Yom Kippur 5779
Dear Mom and Dad,
This year marks the fact that I have been living outside of your house for longer than I lived at home. Part of that is miraculous –because in truth –I do not think any of us expected that I was going to last that first night when you dropped me off at college. Yet, I stayed that first day and more than that, I figured out how to live away from home and on my own –and figured out who I want to be in this world.
As I reach this milestone, and as we mark the fact that I have lived longer apart from you than with you, it is time to truly say thank you. Not for sending me to school, not for always making sure that I have everything that I needed and everything that I wanted and did not need . . . thank you for that. But really, thank you for giving me the space to be who I am.
There is often a very short story that I share with people when they talk about life and how expectations and reality do not always match up. The story goes that a couple planned on going on a lavish vacation to France. They got to the airport, all excited, sat down on the plane and took off. Yet, somehow, when they got off the plane, they realized they were in Amsterdam. They understood that they could enjoy Amsterdam just as much if not more than they could have enjoyed France. It is still a wonderful vacation and might even be better than France. Yet, it was not their expectation. Life is often like that, we have expectations and hopes and the reality does not always perfectly align. We sometimes end up in Amsterdam.
I am certain you get the same questions that I get when people find out that I am a rabbi. I am certain that people ask you about your observance and your connection to Judaism. There is always a wonderment of how someone ends up being a rabbi –especially of how someone’s daughter becomes a rabbi. And yet, as people raise these questions, I am certain they spark your own wonderment of how I ended up being a rabbi.
I still remember very vividly the conversations we had when I was a sophomore and junior in high school. It was time to begin thinking about what I wanted to be when I grew up. We had these conversations often. My sister was certain that she wanted to be veterinarian and was already pursuing that path and I too needed to know where I was going in life. This was very important to the both of you. I was certain that I had no interest in the medical profession. Perhaps I would be a lawyer or a computer programmer. I was really taken by the computer when we got our first one. Yet, none of those ideas really moved me or excited me, until one day, when I was either fifteen or sixteen and I turned to you, mommy, and told you that I wanted to be a rabbi.
Mom, I know for certain that this is not what you were expecting to hear. Growing up in the 1950s, as a young girl, Judaism was not a welcoming place for you. Hebrew school was not for you, nor was a bat mitzvah celebration. And as such, the image of a rabbi for you, was of a man –perhaps a tall man with a long beard… white hair maybe… certainly not a petite young woman… and definitely not your daughter.
While you told me that I was not allowed to pursue teaching as you had spent too many weekends grading papers and tallying grades at the end of each marking period and you did not want that for me –you told me it was impossible for me to become a rabbi. That profession was not open to women.
So, I challenged you. Off we went to the rabbi, to discuss my desire to pursue the rabbinate. It might have been the fourth time collectively for our family to have been in the rabbi’s office –two of those previous visits were in preparation for my sister’s bat mitzvah and for mine. It was not a thing we did –going to see the rabbi. But off we went. Much to your dismay, he encouraged my decision and shared the name of five women who were rabbis that he suggested I reach out to. I know that afternoon was not what you wanted to hear from the rabbi. Somehow you were in Amsterdam that evening after our meeting with the rabbi. I have no idea what the conversation was like between the two of you that evening, but I can only imagine.
And so there I was, set on becoming a rabbi. We found a school with a strong Judaic Studies department and I promised to study something else just in case I should change my mind about this rabbi adventure. Psychology was a good fall back plan or as I thought to myself, would really come in handy for the rabbinate!
And as I left home, I began to find myself. My first day at college, I began being cognizant of my food choices, finding ways to integrate the values of kashrut into my eating decisions while living on a college campus. I started to attend Hillel regularly and making Shabbat services a part of my routine. More and more, I found ways to connect with Jewish rituals and values and integrate them into my life.
As the years went on, my life started to look different from your life. I kept kosher and observed Shabbat. I bought my tefillin and a tallit–with your money. Visits were not always easy. What would we eat? Would I eat off of your dishes? Would I eat the food you cooked if everything you cooked was kosher but your pots and pans were not? What would happen on Saturdays when I was home? What would I do all day? What would you do –this was not your routine or your comfort zone? We were certainly in Amsterdam.
