Temple Beth David was always one step away from collapse. A converted house in Van Nuys, the blacktop was more gray than black, the walls, though loved, were chipped from wear, and the roof leaked every Winter.
Still, my working class family attended Friday night services every week. In the small congregants’ room, boys got Bat Mitvah’d, Shofars got blown, and every child received a birthday blessing.
This honor, bestowed upon every six year old by our rabbi, was the holiest of holy to the under ten crowd. No longer were we relegated to the school room.
On the eve of our sixth year we were escorted into the sanctuary to sit beside our parents. Dressed in our finery we received the blessings of our people — in the form of a man whose wide eyes and thick black glasses made him look more like a kind tortoise than a wise leader. Still, it was a precious moment in our Jewish upbringing and my mother, in her knock off pearls and pillbox hat — this was 1965 after all — wore lace gloves for the occasion. While I, in a blue taffeta dress bought in the May Company basement, sat beside her feeling like a princess.
The rabbi standing at the bema paused long enough for we, “the future blessed” to get situated before resuming his liturgy of familiar melancholy songs.
“Baruch Ata Adenoi,” like a melodic shepherd, guided us into and through every Jewish celebration. Holidays, parties, even the deaths of those we’d loved began with those three words. They defined us.
“Blessed art thou, Lord our God…”
“Blessed art thou, Lord our God…”
“Blessed art thou, Lord our God…”
The words were repeated like a Hebraic metronome.
To my young mind, the repetition seemed contrary to the purpose.
If this God was so all powerful, couldn’t it hear better? Did it need us to keep saying, “Blessed are you…” Was God deaf? Or just needy?
But I kept these thoughts to myself as I was waited for the rabbi with the kind turtle eyes to cease his litany and bestow my blessing upon me.
My mother, sensing my impatience, placed a gloved hand on my knee in the universal sign for, “Sit still.”
But how could I with my blue taffeta dress floating around my lap like undulating waves?
Still, dutiful daughter that I was, I tucked my hands under my knees and attempted to box myself in. I willed the dancing butterflies in my stomach to cease but they fluttered to my chest, my hands, until at last the rabbi stopped singing and announced, “It’s time for the blessings. Cindy Marcus.”
I jumped to my feet, somehow alluding mom’s grasp, I raced up to the bema and stood before our leader.
“I’m ready,” I said.
Laughter rolled through the congregation in gentle waves.
The rabbi took a step back, chuckled slightly, “Uhm all right,” he said, “but we don’t usually do blessings on the bema.”
Instead of returning to my seat, I remained steadfast in my determination to receive my blessing up close and in person.
The rabbi, once again, looked uncertain how to proceed. He took a moment to gather his thoughts, then placed a hand on my head and said a prayer. Though no rainbows appeared in the night sky, something shifted in me. This small prayer on this ordinary Sabbath night was like arms engulfing me in a heritage that went back thousands of years. For the first time since coming to this sagging religious house, I felt warm and welcome.
I returned to my seat to find…my mother scowling.
Beneath the frayed netting of her hat was something akin to disappointment.
Shame flushed my cheeks. What had I done wrong? Why was she not proud of me?
The rest of the service was a blur, a welling of sadness that threatened to consume me. Somehow, I had done something that hurt her.
When we moved into the oneg, a gathering of food and fellowship after temple, mom kept my reins tights. I was not allowed to go play with the other children. The heat of shame spread to my entire body.
Then Dolores Udayke approached. A tall woman with a gray beehive hairdo. Mrs. Udayke was the kind of person who always had more laughter than candy to share, but an ample supply of both.
She commented on my tiny sojourn to the front of the temple.
Mom expressed her dismay. “No other child does that.”
Dolores’ response shifted something in my mother. “Well maybe they should,” she said. She tossed my hair and offered me a brightly wrapped cinnamon sweet.
Mom released me from her vice grip, sent me off to play. And since that day, has shared the story of my race to the bema at dinner parties and family gatherings. And always in her voice is a thread of pride. “Cindy just raced up there, stood before the rabbi,” she’d say.
After that Sabbath service, she never again wore those lace gloves.
Was it her small rebellion to a system that had roped her into a role she never wanted to play?
She too was a child of her upbringing. She grew up in a time where men and women were separated in prayer and walls kept Jews from the rest of society.
