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On Mother’s Day, Honoring My Mom, Our Judaism, and the Next Phase of Life

On Mother’s Day, Honoring My Mom, Our Judaism, and the Next Phase of Life

Hand of an elderly person held by the hand of a younger person

I think I have the only mother who is going into assisted living without complaining.

Yes, she’s sad. She will desperately miss her three close friends, with whom she grew up in Albany, N.Y., and who all moved down to her town in south Florida. She questions whether she will see her brother and sister-in-law again. While she will only be moving three hours north, this will be too long a drive for her elderly friends and relatives. She will mourn the beautiful view of the ducks on the pond, right outside her patio window. And she will loathe giving up her privacy and quiet.

But, at 89, and suffering from scoliosis which makes it difficult to breathe and hold up her body for any length of time, my mother realizes that she can’t live comfortably on her own. More importantly, we worry about her not being near at least one of us, her children, should there be an emergency.

My mother cannot bear to cause us any angst. But, living in any of our homes is not an option she would consider. Instead, she will be moving to a lovely, resort-like facility in central Florida, 10 minutes from where my oldest brother lives.

The trip up north is too exhausting for her these days, but she was fortunate to be able to go to her brother’s home to celebrate Passover. We FaceTimed for the second seder as she cheerfully offered the prayer in Hebrew over the bitter herbs and joined in singing “Eliyahu HaNavi.” I have sweet memories of lying with her on her bed when I was no more than four or five as she taught me the Four Questions, in Hebrew. I was sure that the word “m’subin” (leaning) in the Fourth Question was a lovely lady (Miss Sue Bean).

My whole Jewish identity I attribute to my mother and her mother, before her. My grandmother, who had to quit school after the eighth grade, was a fixture in the synagogue when my mother was growing up. Despite my mother being the only girl in her Hebrew school class, my grandmother ensured that she had a religious school education. And in the early 1940s, with little fanfare, my mother became a bat mitzvah.

The rabbi in the Conservative synagogue of my youth was not inspiring. My mother was. Shabbat meant special dishes, eating in the dining room, being allowed to drink soda, wearing my party shoes, and going to "junior congregation" (children's services). It meant no laundry and no homework. Yes, her rules were idiosyncratic, but it was how we kept the Sabbath holy. When my grandfather died when I was 9, my mother said Mourner’s Kaddish for a year and each week took me to a different synagogue on Long Island to provide an adventure and “keep it interesting.”

Tikkun olam (repairing the world), while not a term we used when I was young, was always modeled by my mom. She would take me door to door as we sought donations for various charities, and even today she never misses an opportunity to give to honor any occasion.

After my father died in 2006, my mother sought community and joined a Reform synagogue. She started attending Torah study regularly, and comfortably recited the blessings when she was called up to the Torah. One year, for the High Holidays, she was asked to chant the prayers before and after the Haftarah. She impressed many and her pride was immeasurable.

Lately, going to synagogue has been more difficult for her, and the advent of livestreaming services has been a lifesaver. When she needs to say Kaddish for a loved one, she goes online, turns to her mother’s siddur, and reads the prayer.

One of my mother’s biggest concerns in moving to Central Florida was whether there would be Jews in her “new home.” While she has always lived in communities with some diversity, she knew she would feel some comfort in a strange place if she could find the company of people with a shared heritage and sensibilities. When she visited, one of the first residents she met was a Holocaust survivor, followed by a Jewish man from Long Island (where I grew up), and a Jewish woman who promptly invited her to join her book club. She was relieved, as were we.

The Jewish holidays, however, will no longer be an issue. My mother will be with my oldest brother’s family. She is never happier than when she is with her children and grandchildren. When my other brother and our families can make it down to Florida, she will revel in our all being together. And my oldest brother and his wife and daughter can visit her regularly and include her in all occasions.

I will have the pleasure of visiting her for Mother’s Day. I will help her settle in and be incredibly grateful that we did not have to drag her from her former home for the safety of her current one.

And I have the perfect housewarming gift for her: a mezuzah, to affix to her door to keep her safe and blessed and connected to our Jewish people.

This piece is adapted from the original, which first ran in the New Jersey Jewish News. It is republished here with permission.

Paula Kaplan-Reiss is a member of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, N.J. She is a psychologist and the author of The Year I Lost My Breasts… and Got Some New Ones, A Breast Cancer Blog.

Paula Kaplan-Reiss
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