This afternoon, as I write this piece, I am marking the moment in sacred time, 10 Jewish years ago, that I became an adult orphan. On the 24th day of Kislev, sometime between 2 and 2:30 in the afternoon, my mother of Blessed Memory, Arlene Gordon, drew her last breath. Days before the winter solstice and hours before Judaism’s darkest night of the year, she died from lung cancer, a mere nine months after Dad, Merle Gordon, “zl, died from his own cancer. The experience of burying my father and then caring for my mother until the moment of her death, was a shock to my system. Anyone who has experienced complicated grief of any kind understands the impact of such an emotional earthquake.
So it was that in the wake of losing both my parents, my entire interior landscape changed. Plunging myself into Judaism’s mourning traditions for Dad, I could do no less for Mom. For a period of 1year and 9 months, from Adar 5766 through Kislev 5767, I lived in Judaism’s place of avelut, of mourning. The experience of immersion in the daily morning minyan of B’nai Jeshurun in the eastern suburbs of Cleveland literally enabled me to find my spiritual voice once again. The group of mainly older men encouraged this broken-hearted woman to stand up in front, sing out clearly and lead the kahal in our daily prayers. In no small measure, these men prepared this woman so that when I was called upon to represent the American Jewish woman at the Kotel with the Woman of the Wall, I was ready to lead. During the years leading up to the landmark Sobel decision in April 2013 and what I call “The Great Kotel Compromise Agreement” of January 2016, I was often on the front lines of the Women of the Wall’s minyan at the Kotel.
Reclaiming my voice continues to be the most profound Blessing given to me in the shadow of Mom’s death. In the ten years, my spiritual voice merged with her legacy of vocal commununity activism. While Mom could not carry a tune, she understood the power of Jewish music to transform both the singer and society. That is why she fought so hard to keep our Cantor Jerry Kopmar in Akron, Ohio in the spring of 1969. I am sure that back in those days when she faced down the old men that made up the Beth El Board, there were those who thought that brash lady from the Bronx “had become unglued and lost her marbles”. While my mother lost that fight and Cantor left us to go to Dayton, that memory of my mother’s leadership continues to be the water that nourishes my soul as a Feminist Jewish Activist.
One of my mother’s mantras was the simple yet profound truth that “the only thing that is constant is change.” I wonder what Mom would make of the changes that are swirling around us as America prepares for the rule of Donald the Demagogue. His constant twittering about affairs of state before taking office is creating anxiety and uncertainty around the world. His blatant disregard of facts and his frightening disdain of the press has created what pundits call a “post-factual environment.” While the majority of American Jews rejected Trumpism, Israel’s Prime Minister “Netanyahu has spoken positively of Trump and his incoming pro-settlement envoy David Friedman, seeing them as a welcome change after years of an acrimonious relationship with the Obama administration.” (TOI, 12/23/16).
On the other hand, who ever would have thought that the President of Egypt would respond to pressure from Israel to withdraw a resolution from the UN Security Council? Was Obama really on track to send a message to Israel via abstention, upending years of US foreign policy? And then, of course, there is Trump’s Twitter-based foreign policy, those 140 character messages and Facebook posts that are also upending decades of US foreign policy. What really matters, of course, are the explanations that follow from those who are much more in the know, such as KellyAnne Conway and Steve Bannon. Mom, there is so much change in the air right now that someone paying close attention to it all could “become unglued” and risk “losing her marbles”. How lucky we are to have Judaism, the source of our sacred narrative that bonds us with our spiritual community, to ground us during such crazy times.
It is no coincidence that Arlene Gordon’s light went out on the 24th day of Kislev. Having deep roots in the Land of Israel, my mother’s life was always defined by Jewish time and space, even when she didn’t know it. While our Festival of Hanukkah celebrates the military victory of the Maccabees, we also know it is Judaism’s Celebration of Light at the absolute darkest time of the year. As the sun dips down and the 25th day of Kislev dawns at twilight, we light the first candle and add one each night, mirroring the cosmos as the long nights begin to yield to a longer day. This year, due to the complete overlay of December upon Kislev, the parallel between the 25 Kislev and December 25th is obvious, to those who notice such parallels. As a Feminist Jewish Activist, I am always aware of the Jewish date. As an adult orphan, I am always aware that Mom’s yartzeit is Erev Hanukkah.
In the decade since I’ve been orphaned, I’ve divorced the father of my 3 children, my oldest daughter married her high school boyfriend and is now the mother of two daughters, my middle daughter graduated from Barnard and is now in the 1st year of a 5 year graduate program and my son is a junior at my alma mater, the University of Michigan. I know Mom would be amused beyond measure at the changes in the family dynamic as her granddaughters have rededicated themselves to her Jewish legacy in a way that reflects the lifestyle of my mother’s beloved grandmother, Fanny Chollick, for whom I am named. I know she would be delighted that I have rededicated myself to my first passion, Jewish choral music, and that I am living in New York City and singing in the Zamir Chorale. She would see my support of HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir as a natural extension of her passion for the Beth El Junior Choral Society.
Finally, despite the hits I have taken and the slander I have endured, I know that my mother would be very proud that I have built, with the help of so many, The Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project. I have often said that she sits on one shoulder and my mentor, Dr. Art Naparstek “zl, sits on the other shoulder as I stand up for what I believe is right and just. The Modern Jewish Democracy Movement is alive and well and just waiting for more people to understand that 21st century Zionism embraces this type of healthy activism. Speaking truth to power, especially when one finds herself on the front lines, is a risky enterprise. One can find herself being described by former teachers and colleagues as having “become unglued” and “lost her marbles.” So Mom, despite the truism that the only thing that is constant is change, it also seems that some things never change. Women like us, who stand up for what we believe in, are seen by others as crazy. But Mom, you taught me that despite that risk, sometimes the world just calls upon one to act. And so it is on the eve on your 10th yartzeit, that I honor your memory by rededicating myself to being the brave and thoughtful leader that you raised me to be. And maybe I’ll pick up some new marbles along the way.