Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Rabbi

Watching a house cat and a mouse is truly a wonder. Unlike dogs which just attack, cats make it an art. They bat the mouse around until they are disoriented and only slightly wounded, then they let the impaired mouse go. Thinking they might have a chance, the mouse runs. The cat will then switch their tail, wiggle their rear, and pounce again onto the dazed mouse. This game of cat and mouse will continue until the mouse is so injured he cannot run away, then the cat will usually just finish him off. On rare occasions, I have seen a mouse feign death early in the game. The confused cat is sometimes distracted enough so that the mouse has a reasonable chance to make an escape.

My mother surrounds herself with cats. I am sure it is because she sees something in herself when she toys with them.

I was the mouse that feigned death and then bolted when my mother was distracted. For over fourteen years, I was twenty minutes away, yet I hadn’t seen my mother or younger sister in all of that time. One night, my sister, my mother’s full-time, 24-7, caregiver, called from the hospital. She thought my mother’s fight with diabetes and kidney failure with all of its complications was coming to an end. I went to support my sister. Mom made a miraculous recovery. I continue to support my sister with weekly visits to my mom. It gives my sister a mental break to have someone else for my mother to toy with.

The other day, I received a phone call from my sister. “What do I need besides candles and a white table cloth for a Shabbat?” she yelled, exasperated. Since neither of us has ever studied Judaism, or been near a synagogue, she was talking to someone as clueless as she was. I was confirmed in the Lutheran church, dabbled with Nichirin Shoshu Buddhism for a number of years, read books to explore other religions, and spent five years as an Episcopalian, sitting on their education council for Western WA. Judaism was on my to do list. However, I wasn’t surprised by the phone call.

Mom has been making “jokes” about being Jewish for the past twenty years. Prior to that, we were the American family that topped the dysfunctional list. We went to the Lutheran church and did the Easter and Christmas events; depending on the circumstances we were sometimes involved with the church’s activities. However, my younger sister, my mother’s caregiver, missed out. Her father was an American service man home from Vietnam that my mother married within a week of his returning to our shores. They were married for a number of years before my sister arrived on the planet. She is nine months younger than my oldest daughter. Since I was keeping my distance between myself and my children and my mom; my sister’s childhood as an “only child” of a single, older parent was different from mine. She fielded all of the jokes about Jews. "All in jest," my mom says.

Because of a visit from a cousin (sixteen times removed) studying genealogy, who was crossing America looking for the puzzle pieces, I put together some of the history of my mother’s family. During my childhood, talking about my mother’s life before she came to America when she was eleven was not allowed. Her parent’s life began when they came here. They changed their names and their religion. Somehow, my mother became part of the Lutheran church.

I had some idea of who my ancestors were because the cousin sent paperwork, his research helped. When the jokes started, I got the mom message that there were people that practiced Judaism as a religion and that there were people that were only Jewish because their mother was Jewish, according to old customs we were Jews. I was led to believe that our ancestry was Jewish only because of heritage. After looking at the genealogy tree sent, I am sure that is not the case. As far as I can tell, one of the town’s rabbis was my mother’s grandfather. The genealogist’s information was that he was dragged out of his apartment and sent to a concentration camp and died the day he arrived. This would have been the same time my mother, her brother, and her parents fled to Prague, then spent some time running through Europe two steps ahead of the Nazis hunting them. They wound up in Holland, then were able to get passage on a boat to the United States where established relatives with U.S. Citizenship would be there to help.

We all have choices in life. The trauma to an eight year old girl, leaving both her home and a nanny that she was attached to more than her own mother is unthinkable. Arriving here at eleven, stripped of an identity, deposited in a school where the language was foreign is unimaginable. Still, many made do, they looked at the choices available, and thrived. My mom had, and still has, her own agenda.

My mother thought of my grandmother as the cat, and that she was the mouse that couldn’t escape. As much as she loathed her own mother, my mom has made her mark with her claws as well on everyone she is related to. The people that don't know her...that is a different dynamic. So, at the hospital where she gets dialysis three times a week, they asked if she wanted to talk to a priest. My mom is from an era where men are superior and women are second class citizens. She will do things for men that she won’t do for women, like being badgered for years to get a colonoscopy and walking into a new doctor’s office and the male doctor saying we are setting you up for a colonoscopy. She says, “Sure.” She laughed at them and asked them to get her a rabbi.The rabbi they sent was a women and this intrigues my mom.

Mom mentioned that she would like to invite the rabbi for dinner. My sister and I said that we would try to work something out soon. The house is not company ready, it needs a major cleaning. Mom had already been reminding me that my sister is not the best housekeeper, I tell her that with all of the 24-7 medical care that is required, there is not enough time to do everything. Not one to be put off, my mom cornered the rabbi at the hospital and invited her not only to dinner, but to a religious ceremony on Friday. The rabbi offered to have lunch at the hospital with her. That wouldn’t do.

My sister and I are trying to get the house ready for the rabbi’s visit. The rabbi doesn’t drive, so I will drive across town get her. She is bringing spinach lasagna. Since I am a vegetarian, that works for me. However, I have no clue what else needs to be done. If mom did practice Judaism, it was when she was eight years old. I don't know what the rabbi is expecting. A male rabbi, mom would cower, a female may become a new mouse to toy with. But back to cleaning the house, stripping the dusty curtains off the window. My mom collects wooden nutcrackers and figurines, we are talking hundreds, and stuffed teddy bears, my mother’s passion, these are knee deep around the house. I need to have stock in Johnson and Johnson, Pledge is my friend this week.