After a ferocious week of packing, my office is almost empty. Walls and bookshelves, barren. Conversations and learning, laughter and tears of pain and joy within that space a kaleidoscope of memories. Questions, negotiations, declarations. Words of thanks, frustration, relief, fear, excitement and potential. More than twelve years of growth, struggle for change and opportunity. Precious memories and impactful learning that remain with me as I close the door on that space this week. To the uninformed, the room is four walls (with a surprising view of Grant’s tomb).
The timing is fortuitous, with the commemoration of my grandfather’s 34th yarzheit later this week. My grandfather, whose photo hung above my desk, embraced change out of necessity. He arrived in this country a young man, worked thoughtfully and diligently, endured hardship and pain, sustained a business and a family and lived the life of a pious Jew. He managed what came his way with quiet strength, a gentle disposition, and a deep faith in the Divine. As an adult, I remember my mother remarking on my grandfather’s explanation for the behavior of a mean-spirited individual as an expression of deep pain.
Mostly, I recall my grandfather’s resilience, quiet zest for life and deep love for his family, especially his three granddaughters. Staying at my grandparents’ house was a special treat. I’d arrive at the table, freshly bathed, my hair rolled in pink curlers (that my grandmother stored in a round butter cookie tin). My grandfather would look at me and exclaim with pride – ah, you’ve been to the beauty parlor! He made me feel like royalty. The time spent snuggled under my grandfather’s tallit, letting the fringes fall between my fingers planted seeds that would transform my life, unknowingly directing me towards the rabbinate, working on behalf of women and girls and making a newborn child of someone too young for motherhood my own.
Recently, I sat on the couch learning a Torah reading, my 5-year-old daughter playing close by. Periodically, she’d chime in, joining me in the melody as it rose and fell, simultaneously attending to her toys and whatever game she was creating. That night, in bed, she asked me to sing her a lullaby. “A lullaby”? “Yes, Mama. You know. The Torah.” In that moment, I felt my grandfather smiling with the love that accompanied his reaction to my head adorned with curlers. My grandfather who never experienced women reading Torah, leading davening or serving as spiritual leaders.
A lullaby offers a regular practice, inviting calm in times of fear and unknown (or procrastination, as in the case of small children who are not anxious for sleep) and a familiar rhythm to which we return intentionally and sometimes returns to us unbidden. So too, Torah anchors us, providing sustenance and sweet music, inviting us into conversation and song. Like a lullaby, the Torah calls on us to use our voice, to frame the silence, to offer transition and embrace change.
My daughter carries my grandfather’s (and grandmother’s) family name, Rifkind. From her spiritual and emotional acumen to her fierce sense of justice, she wears it well and keeps me attuned to what’s essential. While startling to some people, I don’t yet know what lies beyond my office door. Wherever my next adventure leads, I trust I’ll be singing lullabies.
Rabbi Lisa Gelber
June 27, 2015/11 Tammuz 5775