Mama’s robe is deep purple, velour, the shade of violet I imagine when we read stories about royal families in the picture books she takes me to borrow, in stacks that weigh more than I do, every week from the local library. The zipper is a silver heart the size of a dime, a mere miniature version of the live, beating pulse against my cheek as she gives me an embrace that hides my tiny body in her warmth. She radiates heat, and her hair still drips dampness, the Sabbath’s arrival taking precedence over her usual blow-drying.The steam from the chicken soup permeates our small apartment- a universe to me- and I imagine it forming a halo above me. Mama waves her hands in front of her face three times like a magic spell, and I follow suit, clumsily flailing my tiny hands in loyal imitation. Mama covers her eyes and mumbles wordlessly for what seems like eternity. She tells me she thanks Hashem for me every day, and prays that we should only have happiness. She tells me this is what we have always done, and I can tell she is referring to a “we” much more expansive than the two of us. I cannot quite picture this “we,” or this “always,” but I trust her with this, as I do with most everything.
Last year was our first-grade class Siddur Ceremony, where I played the “Honor” Shabbat candle, alongside my companion, “Remember”. In our matching headbands with construction paper flames, we went together like peanut butter and strawberry- only strawberry, never grape- jelly. Today, I am one of twenty fidgety second-graders sitting sprawled on the carpeted floor, the one Daniel, the new kid, threw up on last week. Morah Tova, as we call our teacher, tells us we are about to complete the book of Bereishit, the first book of the Torah, and we all get ready to chant “chazak chazak venit’chazek (“may we ever be strengthened,” the traditional chant upon completing a book of Torah),” followed by the obligatory day school chant, “I wish I had a chocolate cake!” We listen with the flimsy yet sincere attention spans of seven year-olds to a story about blessings, not fully grasping the gravity of Jacob’s last moments of life, and his whispered hopes to the next generation. But we know this is what we have always done. Morah Tova asks us to raise our hands if our fathers bless us on Friday nights, using the traditional blessings of Jacob to his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe. I do not have a father, at least not one who lives beyond the photo albums and stories, beyond a signature in books like Jewish Meditation, and the cassette tape of him teaching me the Hebrew alphabet as a baby. I am seven years old and so embarrassed at this apparent faux pas, his absence somehow my fault. I am seven years old and suddenly naked in public, lacking something essential all the other kids have so effortlessly. I run to the bathroom, trying to hide my red-faced tears from my classmates, and I cannot recall ever feeling lonelier in my seven years of life.
That night, Morah Tova leaves a message on our answering machine, apologizing for the triggering moment in class, and promising to send me home the next day with a photocopy of the traditional blessing for my mom to say every week to follow. I will not identify as a Jewish feminist for ten more years, but when I do, I will smile upon this moment of sensitivity, empowerment, and inclusion. As I grow older, I understand more words in the poetic prayer, a longer version than the blessings any of my friends receive. Mama rests her hands on my keppe and chants from the crinkled, black-and-white sheet, because this is what we have always done.
I have a list of names tentatively selected for my future children, transferred from margins of high school graphing notebooks to iPhone memos to Google Docs. I do not share them with anyone, because I do not want or need input, and maybe a small part of me is programmed to be wary of tempting the ayin hara (evil eye), a superstitious mentality I try to eschew. I hope these children think and dream in Hebrew, the language of our people, different than the words in which I naturally cried, took comfort, lived and grew up. And I hope to tell these children that this language is the one we have always spoken, the one we have always used to describe and shape the lives we have always lived. The lives that are different than ever before but also just like the flames over which our mamas and theirs waved their palms. The lives that bind them to a We and an Always they cannot quite conceptualize.
I am sitting in Shabbat services at a shul on the Upper West Side, having made it just in time for the rabbi’s sermon. The children here are so well-dressed, their taffeta bows and cashmere vests advertising boutiques where I probably cannot afford to breathe the air. I remember the German Jewish kindergarten students I met earlier this week, during my trip through Jewish Berlin. I melt in these recent memories, cooing at the precious Jewish souls and smiles, in awe of the alternating German, Russian, English, and Hebrew babbling and shy, tentative greetings. I try my best to focus on the sermon, settling into my seat in the spacious sanctuary. The rabbi speaks emphatically and movingly about the Jewish response to terrorism, about the Egyptian Jewish midwives, Shifra’s and Puah’s refusal to surrender to fear, about the futility of freedom without the unyielding conviction to fight in its defense. The shul’s security guard speaks about the safety procedures by which we must abide, an attempt at reassurance, but also a reinforcement of the dangers that cannot merely be wiped away like a child’s tears.
I think about the children I do not yet have, and about how I hope to embrace them in my velour robe, and whisper prayers for their safety and health, and teach them Shema as a lullaby, and as a battle cry. After all, if for no other reason, this is what we have always done.