My Great-Grandmother’s Willow Leaves

Few people know that Ruth is my middle, not my first, name. No one has ever used Mindel, my first name. Mindel Ruth. I’m named after my maternal great-grandmother, my mother’s Babba Mindel, whom I never met, the last generation on my mother’s side who were religiously observant, although my grandmother maintained a kosher kitchen so that her parents could comfortably eat in their home.

It’s a name of which I’ve always been somewhat ashamed, an old Yiddish-style name that people my age and under don’t know and which sounds odd. And not infrequently, on official documents, it’s assumed that I’m a man because my name must be Mendel.

I am the first generation following Babba Mindel to be religiously observant. On Shabbat, I light candles in the candlesticks that my mother’s father, who traveled the world as a flour merchant, brought to her as a gift from India. Once, when my family was doing genealogical research, my cousin posted a photograph of a woman lighting Shabbat candles, wearing a dark, flowered dress, her head covered with a scarf, and asked if anybody knew who the woman was. I responded that it was my maternal great-grandmother, Mindel. I did not recognize her, but I recognized her candlesticks.

I once sent my mother a photograph of myself meditating on a train in India, eyes closed, my shaved head covered with a colorful scarf, and my mother responded that the serene expression on my face reminded her of the look on her grandmother Mindel’s face when she lit Shabbat candles.

Mindel. I bear her name, and I light her candlesticks. And it turns out that I also have a connection to Succot, my favorite holiday, through her.

The first Succot I remember is from my childhood in Vancouver, in the ’60s. My father, who was a professor of electrical engineering at the University of British Columbia, built a succah in our back yard, made from boards that had been the crate of his department’s huge analog computer. In the ’60s, computers took up an entire room. We didn’t do anything halahic like eat in that succah or bench on the four species, but we loved to play in it as children, and it was left up, possibly for years, after Succot was over.

My next marking of Succot was at least 20 years later, after I’d moved to Israel and become religiously observant. Before the Succot holiday, I would joyfully go to the four species market in Mea Shearim to buy my lulav (palm frond), etrog (citron), hadassim (myrtle branches) and aravot (willow branches), having the audacity to ask the ultra-Orthodox men alongside me to explain the signs of kashrut that I must search for in each species. And they always obliged, teaching me how to purchase kosher four species for myself. I looked forward to doing so every year. I always advised friends from overseas that Succot was the best time to visit Israel, and I’d take them to the market, to see the men in black coats and hats and long sidelocks examining the details of the lulavim and etrogim with a magnifying glass to determine their level of kashrut.

It was not many years before I built my first succah, in the abandoned junkyard next to my first house in Jerusalem’s picturesque Nachlaot neighborhood. That succah was the beginning of a tradition. For the rest of my time living in Nachlaot, I built a succah every year and moved into it, with my cats. I slept there, I ate there, I hosted people for meals there, I shook my kosher four species there, I brought my favorite books out to be with me, I hung crystals in the window of my sukkah and pinned photographs of all my family and beloved friends up on the fabric succah walls. I would sit in my succah and think of Succot as the ultimate Buddhist holiday, reading Kohelet’s verses about the impermanence of everything, as I watched the palm branches that covered my sukkah, and my four species, dry up and change. The week that I spent in my succah every year felt like being in Sinai, another favorite and sacred place. And whenever I needed help in building a succah or transporting the huge palm branches to cover it, somehow a human angel would appear to help me.

On one of my visits to my mother’s house in Vancouver, I found an old siddur that had belonged to my Babba Mindel, and had been passed down to my grandmother, whose name and address were written inside its cover, along with the stamp of the synagogue in Winnipeg where it had originated. It was the same nusach I daven, Sephard. Also within the front cover, I made out the words “Etrog bentchin page 154,” written in Yiddish in faded pencil.

I opened to page 154 and found it to be full of dried willow leaves. I almost wept, as my Babba Mindel came alive for me, holding her four species. I told my mother that I wanted this siddur, and she was more than happy to give it to me. And with the very best of intentions, my mother had the siddur rebound in order to protect it. When I received it with its shiny new plastic cover, I immediately opened it to page 154, fearing that the willow leaves would be gone. And most of them were, but, luckily, a few remained, and they are still there, hidden deep within the fold between pages 154 and 155.

Times and life changed. I moved to Ein Karem which, with all its advantages, had the disadvantage of no suitable place near my home for a succah. And now, I often buy my four species online rather than going to the market. But I still bench on them, a mitzvah I cherish each year, on my tree-shaded roof, waving them in all four directions and up and down, each direction with its own meaning. And I think of my Babba Mindel and her four species, of her willow leaves that can still be found concealed in that siddur, treasured on my bookshelf. My great-grandmother Mindel, whose Shabbat candlesticks I light, whose siddur I use when I bless my four species, whose name I bear. A name that I shall begin to own more proudly.

About the Author
Ruthi Soudack, originally from Vancouver, arrived in Jerusalem for a short visit three days after the beginning of the first intifada, and has been here ever since. She is a traveller, yoga teacher, writer, translator, editor, storyteller, musician, and occasionally, a stand-up comic. (Profile picture by Shira Aboulafia)
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