Naomi Kalish
Naomi Kalish
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Getting to know my Mum, z”l

A family history that explains how a rabbi came to put up a crucifix in the room of a dying Jewish woman who survived the Holocaust

In memory of Esther Judith Kalish z”l *

Part I

Learning about one’s parents often happens accidentally. They make a comment in passing, or their voice shifts – perhaps to cover something –  or their eyes seem to almost wink at something in recognition but unknown to you. Or someone calls them by a name you have never heard. Or you hear them sobbing – or laughing – and you realize that there is a story and, in fact, another world they inhabit. 

You thought you knew your parent, but now this new information becomes a new stroke of paint on the canvas you have painted of them in your mind. More than what you learn, you realize how much you do not know.  You cherish the new dimensions and color. 

Such has been the case with my mother. I will call her Mum. We always wrote it the British way but pronounced it the American way. Growing up, I always thought of her as British. After all, my Staten Island-native father got her a button for her coat that read, “The British are coming!” My sister recently sent birthday wishes to “the queen who must be obeyed.”

When I was 14 years old, I was thrilled to learn that we would take a trip to England to visit with our relatives. I had only been to England once before, when I was five years old.  We had been making a stop on the way back to the United States from our attempt to move to Israel. I laughed about my younger self in the first visit who didn’t want to leave the gates of Buckingham Palace because “maybe the Queen would come out and invite us in for tea,” but secretly I still fantasized about it.

I remember that we visited a hospital, and my brother and sister and I played with toy double-decker buses in a room with wooden pews while my mother visited her mother. I didn’t know that my grandmother wouldn’t understand who we were or that this would be the last time my mother would see her mother. And I met Majer, a family friend, who seemed like an old man. He was a tailor and fixed a broken zipper on my dress. But I was too shy to talk with him.

Now I was 14. It was 1981, and Princess Diana and Prince Charles had married just three years earlier – an event for which we woke up at 3:00am in California to watch. I was loving British fashion, enjoying sightseeing and shopping at Marks and Spencer and Harrods. I bought my first pair of heels – they were white sandals – and some sweaters. I was delighted to learn that young princes were real and I thought that Prince Edward – only six years older than me – and I might have a  chance. I bought an Oxford University sweatshirt, fancying that I might study there. I was in love with England and proud that my mother was British. 

After eating dinner, we spread out in the living room and had smaller getting-to-know-you conversations with friends and family. My mother still had a British accent, which was a topic of conversation when she met people. She seemed to blend right in with our cousins.

Two of the family friends were Majer, who I had met on the earlier visit, and who had fought with the Polish Resistance, and Stasick, who was a concentration camp survivor. They seamlessly wove theology into their conversation. I heard them debate the existence of the soul and of God in light of the suffering of the Holocaust. Initially, I was captivated by the liberating experience of addressing life’s ugliness in the open.

Then my mother joined their conversation. Her voice sounded different and I could not understand the words.  It was a stronger, maybe harsher language. More consonants. It was hard to decipher even a single word. 

Later I asked, “What language were you speaking?” She told me it was Yiddish. Majer told me that when my mother was a little girl, her parents would bring her to the Workmen’s Circle and she would recite poetry in Yiddish and everyone marveled at her.

“So you grew up bilingual – speaking English and Yiddish?”

“No, not exactly,” she told me, “I spoke Yiddish until the war when we were evacuated out of London. I learned English from the nuns at a convent in the country.”

“So then you returned to London and spoke English?”

“Yes, but the nuns taught me the Queen’s English and in the East End they spoke with the Cockney accent.”

Yiddish, Poland, the war, evacuation, the Holocaust. The Queen’s English, the Cockney accent. These made up the landscape  of my mother’s world. I did not know where princes and princesses and castles and palaces fit into her life.

Part II

Mum was taking Miriam and me to the playground. It was August 1976 and we were enjoying the summer weather. While my father earned his doctorate at Michigan State, the five of us lived in a two-bedroom, 750 square foot apartment in Spartan Village, university housing for professors and graduate students and their families. I was 6 years old, Miriam was almost 5. Climbing on the jungle gym sounded like a welcome change. As we left the two-story apartment complex, Mum noticed a taxi park and the driver walked toward our door. She told us, “wait right here.” 

We waited and a few minutes later my father emerged and said he would take us to the playground. 

