Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Grammy's Bat Mitzvah, A Journey

What will a Bat Mitzvah of this soon to be seventy-four year old grandmother look like? I figured I’d have to study Hebrew, learn a few prayers, bless bread and wine, provide a teaching moment, serve lunch, then hugs all around. All in my living room on the coast of Maine where, finally, after all these years, I would become a Bat Mitzvah, a daughter of the commandments.
Lev, my teacher, my rabbi, my friend, my mentor listened. We met at Starbucks in Winchester, Massachusetts, Lev rushing in, hatless, coatless, on this the first day that winter announced itself. Outside, the wind blew strong. Inside, people sat at small tables, some with lap tops, others on cell phones. A group of men talked loudly in a corner. Soon, I would no longer hear their voices. Soon, I would hear only Lev, a man I’ve known for nearly twenty years, ever since he came to New Hampshire, a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of Cincinnati. He brought me back to the synagogue. I attended Torah study, began to prepare for a Bat Mitzvah. Then, Lev left. I was bereft. Gone his joy, his spontaneity, his verve, his spirit and his very unconventional approach to Jewish learning. Soon, I left that synagogue, too. But ever since, I've missed a commitment to Judaism.
Now, Lev is studying to become a nurse. Yet, he is still a rabbi and a teacher. In May, he will move to Austin, Texas, and I will no longer be able to meet him at this Starbucks. If I’m going to have a goal, commit to Jewish study, become a Bat Mitzvah, a daughter of the commandments, I must do this now. In my bag, I’ve carried books of beginning Hebrew. That’s where I’ve been for years, beginning Hebrew, over and over. If I study. When I study, I don’t know what the words say. This bothers me. I’m a writer; meaning is my work.
Meaning is Lev’s work. When I talked with him about learning the aliyot, blessings over the Torah, he told me I wouldn’t like the translations when I knew them. I understood, all of those masculine references to God as Lord, King, Ruler. All of that top down stuff. Hierarchy. The doctrine of the chosen. I don’t believe in a traditional doctrine of the chosen or in a traditional God.  I’m about community. Lev is about community.
These last two years, my work has taken a turn backwards in time. I’ve been writing about France during the years of German occupation. I’ve visited France, interviewed number of people, one a ninety-four year old woman who was girl guide, caretaker, in a secret house that protected Jewish children. I’ve been reading and researching. Inevitably, I have found myself with the Jewish dead. My work is freighted, but what I’m looking for is light and life, a seventeen year old girl with beautiful hair, whose drawings survived in a locked suitcase, a Catholic German theologian and philosopher who brought that story to a small French village. These are the things I want to pass on, a love of life and of learning. Lev, spoke to me of an ethical will.  An ethical will, Zevaoth, in Hebrew is the tradition of writing a long letter to your children in which you express your ethical values. But what are ethical values? Can I name mine? Intrigued, I wrote down the name of book Lev recommended: Ethical Wills
“Before we leave,” Lev said, “we must set a date.”
Oh my God, this is going to happen.
He pulled out his iPhone. He will be East for a wedding in August. “The eighteenth or nineteenth in the morning?”
I draw a breath. “Either one.” 
He types in both, sets his iPhone on table. "We can decide."

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Last Morning in Paris

On this, my last morning in Paris, am up with the pigeons and the street sweepers, men wearing green trousers and green shirts, the green bristles of their brooms matching. I have made a promise to myself, so in spite of the miserable cold rain, I’m walking crossing Seine, walking the narrow streets of the Ile Saint Louis, on my way to Notre Dame. More than fifty years ago, I sat in an art history class, a college sophomore, my professor’s wooden stick, pointing to a large grainy screen, her voice extolling the virtues of a flying buttress, and I wondered: What the hell is a flying buttress. I couldn’t find the thing. Couldn’t imagine the thing. And this morning, I saw not one, but a row of flying buttresses, those amazing, arched structures that allow the massive Cathedral of Notre Dame to stand.
Crossing back over the Seine, the wind blows cold rain into my face. Still, I head for the Marais, the old Jewish neighborhood that I have been exploring and writing about in recent essays. How easily I find my way along these streets, rue de payannes, to rue de franc bourgeois, then looping around to rue de rossiers, the Jewish heart of the Marais. Stores are still closed. A few people walk briskly, a number of them Orthodox Jews wearing black suits with wide flat brimmed black hats or yarmulkes, and I wonder if today is a Jewish holiday? There are many Jewish holidays, I, a Jew, can’t name.
            Now a stroll around the places des voges, always peaceful whether the heavens send rain or sun. My hotel is near here, and I’ve come to love this neighborhood, but I’m not ready to do my last minute packing. Also, nearby is my favorite patisserie and boulangerie, Aux Desirs de Manon on rue St. Antoine. The shop is long and narrow, with a glass pastry case on one side and a long narrow counter on the other. There are no stools. I stand eating my croissant au beurre and sipping my cafĂ© express. My grand-daughter has asked me to bring her one thing, a croissant from Paris, a real croissant. In a bag on the counter packed for travel, I have four croissants au beurre. How can I not bring one for my husband, my son, and for me, too? A taste of Paris tomorrow morning on the blustery coast of Maine.