My mother's astonishing life had been marked by prodigious talents, extraordinary adventures, and exceptional accomplishments. Yet devastating tragedies and losses tripped her soul on her long, long journey to today, her birthday. In 2010, when Margalit Bernstein Brill... Chipkin... Balin would have turned 99, it was instead the day of her funeral.
Three years earlier, on May 14, 2007, feeling both burdened and inspired by the ghosts of my mother's then 96 years, I wrote her a letter and published it here. I shared what I had learned from her life and from mine — chiefly, about the spiritual and material values of tradition, community, courage, and failure. I asked my oldest childhood friend (our mothers were closest friends) and another dear friend since high school (our families' connection dates to the young days of our mothers) to read for me this letter at her funeral. And what has become a hesped [Hebrew: eulogy], I am republishing.
Dear eema, mommy, ma, mother,
Today is your birthday. And no matter how I call to you, you appear neither to understand my words nor make sense of my voice. While you once spoke five languages fluently (German, English, Hebrew, Yiddish, French) and earned a master's degree in foreign languages and a license to teach French and German in New York City high schools (you soon quit, explaining, "I couldn't stand the endless ringing of the bells"), you stare blankly at me now, occasionally yawning.
I ponder a small photo, marked “Rosh Hashanah” on the back. Judging by my clothes, eyeglass frames (trying to look like Gloria Steinem), hairstyle, and phony sophisticate look (holding a glass of wine), I guess it was Rosh Hashanah 20 years ago. You, always pretty and dressed tastefully, are wearing your mother’s springtime necklace, the one I am wearing today.
It is a common regret that we do not ask enough questions while our parents can (if they want to) answer them. Was I too incurious to ask when I was younger? More likely, I was too busy with other things (mostly, my careers, my adventures, my selves) to probe into your fascinating life and signature ideas and ways. Until five years ago, I could hope for a clue — a name or place in your partial reply to my questions. Now, I rely on the few people still alive and alert that knew you before I did (or “was ready”) to help fill in the blanks that I know will never be filled. Not as you might have filled them.
A full life lived in many lands
The past dozen years, with your steadily decreasing faculties and increasing silence (you, the nonstop chatterbox whose talking often drove me crazy), I have been thinking a lot about your long full life: your multiple wanderings, passions, careers, and challenges. Soon after your birth, in Poland, to Russian-pogrom survivors, your father's work called him to Germany. (A journalist and activist, he was helping to secure for the Jewish people a safe haven in its ancient cherished homeland, the land of Israel — declared the State of Israel, in 1948.)
Next, the Leah Dinnen and Dr. Simon Bernstein family moved to Copenhagen (where you became a lifelong non-swimmer after local swim instructors dumped you into a net, then tossed it in the ocean — a local swim training “method”). Your preteen years in London forever rendered your spoken English hinting at the royal accent.
Finally, a home base
When you were a sweet sixteen, Lady Liberty, the "mighty woman with a torch... mother of exiles," greeted your family on New York City's Ellis Island. Here, USA immigration station agents in the great registry hall processed your family (among the 12 million immigrants in the 68 years it was in operation). Today, when I land in the Big Apple by airplane or catch a glimpse of the "mother of exiles," a lump tightens my throat: I imagine your maiden journey here: what might it have been like on that boat carrying war-, world-, and sea-weary, freedom-craving, hope-filled immigrants? And I wonder about your first moments and early years on these strange shores.
Zionist Organization of America, you attended and soon graduated from Evander Childs High School in the Bronx, and then earned BA and MA degrees at Hunter College in Manhattan. No small feats for an immigrant, especially a woman, in the third decade of the last century. Yet you were not just any woman.
Heiress to ancient Jewish
law and modern traditions
You adored your parents (as did I and almost everyone who knew them!). You were your daddy's girl, inheriting his values, passions, and talents: lifelong study and learning, writing, reveling with a wide circle of friends, an appetite for delicious food, a strong constitution, charm, warmth, and even a temper. (How proud of him you were, especially in his retirement when he labored lovingly, editing and annotating Hebrew medieval liturgical poetry, accessing the great collections of texts at the New York Public Library, Jewish Theological Seminary, and Hebrew Union College.)
And you were always vital: You married three times and became a widow the same number. You birthed two daughters in one hemisphere and raised them in another. You traveled widely in the USA, Europe, and, when the Former Soviet Union first admitted Americans, joined one of the first tour groups to go there. In your youth, you journeyed often to [the British Mandate for] Palestine (an entity from 1917-1948, when the State of Israel was declared). Here, as a young bride, you lived a decade during your first marriage until your beloved, my young father, died suddenly.
Wherever you were, you had endless appealing friends with whom you shared any of your wide-ranging interests: literature, theater, opera, museums and galleries, travel, folk dancing, playing piano (especially, your favorite Chopin sonatas), studying Jewish texts and modern Hebrew literature, film, ballet, and frequenting elegant shops, beautiful parks, and splendid gardens.
A long line of over-readers
When I reflect on my career choices (teaching, writing), and over-reading habits, I note that I now read online the print subscriptions (among them, The New York Times and The New Yorker) that you kept long after they ceased to hold your attention or to make sense. I look in the mirror, and I see my smile, my lips, my hair, and my build. Am I seeing you in me? Or is that image me in you?
Years ago, while you were fully present in spirit, you said that you felt like an ancient tortoise, and that you had accomplished and lived enough. Yet you are still here. And I sigh and don't know what to wish for you. Happy birthday, dearest one. I won't add, "many more."
But wait. A gift to touch your soul, as it had for decades. On my laptop and iPod, I play songs you once loved to hear in live performance. And I am channeling for you a video clip of Jerusalem scenes featuring kalaniyot [Hebrew: anemones], with Yemenite-born Israeli singer and cultural icon, Shoshana Damari, belting out her trademark song, Kalaniot.
Your loving daughter,