At some point, someone must have told us that Mum’s mum, Sarah, had died. She was not Grandma or Bubbe to us because we never met her. Aaron has a baby picture of her holding him on the beach, squishing cheeks and looking delighted to be holding her grandchild. Only two-and-a-half years later, I was born too late. By the time she could have met me, her dementia had confused her mind. 

Sarah Epelbaum was born into an Orthodox family on June 4, 1902, in the town of Sanok, in Southeast Poland, near the borders with Slovakia and the Ukraine. The story is told that once her father was attacked for being Jewish and nearly drowned, saved only by the luck of a friend walking by. He told his family to leave Poland as soon as possible. Several relatives already lived in London. Her closest sister received a visa but was waiting for her boyfriend’s visa to come through, so she gave it to Sarah.

In January 1935, Sarah married Solly Levy. He had been born in Warsaw in 1902 and immigrated with his family to Montreal, where they became British citizens. His father was a shochet, one who would slaughter animals according to the Jewish dietary laws. Solly was the first boy to survive, his older brothers having died as babies or young children. His Orthodox Jewish parents tied a red string around his wrist and dressed him in white in order to ward off evil spirits.

In 1933 Solly left Montreal and Orthodoxy, settling in London. He met Sarah, who also shed herself of the Orthodoxy of her childhood. They married in 1935 and my mother was born in 1937.

When my mother received the telegram of her mother’s death, she grieved alone. We emptied the house for her. She flew to London by herself for the funeral. When she returned, she brought gifts. We received a red bouncy ball and a children’s tea set.

Part III

I had barely walked into the chaplaincy office when one of the interns began talking to me. It was in the early 2000s, I was recently ordained as a rabbi and was working as a hospital chaplain. I noticed that the student was holding a crucifix. “I went to visit” — we’ll call her Mrs. Weiss — “and I noticed that the crucifix was still in her room so I took it down. I thought you would want to know.”

“Oh, thanks for telling me,” I responded. “Did you see any of her family there to ask if that is what they wanted?” Mrs. Weiss was in the final stages of cancer and she was no longer responsive.

“No I didn’t. I figured since she is Jewish,” she explained and then emphasized, “and a Holocaust survivor, the sight of the crucifix would upset her.”

“It was very thoughtful of you,” I said, wanting to affirm the student’s good intentions, “but you never know.” I left my thought hanging. What was I telling her? Did I think she should not have taken the crucifix? That she should have left the crucifix in the presence of a dying Jewish woman?

It was almost impossible to not see a crucifix at the hospital. When I went for my job interview I wondered how I would recognize the hospital, but then I figured that as a Catholic hospital it would probably have a cross on the building. In fact, it had three! I later learned that this was an actual reference to the place of Jesus’ crucifixion. 

The hospital administration commissioned a statue of the Pietà with Jesus portrayed as a dying cancer patient surrounded by a Roman Catholic nun, an African American nurse, and a physician. Each room had a removable wooden crucifix so that patients who were not Christian could have it removed. It was the hospital’s way of honoring its Catholic heritage while also embracing a spirit of hospitality.

As I walked to the elevator and rode up to the patient floors, I began to think about my mother and wondered what she would want if she were in Mrs. Weiss’s situation.

My mum’s first memory was of being frantically scooped up by her mother in 1940 in the middle of the night at the age of three and rushed to the Tube station as a bomb shelter. Mum told me that they rushed so much that they bumped into a woman wearing braces on her legs and nearly knocked her off.

Solly was drafted into the British Army, and Sarah and my mum were evacuated to the countryside. While in the town of Hinckley, Sarah decided to send my mother to a Catholic school. She thought that it might be a better place for her with her difficulties walking and that she would be able to learn English.

Mum described that on V-E Day people spontaneously organized parties and she had no idea where all the food came from given how they had been rationing. We have a photograph of their feast.

After the war, my grandmother and mother returned to London. Solly received an honorable discharge because he had developed advanced-stage esophageal cancer. Children did not visit the hospital or attend funerals. Sarah buried her husband and slowly learned about the deaths of her family in Poland. Mother and daughter seemed to grieve alone.

Refugees came to London. Two men came to live in an extra room in their apartment. Majer would make a living as a tailor and Stasick was pursuing a career as an artist, eventually settling in with the Yiddish theater. Forty years later I would meet them on that trip we took when I was 14 years old and I would return again to their homes when I was on a Junior Year Abroad.

