After My Mother Died, Another Woman Took Me Under Her Jewish Wing
When I converted to Judaism, I found the ‘Jewish mother’ I never had—a woman who resembled my own mom in surprising ways
The event I consider to be proof of HaShem’s role in my winding up under Mim’s wing came about in the summer of 2007, when she and I were both in Israel with our shul. Friday evening found us all at a kibbutz in the north, getting ready to spend Shabbat with our community’s Israeli friends. It was a magical summer evening, with the clear, dry air of Israel around us, the sky turning breathtaking colors of pink and blue as the sun set. All of us were decked out in white, and it would be hard to imagine a more perfect Shabbos. Services ended and we made kiddush, and then Mim, whom I had been sitting next to, spontaneously turned and placed her hands on my head and with a beautiful smile gave me the Blessing of the Children, as younger parents around the room were also doing to their little kids. Lip trembling and eyes filling with tears, I accepted the blessing, the first blessing of any kind I had ever received in all my 40-plus years on earth and my two years as a Jew.
My mom loved me, but it never would have occurred to her in a million years to do something like bless me. Maybe I had to be a Jew before receiving that gift.
Mothers, in the best possible circumstances, are supposed to instruct their daughters on how to be in the world. They model ways of being and teach the things they can’t model themselves. Pat Gibby imparted to me some values she didn’t know were Jewish and that I didn’t recognize as Jewish until I met Mim: a deep and clear graciousness with other people, hospitality, appreciation for the beauty of creation. Most of all, perhaps, regarding the old adage that every Jewish girl is a princess to HaShem, my mother modeled a variety of feminine dignity (dignity born of intelligence) that I found also in Mim later on, when I was more prepared to hearken to the lesson and begin to cultivate it in myself.
If I could have simply observed my mother, from the outside, like a friend, I might have been encouraged to take more cues from her, and she might have been more readily forthcoming with the wisdom she had to teach. But I missed that opportunity, for the most part. She and I grew close in a new way just months before she died. Almost as soon as I was ready to be a dutiful (Jewish) daughter, my mother left me to continue her own journey. And eventually I met Mim, a conduit of the most appropriate kind of maternal care. She listens and advises but keeps the right kind of boundaries between us: the healthy boundaries of adult friends.
Last year, in trying to locate Italian Jewish songs, I discovered a hauntingly pretty melody for this time of year that combines a tune of lament with an unusual nusach for Eicha, the grief-stricken book we recite on Tisha B’Av. I played it over and over and tried to commit it to memory. This is exactly the kind of thing that, in times past, I would have called my mother up and sung to her over the phone, to share the prettiness with. She wouldn’t have known much about Jewish music, of course, but I would give anything to be able to share it with her now. Luckily for me, I do have a mom of sorts who I am confident will like it.
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The holiday never resonated for me, until I understood its message about connecting with other Jews—even Messianic ones