I applied to rabbinical school and you knew I was serious about the choices that I had made in my life. I was becoming more and more observant. Our lives were looking very different from one another’s. At that same time, Jeremy and I were planning our lives together, looking to apply to graduate school in the same city. Lucky for you both, we decided that city was New York and not Los Angeles, where he was from.
I knew that you liked Jeremy when I first brought him home. He was a nice Jewish boy and wanted to be a lawyer –phew not another hopeful rabbi! And maybe there was some hope that he would turn me around. But, he too was on this journey with me. As we dated, he too started increasing his observance. Our lives were meshing together as we were keeping kosher together and going to shul together on Shabbat and finding ways of making Shabbat a day apart from other days.
I often talk to parents when their children get engaged or are about to get engaged. There are a number of emotions that are attached to this milestone. Sometimes it is complete elation –the intended future spouse is wonderful. He or she is who they would dream of for their child. More often though, it is not always elation. There is a concern –there is something.
As I look back in time, with what I know now, I can imagine what it was like watching us prepare to get engaged and plan a wedding –a traditional Jewish wedding –hand washing stations and all. I think back to the conversations we had about the wedding and the jokes we made about certain decisions, because we were avoiding the discomfort of having something that was not part of who our family was.
I talk to parents who are planning weddings that involve multiple faiths. I have a lot of these conversations these days. What will it be like having non-Jewish elements included in the ceremony? What does it mean to have a child marrying someone of another faith? How is this going to impact our future lives, our future holiday celebrations together? What does it mean for future grandchildren?
In many ways these fears and concerns are no different than your own fears and concerns during all of the wedding planning. What was it going to be like having a daughter and son-in-law who are observant, who live their lives differently from how we do? What will it be like for holidays and Shabbat? What will it be like when there are grandchildren involved? How will we explain to them that their family observes Judaism in this way, and their grandparents’ observance is different? What will we answer when they ask us a myriad of questions like: do you keep kosher, do you go to shul every Shabbat, do you observe Shabbat? We were deep in Amsterdam.
We survived the wedding… Ordination… and then my first job as an assistant rabbi in Westchester and then as the rabbi here. We survived the birth of two beautiful girls . . . and their deep perception and curiosity that leads to many questions.
And here we are. I have been living on my own longer than I lived with you. When you said goodbye to me in my college dorm, amidst the tears, you gave me the unspoken permission to find myself. You gave me the space to experiment with my life and to find what is meaningful and comfortable to me, even it does not make sense to you.
Thank you. Thank you for that space and that understanding. It has not always been easy. There have been arguments and misunderstandings along the way. There have been times that I have not realized that this is not easy for you and times that you have not realized that it has not been easy for me. We have not always understood each other or appreciated where the other was coming from. Perhaps, most of all, I did not realize how hard it was for you. It is hard for children to realize that sometimes, their decisions do not always align with their parent’s decisions or expectations. We expect our parents to share the same enthusiasm as we do and cannot understand when they just are not that excited. How could it be that our parents do not see the world as we do?!
Ultimately, I have always known how proud you are of me. You have always said with pride: my older daughter is a veterinarian and my younger daughter is a rabbi. You have endured a few too many chuckles and a myriad of questions when you tell people about your family. I watched your pride at my installation and I get a kick out of the fact that you e-mail sermons that I send you to read to your friends . . . before I deliver them at shul! And your pride has always allowed me to continue forward, in a way that is authentic to me. We may have ended up in Amsterdam . . . but I would not have been able to make it through the journey without you, and I was forever changed because of your willingness to stay in Amsterdam –with me—rather than rerouting to another destination.
Please God, we should have many more years together on this journey, you should live to be 120. But I did not want to wait until it was too late to say thank you. One day, it should be a long time from now, we will say goodbye to each other – and amidst the tears, as I recite the holy words of kaddish in your honor, I will know how to go forward… with confidence and pride –even when I end up in Amsterdam or somewhere else with my own daughters.