Favorite Family Tradition

Dec 9, 2019

Well, I’m Jewish, so I celebrate the Jewish holidays. And I must say that I have a lot of wonderful memories of the Jewish holidays when I was young. The first thing I just want to share is, we like what’s called the Menorah. It’s right over there if somebody hasn’t noticed it. It’s a candelabra, because it celebrates that in the temple in ancient times, they didn’t have enough oil to light the candle, but it burned for eight days. It was a miracle. So, we light the candles. It was a miracle. So, I have a wonderful memory of my mother, I see her back and she’s lighting the candle. And it’s just such a wonderful memory of my mother. And also, we used to go to my cousin’s house for Hanukkah and we used to play dreidel, eat sugar cookies and have a really nice time.

I lived in a basement apartment. We didn’t have a lot of money, but they always gave me a gift for every day. No, it’s beautiful. And in my neighborhood, a lot of people put their menorahs in the window, because that symbolizes, if you’re Jewish and you put your menorah in the window, it symbolizes courage, because you don’t know if somebody sees the menorah, knows you’re Jewish, and either comes in to try to hurt you or ransack your house or break your windows. But it takes courage to put it in the window to say, I’m Jewish. So, that’s part of the tradition.

I loved Passover, because it was a lesson about life, about what it meant to be a slave coming out of Egypt, we used to recline at one point during the Seder. Seder, which is the telling of the story of Passover. We reclined because we’re free and we can relax. I love that part of it. And I love that there was always a place left for Elijah. Even though Elijah wasn’t really coming, we’d go to the door, we’d open the door, we set up a glass of wine, with Manischewitz wine, God help me. But anyway, maybe he wants a grape juice, whatever. But we’d set it up for him and make sure, because you ask a stranger to come to your home, because you don’t know if somebody is in need. So, we learned a lot of stuff about Passover in the Seder.

And when I got older, I used to collect Haggadahs, those are the Seder manuals. And I went to lots of different Seders. I went to political Seders, I went to women’s Seders. I went to lesbian feminist Seders. When I say political Seders, they were all different. It depends what the group was that was forming it like, Jews for Racial and Economic Equality or whatever the group was focused on the politics, and then they would incorporate it in the Haggadah. So, I loved that. And I also loved going to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, which is the new year. I remember my mother.

Okay. My mother would be standing up and I’d stand up with her. My mother always dressed really nice, and it was so wonderful to stand with my mother in the synagogue. The thing is that my father’s side of the family wasn’t really religious. On my mother’s side of the family, my great uncle, her uncle, he was religious and kosher, and my grandmother kept a kosher house for my uncle, my mother’s mother. So, it was a very different feeling. Even when we celebrated the holidays at my grandmother’s house, it was just a very feeling of really people who were really into being Jewish. As a matter of fact, my uncle, he’d be in his suit… He was an accountant. He’d be in his suit, he’d be in my grandmother’s bedroom. He’d open up the big window and he’d read the New York Times outside the window, because the light… It was Shabas and when the light goes down, when the sun goes down, you can’t read anymore. So, he made sure to read till the last bit of sunlight went down, but he wanted to be sure of the exact time. So, he’d read out the window in Bensonhurst.

It was so funny to me. It was so great. I loved it. I loved it. And also, I spoke to my friend Nancy this morning. Now, I know her since I’m 25, we roomed together when we went to school. We lit the menorah. And when we lit the menorah, both in social work school. When we lit the menorah, we put a candle for homeless Pete, like a King. Every time we’d say a prayer with a candle, we would bring in everybody who was in need that we wanted a miracle for. And that was wonderful.

I never wrote my own Haggadah, but my friend Arlene and my friend Linda… Linda passed, may she be in peace. My friend Arlene, she was always brilliant. Even when we were young. I’ve known her since I was 12. She actually wrote the first textbook on transgendered families for schools. She’s just an amazing, brilliant woman. But they wrote a Haggadah, which included a lot of stuff. It was a women’s Haggadah, I don’t know if it was the lesbian… Maybe it was also the lesbian feminists Haggadah. Anyway. But they put in stuff about women from pagan times, things about herbs, things about rocks, things about everything that had to do with women’s history. We celebrated women like Hannah Szenes. We celebrated women in the Seder manual and in the Seder, like Hannah Szenes, who was a Jewish paratrooper during World War II, who went behind enemy lines and went down and helped people. She came from this small town. And unfortunately, she ended up in concentration camp and died, but she’s very well known. They even have a school, called the Hannah Szenes School, that comes here. So, she’s really a figure.

