Establish the work of our hands!

She was a weaver. Coming to it late in life, her footsteps were no longer steady, but her fingers delicately managed the small loom in her living room, balls of yarn beckoning from the nearby basket. One of her last days, I came to see her. Her daughters handed me a small, soft package, wrapped in tissue — a narrow jewel-toned scarf unrolled, marked by a label with the weaver’s name.

It was the last gift I could hold, but not the last gift she gave. She bequeathed friendship across generations, nurturing with baking, an example of values – everyone enters through the front door, her presence in community each Shabbat. Each time I wind that scarf around me, I see the weaver’s face, and hear her gentle voice. The tissue falls away, the work of her hands envelopes me. Her weaving, the work of her hands, teaches still, enduring in my hands.

As the psalmist wrote: May the work of our hands endure. Establish the work of our hands!

Each of us has a scarf, or something else, not a scarf per se. We have a gift – a thing, a lesson or a word made by the hands of those we held dear — the hands of our parents or grandparents, our partners or children, our brothers or sisters, our aunts or uncles, friends or teachers. We have the work of their hands. We hold it in our hands, we hold it in our hearts.

Maybe they gave it wrapped in tissue or in a recipe. In an envelope or picture frame, a game of catch or on a court. In an office or in conversation, a holiday or meeting. Maybe it came with a note, or was labeled matter-of-factly in a call, or was a lesson of life packaged in great flourish. Maybe it’s unlabeled – instead an association with a name or reputation, or an act of kindness wrapped in humility, given unmarked, in ordinary time, at home or on the way. Maybe it’s marked on a journey, as lines on a map, or in bold strokes of a painting or drama. Is it rolled in family tradition and history? Or unrolled in a way to argue or discuss. All is the work of their hands, enduring in ours.

May the work of our hands endure. Establish the work of our hands!

Those we hold dear bequeathed the work of their hands in small and large moments: in embraces & meals, letters & conversations. In the care of bodies & souls, in words we avoid, examples we choose to miss. In hammered nails and hammered values. In actions that changed the world, and words that changed our minds. In days at the office and days caring for others. In creating beauty and wringing their hands with worry. As their hands kindled lights or spun dreidels, lifted matzah or wrapped a tallis. As they held a book, or raised themselves for Kaddish, turned a steering wheel or a phone dial. When they tied our shoes or un-knotted relationships, wrote sums on homework or edits on writing. When they made music and made friends, taught students and taught themselves.

This is the work of those who came before us – this is the work of their hands as they built their lives each day, setting examples to follow, or not, teaching us in word and deed. The work of their hands endures in us. The work of their hands endures through our hands.

May the work of our hands endure. Establish the work of our hands!

At this hour we reach, grasp even, we long to touch those hands, the hands of our dear ones. But we cannot. So we turn to memory, recalling what they made, what they touched. And we look within. Like the weaver making a scarf on her small loom, those who came before us wove us with rich colors, different textures. They formed us with their hands as they held, pushed, let go… We too are the work of their hands. We are here. We endure.

May the work of our hands endure. Establish the work of our hands!

Yizkor gives us time to consider the work of their hands, and our own. Yizkor gives us questions: What did they give us? What do I value? What do I continue? As we “hold onto the works of those who died,”[i]  and weave their works into ours, they live. We weave their works anew with our hands. We weave their works into our own. With Yizkor we plead: May the work of our hands endure. Establish the work of our hands!

וִיהִ֤י ׀ נֹ֤עַם אֲדֹנָ֥י אֱלֹהֵ֗ינוּ עָ֫לֵ֥ינוּ וּמַעֲשֵׂ֣ה יָ֭דֵינוּ כּוֹנְנָ֥ה עָלֵ֑ינוּ וּֽמַעֲשֵׂ֥ה יָ֝דֵ֗ינוּ כּוֹנְנֵֽהוּ׃

May the work of our hands endure. Establish the work of our hands!

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This essay & Alan Goodis’ song included in this blog post were created for North Shore Congregation Israel’s Yom Kippur Yizkor service, 5778..

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I am grateful…

to Rona Glaser z”l for friendship across generations & for the work of her hands.

to Alan Goodis for studying Psalm 90 with me, challenging me to think anew on beloved verses, and inspiring this writing through our conversation and his musical piece Psalm 90 which juxtaposes the first and last verses of the psalm, that is, the eternality of God’s presence and the temporal nature of the work of our hands. (http://www.alangoodis.com/)

To Rabbi Andrea Weiss for ever teaching me and for sharing psalm texts and insights.

For the book Joy, Despair, and Hope, Reading Psalms (Rabbi Edward Feld) – thoughtful wisdom on Psalm 90 that opened my thinking and reconsideration of verses I have long cherished.

 

[i] Paraphrased text with gratitude to Joy, Despair, and Hope: Reading Psalms, Edward Feld, p. 129.

