by the tight light of the blue-and-white braided Havdalah candle.”

Henya is a rebbetzin, raised to know that the life of a rebbe is one of contemplation, and to know it is a woman’s place to attend to her husband’s needs. No one had to ask; she knew her duty.

The lighting of a candle transported me to the customs and traditions of earlier generations of Jewish women who sustained the emotional continuity in their ritual lighting of the Sabbath candles. I now recognize that my mother, her mother and all the mothers and grandmothers going back generations, lit candles and chanted the blessing to symbolically memorialize the enduring traditions of their lives, both the celebrations and lamentations—all that makes life meaningful.

Mother’s Day Memories

When Mother’s Day rolls around each year, of course I think of my mom, gone now for some twenty-six years. This year I thought of my mother often as I was making final edits on my novel, Odessa, Odessa, at the same time I wrote a review of a book about mothering in later life. It Never Ends: Mothering Middle-aged Daughters by Sandra Butler and Nan Fink Gefen would be a fine gift this Mother’s Day. My review will appear in the September issue of Psychology of Women Quarterly, coincidently the same publication month as my novel. I end the review with this:

It Never Ends offers a refreshingly different outlook on the relationship among older mothers and their mature daughters. The title says it all: the role of mothering is unending!”

Photo of Dorothy Berlin Friedman author's motherAnd it is true, thoughts of my mother and the influence of our relationship are never-ending. I wrote in a recent blog, A Bond Beyond Language, that I mostly think of her ‘singy-dancy’ ways. I say think, but it is in my mind’s eye that I sense her. Sadly, I cannot capture the sound of her voice. My son says he still hears her voice in his dreams and that they feel more to him like a visit than a dream.

Image of 1940s Zenith Radio Phonograph combo

In the late 1940s or early 1950s, my parents purchased a Zenith radio-phonograph combination—an awesome contraption that lay on its back, rather than in the typical stand-up position of the typical combo of the time. The record player was hidden in a secret drawer that sprung forth in an open sesame moment when someone pushed an inconspicuous black knob. Oh, how I loved that piece of furniture!

My mother would let me pop open the drawer and then she would place the record of the day on the spindle. At times she chose “Mammy” with Al Jolson singing: “I’d walk a million miles for one of your smiles, my mammy!” At other times she chose Jan Peerce crooning the “Bluebird of Happiness” (oy vey!). We’d sing along with Peerce in full operatic mode, warbles and all, and then crack up over the lyrics.

“So be like I, hold your head up high

Till you find a bluebird of happiness.”

In fairness, I think Jan Peerce sang the best rendition of the aria “Nessun Dorma” in Puccini’s opera “Turandot.”

More often my mother’s routine consisted of dancing or singing to the trendier songs of the day, like the Andrew Sisters’ “Bei Mir Bis du Schoen” or a cool Glenn Miller tune. She taught me the Charleston; I taught her the Lindy Hop. My mother inspired my love of song and dance! Sweetly, my daughter and I have maintained this mother/daughter songfest tradition.

My mother, Dorothy (Disha) Berlin Friedman, would have been so proud to know that her daughter honored the events of her life—the escape from the persecution, perils and pogroms the Czarist-Russian Empire inflicted on its Jewish population in the early twentieth century—in writing my historical novel Odessa, Odessa, a fictional story of an immigrant family’s experience.

The trauma my mother experienced, and millions of others like her, the result of the genocidal murder and oppression of the Jews from Russia and elsewhere, is an agonizing reminder of the suffering of displaced and disrupted refugees that continues. We read news daily about the atrocities inflicted on ethnic and religious minorities in Syria, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Gaza, Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan, Somalia and elsewhere; millions of refugees are forced to flee from their homes to escape tyranny.

Even here in America, the home of the free whose Lady Liberty promises refuge, there is news of a rise in assaults on minorities and growing hatred in the form of anti-Semitism and xenophobia and refusal to admit asylum seekers and emigrants—many are women and children fleeing domestic violence. Let us all make a pledge on this Mother’s Day to honor all mothers, and stand up against heartbreaking oppression, repression, bigotry and bullying in any form, wherever it occurs.

A Bond Beyond Language

Dora, the second-generation character in my novel Odessa, Odessa, is very loosely based on my mother’s history of leaving her homeland at the age of ten, during a time of vicious anti-Semitic persecution. I say loosely because like most traumatized immigrants, she didn’t speak about her early life in a Russian shtetl. In creating the character of young Dora, who at sixteen quit school to work in her brother-in-law’s bloomer factory, I considered my mother’s humor and zeal. Thus, Dora came to life in the factory as, “swift and agile, soon outpacing her coworkers, those with many more years of experience. And although they envy her beauty and begrudge the money she earns because of her larger yield, they soon succumb to her fun-loving ways. She makes them laugh. With her constant joking, singing, laughing, and dancing in the narrow aisles, Joe takes her aside and warns her to stop being a show-off.”