But that world changed. Taffeta gave way to tie dye.
Still, the grasp of that white lace glove remained.
It’s latticed fingers clutch at my throat, squelching my voice, telling me to stay down because blessings are for blonde, blue eyed girls, not their olive skinned sisters with big noses.
Jewish girls are not welcome at that table and if we are lucky enough to receive scraps we should count our selves blessed so move on.
The lesson of the lace glove taught me I best devour whatever meager blessings come my way, even if a banquet was two feet away.
And I have remained steadfast in my starvation, a tribute to mom’s values. Values my mother challenged but couldn’t bring herself to change because at some point her mother likely placed a glove hand on her lap and said, “Be still.” (Granted bubbe had a thick Russian accent and spoke a healthy amount of Yiddish, so it likely sounded more like, “Gud en oy, be schtill.”) But the meaning behind the message was clear, to chase a blessing is to risk shame. To run after your bliss will only bring bruised knees and broken bones that could have been prevented if you’d only accepted the protection of the gloved hand.
But we are all children, many of us in big bodies. Exploration is in our nature. Keeping our children safe doesn’t serve. Self esteem comes when we rise from a fall not run from it. Happiness follows accomplishment, and the harder the task the greater the feeling of success.
Yes, we become blistered when we put our finger in the flame but we learn healthy boundaries. We understand not to do that again because our internal wisdom, and a healthy dose of pain, has taught us so. This approach allows us to own the lesson. It becomes our own. And that is a source of empowerment.
When we shield ourselves from shame we can miss both the laughter and the love that erupted in that tiny congregant’s room.
As I look back, I wonder how many in that hall would have loved to run up to the bema and stand before our tortoise wise rabbi in his black robe with the matching yarmulke to have a one on one? He was our conduit to God after all — or so I believed at that time. His direct line to the big Kahuna, the all mighty, was a God send, pun intended. And to have that kind of connection to the all powerful would be amazing because I got a ton of questions and a pile of requests I’d like answered.
I don’t know know who I would have been had mom taken that same gloved hand and placed it behind my back to encourage me, the glove my ally and not my guardian. But playing the what if game is another tool of the glove isn’t it? What if takes our eyes off the prize and onto all the paths not taken. It’s an anchor to life’s chair. And in all fairness, there have been times when the gloved hand pointed me towards less mouth watering appetites which saved me. When Flip and I were flush and could have afforded a far larger home, we chose the more reasonable four bedroom in the cookie cutter tract, because we knew we could make the mortgage. There were desert trips I gave up for doctor appointments. The discipline of being a free lance writer is a gift of the white lace glove.
But the glove has always worn me, not the other way around.
I have never truly taken the gloves off, a loaded statement is there ever was one. My voice, my desires, my closet dreams have given way to the more pressing needs of others. If I put aside a day to write, it was sacrificed to the alter of errands, appointments and soccer games. My time for me has always been stolen moments found between doing dishes and planning next week’s dinner menus, despite the fact that I know if I go after my blessings more blessings will come. One daisy in a bud vase can become a field of wild flowers if I let it. A single word on the page morphs into seventeen when I open myself up to the bounty that is mine for the asking. I am a better person and dare I say it, closer to God, when I allow myself to ask for what I want.
After that night, a precedent was set. Other children raced up to the bema to receive their birthday blessing. We became a parade of little ones, all standing before the congregation to to a chorus of happy chortles, as our rabbi “Baruch ata adenoi’d” us.
We each received our bounty front and center in a room rich with love and companionship.
And that’s the golden ticket, isn’t it, (Not a question, that’s rhetoric), to stand before a group of family and friends as we receive our blessings.
Even if its not anyone else’s, it is mine.
So there. I said it.
I want to stand before a crowd of loved ones and say, “I’m here.” But instead of muted, gloved hand response, what I would like to hear is the unclothed, open skin, hand to hand, sound of loving applause.
And as I write these words, I flush with embarrassment. How could I, Cindy Marcus, whose dad was just a postal carrier and mom a secretary, whose grandparents fled persecution to find footing in a land of milk and honey, say, “Please bless me God.”
But if I don’t ask, who will?
And my hope is that God understands this and doesn’t shy from the request.
God lays God’s hand on my graying head and says, “I’ve been waiting. Welcome to the party.”