It’s a few weeks before the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. I’m in a hospital room with my mother, who is dying of renal failure brought on by Alzheimer’s. My father and I do the little things; getting mom to eat, washing her feet, and trying not to look at each other. I marvel at my mother’s eyes, deep and dark and set on high cheekbones. She looks so much like her brother. How could I have missed that before?
We are in New Jersey and the hospital is understaffed, so everyone is ignoring us. I am trying to set things up so we can bring my mother back home, but it is slow going. My father and I came here this morning in a taxi, as he is no longer able to drive and sold his car. I look up at the door, hoping something or someone will propel me out of it, and then I see a little girl.
She is tiny, maybe four years old, following her mother down the hall. Her hair is curly and red, like mine at that age, and she carries a basket of treats and New Year’s cards. Her mother wears a blue headscarf and a long dress and stockings. And suddenly this hospital, which I was cursing under my breath just a moment ago, seems a little less bad.
“Happy New Year!” the little girl chirps. Her mother gives us a card, and when I open it I find a number to call if you need rides to the hospital. I ask the woman about this, and she tells me to call her Shoshanna. If my father and I need rides today, she says she will be happy to help.
The girl’s name is Rachel. She and her mother belong to a branch of Jewry we call Hasidism. The word comes from the Hebrew word hesed, which means loving kindness. Hasidim are also called “ultra orthodox” and other terms less flattering, depending on who you talk to. For a long time they were seen as outlaws in the Jewish faith, at war with the established orthodoxy. Now, they are the orthodoxy, which probably would have made their founder smile.
Rachel is growing up in a world that stays close to its roots in the 18th century. She will wear long dresses, will be likely to marry young and will cover her hair with a scarf. Her husband and she will be part of a community that focuses on observing the Torah commandments (mitzvot), which means all 613 of them.
My observance, on the other hand, is much more haphazard. I went to an orthodox day school where I learned the Alef-Bet, the daily prayers and holiday observances. My mother did not take me to visit the sick at Rachel’s age—though we did visit my gravely ill aunt and brought her a honey cake for the New Year. But the home I grew up in was not an observant one. And today, watching Rachel, I get hungry for the kind of childhood she has.
I know I am romanticizing; I would probably chafe under all the restrictions Rachel lives with every day. But right now, with my mother’s papery hand in mine, I long for something solid and permanent, some way to find eternity in the life I see disappearing before my eyes.
Rosh Hashanah is coming, and I don’t know if my mother will survive it. In fact, we will talk on the phone after she goes home from the hospital and I return to Minnesota. I plan to go back after the holidays, but by then it will be too late. This week is all we will have.
Rachel offers me a cookie, and I realize I haven’t eaten since breakfast. I ask if she wants a piece and she nods, but her mother says they will be leaving soon. Rachel trots off behind her mother, bringing cards and food baskets to other rooms around the floor. A few minutes later Shoshanna asks if we want a ride home. It is close to five o’clock and my father is exhausted.
Shoshanna leads us out to her car and I ride in the back with Rachel. The sun shines her curls up like copper and she stares at me, wondering why I don’t wear a scarf like her mom. Am I married? In fact I am, but don’t observe the rules of modesty. Of course I am imagining all this; we haven’t said a word to each other. I smile at Rachel, who looks at me solemnly without smiling back.
I cannot tell her about my mother, and I know all she saw today was a frail old woman in a hard white bed. When I was Rachel’s age the safest place in the world was my mother’s lap, and if it was New Year’s we would be surrounded by relatives. I turn my head and look out the window, trying to stop the memories. I start to imagine Rachel’s life instead.
She may have a lot of brothers and sisters; I had only one. She has never tasted anything that isn’t kosher and probably never will. On Rosh Hashanah she will sit with her mother in synagogue (she will call it shul) in a section specifically set aside for women and girls. She will not necessarily have to say prayers as she grows up because women’s roles are more focused on family; yet somehow I think she will.
Rosh Hashanah begins the start of Ten Days of Awe, and each day, Rachel will learn, is an opportunity to look at who you are and where you are going, as well as where you have been. It is a gateway to how you are inscribed in the Book of Life for another year, and it asks you to make choices and maybe change how you live and what you think about. It is a time that encourages us to ask questions, as I am asking when I look into my mother’s eyes.
This Rosh Hashanah, I am thinking about Rachel. I am thinking about how I wanted her life while I watched my mother leaving it. If it was up to me, Rachel would never know any losses; she brought me so much brightness on a day that was so dark. She will probably never know how much she and her mother did for us and others in that hospital. I will never forget them; I have never been able to thank them.
I guess that’s what happens to us.