Dorothy Berlin, daughters Barbara and HarrietMy own relationship with my Russian-born, unaccented English-speaking mother was unique. I trust my older sister would agree. She also had a close, but dissimilar connection with my mom. In childhood her deeply devoted attachment was apparent as she cleaved to my mother’s hemline, waiting patiently for mom’s conversation with a neighbor or some other distraction to end.

As we aged, and after my father’s death, because my sister lived closest mother, she generously assumed taking care of many of my mom’s needs, and increasingly so when her eyesight deteriorated due to glaucoma. I became a kind of social director, catering to the more frisky, lighthearted side of her temperament—taking her to dinner, or sometimes singing or dancing when I visited or having silly phone call chats.

They would go something like this:

Me: Disha??? Using her Yiddish name always made her laugh.

Mom: Already giggling, would respond, “Yes?”

Me: It’s me, Beulkah! My Yiddish name.

And we’d both laugh, no matter how many times we reprised this exchange.

These sorts of interactions began in my early adolescence when I’d return from school to find her waiting for me, and before long, we’d be doing the Charleston or the Black Bottom, or singing the songs from her era. We’d dance and sing until we exhausted ourselves, or until she had to attend to dinner preparation, or I had to do my homework. She was a good dancer! And, in all humility, I became one, too. Thank you, Mom!

On occasion, I’d make arrangements to take her out to a dinner or other outing, picking her up from the apartment she maintained on her own, despite her disability. On one of those evenings the use of “the F word” came up—I don’t know why or how—and she revealed that she had never, ever said the word out loud, or even to herself. I immediately instructed her to place her upper teeth over her lower lip and to aspirate “F-F-F-F-F.” She would do as I coached but could never finish the assignment without breaking down in hiccoughing laughter. Both of us! Convulsing! Over the next few years, this became a standard routine that I prompted to amuse her, to cheer her up, but it always ended with hilarity and tears flooding our cheeks.

ilustration of San Francisco restaurant Julius CastleOne evening, my husband and I invited Mom for dinner at Julius’ Castle—an elegant San Francisco restaurant perched near the foot of Telegraph Hill’s Coit Tower, with its fabulous view of the Bay and equally fabulous food. Perhaps we were celebrating her birthday in August. We knew Modesto Lanzone, the well-known restaurateur and part owner, who treated Mom as royalty that evening.

After a glorious meal, complete with a glass or two of wine, we—happy campers all, departed. As we approached the car, my not very prim or proper mother tripped and landed on her bottom. Down she went and, simultaneously out of her mouth erupted, “F…!”

Somewhat shocked, and then broadly grinning with a twinkle in her eyes, she looked up at me from the curb and exclaimed, “Now why didn’t you tell me it would feel so good to say that?” That lapse of decorum was the first and last time she said “the F word.”

Border Lines

As a debut novelist, the process of publishing a book is an exhilarating, disorienting and at times a white-knuckle experience. There are so many details in proofing and production when I want to be thinking about the issues of the book.

Cover of Novel Odessa, Odessa by Barbara ArtsonMy novel, Odessa, Odessa, follows an orthodox Jewish family’s flight from persecution in the Russian Empire and butchery of Jews in the Pale of Settlement. Over generations we see the family go forward from their settlement in a tenement in Brighton Beach, then in a working-class suburb in New Jersey, and finally in a successful, middle-class professional life in Los Angeles. Roberta, the granddaughter of those first-generation folks, has compulsively but fruitlessly searched the ancestry archives to learn more about her family’s beginnings in Odessa. Then she receives an unexpected letter—from an unknown Israeli relative who believes his grandfather might be her grandfather’s estranged older brother, Shimshon. Confusion? You gotta read my book!

While I was proofreading Chapter 16, entitled “The Camp,” about Roberta’s visit to an East Jerusalem Palestinian refugee camp, I looked up at my television and saw news flashes on the screen about Israeli troops firing across its borders, wounding hundreds and killing at least nine Palestinians, including a well-known journalist covering the protest.

True to form, justifications proliferated with the U.N. Human Rights office claiming that Israel used excessive force against the protesters and the Israeli military insisting they fired only at the instigators.

