short in stature, outsize in personality

i started trying to walk in my grandmother's steps at an early age; photo by gay lee pearce

i started trying to walk in my grandmother’s steps at an early age; photo by gay lee pearce

My grandmother died this summer.

She was 96 and had lived on her own until age 92, when she suffered a stroke on the same day as her identical twin sister, who was living 800 miles and three states away (and who sadly passed away just a few days later). Because of the selflessness of my aunt and uncle, the last four years of her life she was able to continue to live in her home of 30 years, in Austin, Texas — cared for by the two of them and two wonderful home aides.

Gay Barr Wilkes had a full life and passed away surrounded by people who loved her. Her death is the kind we probably all aspire to; it’s certainly not a tragedy. But it’s still hard. In some ways I lost the Granny Gay I knew my whole life on the day of the stroke that reduced her so much. But I could still hug her and talk to her, and even though she didn’t say my name anymore, I knew that she knew who I was. And I knew that she loved me as much as she always had.

My mom is struggling with mourning both her mom who was and the one who she became in those last years. I am struggling with feeling so far away from my family the vast majority of the time that the force of this important event seems to have only struck a glancing blow. Did I really say goodbye to Granny Gay when I moved 2,000 miles away? I couldn’t make it to say a final goodbye in person, when her body began to shut down and we knew the end was near, but I was incredibly privileged to be able to organize a final farewell — because my family let me design her memorial service.

In the conversations my aunt and I had in the weeks leading up her my grandmother’s death, I asked about plans for the memorial service. I am, after all, training to be clergy: I think about the rituals of life transitions all the time. My grandmother was a woman of faith more than of religion, and since the Methodist minister of the church that she and my grandfather would on occasion attend had since moved on, my aunt wasn’t left with a meaningful choice for an officiant. (Ever the planners, my grandparents had long ago purchased a package with a local funeral home — meaning that the location and other arrangements had long since been finalized.) With many deaths, a non-family clergy member is needed, or just wanted, to hold the space for mourners. My family wasn’t wracked with grief, though; more than that, I wanted to lead the service. It’s something I knew I could do, and do well, for my family. And my aunt was trusting enough to turn it over to me.

a note from my grandmother, in her familiar handwriting, about the picture of us (above) that won a Mother's Day photo contest in the Houston Post; photo by salem pearce via instagram

a note from my grandmother, in her familiar handwriting, about the picture of us (above) that won a Mother’s Day photo contest in the Houston Post; photo by salem pearce via instagram

Everyone got a part — daughters, sons-in-law, nephews, grandchildren. I was in awe of how eloquent they all were in sharing different parts of her life and talking about what she meant to them. I lost it when her oldest grandson, my cousin Seth, started crying when he spoke about Granny.

He had lived with her and Papa as when he finally finished his undergraduate degree almost 10 years after high school. Discouraged by his slow progress, he complained to her that he would be 27 by the time he finished at the University of Texas at Austin. Her response is a piece of advice I’ve turned to many a time during my winding journey to where I am today. “You’re going to be 27 anyway.” Time passes by regardless, she had reason to know, so you might as well do what you want to do.

Seth also provided an important antidote to the rhapsody that inevitably occurs at funerals. He talked about a time when she was wrong, admitted it, and changed her behavior. Of course, that ultimately makes her even more worthy of praise.

I lived in Austin for five years, from 1997 to 2002, the only of her children and grandchildren there at that time. I got to spend lots of time with her and my grandfather, precious time of eating dinner, doing laundry, and studying at their house. I am thankful that I was smart enough to recognize it even then for the gift that it was. After college I moved to Raleigh, then to D.C., and finally to Boston, my trip up the Atlantic coast taking me farther and farther away from her. I don’t know how much of my new path to rabbinical school she ever understood (and I mean that literally, as she had already begun deteriorating from the stroke when I went back to school), but I am sure she was proud of me to the end.

When I was very young, she told me, “Salem you can be whatever you want to be.” As a child I later slightly reinterpreted her words when my mother announced it was time for bed: “Nope! Granny said I can do whatever I want to do.”

I’ll be almost 40 be the time I’m ordained as rabbi, but I’ll be almost 40 (bs”d) anyway. And I’ll be what I want to be.

do you believe in miracles?

Mai chanukah? So the rabbis of the Talmud begin their discussion of this holiday: “What is Chanukah?” The fact that they start with a question should be a big red flag that this will be an extended discussion, as scholars of the Talmud are apt to give lots of answers even when no question is posed.

It’s a good question, and the rabbis were fairly prescient on this point, as far as 21st century American society goes. Chanukah is the only holiday that the non-Jewish world is consistently knowledgeable of the timing of, even if it’s only because Chanukah is considered as the “Jewish Christmas.” To be fair, though, lots of Jews think of it that way, too. A little more on that below.

eighth night of chanukah; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

Chanukah technically commemorates the rededication of the second Temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century BCE after the Maccabean victory over the Seleucids in Syria, who had outlawed Jewish religious observance. (The name of the holiday is derived from the Hebrew verb for “rededicate.”) After the battle, the Maccabees were able to light the menorah in the Temple for eight nights even though they found in the temple only enough consecrated oil for one night. Others have written better than I about the various interpretations of this rather strange holiday, but what I’ve been thinking about this year is the “miracle” of the oil.

In the second prayer after candle lighting each night, we say, “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe, who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time.” I hadn’t thought about what that prayer really meant until this year, when the Maccabeats, the Yeshiva University a cappella sensation, released its annual Chanukah video. A cover of Matisyahu, the catchy song asks in its chorus, “Do you believe in miracles?”

Well, no. I don’t. At least not literally. I’m more of subscriber to Heschel’s dictum: “Pray as if everything depends on God, but act as if everything depends on you.”

What, then, do I make of the story of the small cruse of oil that lasted beyond what it should have? I don’t have the answer I want . . . yet. I hope that when I’m in rabbinical school I’ll be able to access textual and historical criticism of the sources for the holiday. At the very least, I can say now that the holiday’s proximity to the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, perhaps accounts for the emphasis on light.

zechariah 4:6; print from my grandmother

For now, I really like what Michael Strassfeld says in The Jewish Holidays:

[T]he meaning of Hanukkah is that the miracle of that first day was the deep faith that it took to light the menorah, knowing their was not enough oil for eight days [the time that it would have taken to consecrate more oil]. The same faith led the Maccabees to revolt against impossible odds . . . They believed they would prevail “not by strength, nor by power, but through My spirit — says the Lord.” This faith allowed them to light the menorah, and it is this faith that made it burn for eight days.

The “miracle” becomes the commitment of the Maccabean army to principle — and its willingness to fight with only the slimmest hope of success. I can relate to that layer of meaning.

Despite my annoyance at the disproportionate importance given to Chanukah by the non-Jewish world, I do tend to associate Chanukah and Christmas together in my mind. There’s the obvious: Chanukah begins on the 25th of Kislev, as Christmas begins on the 25th of December. And Christmas commemorates its own miracle, the virgin birth of the son of G-d. (I imagine there are Christians who believe that, too, might not be literal.) More personally, my grandfather died at the end of 2004. His birthday was on Christmas (he would have been 93 this year), and he died on the first day of Chanukah (which that year was December 7, Pearl Harbor Day). I now look forward to the holidays at the end of the year to remember him on both his yahrzeit and his birthday. As the rabbis finally answer, Zot chanukah (this is Chanukah).