A Friday Special: Friends, Family and the Mikveh (A Hopeful Sign)

One of my favorite outlets for which to write is A Hopeful Sign.  All of the stories on it are full of interesting ideas and thoughts, all carrying the same thread of positivity.  In an increasingly negative world, its message is not just a breath of fresh air, but a full-on oxygen tank for navigating today’s confusing maze of a universe.

A few weeks ago I was privileged to be present at my friends’ daughters’ conversion at the Jewish Community of Japan.  My take on it from the AHS site is HERE.

I would prefer you click on the link above to see the proper site, but here’s the text of the piece anyway.  Enjoy

 

Running late, I hurried into the synagogue.  The rabbi met me downstairs and started explaining the whole process as we walked toward the mikveh. We had a conversion to complete.

A mikveh is a Jewish ritual bath and it has a number of uses.  Women might immerse themselves in the mikveh monthly to purify themselves.  Some men and women use it for purification before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year.  In Orthodox communities, some people will go to the mikveh every week before the Sabbath.  Like most things in Judaism, there are very specific rules about the construction of the actual bath, including that a certain percentage of the water must be sourced from a flowing, natural base, such as rain water or a river.  The most common use, especially here in Tokyo, is for purposes of conversion.

Judaism is a matrilineal religion – if your mother is a Jew, then you’re a Jew.  When a Jewish man marries a non-Jewish woman, the children have to be converted.  In some communities, and in the Reform and Reconstructionist sects of Judaism in general, only one parent has to be Jewish in order for a child to be Jewish and have a bar mitzvah but problems can arise later if a child who has not been officially converted wants to either move to Israel or marry a very religious person.  So by “dipping” a kid in the mikveh, parents who intend to raise their kids as Jews are covering all bases with very little downside.

Some people might argue that a mikveh “dip” should happen before the child has awareness – around age one or two.  But there is another school of thought that says a child should be aware of what’s happening and have a little bit of say in the matter, so it should happen around age ten or eleven. There are definite pros and cons for both sides here, but in this particular case, the parents had waited.

We first met the K family in 2007 when we moved back to Tokyo after just two years in Washington DC.  Our kids went to school together at the lovely Montessori school nearby; both of their daughters are a year younger than my children.  In this case, the father is Jewish and the mother is not, but both parents are committed to raising their children as Jews.  I admire my darling friend G, the mom, for this; whereas it’s easy for me to do things like clean for Passover, or make certain ritual foods, for her it’s harder because she didn’t grow up with it.  To an outsider like me, it looks like she throws herself into it wholeheartedly, committed to her family as a unit, making it stronger in their united worship.

Our friendship, while often taking place in the synagogue or around Jewish holidays, expanded far beyond those events.  The adults would go out for dinner; the kids would have play-dates and sleepovers.  The dad is forever in my husband’s heart because he eats the same type of matzo ball as my husband does, which I make under protest every year just for the two of them.  After the earthquake, the older daughter ran a bike drive to collect bicycles for those in northern Japan who lost them in the quake.  I interviewed her for an article.  The younger daughter once came up to me, threw her arms around me and said, “YOU are my trusted adult.”  Clearly a lesson on safety had just happened at school, but regardless, I was honored to have that place in her life.  Our lives have been intertwined for the past five years.

And indeed it was the older daughter who presented the idea of the mikveh to her parents.  Just months away from her own bat mitzvah, she wanted to complete this ritual, and her sister wanted to join her.  My husband and I offered to help and be witnesses.  I was designated to be in the mikveh itself with the girls since I’m female and my husband would sign the certificate as a witness, based on my testimony.

So on that day, with their mom beside them and me kneeling next to the bath, first one daughter, then the other performed the ancient ritual of purity.  The girls had to come to the mikveh the same as the day they were born, so they could not wear jewelry or nail polish or any other adornment.  One at a time, they dunked completely under the water, every hair on their head, I said the blessing over them thanking God for the ritual, and they dunked two more times.  I signaled to the rabbi and witnesses that it was done, and the girls dressed.