As a non-observant, cultural Jew, I have struggled over the years with the Palestinian-Israeli issue. The chapter  “The Camp” reflects that struggle, revealed in Roberta’s visit to Shua’fat Refugee Camp, accompanied by her Israeli cousin Reuben, and his Palestinian friend Da’oud. Roberta, seated in the backseat of Da’oud’s car, views  “the road into the camp that opens onto an uncared-for square. The unpaved roads of the camp, the lack of sidewalks, the noise, the garbage and waste that is strewn everywhere distress her. A foul stench pervades the air, most likely, Da’oud explains, from the exposed sewage.”

After Da’oud raises the topic of family violence in the camp, Roberta points out that violence against women occurs in the United States, as well. Da’oud insists that it is a major issue in the camp and offers a justification: “You’ve got to understand that Palestinian men feel so helpless about their situation, having no future, this is all they’ve known so they take out their frustrations on the women and children.”

They speak of the nearby settlements built on Palestinian land as Da’oud claims this violates the of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Reuben suggests that there are divergent opinions. My own ambivalent perspective is voiced as the three drive silently, and somewhat sullenly, back to Roberta’s hotel following the visit.

“Roberta thinks about Palestinian terrorism and their despotic leaders; she thinks about the aborted peace efforts, and then her mind turns to the Jewish ghettoes in Europe, the Settlement of Pale…and her family’s history and wonders how this differs from that.” She thinks about “groups of people isolated in ghettoes because of their religion, or the blacks living in their ghetto because of the color of their skin, or so many others because of their political affiliation or ethnicity, or sexual identity.”

Just as I do, she wonders “whether one must always avenge history by repeating the trauma to a group further down the pecking order.” Is this to maintain the illusion of superiority? Or to deny our helplessness? Must we always resort to violence? What does it serve?

I am reminded of the words of the political theorist Hannah Arendt, who wrote, “Violence does not promote causes, it promotes neither History nor Revolution, but it can indeed serve to dramatize grievances and to bring them to public attention.” Think Algiers! Think Cambodia! Think South Africa! Think Rwanda! Think Syria! Think of the victims. Who will stand up for them and say, “Enough is enough!”

On Growing Older and Speaking Yiddish!

The Friedmans in Miami 1940.
In Miami in 1940 with my parents and older sister, Harriet.

I grew up in a mostly English-speaking home—except for those infrequent moments when my Russian-born mother lapsed into Yiddish. And in other, not so infrequent moments, when she gathered with her six siblings.

As in most first-generation immigrant families, “grownups” reverted to the original language to keep secrets from the little ones, or to utter words that were taboo. So, my mother spoke Yiddish to my American-born father, who couldn’t speak the language, when she wanted to keep something from my sister and me. I was mortified when she did this, and refused to speak or understand it.
Simon and Hannah Berlin, Barbara Artson maternal grandparaents.
Simon and Hannah Berlin, my maternal grandparents.

 

 

Because my grandparents never mastered the language of their new and cherished land, I heard Yiddish only spoken at my grandparent’s apartment in Brighton Beach when we occasionally visited. They didn’t understand me, and I didn’t understand them. As a child, I associated Yiddish with old age and tortured myself in the belief that when I grew old, I too would speak that incomprehensible language. I sometimes cried myself to sleep, convinced I would be unable to understand my own words and thoughts.

Decades on, as I began to write Odessa, Odessa, I was bewildered to see Yiddish words and expressions mysteriously spilling out onto the page as I wrote dialogue for Henya and Mendel, the first-generation immigrant characters. I made sense of this, reasoning these Yiddish words had to have been oft repeated by my mother. I scanned the page as I wrote, and saw familiar words from my childhood: like benching (performing the blessing on the Sabbath), because that’s what she did, and that’s what I heard, every Friday night. Or, Guttenyu (Dear God) which she would utter in exasperation when I did something that irked her. Or when my Zaide (grandfather) exclaimed Shayna Maideleh (beautiful girl) while pinching my cheek. Ouch!

 

Still, I marveled when the flow of Yiddish as I wrote didn’t stop with familiar words. Like an overflowing creek, they flooded my mind as I wrote the early chapters of my novel: bissel (a little), fermisht (confused), ganiff (a thief), kine-ahora (that it should never happen), mechaya (joy), shtarker (big shot). I felt as though I had been occupied by a dybbuk (evil spirit). What I found fascinating as I checked the online Yiddish dictionary for meanings was that, by and large, my use of those previously “unthought-but-known” words were fitting. Equally fascinating was that some of the Yiddish words that flowed onto the page were my childhood understanding of the word, which had nothing to do with the word’s actual meaning.

Reflecting now on my worried fantasy as a young girl—a fear of returning to the Yiddish language of my ancestors—I think it may have been spot-on, and the process even begun. But rather than a nightmare, it is a reverie come true—my unconscious way of preserving my roots and memories, and of keeping my grandparents alive.