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Naomi Graetz

On Remembrance of Things Past: Mother’s Day

PORTRAIT OF MY MOTHER

ON REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST

As I type in this title, I think to myself (a former student of literature) isn’t that a title of a book I once read by Marcel Proust? Sure enough it is! However, the literal translation of the French title À la recherche du temps perdu is “In Search of Lost Time”. What I remember most about the book is its length and how Proust’s novel begins with associations of food from his childhood, notably the madeleine.

MOTHER’S DAY IN ISRAEL

As I inch closer to several anniversaries, I don’t really think about lost time, but I do find myself thinking a lot about the past and also sharing these memories with friends and family. The salient memory at the moment is that of my mother’s yahrzeit (she died at the end of May in 1999). She was always annoyed that I consistently forgot about Mother’s Day after I moved to Israel. In fact, what used to be called Mother’s Day in Israel is now called Family Day. The original yom ha-eym started at the end of 1960 and was coordinated to coincide with Henrietta Szold’s birth and/or death date. Szold (1860-1945) who did not have children, was the “mother” of youth Aliya, which during the 1930s, brought Jewish children from Germany to what was then called Palestine. However, in the 90’s, to be egalitarian, the name of the day was changed to Family Day (yom ha-mispacha). I remember gleefully informing my mother that I had this new excuse for not observing the day.

DOWN MEMORY LANE WITH MY MOTHER

Breakfront from Dining Room Set

Unlike Proust, I don’t associate my mother with food—although she was always ahead of time in knowing about food values. Since she worked in my father’s store, she came home ten minutes ahead of him and twenty minutes later when he arrived a perfectly balanced dinner was on the table. The variation on the theme consisted of meat patties (which we did not call hamburgers then), a boiled or baked potato, a frozen vegetable (green beans being my favorite) and sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and a wedge of lettuce (without any dressing). If there was desert, it would be a piece of fruit. Shabbat meals were special and different, especially if we had company. My mother loved having company, despite the expense. In my early teens, she and my father turned their “master” bedroom into a dining room, when my father, who was in the antique business found a complete dining room set with a table that opened to seat twelve people, eight chairs, breakfront and  a side cabinet which took pride of place in our apartment. They sacrificed their big bedroom and moved into the much smaller dining room with just enough room for their beds. However, my mother wanted to entertain on a grand scale and that she did.

SACRIFICIAL LIFESTYLE

Our mother was very big on sacrifice. We learned at an early age to buy wisely and to be thrifty. Candy was never an option—only to be enjoyed if a dinner guest brought a gift box of chocolate from Barton’s—and usually the box was hidden, brought out for the next guests. On Passover, she watered down the wine, which was poured into our two beautiful crystal decanters. I’m not sure if this was to save money, or to make sure we would not get drunk on the sweet Manischewitz wine. However, she was a big spender when it came to culture: ballet, violin, figure skating lessons for my big sister; piano lessons for me and a YMHA membership. We went to private schools and Hebrew speaking camps, but with scholarships for the former. To pay for our camps, my mother worked as a night nurse, camp mother and dietician. Like so many Jewish people of her generation, who missed out on education, because they came to the US as immigrants, she understood that education was the way out of poverty and entry into the middle class. Her biggest disappointment in life was that neither my sister nor I earned doctorates. Having double degrees wasn’t enough for her.

THREE STAGES OF LIFE

My mother had three stages in her life, punctuated by the countries in which she lived. The first was her comfortable childhood in Hungary where she and her eight siblings lived in relative luxury. The second was her coming to the US in the mid 1920’s at age 14. During this time, she worked in factories and helped support her parents. She married my father (who was 9 years older than she was) during the depression and struggled with tuberculosis after my sister was born. By the time I came into the world, she was healthy, but suffered from asthma, which is why she was always happy to work in summer camps (besides the reduced tuition for us). After I got married, rather than bemoan the empty nest, she and my father started going to antique shows and this became a very important part of their lives. She was a proud volunteer for the U.J.A. and Mt. Sinai hospital which was down the block from where she lived. The third phase of her life began in May, 1973–yes, 50 years ago exactly! She and my father came to live in Netanya, in a beautiful apartment overlooking the beach, that they bought from plans. Unfortunately, my father, who was the real Zionist in the family, died from lung cancer in February 1974, after a short illness. My mother always blamed Israel for his death, even though he must have been ill before they came on aliyah. She never settled and sold her apartment after five years of going back and forth between Israel and her beloved New York. She finally returned to Israel in 1990, after buying a small unit in a senior residence in the town where we lived. She lived for 25 years as a widow and was very close to my children.

FIRGUN

As I mentioned above, what epitomized my mother were her social skills. She was a wonderful salesperson. She knew how to lefargen (a Hebrew word which is hard to translate). She was able to put herself, her children and later her grandchildren with great pride out there in the world for all to see. Firgun is an unofficial term in modern Hebrew. It is a positive action of support, encouragement. My mother was our cheerleader, always there for us and waving the flag of our accomplishments. I googled the term and found the following:

Firgun is not just a word. It is an attitude. It is the ability to view the success or accomplishments of others with unselfish, empathetic good will. In our competitive world, where people are driven by the relentless pursuit of personal interest, firgun is stepping aside and making room for someone else. When we engage in firgun, we hope for the best for someone, without ulterior motives. We are happy for some else’s happiness (here).

MY MOTHER WAS NO SAINT

She may have been our cheerleader, but she also had a streak of snobbishness in her. She was better than everyone else: wives of rich men who didn’t work (including most of my aunts); the nouveau riche (even though these were her customers); the unwashed poor (many of whom were recipients of my father’s charity—since his store was on the border of Spanish Harlem). She envied those who had education; to keep up with them, she self-educated; she read; she kept herself informed. She could hold her own with intellectuals (if the conversation didn’t get too deep). My sister told me that her snobbishness came from her mother. But unlike our grandmother who was uprooted from her comfortable life in Hungary, and sat looking out the window all day, because she wouldn’t mix with the masses (even to go shopping for groceries), my mother engaged with all people. She adjusted and understood very quickly what America had to offer her. But she could be caustic and impatient with us when we were slow and unwilling to dive into new activities. She was always on the go, looking for new adventures and expected us to keep up with her. She had no patience for old people. After my father died, she had male friends. One of them even had a boat and she went fishing with him regularly. She went on organized trips. She went swimming every day. All this stopped when she had her first heart attack and she changed from being an independent person to being querulous. She had to have live in help. It was a terrible change for someone who had always been in control of her life. She herself was now old, but that didn’t make her like the old people who lived in her retirement home.

I am now at the age when my mother had her first heart attack. To be perfectly honest, this makes me nervous. But it makes me more appreciative of what she went through in life and I like to think that I resemble her more positive aspects. I think she would especially be appreciative of the fact that I am finally honoring her memory on this Mother’s Day—yes, the last laugh is on me!

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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