Thanks Mom, for giving me a certain (progressive) frame of reference.
Like many folks who live in the US, Thanksgiving is a conflicting holiday for me. On the one hand, it can be a time of fellowship, of connecting with friends and family over home cooked food, lovingly prepared as an offering to each other, and a way to express gratitude for being in each others lives, and for whatever bounty we are fortunate enough to enjoy.
On the other, it is, in fact, a celebration that began in 1621 (almost 400 years ago) in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where white pilgrims celebrated the first successful fall harvest (of the colony). The pilgrims, wanting a life free from tyranny, came to this land and felt entitled to lay claim to it, and initiated and carried out the genocide of its inhabitants, the red-brown native people, seized their land and called it their own. Future harvests were made possible by the mass murder, rape and pillage of the Native American people. This land, forever after heralded as the home of the free and land of the brave. This is celebrated (and largely sanitized) on a yearly basis in the US.
This Thanksgiving came on the heels of Hurricane Sandy. So many people experienced and are continuing to experience its devastating effects. Among them, were my 77 year-old mother and her partner, who live in a section of New Jersey that was badly impacted by the storm. It also came in the midst of the most recent escalation of violence perpetrated by Israel on the people of Gaza. The convergence of these events provided an opportunity for me to appreciate my mother and who she is, and to be thankful for what an amazing frame of reference she provided me with.
My mother is a holocaust refugee who fled Hitler’s Vienna in 1938 when she was almost 4. She escaped the Nazis and came to the US with her mother, crossing the ocean on a ship in the middle of winter, with one suitcase each, while her father, my grandfather, was still imprisoned in the concentration camp Dachau in Germany. She grew up in Washington Heights in New York City, then a largely German-Austrian Jewish refugee community. She always smiles when she recounts the story of how she and her dear friend Johnny walked around bumping into people soon after they had arrived, so they could practice the first phrase they learned in English: “excuse me.”
While they lost almost all they had during the war, my grandparents created a home rich in intellectual and cultural activity; they read voraciously, listened to classical music, and had lively political discussions. Mom married young (my father was a refugee from Germany), had my brother and me, and moved to a New Jersey suburb when I was 4. My father left shortly thereafter.
My mother raised two kids alone in the early ’60s, a time when divorce was a scandal. Longtime women friends became scarce, lest a divorcee be around their husbands. It was not easy. Mom was smart and beautiful (and still is), and depressed and isolated socially and culturally (and is no longer). I think it is safe to say that she was devastated by the events of her early and later life, though she would come to understand and make use of them much later on. She was lost in suburbia without cultural touchstones that were meaningful to her to support her, or us.
The area we lived in was a newly created “development”, built on what used to be dairy farms. There was some white ethnic diversity – Italian, Polish, and Irish families – and eventually a couple of Black and Asian families. There were some Jewish families, mostly American, and with very different understandings and practices as Jews than my family. Mom worked full-time, and occasionally spent time with a couple of neighbors.
My contemporaries went to church on Sundays or synagogue on Saturdays, and Hebrew School or Catechism after school. When we were very young my mother drove us into New York City on Sunday mornings, to attend Sunday School at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, a non-theistic organization founded in 1876, “a welcoming home for humanists, embracing diversity and promoting civic society.” I went to Sunday school with children of all colors and backgrounds, from all corners of the earth, and learned the values of humanism; of respecting and including all “others” and treating all people with respect and decency.
Sometimes, after Sunday school, we would see the anti-war marchers coming down Central Park West protesting the Vietnam war. My mother taught us about civil and women’s rights, and instilled an intolerance for injustice in us that I value and carry with me every day. We talked about the goings on in the world on a daily basis; she taught us that we had a responsibility to know what happens to other people, and to participate in civic society, and to object to injustice and do what we could to remedy it.
To me, and in our family, this was the essence of being Jewish.
I was reminded of my mother’s grace and decency in this very particular way, during hurricane Sandy. The night of the storm she slept on pillows in the upstairs hallway, the only place to be wellguarded from shattering glass. She prepared as much as possible with food and ice in coolers, candles, etc. Seventeen 100-feet tall trees fell around her home, including one that fell on her house. She had no power for 12 days, during which time the temperature kept dropping.
I was in NYC and also without power or physical access to her; we spoke several times a day (fortunately, after 9/11 we both kept corded, land-line phones available for such an occasion). When I would ask her how she was, she would say: “I am fine. It was scary, but I am fine. It is just an inconvenience. It was so much worse for so many people. Other people here and around the world have to live this way every day. I have clothes to layer on me, food to eat and candles to light. It will get better. I am very fortunate”.
As the week went on, and she was able to venture out and learn about what was going on in the world, our conversations broadened, and we resumed some of our usual political dialogue. And, she said to me, “I am so terribly upset by what Israel is doing to the people of Gaza. I can never condone this kind of action. It is horrific, and the last thing that Jews of all people should be doing to another people. We should know better. I have been following J Street – they are a growing as a pro-peace Israel lobby – do you know them? It is so important for that voice to be heard.” (it went on, but you get the gist).
Eventually, she talked about how she couldn’t wait to get the electricity turned back on, because she hadn’t written a blog post in too long. Her blog, and her website (www.ruthsteinbergpoetry.com), came into being last year, after years of exploring her history of being a Jewish holocaust refugee, and the impact it had on her life and her family. Her journey and her exploration manifested in years of writing – an incredibly detailed family history in 4 volumes – and of lots of poetry, all done with the support of a close group of women writer friends.
She self-published 3 books of her poems, including a book called “A Certain Frame of Reference” (the image above is of the book cover, and the photo is her passport photo, of her when she was 3); she has poems in 6 other anthologies.
My mother’s frame of reference is beautifully conveyed by her poems, not just in what they say, but by the fact that she wrote them, and in how she has created her life. She has worked so hard to find and create humanity out of an experience that seemed devoid of it. She taught me the importance of creating decent ways of relating to people in the world – even when you don’t know how, or it feels particularly hard because of something that happened to you and you could feel entitled to do otherwise. And, that when, for whatever reason you can’t, you can create something with the experience: learn; use what has happened to inform and build new, decent relationships and experiences, or write a poem, or a book, or three.
Among the multitude of things that I was thankful for on Thanksgiving, and am every day is the very decent, very human and loving, very progressive, very Jewish, frame of reference that my mother has led her life with, and taught me.
Thanks so much Mom.