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Remembering our heritage, both personal and national

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Was I able to capture the fullness of our tradition and its grandeur for my own children? asks Norma Baumel Joseph
Was I able to capture the fullness of our tradition and its grandeur for my own children? asks Norma Baumel Joseph

This is the season of memorials, of days and moments that spark our most cherished memories. We hold Yizkor ceremonies in synagogues on Passover and Shavuot, and Yom Hazikaron commemoration events. We celebrate Mother’s Day and Israel Independence Day, and recall all those occasions that retain our history, both personal and national.

It seems natural and important for us to keep these events as sacred memorials, as reminders of our past without which our familial and national legitimacy is uprooted. Identities are contingent on self-development as well as historical experiences. We need these events and these rituals, because they enhance our lives and enable us to hand over a powerful heritage to our children.

For myself, I admit to missing the significance of these events until I longed for my own parents. At that point, 15 years ago when my father died, I finally got it. I finally understood the importance, the overwhelming drive to memorialize.

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Every year at Yizkor, or when I say Kaddish, I think about my parents’ gifts to me. I try to remember the good times, the joys and the values, the Torah and the dancing, the food and the friends, the family and the jokes. Did I pass them on? Was I able to capture the fullness of our tradition and its grandeur for my own children? That’s the question.

My mother came from Hungary, my father from Vishnitz – such a large distance, geographical and cultural, to traverse. When I was young, I didn’t appreciate it at all, so I didn’t get enough of/from them. When I grew up and had my own family I wanted and needed more. But still, I wasn’t fully aware of how much there was to learn from them and from their ties to our heritage. But by then, it was almost too late.

We memorialize them because we need their life, their neshamahs, to infiltrate and enliven ours. We as a collective live off their experiences, their contributions and their wisdom. There is so much to gain from the past, from knowledge of its most intimate details. But we wait too long to ask the questions. We think we know it all in the generalizations. But life is lived and experienced in the minutiae only. Our parents know the specifics that we’re too impatient to learn from. Pity us.

My parents had perfect vision. (Of course, they wore glasses.) They had a vision of perfection that dominated their interactions. They demanded it of themselves and of us, their children. They believed in honesty, trust, responsibility, loyalty, family and hard work. They were proud American Jews and saw no contradiction or tension in those allegiances. They both worked so hard to send us to yeshiva, to give us the best education.

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My parents were believers in the best sense of the word. Yes, they had doubts about many things. But they taught us to trust and to give. Tzedakah was an ever-present and ultimate value. You always gave, no matter what. And you always trusted. I was always suspicious. Not my parents. They weren’t naive, but in some strange circular fashion, their belief built upon a love that emanated out of trust.  Or the love came first, and that led to trust, which enabled belief.

I’m not sure which came first or whether any of these were causative or collateral damage. I do know that for my parents and their generation of immigrant Jews, America, God and family all came together in one sacred package. They trusted the vision of the Torah, of the Democratic Party, of the founding fathers, and of my teachers. I would wish for their guidance now. I do see them smiling at the wonderful accomplishments of my children. I see them basking in their glory – seeing the continuity from their world through to their grandchildren. For theirs was truly, a wonderful heritage to remember and pass on.