Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Babushka

We had a scholar in residence at our synagogue this weekend, a very distinguished Jewish historian. I recommend his books highly, if you really want to know what we've been through as a people.*

Berel Wein is also an esteemed rabbi and a lawyer, although he gave up law for the higher calling.

FD and I used to listen to his Jewish history lectures on cassettes, audiotapes, ages ago. He's funny, bright, insightful, and old. I don't mean that he's old physically, but he's got an old Jewish soul. He's old enough, he'll tell you, to tell you what he thinks and not care at all what you think about what he thinks.

So you can see why I like him.

Anyway, we had some guests on Friday night, and as we wound down the meal, had to make the decision, Do we go to the lecture? Or do we go to our respective comfort zones and read and doze, read and doze, break things up with another cup of tea?

Either my allergies are kicking up or I've got a virus. So I'm thinking I shouldn't go out. But Berel Wein! I excuse myself, get ready, and join the party. What's the worst thing that can happen? I fall asleep?

We get there just in time for the speaker. The rabbi starts with a joke. This is how Jewish people are (maybe everyone is). We start with jokes.

But you would think he's addressing that post on falling asleep in shul, honestly, conceived at the pleasure of the presence of a different scholar in residence. Here's Rabbi Wein's joke:

A minister knows that one of his parishioners always falls asleep as soon as he starts to talk. He can't stand it. So one day he thinks, "I'll get even with him."

Everyone's in church, and he starts his sermon softly, in a drone. The fellow dozes off. When the minister is sure the guy is sound asleep, he rouses the rest of the congregation shouting, "Everyone who wants to go to Heaven, please stand up!" The congregation rises. The sleeping congregant snores.

Everyone sits down. The minister talks awhile longer, then he starts in again, shouting only the last half of the message at the top of his lungs,

"Everyone who wants to go to Hell. . .Please stand up!"

The sleeper is finally roused by the phrase, please stand up and he jumps to his feet, confused. Everyone snickers. He turns to the minister and says, "Reverend, I don't know what the cause, or what you're asking us to contribute, but you and me are the only ones in the room standing."

Well, I liked it. And with that he tells over his lecture about the relationship Jews have with money. He recounts the history of trade and virtual money, the arrangements merchants worked out so that they didn't have to load bushels of coins onto donkeys, risking life to robbers and thieves, in order to buy things and make a living.

If Yankel in London has a cousin Shloimie in Iran, then England will always have salt, is the basic idea.

I stayed awake for over half of the rabbi's talk and wanted, you have to believe me, to stay awake for all of it. But on a Friday night, if I close my eyes, even for ten seconds, it's all over.

I woke up to hear Rabbi Wein talking about his grandfather, not a rich man. But the rabbi's grandfather had a $10,000 life insurance policy, his only savings, and he cashed it in to give all of it to an organization in Europe to save Jews from the Holocaust. The relief fund saved over a hundred thousand lives.

This is the real relationship we have to money, Rabbi Wein tells us with pride. His Zaideh, his grandfather gave it away.

The rabbi continued, "A man's worth is as good as the respect of his children, his grandchildren. If they love and respect him, he is a successful man."

Jews are always judging successful living in this way, vis-a-vis our relationships. We assume G-d has standards, too, and that He/She loves people who are loved by others.**

Well, I knew I was in for it walking home. FD kicks up a few leaves, turns to me and asks, "What part of his speech got to you the most?"

"The part about his grandfather," I reply. "Of course."

"Right. A man who is respected by his grandchildren. Mine won't even know me, won't know what I'm all about, what I believe in."

It is very much like FD to get upset about the kids living in another city on an ordinary day. I try not to think about it, and since we communicate often in so many different ways with the children, I can fool myself into thinking that I really do have a relationship. But FD is the realist between the two of us, I think. Or am I?

I'm speechless, allow him his sadness. There's time to beat what I feel is exaggeration, if not illogical thinking out of him, to strategize with him about even better ways to stay in touch with the little ones, like making Skype more visually interesting, perhaps. Throw in a magic trick.

What FD didn't know was that Rabbi Wein got me thinking about my own grandparents and my relationship to them. They escaped Europe well before the Second World War to come to America, having suffered enough losses during WWI.

Blessed with both sets of grandparents. I was closer, strangely enough, with the grandparents that didn't live nearby. My father's parents were only a few blocks away, but we had to drive to my mother's parents, and we didn't have a second car for several years. You've heard bits and pieces about my Zaidee on this blog, but nothing about my Bubbie.

She was the kind of grandmother you could hold onto and she made cookies, but wasn't fat. When you're poor there's less of a chance for eating disorders, being too fat or too thin. You eat when your children have finished eating, and you're glad that there's food left over. My Bubbie and Zaidee, immigrants, had six children, considered six million during the depression.

They hailed from Austria. When FD met Bubbie he couldn't believe how she and my aunts enjoyed sweets. Nothing made them happier than dessert.

I remember her with long dark brown hair pulled back in a bun; she colored it until the day she died. I see that twinkle in her eye when we walked through the door to visit. She would pull out a cigar box of buttons, thimbles, and string for us to play with.

Sometimes my daughter-in-law marvels at my games, the ways I think up to play with her daughter. She says, "You pull entertainment out of everything ordinary, every day stuff."

I get it honest.

