Today marks the end of shiva—the first seven days of mourning after the funeral—for my mom. Always on trend, my mom died of complications related to COVID. Also because of COVID, there was nothing “normal” about the weeks before her death, when we couldn’t see her at all, or about her funeral or shiva, which were one hundred percent digital. (I now believe that Zoom shiva is the best shiva, but that’s a different essay for a different day.)
Anyway, my mom taught me how to sing, cook (“chop the onions and garlic and then decide what you’re making”), write, cultivate friendships, and, as it turns out, to be a Jew. I did not realize the full extent of all of this, especially the latter, until I heard the way people talked about her at the shiva gatherings this week. Anyway, I’ll stop talking and let my mom talk now. Inspired by Rabbi Sue Fendrick, with an assist by Rabbi Howard Jaffe, I am posting here a speech she gave at Temple Isaiah in Lexington, MA that says everything there is to say. Here goes. Her name is Florence Warshawsky Harris, z”l, 1937–2020. May her memory be a blessing. Thanks for reading.
My Jewish Journey
Lexington, MA, October, 2006
I am standing here today because of a question I once asked Rabbi Jaffe. He had not yet become our rabbi, and there was something important I needed to know about him. “How do you view congregants who don’t think they believe in God?” I asked. It was not a question he expected. But his answer was swift and sure. “With respect,” he said, in essence.
I was satisfied. Today he has asked me to answer a question. Why am I here? In a synagogue? Why for 34 years have I participated actively in an institution whose declared mission is “to worship God in accordance with the faith of Judaism” — a God whom I find very difficult to accept?
To respond, I must go back to the place and time that formed me — New York City in the 40s. My parents emigrated from Poland in the 1920s, drawn like millions of others to the gleaming, wide-open promise of a new life in a new world. That promise, the promise of America, was my cradle — and my temple.
According to my father, synagogues belonged in Europe, where Jews had nothing else. In America Jews don’t need synagogues; they have everything else.