My grandmother was a lady
A Sermon for Pesach Yizkor 5781
This time of year, is one that is ripe with stories. Last week, we were the storytellers of our seder tables. Beginning with questions, answering them with the maggid, as we recounted and recalled the stories of our ancestors.
Jewish storytelling is unique: the role of storyteller and the role of listener are fluid, and interchangeable- there is no imaginary fourth wall between the two. We tell new stories, we tell old stories--- we turn them over and over again, finding that the Torah of our lives is filled with both questions and meaning. Each generation tells stories—to ourselves, and to our children. Our tradition honors the act of storytelling, and encourages us to insert ourselves in the stories we hear, and perhaps most poignantly--- to take on the role of telling those stories once the previous generation is no longer with us to tell them.
The story we tell on Pesach is one of enslavement and then redemption.
We don’t simply tell this story: our tradition insists that we see ourselves in it. Our ancestors may have been slaves in Egypt, but we don’t just read those words aloud like some ancient bedtime story; rather, we are told to see oureslves ‘k’ilu hotzee-aynu mi’mitzrayim”--- as though we ourselves went forth from Egypt. This is how the Jewish narrative takes shape--- we repeat our stories through the generation, we engage in the act of imaginative memory, and we see ourselves as part of a people.
Yizkor beckons us --- at the end of this festival, to remember the stories of the loved ones who shaped our lives. The individuals who told us the story of where we come from, and who we are. The act of storytelling is one act of memory--- a way of evoking and summoning the feelings, the vignettes in our mind—the smells, and the sounds and the tastes, we associate with loved ones who have died. Passover begins with storytelling, and it ends with storytelling. This is a time for stories. We sit with these memories, we dance with these memories, we eat and drink and cry with these memories.
Tonight, I want to share one such story, on this 12th yartzeit of my grandmother’s death. Fourteen years ago, my family buried her on the morning before the first seder. That night, rather than shiva, we sat down to a seder. There was something fitting about that too; to remember my grandmother Ruth with a sense of order.
The story of my grandmother, is the story I carry in my heart as we draw near to the close of Passover. And as the years have passed, and the time since she sat beside me has lengthened, I’ve come to notice and appreciate the way I tell her story too.
My grandmother was a lady--- those were her words.
This was the Torah of her life--- her way of expressing to the world around her a sense of what was good and proper and right- and a way of teaching me how to carry myself in the world with dignity.
There were many ways that I knew my grandmother was a lady--- and even at a young age, I knew this was my inheritance--- because it was clear to me that my grandmother’s mother had been a lady, and her grandmother as well. Sitting in synagogue on a Friday night, tracing the lines in my grandmothers’ palm, running my fingers over her perfectly manicured fingernails, furtively twirling her wedding band around her left ring finger- hoping she would quietly slip it off and let me try it on--- those were some of the first memories I have of knowing what it meant to be a lady.
If she had only carried herself with poise and grace- dayenu.
If she had only taught me that the perfect Tanglewood picnic is as simple as some cheese sandwiches with the little cornichon pickles, dayenu.
If she had only modeled for me what it meant to break the mold; to chase after dreams of higher education, and a fulfilling career--- dayenu.
My grandmother was indeed a lady, but her ladylike-ness, was so much more than cosmetic and performative.
When I was around 8 years old, each of my grandparents decided to self-publish memoirs, to give to their children and grandchildren. There were accounts of her childhood, stories of her travels around the world with my grandfather—a piece dedicated to me, her first grandchild, when I was born. But the piece that earned my most fervent admiration, and inspired the title of the book, was entitled “My Mother was a Lady”. In this story, she recounted what could only be classified as a proto-feminist childhood on the Upper West Side. She was the eldest child of German Reform Jews, encouraged by her father to pursue an education and a career—which she did. But the highlight of this particular story was an anecdote my grandmother shared of a day she spent with her mother- seeing a show on Broadway, and then going across town to Bloomingdales for some shopping. While crossing the street, my grandmother recounts, her mother paused, with a slightly uncomfortable look in her eyes. She stood still for a moment, wriggled ever so slightly- and there, on the ground fell her cotton bloomers. My grandmother was a brilliant writer--- and I wish I could remember the perfectly parsed way that she described her own mothers’ aplomb, as she stepped out of the bloomers, took my grandmothers’ hand, and said “a lady keeps walking”.
Tonight, on this Pesach Yizkor, twelve years after her death, I remember this lesson: a lady keeps walking. My grandmother was a lady. And her mother too, was a lady. And when I tell this story to my daughters—I pray that they will feel k’ilu they knew these strong and beautiful women, who taught me, as I will teach them- that a lady keeps walking.
Each of us in this sacred community carries both loss and memory in our hearts--- a space left vacant by the living presence of loved ones whom we remember today. In this moment of communal memory, each one of us brings the story of the ones we loved, the ones who taught us, and the ones who loved us, to this sacred space. May each story and each memory help us mend the broken places in our hearts, as we remember them.
Yehi zichronam baruch: May their memories be a blessing.