After the papers were signed, all of us together went upstairs to the sanctuary and we opened the ark so the girls could go before the Torah for blessings.  The rabbi covered each girl’s head with his hands and murmured the traditional prayers.  He wished them both a life of Torah and good deeds and to grow in strength with the Jewish people.  The girls’ faces shone as they looked up at the rabbi who had been their teacher and their friend, and their parents who loved them.  The reverence was tangible in the air as the tears flowed freely down my face and my husband took my hand.

These girls and their parents, as I watched, embraced something that I take for granted.  They were able to reaffirm their commitment to Judaism and its faith and practice.  I was born a Jew, as was my husband, but they, as a family, were making this choice.  Likely, since they had already been living a Jewish life, their everyday existence would not be changed.  But that day was not one I will forget, nor will the K family.

Because we’re Jews and food is what we do, a celebratory dinner followed with the kids thoroughly enjoying each other’s company and the adults having so much fun that we nearly lost track of time.  The experiences we have shared as friends, as fellow expats in the Tokyo community, and as Jews will extend and expand over space and time.  There are some experiences and some people who stay with you in your heart forever regardless of geography.  Much love and thanks to the K family for sharing this experience, and your lives, with us.  We love you.

Traditions

Me, my grandfather and my husband Marc, Hanukkah 2010

My grandfather, Nathan Ledewitz, died last week at age 94.  He lived a long, wonderful life full of fun and friends.  He was the type of guy that up until he was 92, he took his girlfriend dancing every Saturday night.  When you asked him how old he was, he would answer, “I’m young at heart; I have all my hair; and I drive at night!”

Grandpa had this great tradition that I believe his mother started, which was to send a Hanukkah card with a check in it to every single grandchild every year. (Okay, I think in my great-grandmother’s case it was a crisp $5 bill, which was a lot of money not only considering the time, but also the fact that she had 20+ grandchildren!)  Not only did my grandfather do that, but he also sent a birthday card and later anniversary cards to everyone, every year.  Grandpa has three sons and daughters-in-law, six grandchildren, four of whom are married, and 8 great grandchildren.  My dad’s brother divorced and got  married a second time to an amazing lady with two children of her own.  Grandpa just added them, their spouses and later their children to the birthday and Hanukkah list! Family is family.

My grandparents divorced and my grandfather remarried well before I

Grandpa with his lovely lady-friend, Rae Blumberg, summer 2009

was born.  His second wife died over twelve years ago, and my grandfather managed to do all that card sending alone for many years.

Just about five or so years ago, my cousin Jenn and I started helping Grandpa write his Hanukkah cards and the checks.  It was a bit of a painful process since he wouldn’t let a check out of the checkbook without marking every piece of information down and then balancing the checkbook.  Left to my own devices, I would have done the balancing once at the end, but not Grandpa – he did it with every single check.  There was no compromising.  That same  year, he complained about the big job of getting the cards every month at the store.  Driving wasn’t as fun anymore for him, and errands took him forever.

That very December, without asking him, I went to the card store and bought ALL of the cards on his list for the whole year.  I then addressed every envelope, and put a sticky note on it with the name, occasion, and date.  I put the cards in ziploc bags by month.  I kept thinking that if he was mad or hated it, I would just return the cards – I didn’t write in any of them.

Grandpa, my dad and me, putting the mezuzzah on his new home in 2009

Well, he loved it.  He found it so easy to just do the cards once a month.  The upshot of it was that if your birthday or anniversary was right at the start of the month, the card would be a little late, but if your occasion was at the end of the month, it could end up being weeks early.  Who cared?  He took the time to write the checks, sign the cards and mail them.  Plus, as an added bonus, I got to pick out the cards.  I wouldn’t normally buy cards for all those people, so I would tell our family that they could imagine that a little of the card was from me, too.

This past year as Grandpa’s health worsened, he had someone else do the cards – a bookkeeper or my dad, who helped care for him.  But he insisted the cards go out right up until quite recently.

This will be the first Hanukkah of my life without a card from my grandpa.  He always signed them, “Enjoy! Love, Grandpa Nate.”

And this will be the first year in many that I don’t get to go to the card store and pick out cards for an entire year for him to send.

