I often wonder what made me Jewish. In the 1960’s, while growing up in a Bay Area filled with apricot orchards and gentiles, it was possible to have both the surname of “Steinberg” and religious anonymity. As the product of what was then considered a scandalous “mixed marriage” I grew up attending church, but with the vague recognition that my father didn’t.
When I reached elementary school, my first grade teacher, Harriet Siegel, nurtured my love of reading. And in my particular case, she nurtured my Jewish spark that lay dormant within me. She was my first – and throughout my life – strongest Jewish influence.
At some point, I asked my paternal grandmother who had fled Russia, what Jewish traditions she had grown up with. She stared at me blankly and said, “We had none. We were intelligentsia.”
I used to joke that the only family tradition we had was no tradition. We didn’t have much contact with relatives other than my paternal grandparents. My grandmother was the matriarch. My grandfather (of a lower, non-intelligentsia class) seemed to enjoy attending shul with me as I officially converted to Judaism.
As the apricot orchards were bull-dozed into hi tech headquarters and strip malls, I remained living in the Bay Area and Mrs. Siegel remained in my life. Occasionally, she would call and ask me to come by her house to pick up a bag of treasures (which inevitably included chocolate, Judaica and old Hadassah magazines).
Meanwhile, I tried to recreate my family’s Jewish traditions from generations passed – taking my great-grandmother’s Hebrew name and experimenting with what might be meaningful to me (which seemed to vary depending on my age).
I kashered my kitchen, I married a Jewish man (and then divorced the Jewish man and married another Jewish man) and we had great dreams of creating a sturdy Jewish foundation for our two older adopted daughters, Crystal and Cassy, but then that Jewish man and I divorced and our custody time share interfered with our daughters’ Jewish education, and we tried to celebrate the holidays (I couldn’t get it together one year for Seder, so we called that delayed celebration our “passed over” Passover.).
Things always seemed to get in the way. School got busy, life got busy and the idea of having a bat mitzvah overwhelmed our daughters. So we continued on our good secular humanist path.
One day, a Hadassah membership arrived in the mail for me, courtesy of Mrs. Siegel. Since I wasn’t connected to any congregation, it served the purpose of connecting me to Jewish women who have since become my wonderful friends. Fifty years after my introduction to Mrs. Siegel, she was still nurturing my Jewish life.
I eventually remarried and my husband wasn’t Jewish (but wasn’t anything else and was always very supportive). My daughters reached the normal ages where they didn’t want much to do with me, and then there was college, and then there was the miracle.
A few weeks before we were heading down to San Diego to attend my oldest daughter Crystal’s college graduation, she asked to move home for just a “little while.” The only condition I required was that she and her sister had to go on a Birthright trip before she could move back.
The stars aligned: the one trip that fit their time and age constraints was leaving from San Diego they day after Crystal’s graduation from college in….San Diego. It was b’sheret. I’m not a religiously observant person, and I don’t often pray, but I prayed that my daughters would find a higher purpose and a love of Judaism and the Jewish people (And would a Jewish life-partner be too much to ask for too?).
That last time I ever spoke with Mrs. Siegel was to proudly report to her that my daughters were in Israel. She was delighted.
When Crystal and Cassy returned from their trip, they told me they wanted us to all begin celebrating Shabbat. With me? My children wanted to be with me? I was stunned.
I tease Crystal that she is my Shabbos angel. She is the one who keeps us going, who sets the beautiful table – and they expectation that we will ALL be together for Shabbat. Our first Shabbat was lovely, even if the recitation of our prayers weren’t – in fact, our non-Jewish guest knew the prayers better than I did. But we laughed (and I improved) and we were together.
It’s not always easy, and some dinners are more successful than others (one that comes to mind was a complete disaster) but Crystal and Cassy are there with their love and their expectation that we will always be together for Shabbat. We’ve started our own new family traditions and every week we are joined by friends who have become like family.
In our dining room, there’s a life-sized sculpture of my paternal grandmother’s head perched next to the dining table. How ironic that she joins us every week for Shabbat. How fitting that my Shabbos Angel’s Hebrew name is “Miriam,’’ named after this grandmother
My daughters gifted our family with a new tradition — connecting us to the many generations that came before. I thought I would teach my children about Shabbat, but it seems they have taught me.