A lesson in gratitude
Merri Ukraincik of Edison is a regular contributor to NJJN.
Long before Marie Kondo began tidying up on Netflix, the British textile designer and writer William Morris suggested, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
With Morris’ exhortation in mind — not Kondo’s limiting “Does it spark joy?” — I recently undertook the annual ritual of spring cleaning our home. I like cleaning and decluttering, though I find it most rewarding when the process turns up belongings that have gone missing throughout the year.
My recent efforts were fruitful by those standards. I discovered a favorite scarf, an earring, and a gold mine of reading glasses — 11 pairs plus four cases. I’ll finally have a pair when I need one, at least until I misplace them all again.
I also stumbled upon items I hadn’t lost, but rather, had set inside a cabinet and hadn’t thought about in a while. Among them were two candlesticks — one from my great-grandmother, the other from Klara, a woman I met in Romania years ago.
At that time, I would often travel there as part of my work for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), accompanying my colleague Dr. Zvi Feine, then JDC’s country director for Romania, on home visits to Shoah survivors. We checked in to see if the welfare assistance provided by JDC through the local Jewish community was enabling them to get by with dignity.
These elderly clients generally lived by themselves in small, tumbledown flats, the aura of loneliness as tangible as their poverty. Our visits briefly assuaged their isolation and gave them the honor of a listening ear. We heard their stories of survival during the Holocaust and how they eked out a living under communism. If we were lucky, they also shared happier tales from their childhoods before the war and of meeting their spouses and raising a family after.
Though the survivors often had much in common, their individual experiences varied. I wanted to meet as many of them in as many different communities as possible, and limited by time, never visited the same clients twice. But there was something other-worldly about Klara. She became the sole exception.
Zvi and I spoke with Klara in rudimentary Yiddish, though we deferred to Alex, the director of the Jewish community federation, to translate when she switched into Romanian. She sang to us in Yiddish, too, and called me a shayna punim with the same lilt in her voice as my grandmother.
Large tree roots beneath Klara’s sparsely furnished, one-room home pushed up the dusty wooden floor, creating a hill at the center she needed to maneuver around. The bathroom was an outhouse in the yard. Yet an image of her parents looked down from the wall onto a tiny brass Shabbat candlestick, imbuing the dilapidated space with a sense of holiness.
Klara always ended our visits by telling us she wanted for nothing. She had food and heat, and adored the woman who delivered her Meals-on-Wheels. The last time I saw her, however, she reported that her winter coat was fraying and asked for a new one. “Before my father was deported to Transnistria during the war, when I was still a little girl, he promised me a red coat.”
In that moment, I watched Klara, by then in her 90s, return to her childhood. I felt her longing — for that red coat and her parents and the world she’d lost “in der krieg,” in the war. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
When she died, she left behind no family, so Alex sent me that solitary Shabbat candlestick as if Klara herself had bequeathed it to me. I tucked it into our sideboard to keep company with the one from my great-grandmother, giving Klara pride of place on our family tree.
These candlesticks would never make the cut by Morris’s or Kondo’s standards. Neither is aesthetically pleasing or useful in their current condition or joy-sparking in the typical meaning of the word.
But in the Jewish sense, they are all three. They shine with the beauty of God’s sacred presence, as it appears in even the most mundane elements of the physical world. They are also useful reminders that happiness isn’t what brings us joy in a given moment. It is, rather, a long-term vision of gratitude and the search for meaning during our stay here on earth.
No pair of reading glasses can help us see this truth. We must feel it in the depths of our souls.
“Whoever does not see God everywhere does not see Him anywhere,” the Kotzker Rebbe observed.
Klara lived this. May her memory be a blessing.
Merri Ukraincik of Edison is a regular contributor to NJJN. Follow her at merriukraincik.com.