It’s silly, isn’t it?  My grandfather did a thousand things with me or for me over the forty years of my life, and I am stuck on those damned cards.  He had me at his house in Florida every February of my childhood. He would come with me on clothes-shopping outings when I was a teenager (brave man!). He was there when I walked across the stage with my college degree, my master’s degree and my doctorate.  He said the prayers over the bread at my wedding. He held my son, his first great-grandchild, at his bris. He taught both of my children how to play gin rummy.  And yet, after all that, it’s the cards that are on my mind the most.

Much of family – what makes up a family – is connection and tradition.  So when a family member dies and the tradition dies or changes necessarily, it is those little aspects that are missed.  The cards weren’t particularly meaningful for most of my life; what has meaning is that the tradition is over with my grandfather’s death.

I am so fortunate to have had the cards for this long.  And I know they will remain as part of family lore for generations.  That, my friends, is the meaning of tradition.

Regarding family, not the quake

Last week when I arrived in Florida unexpectedly, I realized that it would be a bonus visit to my grandparents.  My grandmother is 89 and lives in an independent living place where she has her own apartment and goes into a lovely dining room for dinner.  Last December she told me that she was as happy as she possibly could be without my grandfather.  She is feisty and funny and knits up a storm every day (you should see my sweater closet!).  We go out for lunch together, laugh and enjoy each other’s company.  She has been my very best friend for 39 years.

My grandfather is 93 and lives in an assisted living residence where he has his own apartment, but he needs quite a bit more care than my grandmother does.  I realize that it’s unfair to compare them, but when dealing with the elderly and children, it’s hard not to.  Frankly the most startling comparison for my grandfather is to his own siblings.  Of the six original Ledewitz siblings, five are still living, though they have all lost their spouses.  The eldest is 97 and living in an independent residence similar to my grandmother’s.  The next oldest is 95 and lives on his own completely – still driving, though I wouldn’t necessarily put my children in his car if I didn’t have to.  Then there’s my grandfather, followed by two more beautiful sisters, one 89 and the other 79.  The youngest two sisters completely belie their ages, looking, acting, and I hope feeling, each ten years younger. It’s a family with a lot of longevity in it.  I’m so proud to be part of that gene pool.

Recently my grandfather had a bit of a setback with a short hospital visit, and now he’s currently in a rehab center, hoping to regain his strength and return home.  On the first day I got there for a visit, he was lying on his bed, covered in a sheet, fully dressed, but obviously in some pain from a headache.  Additionally, my normally outrageously fastidious grandfather really wanted to change his clothes; felt that he wasn’t clean and neat enough.  This was a common refrain from a man who spent his life changing into proper clothes to wear to dinner, be it at the fanciest restaurant in town, or his own dining room.  He pressed his sense of orderliness and timeliness on his children and grandchildren, most of who responded   in kind.

Though he wasn’t completely aware of everything that was happening, and later in our conversation confused me with his youngest sister, he was very clear about what he wanted in those first minutes.  “I need to get new pants on before dinner and I need to get up into my wheelchair.  Can you do it for me, Aimee?”

The question was a serious one.  He was weak and fairly incapacitated; he’d be unable to help me and he knew it.  These were pretty intimate things he was asking of me.

I did not hesitate.  “Grandpa,” I told him, “when you have children there is some expectation that they will care for you in your old age.  You care for your children when they’re young and they care for you when you’re old.  Quid pro quo.  But with grandchildren, you care for them and give to them without any expectation in return.  You have been a good grandfather and you have taken good care of me all of my life.  Helping you now is my privilege.  It’s my chance to give back to you and it’s the least I can do.”

It took me an hour, and in the end, a little help from an aide, but we got his clothes changed and got him up in a wheelchair, and when I left, he was ready for dinner.

I am pleased to report that nearly a week later, Grandpa is doing much much better – eating his meals in the dining room, making progress on walking again, and even rode a stationary bike the other day.  His ability to hang on to a conversation is much improved as well.  He doesn’t, as my Aussie friends might say, lose the plot.  My mom says that Grandpa has 9 lives.  He has not yet used them up and will recover from this latest episode just fine.

I had dinner with Grandpa’s two youngest sisters last week, too.  They happen to be here in Florida either for the winter and/or visiting their brother.  They have been to see him pretty much every day.  We chatted about me, Japan, my kids, and then a million other family members (in a family with 6 siblings who each had 3 or 4 kids, there are at least 120 of us in the family to discuss!) I’m so impressed with them and the emphasis they put on staying connected as a family no matter what.

