Of Mom, Mahj and Mar Cheshvan

The weather was achingly beautiful in Beachwood yesterday, an archetypal clear and crisp Sunday morning in autumn. The rain had finally stopped, allowing Sammy and me to delight in the vibrant oranges, pinks and yellows as we walked around The Village Lake. My friend Steph tells me that the colors are similarly magnificent in Pittsburgh this fall.

I don’t exactly recall the weather in Beachwood 23 years ago yesterday, November 4, 1995, but I do remember the chill that descended upon our collective communal soul that very dark day. Just as we were shocked to learn about the Tree of Life massacre on Shabbat, 18 Cheshvan 5779/October 27, 2018 so it was on Shabbat, our time, that we learned Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had been killed by an Israeli Jew in Tel Aviv on the evening of 12 Cheshvan 5756. Once again, a tragic event in modern Jewish history has taken place in the bitter month of “Mar Cheshvan.” Once again, we, the Jewish People, are  mourning the loss of Jewish life, as well as a loss of communal innocence. And once again, the power of words to empower an evil act is in plain view for all to see.

That an unthinkable act of violence struck the American Jewish community in Squirrel Hill has shaken us to our core. Having lived most of my life in northeast Ohio, southwestern Pennsylvania is literally my “region” and my connections to Pittsburgh run deep. From my father’s family to my first love, from my days in CRUSY to my son’s USY friends, from my brother’s High Holiday pulpit to my oldest childhood friends, I am bonded to the Pittsburgh Jewish community, like so many of us, in our interconnected Jewish world. And so it is that despite the fact that the news cycle has moved on to tomorrow’s midterms, the Jewish world continues to mourn the loss of 11 lives praying at Tree of Life.

My mother Arlene has been gone for almost 12 years. I miss her very much in these dark and difficult days, where the unthinkable has happenened in America. I want to talk to her about Trump and his toxic rhetoric and how it enabled such deadly anti-Semitism at Tree of Life. I want to tell her about the amazing Parkland students and the camp connections, about my activism in Israel and my  ideas about Second Amendment activism on behalf of a Safe Society. I would share with her that my brother Barry has become a major advocate for medical marijuana and is in Andrew Gillum’s circle.

I would love to show her the pictures of her great grandchildren and share with her that Rachel is a wonderful mother. I would explain to her why it was time to say goodbye to the Jerusalem apartment and about the religious choices of her grandchildren. Finally, I would tell her how I finally found my way back to the core of my Jewish identity, the marriage of words and music that is simply known as singing. I wish I could reserve her room for our special Shabbat in Louisville and save her that front seat, next to Cantor Kopmar, when we perform our Gala concert on May 19.

Although Mom could not carry a tune, back in the mid-1960s before anyone used the term informal Jewish education, she knew intuitively that community was the key to identity. Truly, Mom taught me this most important lesson. Her outspoken support of the Beth El Junior Choral Society as well as our open door policy on Winston Road back in our USY days reflect how Mom knew foundational principles of Judaism, despite her lack of a formal Jewish education. If she were alive today, we would be distraught together as we begin to accept a difficult new normal.

While Mom is gone, two of her Mahj jong friends, Lilah and Gail are very much alive and their daughters, Steph and Debbie, are my two oldest childhood friends. It struck me that my most direct connection  to the Pittsburgh massacre are through these two friends from Akron; Steph lives in the suburbs of Pittsburgh and Debbie is related to the oldest victim, 97-year-old Rose Mallinger, z”l. Steph has been giving me real time reports from Pittsburgh since her first text message on that dark Shabbat. Debbie came home to Akron to go with her mom Gail and other cousins to Pittsburgh for Friday’s funeral.

On Saturday, I drove down to Akron to visit with Debbie and Gail and heard a firsthand account of Rose’s funeral. The speaker who moved them the most was the Rev. Eric S.C. Manning, the leader of the church in Charleston. After the service, my friends had the chance to speak with the pastor and to thank him for his moving words. That these two women who are so very dear to me, yet see the world through a different lense, had this powerful private moment of common humanity with Rev. Manning gives me hope. The love so powerful displayed in the iconic picture on the front page of yesterday’s New York Times, the embrace between the two spiritual leaders, was personally experienced by Debbie, Gail and the pastor. Literally, love, expressed in times of sorrow, trumped any fear or hate arising out of difference.

One of the key components of our new normal is ensuring that the love born out of our common humanity is a powerful binding force in our society at all times. In the United States of America, in 2018, despite our differences, we can find a way to love. I know that our powerful American Jewish community can find a way to lead that movement, hand in hand with the leaders of other people of faith. That is the essence of being an American Jew at the end of 2018, at the beginning of 5779.

Since the shooting in Squirrel Hill, I’ve been remembering where I was and how I experienced the major traumatic moments of my life – the assasinations of the 1960’s, the murder of Rabin, 9/11, the Second Intifada, Nixon’s resignation, the 6 Day War, now the Squirrel Hill massacre. Gail still lives directly across the street from my growing up house on Winston Road. As I walked out their door, I saw a woman and a girl raking the leaves from the red maple on the front lawn of my house. I went over and introduced myself and learned that this was a grandmother and granddaughter. Standing there I viscerally recalled the day in late November in 1963, when home from kindergarten because of JFK’s funeral, I rolled down the hill of my front yard, under a much smaller red maple whose leaves had turned and fallen, in just the same way.

It will be a very cold and dark winter following this tragic fall, as we mourn the lives of 11 family members. We will find comfort in each other as we have in other times of collective trauma. As we heal, we will remember each year when the leaves turn colors, ironically in the bitter month of Cheshvan, the lives of those who died celebrating the vibrancy of American Jewish life at its best. May their memory be a blessing and teach the simple yet powerful lesson of Mar Cheshvan, the same lesson taught when Yigal Amir killed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin 23 years ago – evil words lead to evil deeds. As our sages would say, the rest is commentary.

About the Author
Francine M. Gordon is an artist/activist who maintains homes in New York and Cleveland. From November 2010 through November 2016, through The Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project, she produced over 10 Concerts of Concern in the US and Israel. Since establishing her New York residence, Ms. Gordon has become a member of the New York Federation’s Israeli Judaism committee which focuses on exactly the same issues as SRSS. In addition, she has become a proud member of the Zamir Chorale which allows her to express her Zionism through song.
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