And I think we might have, I’m kind of vaguely remembering if we brought up the issue of the Triangle Fire. That was when a lot of Jewish immigrants worked in the factory, and the bosses refused to get emergency exits. So, they had a really big fire, it was called the Triangle Fire. And all the women had to jump out the window and it was horrible. And that’s what started the whole rights movement for people in factories, because it was a whole big to-do.It was in New York city, the Triangle Fire.

So, I mean we celebrated women, and of course, Passover and all that stuff. So anyway, I’m just bringing up some things that were very, very, very memorable for me. And the thing that was wonderful about my family is that we were not religious, fundamentalist religious. So, we didn’t follow rules, but we were always taught Jewish values, like charity injustice, like helping people, like teaching. Just certain things that we learned at a very, very young age. We used to have these little boxes in the grocery stores, that you put money in for people who were… Were they called sedaka boxes? Exactly, the sedaka box. Yeah. So, we learned that a young age, you give. You give, you give.

So, anyway, we’re a family that there wasn’t a lot of like… We weren’t mean-spirited, we had a lot of problems. Crazy, fakakta family. Little muddy. Crazy, crazy. Pretty bad. But we were pretty open. My parents were pretty open people. My father was always talking about the unions and this, that. I don’t know, it was just a really open family in a lot of ways. So, I felt really grateful.

And on Yom Kippur , because I grew up in a Jewish Italian and Sicilian neighborhood. On Yom Kippur, which is the Holiest day of the year, where you do atonement for your sins, you fast, you don’t wear any animal products on your body, because you’re not allowed to cause any sufferings. So, everybody wore sneakers. And you couldn’t hear a pin drop. Everybody was going to temple, everybody was fasting, unless you need medication.

And it was just beautiful. It was absolutely beautiful. And I have to tell you that something, here’s a little story for you, an extra story. It was Yom Kippur. Everybody was going to temple. It’s very sacred. It’s a very, very, very sacred holiday. You don’t mess around with Yom Kippur . Although, maybe some people do in a good way. I don’t know. But there was the temple, and then across the street was the Jewish Community Center. And there were these young boys and they were raw. I was … maybe I was four 11 and three quarters. Who knows if I was smaller than that. There were these young boys and they were riding their bikes around the community center, near the temple, and I just said to them, “You know what? This is the most sacred Jewish holiday of the year.” I tried to explain. I said, “Would you mind riding your bikes somewhere else at this time? Because people are coming to temple. You’re not supposed to ride here, you’re not supposed to do anything like that.”

So, they didn’t care and they rode their bikes. I took one of those kids. I was a little girl and one of those boys got thrown on. I shoved him. I shoved that bike on the ground and he fell and they were like, “We’re out of here. This woman is crazy. This little girl is crazy.” But I was serious. I was serious.

But anyway, so today, I mean I celebrated Yom Kippur. This year I fasted, I prayed, I thought about ways I could be better this year, and stuff like that. Actually, the last thing I’m going to say, is I got a beautiful New Year’s card from Nancy and Gail. Nancy who I’d met in social work school, and her partner Gail. And the New Year’s card, it was very atypical. It was from a woman who has a print in a Jewish museum. And what it is, it’s the shofar, which is the ram’s horn, I don’t think of it like that. I think of it as a wooden horn. I don’t like the idea that they they kill an animal for it. So anyway, I think of it as a wooden horn. But it’s a beautiful shofar that goes like that. And then underneath, it looks almost like the moon. It’s like a moon symbol.

And what I did is, I put the Jewish new year card on a chair next to my bed. So, the shofar is going right into my ear. It’s as if it’s going right into my ear when I’m sleeping. And the moon underneath is very sacred, because I pray to Guan Yin, and I always imagine myself as the moon and she’s the sun and I’m a vessel for her. So, it’s like I’m right there as the vessel, and then I can hear her whispering to me.

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