I’ve learned a lot in the past ten days – about myself, my response to disaster, my care for my children, and now here is a bonus lesson about my family and the commitment I have to them.  It is real and it is strong – no matter where I am in the world.

Lessons Learned – It’s Not Selfish to Fulfill Your Own Needs

As a writer, I spend part of every day alone.  Writing is simply not a group activity. When I’m back in the U.S. with my family, I spend all of every day with various family members or friends.  Writing doesn’t happen often. While I wouldn’t trade the special time I get with everyone, my alone-time is pretty much non-existent.

In 1955, Anne Morrow-Lindbergh, wife of the famous flyer, but force-majeur in her own right, published the book Gift from the Sea. In it, she contends that women in particular need to rejuvenate themselves.  Women put so much into other people that they need time for simple replenishment so that they continue to be able to give to others.  In other parts of the book, she advocates for turning off the radio and listening to the people and natural sounds around you.  She takes the reader through the stages of a woman’s life and points out the things about which women have to be cognizant in their lives.  She talks about the child-rearing years and then the retirement years – all in one book. Her son writes a moving afterward about his mother, her ideas and her accomplishments.  All of the things she discusses in the book are just as relevant today, in 2011, as they were then, more than 55 years ago.

The reason this is important is that women should not feel selfish for asking for what they need.  I need the time alone every day – be it an hour before everyone else gets up, or leaving the group to go to bed early.  I am much more functional this way.  I have known this for a long time, but it has seemed selfish to ask my friends and family, for whom I’ve traveled great distances, or who have traveled great distances for me, for some time away – alone.  Well, that’s over.  I am sure that in the long run, the visits will all turn out better if I have my time to proverbially replenish myself every day – at least most days.

In reality will I be able to do this?  I have no idea.  But I am going to try.  There are five months until summer.  When summer arrives, I will be spending long weeks in the company of others.  I am really going to try to put my plan into practice.  It will make the time all that much better for everyone involved.  Good luck to me.

Beyond my own personal goals, though, I wish I could encourage all women to think long and hard about what would make even one aspect of their lives easier – and then ask for it.  It’s not selfish.  It makes you a fuller, better person to be aware of yourself and then do what needs to be done to fulfill those needs.

Lecture over.  Go have a wonderful weekend.

A Change of Scenery

For the past two weeks I’ve been at my parents’ house and when we leave from here on Friday, we go to my brother-in-law’s house in Connecticut for one more week.  It’s not a vacation.  It’s just, what my mother calls, a change of scenery.  I still have to cook, clean, take care of kids, run errands, etc.  But I at least get to do all those things and spend time with my parents and grandparents.

Yesterday my brother brought his kids down to South Florida from Orlando for the day.  This is a photo of my dad and four of his five grandchildren:

My dad was on his way to a formal meeting, as you can tell.

Here’s why this is important: last week I wrote about my grandparents, and them getting old; now I want to talk about the future.  I have been nostalgic for being seventeen years old, having my grandparents take care of me, and the “good old days”.   I’m realizing, as the days go by, that what is important to them is their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.  At this point, the future is important to them and these kids represent that future.  Therefore, it behooves me to change my focus too.

Last night, my husband and I took my grandmother out for dinner. She is sharp as a tack at nearly 89 years old.

Though she needs a walker to get around, there is nothing at all wrong with her memory and she often remembers things I’ve forgotten.  She reminds me that my job is to take care of these kids and make sure that they grow up to be the best people they can be.  I have to guide them through their growing years, to college, and beyond so that when they are my age and looking back, they have good memories and feel nostalgic.  Nostalgia can be a wonderful thing.  We wouldn’t have a yearning for the past if it wasn’t a wonderful place to be.  When they get to be my age, I hope they can look back and feel as wonderful as I do about the way I grew up.

Getting Old is not for Sissies

I always learn a lot of lessons when making the trip from Japan to the U.S. to see my family.  This time, however, I seem to be learning more than usual about life in general.