A Great Aunt: Garden Slugs & a GED

“It feels like yesterday that I left James Monroe High School in the Bronx. Now, some 65 years later I am here among you celebrating my graduation.” My great aunt, Sylvia Levy, wrote these words in 1994 in what I soon realized was her 1994 high school graduation speech.

She explained, “I left high school with less than a year to finish and always regretted it. This was the time of the great depression and during the intervening years I had to work to support myself and my family. In 1941 I got married and shortly thereafter my husband was drafted into the Army. After the war we raised two sons. However, I didn’t neglect my education – music, literature and art became subjects of great interest to me. The depression, WWII and the tasks of daily life kept me from going back to complete my education. Nonetheless it was in my always in my thoughts that one day I would finish high school.”

I found these words the other day, just before what would have been Sylvia’s 105th birthday. I knew she earned her high school degree deep in her senior years, but had not thought about that ‘til I discovered the folded papers of her speech. Reading the edited cursive, I heard her voice, giving her opinion and history to a group of likely much younger students – the perfect scene for a woman who spoke her mind and loved history!

Aunt Sue as we called Sylvia was my grandmother’s next younger sister – the second of four girls — and my mom’s favorite aunt. She spent lots of time with Mom and her brother, my Uncle Fred, when they were young. A truly interesting person, Aunt Sue once had a store in the West Village, shared her love of jazz with my uncle, loved to sing, followed politics, and told a story well, replete with dramatic flourishes and her own brand of certainty. She was never shy about speaking her mind!

Chop Suey — as my sister and I called her for some reason I no longer remember — loved plants and flowers. For as long as I can remember she made terrariums, pressed flowers and made beautiful cards and pictures with those pressed flowers, cards and pictures which were then sent to family and friends across the country.

When she and Uncle Len retired, they knew what they wanted. Uncle Len wanted to fish. Aunt Sue wanted nature. So they left their Bronx apartment and moved to Fishkill, New York. They moved to a small place surrounded by grass and near a stream. He fished every day. She planted a garden outside their door.

When I was 15 or so, my mom brought my friend Lynn and me on a road trip. We visited Vassar College, went to the Rhinebeck craft fair, and spent the night with Sylvia and Leonard. It’s the garden that I remember most from that visit, specifically, the slugs. Sure, we talked and laughed, and Lynn and I slept in cozy sleeping bags on their floor, But it was the slugs, and the small jar lids filled with beer that intrigued me. Beer? Slugs? Apparently the beer attracted the slugs, and then the slugs slithered in and died – and didn’t eat Aunt Sue’s plants. That was cool!

Over the years, Uncle Len died and Aunt Sue and I talked more and more. We visited and corresponded. We sat up late nights on the phone and discussed books, friends and family history. She always wanted to know more about the immigration of her mother, my great grandmother Ida Schul. I tried to help her research. She told stories and I took furious notes. Finally I even visited Kolboszowa, Poland, where Ida was born and lived until she left for America at 16. Together we wanted to solve the mystery of my Grandma Rose’s birth father whom Grandma never met. We were family detectives energized by the search. At the same time, Aunt Sue did her darnedest to keep the family connected and cheer us all on. She and Leonard – not religiously observant Jews in any way – even came to my first High Holy Day pulpit, dripping with sweat and beaming with pride in an un-air-conditioned community club house on a hot, hot night as I delivered one of my first sermons. 

I never heard Chop Suey deliver her graduation speech. But I could hear her the other day as I looked at the picture of her smiling broadly under her mortar board: “If there is a message to be gleaned from this, it is — Don’t give up — Stay in school — Further your education, no matter what the cost. Make the most of your lives!! You are the future of our country and can help make this world a better place!”

At that moment, all I wanted was to time travel back to Aunt Sue’s garden, speech in hand, watch for slugs, and ask her how many questions about how she made the most of her life.

Silent Lips?

 

We sit comfortably at the table tonight,

years since Emma Lazarus penned,

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”

Years since we, our parents, grandparents and the greats before them

reached “the air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame”

and arrived at the golden door

 

We who sit at the seder table —

we know that the homeless, tempest-tost are not wretched refuse.

We have been there —

we ourselves or those who arrived before us.

We know our story, our journey to freedom.

We hear Torah’s reminder: you were slaves in Egypt

 

Yet we see so many immigrants and refugees

treated as trash dumped on our shores,

not welcomed by Mother of Exiles with her beacon-hand welcoming,

but with a raised hand turning them away,

 

Tonight we celebrate redemption.

We celebrate the freedom to journey,

We celebrate the freedom to enter,

We celebrate the freedom to act in the world.

 

We lift the cup tonight, not one time, but four,

each a promise of redemption,

a commitment to freedom and safety for those who came before us.

 

Tonight we see ourselves as if we left Egypt.

Tonight as we hear women’s voices,

Lady Liberty’s silent lips cry out:

Where is your beacon-hand that welcomes?

How will you redeem?

 

Quoted sections, title & other direct references cite Emma Lazarus’ poem The New Colossus.