A Tale Of Ruthian Proportions

On the piano in our study, surrounded by myriad pictures of grandchildren, stands a photograph of a family Passover seder taken some time in the 1940s. In it my grandparents sit at one end of the dining room table in their small Borough Park apartment, my grandfather in his white kittel, my grandmother in her best holiday dress. Behind them stand my father and his four brothers, and seated in front of them are my mother and the brothers’ spouses. My brother appears next to my father, my cousin Martin sits on a cabinet edge near his father, and my cousin Harvey and I stare out from the foreground. Harvey is dressed in short pants and a little blazer jacket, and I, my hair in braids, am lovingly holding his arm. Small glasses filled with wine dot the table, and a half grapefruit on a saucer rests at each place setting.

We had posed for the photograph before the holiday began, the four children proud to be included. In a few years there would be many more children in the family, but at this juncture we four made up the youngest generation. Our parents lived near one another, and we frequently played together, enjoying a warm friendship. Later we all moved to houses within walking distance of each other in Belle Harbor, Queens, and my cousins and I remained close. With time, however, as we married, built our lives, and settled in different locations, we saw one another infrequently. But each of us kept a copy of the photograph taken in our grandparents’ dining room when we were very little.

Two weeks ago, my husband and I visited my brother and sister-in-law in their winter home in Florida, and they invited our cousins Martin and Harvey, who also have homes there, to join us with their wives for dinner one night. I had not spent an evening with these cousins in years, but as often happens in families, time and space melted away as we reminisced about our bubbe and zaide, our parents, uncles and aunts, all gone now. We spoke about the holidays we had shared, and especially about that Passover, when the four of us posed with the grownups for a photograph that for each has become an icon, a Proustian madeleine that opens floodgates of memories when we gaze at it.

As I look ahead to the Shavuot festival coming up, I’ve been thinking about the mystery of family ties and their powerful emotional connectedness to shared holiday experiences. I’ve also been thinking about the story of Ruth, who left her home and family to follow Naomi into a land where the young Moabite woman had no ties, no cousins, no parents or grandparents. Ruth, of course, has become a symbol of converts to Judaism, women and men who take on a new religion and a new life. Although I follow the political — and disgraceful — fighting among rabbis who do not recognize the conversions of other rabbis, I had not thought deeply until recently about how difficult it must be for converts to uproot themselves from their family history and assume a completely different identity. So many memories for gentiles are woven around Christmas, for example. Although those memories remain after conversion, they can no longer be reinforced or simply enjoyed nostalgically, the way my cousins and I enjoy our memories of childhood Passovers. They become more complex and equivocal as they give way to very different, Jewish, memories that will cover them over, like new cities built on top of ancient ones that become buried in the ground.

It took great courage for Ruth to pledge her loyalty to Naomi and her people, and it takes great courage for converts to break with the past, as they must, even in families who accept their conversions. I have in mind a friend, a Jew by choice, who sat shiva for her Christian father, because doing so is now part of her tradition. No family members visited her, not out of anger, but because that way of mourning is not part of their tradition.

At the small “cousins reunion” in Florida, we posed for a photograph during dinner. My eyes water a bit when I look at that picture now alongside the original Passover one. So many years have gone by, and so quickly. Yet I feel blessed by the strength of the bonds we have kept with one another. Loving-kindness is another theme of the book of Ruth, the kindness with which Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz treat each other. Loving-kindness holds families together as it has ours. And loving-kindness, more than anything, is what converts need from the Jewish community as they tear themselves away from their pasts to create new memories, new ties, and new futures.

Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir. 

About the Author
Francine Klagsbrun, a Jewish Week columnist, is the author of more than a dozen books, among them Voices of Wisdom: Jewish Ideals and Ethics for Everyday Living. She was the editor of the best-selling Free To Be You and Me, produced by Marlo Thomas and the Ms. Foundation. Her newest work is an in-depth biography of Golda Meir to be published in September 2017 by Schocken Books.