During the war years, leading British psychologists focused their attention on the psychological impact of the wartime evacuation of more than one million British children. In this context, psychiatrist Donald Winnicott, a consultant pediatrician for the children’s evacuation program, developed the idea of the transitional object (of which Linus’ blanket from the Peanuts cartoon is a most famous example). When one suffers separation, a token of what is home or love can provide comfort. I sometimes would wonder where was Dr. Winnicott for my mother? Why did his care not reach her? Hear her grief for her father? Hear her sadness for her physical difficulties? 

But maybe she did have a security blanket – maybe her mother, maybe the nuns at her Catholic school, maybe her best friend. Maybe, as Winnicott would say, it was good enough.

I thought of  my mother’s war story as I walked through the hallways of the hospital to visit Mrs. Weiss in her room where the student had removed the crucifix.  

“Hi, I’m Naomi. the Jewish Chaplain here at Calvary. I have stopped by to visit your mom a few times but haven’t had the opportunity to meet you.”

“Yes, it’s true. I am usually at work and come in the evening and on weekends. But I know the end is near and I took some time off today.” 

“I imagine she can feel your presence and appreciates you being here. Please let me know if there is anything I can do for you or her.”

“Well,” he started slowly. “There is something. This may sound strange. Do you know what happened to the crucifix?”

I didn’t really want to share the story of the chaplain intern, so I opted to remain silent with an expression that said, “Oh, tell me more.”

“You see, my mother was born in Europe and was a child during World War II. Nuns hid her during the Holocaust.”

“Where was she?”

“She was in France.”

“I can’t believe this,” I said. “My mother was evacuated out of London during the Blitz and attended a Catholic school in the country.”

“So you understand,” he paused. “The nuns saved my mother’s life. Now she is dying and I think the crucifix would comfort her.”

“I will get a crucifix for her room.”

And this is how a rabbi comes to put up a crucifix in the room of a dying Jewish woman who survived the Holocaust.  

Part IV

When I teach pastoral care to chaplain interns, one of the educational outcomes is to help them become more aware of their assumptions. Sometimes I’ll share a story that challenges something they have said.

One day, one of the interns made a disparaging comment about “how awful it is that groups of medical residents parade in and out of patients’ rooms and don’t see the patients are human beings, but as objects to learn from, and patients hate it.”

There is some truth to this criticism, and the medical profession has had to work hard to undo its history of objectifying people when they become patients. But I knew that patients do not always hate the attention. I told my students a story about my mother.

At the age of 65, my mother had a double-knee replacement. Knee replacements were common surgeries at the time, but she had complications. In adulthood she was diagnosed with a neuromuscular disease called Charcot-Marie-Tooth, or CMT for short, that attacks the nerve endings and causes a dystrophy of the muscles. It is a genetic disease that we now know my grandmother had, my mother has, and my sister has. 

My mother’s undiagnosed CMT had a great impact on her life. She was also born with club feet in a poor hospital in London that went undiagnosed or treated. After she came to America, her ankles were fused, which limited her movement, but as she said, kept her out of a wheelchair.

Our family did not ever use terms like “disability” or “handicapped” and it did not occur to me that these words would apply to her. 

After her surgery, there was a procession of medical residents who wanted to learn from her, from her actual body, the body that had held her back and caused her physical and emotional pain. Now this was the very reason medical residents – who were like gods – made their way to her room.

As I told my students of the parade of doctors who came to visit her, my mind wandered and I remembered that chaplains had also paraded into her room.

Her first chaplain was a Catholic sister. When she found out my mother was Jewish, she made a referral to the Jewish chaplaincy services and, from that day forward,  my mother received daily visits on rotation from five different Jewish chaplains. When we spoke on the phone, she told me all about them – one was a psychologist who was interested in spirituality, one was thinking about becoming a rabbi, one was a physician who injured his back and was looking for a new career. 

I concluded my storytelling by saying, “So, even something that might seem universal, like whether or not patients like lots of visits from residents on rounds, is subjective. You never know.”

I had barely paused when one of my students said, “Naomi, I think you have the point of the story wrong.”

Wrong? I had the story wrong about my mother?

“I think your mother was trying to understand you, and that’s why she asked all of her chaplains to tell her their stories.”

Understand me? It had not occurred to me that a mother would equally strive to understand a daughter. 

––

*  All names and identifying features of students and patients have been obscured to protect the privacy of the individuals. 

About the Author
Rabbi Naomi Kalish, PhD, is the Harold and Carole Wolfe Director of the Center for Pastoral Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary, a board certified Chaplain and Educator of Clinical Pastoral Education, and an interfaith activist.
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