My mother makes any home Jewish
I think I have the only mother who is going into assisted living without complaining. Yes, she’s sad. While she will only be moving three hours north, this will be too long a drive for her elderly friends and relatives. She will desperately miss her three close friends, with whom she grew up in Albany, N.Y., and she wonders whether she will see her brother and sister-in-law again, who also live nearby. She will mourn the beautiful view of the ducks on the pond, right outside her patio window. And she will loathe giving up her privacy and quiet.
But, at 89, and suffering from scoliosis, which makes it difficult to breathe and hold up her body for any length of time, my mother realizes that she can’t live comfortably on her own. Her children worry about her not being near at least one of us should there be an emergency. Living in any of our homes is not an option she would consider. Instead, she will be moving to a lovely, resort-like facility in central Florida, 10 minutes from where my oldest brother lives.
The trip up north is too exhausting for her these days, but she was fortunate to be able to go to her brother’s home to celebrate Passover. We FaceTimed for the second seder as she cheerfully offered the prayer in Hebrew over the bitter herbs and joined in singing “Eliyahu HaNavi.” I have sweet memories of lying with her on her bed when I was no more than 4 or 5 as she taught me the Four Questions, in Hebrew. I was sure that the word “mesubin” (lean) in the fourth question was a lovely lady (Miss Sue Bean).
My whole Jewish identity I attribute to my mother and her mother, before her. My grandmother, who had to quit school after the eighth grade, was a fixture in the synagogue when my mother was growing up. Despite my mother being the only girl in her Hebrew school class, my grandmother ensured that she had a religious school education. And in the early 1940s, with little fanfare, my mother became a bat mitzvah.
The rabbi in the Conservative synagogue of my youth was not inspiring. My mother was. Shabbat meant special dishes, eating in the dining room, being allowed to drink soda, wearing my party shoes, and going to junior congregation. It meant no laundry and no homework. Yes, her rules were idiosyncratic, but it was how we kept the Sabbath holy. When my grandfather died when I was 9, my mother said Kaddish for a year and each week took me to a different synagogue on Long Island (where I grew up) to provide an adventure and “keep it interesting.” Tikkun olam, repairing the world, while not a term we used in those days, was always modeled by my mom. She would take me door to door as we sought donations for various charities, and even today she never misses an opportunity to give to honor any occasion.
After my father died in 2006, my mother sought community and joined a Reform temple. She started attending Torah study regularly, and comfortably recited the blessings when she was called up to the Torah. One year, for the High Holidays, she was asked to chant the prayers before and after the haftorah. She impressed many and her pride was immeasurable.
Lately, going to synagogue has been more difficult for her, and the advent of live streaming services has been a lifesaver. When she needs to say Kaddish for a loved one, she goes online, turns to her mother’s siddur, and reads the prayer.
One of my mother’s biggest concerns in moving to assisted living was whether there would be Jews in her “new home.” While she has always lived in communities with some diversity, she knew she would feel some comfort in a strange place if she could find the company of people with shared heritage and sensibilities. When she visited, one of the first residents she met was a Holocaust survivor, followed by a Jewish man from Long Island, and a Jewish woman who promptly invited her to join her book club. She was relieved, as were we.
The Jewish holidays won’t be an issue, as my mother will be able to be with my oldest brother’s family. She is never happier than when she is with her children and grandchildren, and when my other brother and our families can make it down to Florida, she will revel in our togetherness.
This Mother’s Day I will be visiting her and helping her settle in. I feel incredibly grateful that she wasn’t dragged from her former home for the safety of her current one.
And I have the perfect housewarming gift for her: A mezuzah, to affix to her door to keep her safe and blessed and connected to our Jewish people.
Paula Kaplan-Reiss of East Brunswick is a psychologist and a member of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick.