From Rebirth to Rebirth

Art by Esther Pollak

The time between Purim and Pesach…

Fasts, costumes, food, cleaning, more fasts and more food…

From celebration to celebration, from rebirth to rebirth, from the re-establishment of national identity and the reclaiming of national pride to the birth of a nation. It’s a loaded time—emotionally, spiritually and, of course, physically. A time to clean our houses, our souls and our hearts. A time to grieve loss, and a time to celebrate rebirth. It is also probably the most emotionally challenging time for me.

It was a time not only of our national celebration, but also of our personal one…each year added a new ring to the spiral in the infinite passing of time.

Pesach has been my favorite holiday since I was a little girl. I felt the freedom and the birth of our nation so deeply and felt so connected to it, likely because I was born in the former Soviet Union, where freedom of any sort was an unknown bird, a phantom who flies overhead and sprinkles rainbow dust that turns to gray mud before it even hits the ground. I grew up in a family where our national identity was not only not hidden or feared, but it was also celebrated—or as celebrated as it could be in the country that killed rabbis, mohels and all the Torah teachers it could lay its hands on. In a country where, every year, my mom or grandma would leave in the middle of the night to stand in line for matzah at the only remaining synagogue, and before they left, they would say their goodbyes, as the gathering was monitored by the KGB, and we never knew what might happen that night. The matzah they brought back had its holy status for obvious reasons, but also, I’m sure, due to the effort it took in obtaining it.

When we came to the States and had our first officially kosher seder, my mother told our hosts in her broken English that we, in fact, had come out of slavery and were truly free for the first time ever. I was a child, and I didn’t know or understand everything that they had lived through, but I knew that every year, as we sat down and had our seder, my mother’s eyes (the woman who never, ever cried in front of me) would fill up with tears that could melt the clouds, as she thanked HKB”H for taking her and her family out of slavery and into freedom.

As the years went on, I always looked forward to Pesach, cleaning and all. It was a time not only of our national celebration, but also of our personal one, and it was definitely our favorite holiday. My mother took cleaning to a whole new level when Pesach came around. (I don’t even know how that was possible, as on any regular day, you could eat off her floors. This is, unfortunately, not a quality I have inherited.) Many happy years passed around that seder table, bringing in additional family members, and watching others depart. Each year added a new ring to the spiral in the infinite passing of time.

Then my mother got sick with a disease that took her away within 7 months. She passed away right before Purim. She passed as she lived—quietly, and with immense dignity, surrounded by the people she loved most. Shiva and burial were a blur for me; a blur of numbing disassociation, as my mind and body refused to believe what my heart knew. I functioned, took care of my little kids, answered questions, participated in conversations which I have zero recollection of. As the Rav walked my brother and me around the block next to my house as we got up from shiva, I felt myself descend back into my body, and the pain hit me like a wave and  swallowed me—I was free-falling, with no bottom in sight. Suddenly, my mother’s words came to me. They were words she had said to me long before she got sick. “When the tsunami of pain comes, don’t fight it; let it drag you down, and let it change you, as that’s the only way you can come out the other side stronger and more yourself.”

I remember every second of that Purim—every smile, every mundane conversation with my kids about costumes—and how I kept forcing one foot in front of the other, in a strange dance of must-do’s and have-to’s. Many people tried to be supportive, but it was all too much for me. Their kind but invasive stares, their whispers of pity which the wind carried to me, their conversations asking me how, why, and what kind of disease it was, as if my status as a doctor somehow erased my feelings as a daughter. They were all coming from a good place, and yet they were an immense burden on me. All I wanted was to crawl into my bed and hibernate for months. But I had commitments to keep, and children to raise, and a husband to partner through life with. I had no luxury for self-pity and no time to self-indulge or to grieve, despite the fact that I badly needed to.

When the tsunami of pain comes, don’t fight it; let it change you, as that’s the only way you can come out the other side stronger and more yourself.

Pesach came early that year. I have no idea who cleaned. I can tell you with 100% certainty that it wasn’t me. All I know is that erev Pesach, I walked into our sparkly, foil-covered kitchen and smiled a real smile for the first time, as I remembered how my mom had laughed every year at seeing our “dressed up” kitchen. Her laughter was always infectious; it would tickle your insides and rise to your heart, where it would warm you up all over, before spilling out of your eyes and meeting hers…

That first Pesach, I didn’t talk about my mom’s journey to freedom. I didn’t talk about her dedication to keeping her faith and traditions alive in a country which killed or imprisoned anyone with open Zionistic or religious inclination. I didn’t talk about her passion for her people, or her ultimate wish that her children and grandchildren would remain Jewish in a world where such ideas were considered treason against the state. It was too painful to speak about; the words like razors, never slipping from my mouth, but, nevertheless, cutting my heart. Years passed before this numbing pain gave way to grief, before I was able to cry and grieve for this incredible woman whom I was honored to know and love. I am so amazingly blessed to have had her as a mother.

Now, as the holidays approach, and so does her yahrzeit, I will once again try to read Kaddish in memory of her beautiful soul, wishing and praying that she gets the aliyah which she so deserves, and that her memory remains a gift for me, my brother, our children and all those who loved her. I will once again thank HKB”H for His incredible gifts—for granting me a childhood in the light of her love, for allowing me to know what bravery looks like, for giving me a mother who was—and forever remains—a true guide and teacher, whose love always built me up and whose advice always came from the heart. I will not ask Him anymore why she had to go, why my children will not remember her, why she was taken. Instead, I will promise Him, yet again, that I will tell my children about her, and keep her memory alive in their hearts as it is forever burning in mine. I will remember my promise to her—which has since become a prayer—that my children know what it means to be Jews, that they live the ways of Torah, and that they understand that in this life, the scariest, hardest choices are usually the right ones. I pray that they choose to bring a bit more light into this world of ours, just as she did.

As Pesach rolls around, we will sit at the seder, and when the time comes to talk about freedom and rebirth, I will—fighting my tears once again—tell my kids about the fight for freedom and the ultimate rebirth that our family has undergone many times over. I will speak about their grandmother’s own trek through the dessert of the Soviet’s emotional and spiritual extermination of our people. They will remember the amazing woman she was, and she will see us from wherever she is and know that we remember her, are honored to be her descendants and love her, always.