The Life of Sarah

This weekend, synagogues around the world are opening their doors and inviting people to attend Sabbath services. The outreach is to Jews — as well as Christian friends — to stand in solidarity with the Jewish community of Pittsburgh after last week’s massacre. But it also is to let out a collective scream at the top of our lungs that acts of antisemitism will not intimidate us.

Jews have always suffered…slavery, exiles, expulsions, pogroms, the Holocaust, and numerous other acts of violence and terror. For almost six thousand years, no matter what the tragedy, we’ve bounced back with a commitment to live and rebuild. And so, we will survive this round of hate-mongering as well. It is a fact that antisemitism is alive and well in America and around the world. It was, is, and probably always will be.

After a week like this, the sadness and feelings of instability become overwhelming. I can’t help but wonder…..Why don’t we just pack up our tents and call it a day? Why don’t we just say, “Okay, we get it. You hate us. You win. We’ll just stop being Jewish.” I mean, seriously, why are we still here? What’s the point? Some attribute it to genetics…we can’t help who we are. Others believe it’s about faith…we are a product of our ancestors. Some credit family, traditions, and community…no one else wants us, so we must stick together. Perhaps it’s owed to chutzpah…we have a stubborn streak that combines confidence, determination, and resilience and won’t let us give up.

Or maybe it’s all due to Jewish mothers and grandmothers who refuse to allow all of their hard work and sacrifices go down the tubes.

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My grandmother is known as Sarah… Surah… Sonya… Baba. Like the biblical Sarah, for whom this week’s Torah portion is named, my Sarah is a complicated and formidable, yet grounded character. She faced disappointments and fears, bravely pushing forward because there was no other option. She overcame challenges, relying on common sense and self-determination because that’s all she had. She seemed to take a backseat, though it was clear she was the driving force. She set high expectations, for herself and others without compromise. She did for others, expecting nothing in return. She spoke her mind, without apologizing. Her heart and mind were always in the right place. With Baba, you always know where you stand.

This coming week is my Baba’s ninety-ninth birthday. Taking the time to celebrate her life is my way of regaining perspective and equilibrium.

My grandmother undoubtedly impacted my developing sense of self. She taught me that, no matter what happens, we must help and respect other people, because of how we were treated. We should look forward and not backward, because we cannot change the past but can shape the future. And, at all cost, we must make peace and keep the family together.

My favorite memories with Baba emanate from her kitchen. She talked about growing up in the Old Country, her memories of the war, and building a new life in America. She introduced me to coffee, sugar cookies, borscht, gefilte fish, krepplach, and chicken soup. She told me every woman should have a job outside the home and something to call her own. She said it’s okay to keep a secret or tell a lie if your life depended on it. She taught me Yiddish, shared family gossip, laughed a lot, and enabled me to understand what made her tick.

For example, my grandmother used to give Hanukkah gelt (money) to her nieces and nephews when the holiday rolled around. When asked why she gave her siblings’ children gifts, when her siblings didn’t reciprocate, her reply stuck with me. “I don’t give for the thank you or for YOU to receive a gift,” she said. “I give because, once a year, I want my nieces and nephews to know they have an aunt.” This attitude, in and of itself, belies her true priorities.

Baba doesn’t stand on ceremony. She isn’t petty. She doesn’t care about political correctness. She doesn’t dwell on what could’ve been, but rather on what is. Yes, she can be a bit of a troublemaker, but always for positive intent. Baba is not afraid to say that combatting antisemitism is only possible with grandchildren and great-grandchildren who have a strong sense of family and Jewish identity. She may only have completed the seventh grade at school, but she is far wiser than anyone I know.

Happy birthday, Baba. Thank you for always making me feel loved and special. Please stay here another twenty years or so…