It is the unconscious learning when you're a child, that's so powerful.

When you apply yourself and learn things with effort or by rote, you might forget them or not. But those other things that you learn without knowing you've learned them, like playing with string, can come in handy years down the line, too. The things we learn without even knowing we've learned them, some of them really good things, might serve as links to our past.

This is the reason I tell patients, when they're ranting about their traumatic histories, Try to be more generous with your parents, if at all possible. You may not remember the good things you learned through osmosis. One day maybe you will. (I know. It can be hard to be charitable sometimes.)

The next day, I took my time before getting ready to go to shul (Saturday morning services), eventually got dressed. In Chicago you can feel the cold before you get outside; you just know it's cold in November, don't need to consult with a weatherman. So I wore a really warm sweater, one of Empath Daught's old ones, the hot pink one I sent to the cleaners to get rid of the little fuzz balls. And it felt very good, very cozy.

But I thought, I could really use something more on my head, you know? Like a hat, or better, a hood. But I don't have a coat with a hood, except for my raincoat. I stared into the closet and noticed a scarf on the shelf, a paisley wool scarf that I'd purchased at a Chinese linen store on Lawrence Avenue about thirty years ago. I bought it in three colors, different prints.

So I took the scarf and I wrapped it around my head. I remember my Bubbie wearing one like that, a scarf tied under her chin. All Bubbies wear babushkas. In the city I see them everywhere on Lincoln Avenue, women in babbushkas. It's never been my style, gotta' admit.

But before leaving the house I checked the bathroom mirror, thinking I'd take it off more than likely, that it would look soo old, but surprised myself.

Not half bad. How crazy is that?

therapydoc

*Berel Wein wrote these books, and dozens of essays, too:

Echoes of Glory: The story of the Jews in the Classical Era, 350 BCE-750 CE

Herald of Destiny: The story of the Jews in the Medieval Era, 750-1650

Triumph of Survival: The story of the Jews in the Modern Era, 1650-1995

Faith and Fate: The story of the Jewish people in the twentieth century

Fabulous coffee table books, great reading.

**Somewhere in a mishna some call The Ethics of the Fathers, Pirke Avot, always worth reading and rereading, memorizing, actually, no matter what your religious preference.

I use these teachings all the time at work, like when I'm teaching parents to teach their little kids how to control their tempers.
Who is a strong person? One who can control his passion.
It's easier, I tell them, to throw a punch than it is to stop, think, and respond assertively. It takes strength of character to do that, stop the punch. Any whimp can hit someone.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think the correct quote from Rabbi Wein was "A man can consider himself worthy if he has the respect of his grandparents and his grandchildren." However, not everyone has the fortune to have those relationships.

therapydoc said...

Thanks, Anon.

rabbi neil fleischmann said...

Nice post, good story and joke telling and good Torah.

I don't remember the exact chapter and verse - but the quote from Pirkei Avot/Ethics of The Fathers is "Anyone regarding whom the spirit of people takes comfort, the spirit of G-d takes comfort." (Kol sheruach habriot nocheh heimenu, ruach Hamakom nocheh heimenu.) It then states that the reverse is true as well.

therapydoc said...

Great. Thanks, Rabbi.

MizFit said...

add the WO and this is how I try and live my life...my life's backdrop if you will:
"A man can consider himself worthy if he has the respect of his grandparents and his grandchildren."

it's easier to make money, huh?
:)

therapydoc said...

The jury's out about making money (for anyone) in this economy, Miz.

ilanadavita said...

A great post. Thanks for writing it and suggesting some books.

Blognut said...

"Try to be more generous with your parents, if at all possible."

So DARN hard! I hope my kids will do better than I have done. (I KNOW, nothing is easy - you never said it was!)

By the way, from the sounds of things, you get to have some very special visits with your grandkids. Tell FD not to worry so much, it sounds like the kids think that the two of you are awesome. One doesn't have to read very many of your posts to feel how much you love those kids, and I'm betting that they feel it too.

therapydoc said...

Thanks, Nut. He's mortified, but I asked him if he wanted me to edit out that whole piece on him and he thought it okay that I made him into a grumpy, bitter old man (his words). He's nothing of the sort, you all should know. I lean towards hyperbole (at times).

FD said...

Hummph!

April_optimist said...

To this day I know how to bait a hook and catch a fish, thanks to my father. And from my mother I learned how to sew and cook. And I'm grateful for all the other things I learned from them.

On another note, a friend's very wise mother said the other day that she was so glad to have donated several things to Goodwill. Her daughter asked why and she answered: Because if I have something to give away I know I am rich.

rosysunset said...

My grandmother lived in Cali, 3000 miles away from me and I got to see her only a week every year. She and I had an amazing relationship and her legacy is definitely passing on through me. My grandmother who lived one hour south of us, on the other hand, never had any relationship with us grandkids. It's not the quantity of time, seriously! But I'm sure you know that. But quantity time is nice, of course, especially for us young mothers who love getting breaks from their kiddos. :)

therapydoc said...

You people are wonderful. Thanks all. More stories?
A person can think these things (quality over quantity) but still, it's pretty hard to believe. Especially when you know there's such a thing as both.

pinky said...

MY Father in Law who was raised Jewish but is not a practicing Jew at the moment, Says that the Jewish people are the funniest people on earth.