Judaism, Heritage and Family
by Rev. Gina Rose Halpern, D.Min.
As I have worked these past days to create the illumination for our study of Judaism, I have placed myself back into the living history of my family and my tribe, extending all the way back to Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar.
As Tevya, the father in Fiddler on the Roof, sings, it’s all about “TRADITION!” We Jews, from orthodox to secular, are a culture based in family and tradition. My parents, at 87 and 89, can sing every word to the score of “Fiddler on the Roof”. For some of us it was a nice musical, while for them it is the story of our family.
Even today, Judaism draws from its roots of being a tribal culture: gathering at celebrations with traditional food and gathering at moments of suffering with the comfort of familiar faces, family and stories.
As I meditated on the images for this month’s illumination I gathered the physical expressions of my family. I have my great-great-grandmother’s Shabbos candlesticks. I don’t remember anyone in our family ever praying the Friday night prayers, but every Friday night of my childhood we would go to my grandmother’s for Friday night dinner. On the way we would stop at the only Jewish deli and buy bagels, before bagels became a widely known staple of everyday American life.
These fragrant onion-covered treats represented my Jewish heritage as much as the golden chicken soup with matzoh balls that my grandmother made, or her famous colored party jello mold with canned Delmonte fruit cocktail.
I have been painting from the black and white photographs of my grandmother and my grandfathers. As I look into the eyes of my ancestors, I see their twinkle gazing back at me, a reminder that life and survival were celebrated in the midst of hardship. When my grandmother was 18 years old, and all alone, she left her Russian village and made her way across Europe to America. Her name was Rose, and each time I say my whole name, Gina Rose, I invoke her spirit of strength, kindness, nurturance, gentleness and unconditional love.
My father’s father was a cantor who sang his way across Europe, fleeing persecution. He sang from temple to temple, synagogue to synagogue, community to community, all the way to America where he settled in Philadelphia and became a peddler. He and my grandmother opened a blouse shop in Philadelphia and he would draw mandalas, folk patterns, on the shirt cardboards. When I look at his face, I see the furrow between his brows that I still carry—part of a heritage of anxiety and survival.
When I turned 50, I asked my parents for two things: my grandmother’s Shabbos candlesticks and my father’s prayer shawl from when he was bar mitzvahed. The candlesticks were tarnished and black, so my mother said, “Let me polish them for you.” But I said, “No—that tarnish is the living legacy of all the use they have seen through our family.” And so the candlesticks, as I look at them now, are almost black with age. Because they are ornate, their glorious twinkle and sparkle shines out from under the tarnish. These parts of my heritage, as well as photographs of my family, are some of my greatest treasures.
My father followed in his father’s footsteps and the drawings on the backs of the shirt cardboard became my father’s vocation as artist and graphic designer. The backdrop for this illumination is a painting that I grew up with, painted by my father. The ruins of some long-ago temple with arched doorways and roofs gone, open to the sky.
This painting that hung on the wall of my childhood home, carried me back and back into the landscape of my ancestors. When I went to Israel on a pilgrimage to find the roots of my faith, when I placed my forehead against the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem to pray, I felt as if I had walked into my father’s painting—into the living landscape of my own ancestry that has configured my very DNA.
And so the spiral DNA of heritage, passed down from generation to generation, appears in my painting, symbolized by the woven strands of a golden loaf of challah, the traditional bread of the Friday night meal. In this illumination, my hand reaches out to touch the challah, and in doing so, I am touching all of my grandmothers and all of my grandfathers, going all the way back to Abraham and Sarah and Hagar.
Last night I went to sit Shiva, the traditional time of mourning, for my brother-in-law, who died suddenly of liver cancer. He was 57 years old and his mother, still living, was a holocaust survivor, who married the soldier who liberated her in Germany. All these years later they are still married and grieving the loss of their only son, a wonderful man, an urban planner, someone who loved the environment and was nothing but good in this world.
As we gathered together as family and community in their living room, crying, laughing, eating, and telling stories, I felt the flow of my ancestry. As a people we have always been persecuted. As human beings we suffer. We argue with God, we try to make meaning, but the ultimate meaning that we make is this dedication to life, to family, to tradition, to survival, and to being good humans—loving, creative survivors.
Today I paint. Tonight I will light my grandmother’s Shabbos candlesticks and I will give gratitude to my ancestors:
“Because of you, I am. Thank you, my grandmothers; thank you my grandfathers; thank you my beloved mother; thank you my beloved father. Bless you, my brother and all of your children; bless you my cousins and your children.”
May we continue to pass down these stories that honor the lives that have come before us. And may we light the candle of hope in our hearts and for the world, making meaning to celebrate our existence.
Rev. Dr. Gina Rose Halpern is the founder of The Chaplaincy Institute.