My family is big – but beyond big, they’re close and in-your-face perpetually.  I will not lie: being across the globe from everyone is sometimes very difficult, but there are days when the distance is quite a relief.

On Tuesday I spent the day with my grandmother, age 88, taking her to buy presents for my two kids, to her knitting store (my grandmother knits every sweater I own and she’s absolutely incredible with her talent) and out to lunch before bringing her back to my parents’ house to see my kids swim and then have dinner before I brought her home again.

On Wednesday I got a call from my great-aunt who had received our holiday card and thought the photo of our family was terrific.  It was a nice call to get, but she also, at age 88, is going through her share of issues.  She lost a bunch of friends over the past year and she’s alone for the first time in her life, having lost her husband more than 16 years ago and a boyfriend quite recently.

Thursday I spent some of the morning with my grandfather, who is 93 and in an assisted living place.  But before going upstairs to his apartment, my mother and I spent a little time with the executive director of the place, discussing issues of my grandfather’s increasing dementia and agitation.  Always a jokester, my formerly jovial grandfather yelled at me yesterday because my father wasn’t paying enough attention to him while my dad and my son went to play golf.  In a brighter world, Grandpa would have been out on the links with them, but that’s not reality.

Even my parents see more doctors these days than I would prefer.  I recently helped my dad compile a list of his medications to bring to his primary care physician for a check.  What a list!  My dad is healthy, happy, and doing quite well, but it was more of a reality check for me than for him.

My mom and dad are doing a wonderful job caring for their elderly parents and it is not easy.  But sometimes they fail to recognize that it’s hard for me to watch too.  I hate that my grandparents are old.  I want to go back to being seventeen when I could take my car and drive to their houses  for the weekend and be completely pampered and cared for.  I hate that my parents are older, too, and reminders of that pop up in the most unexpected places.

I’m not yet forty and just feeling a little blue about time passing.  I know this is part of life and I can’t change it, nor would I want to.  These days and hours speaking with my various family members toward the close of their lives provide me with valuable tools by which I can see the second half of my life, too.  So that’s what I’m going to do going forward.  I’m going to be patient and I am going to listen.  These people are a gift in my life and I will embrace the gifts they bring as long as I can.

Thanksgiving In Japan

This week as Americans across the country are preparing for their regular holiday food-fest of Turkey and all the trimmings, I am not.  Living in Japan has made the completely American holiday a total non-issue for expats.

On Thursday this week, everything will be business-as-usual.  There will be no holiday traffic, no top-of-the-lungs arguments with Aunt Sadie, no debates about canned or whole cranberry sauce, and not even a slap on the wrist as someone picks at the carcass of the bird before it’s served.  Are you seeing a controversial theme in my holiday memories here?

Lest you worry about me, this is not to say that all is lost.

In my little corner of the world, expats do Thanksgiving their own way.  First of all, since Thursday and Friday are both regular work/school days and a big dinner is inconvenient, we do Thanksgiving on Saturday.  One family will play host to five other families.

The food assignments are doled out in a similar fashion to any other family.  I’m bringing appetizers this year, but last year I brought pie.  Whoever is assigned to cranberry sauce gets to decide what type it will be!  The hostess gets the honor of procuring the bird, which is a hefty task.  Luckily there are international supermarkets nearby, because turkey is decidedly not a Japanese item and as such, is not available in Japanese markets.  We’ll have all the trimmings, including pumpkin pie, stuffing, gravy and anything else anyone can think of.  What is great is the mix of traditions.  Everyone tends to request to bring their favorite treasured memory all tied up in the making of the food item.  Most times the hostess acquiesces to the requests.

The family who has the honors this year actually has real, blood-related family visiting from the U.S. so the rest of us will go in and greet this visitor like a long-lost cousin about which we had forgotten.  You see, we have no choice but to be each other’s family.  We are all far from home; we are all far from our comfort zone.  Thanksgiving is not only about the food – but about the combination of food and family.  We are lucky to have each other at this time of year, which I find the hardest of all weeks to be outside of the U.S.

It’s going to be a grand and joyous table for my family this coming Saturday.  And by family, I mean a significant portion of my lovely family of friends, for whom I am grateful.  There is much for which to give thanks.

Happy holiday.