May 14, 2015

Happy Birthday, eema mommy. Where are you?

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.

In New York City, where your journalist-scholar father was an official of the 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,


Elana said...

Tami!What a beautiful tribute to Your Ema. I am very touched and though there's a lot of sadness for the losses -yours and hers you know how to express appreciation, respect and love for what she was. I wish Your Ema could read your tribute. I think it would make her very Happy and Proud of you ,her daughter. Much love to you, Elana Tel-Aviv

Anonymous said...


JeSais said...

what a beautiful tribute. how blessed you are. both of you.

j. brotherlove said...

Wow. This is such a touching and beautiful tribute. I am at the age where I am coming to terms with my parents aging.

Know that your mother's trumphs will always live within you and - thanks to the beauty of the web - we can all share some of that light.

littlepurplecow said...

Oh, Tamar, this is so beautiful. Your best post. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself. How I wish she could experience this with you.

Penelope Trunk said...

Lovely, Tamar. Thanks for sharing -- and for reminding me to ask my mom more questions!


Sherry D. said...

It warmed my heart to read your words of honor and love for your mother. So beautiful.

BronzeBuckaroo said...

I don't even know where to begin. I almost feel like an intruder invading your space, your privacy, your heart and soul. How can one not be touched by these words and not take time out to think about their own dear loved ones? Beautiful! Beautiful, touching, and haunting.

Claude said...

What a beautiful tribute to your mother. Thanks for sharing

Stefan said...

Dear Tamar,

what a wonderful birthday present! words of love and respect. thanks for sharing. i LOVE the picture of you two. you look great! thanks for introducing your mom to me, now i know more about her - and you.

all the best from vienna

Tamar Orvell said...

Thank you, dear visitors, for reflecting on my post, whether leaving a comment, sending me an email, or processing silently. Nearly a year of blogging and visiting others' blogs (for courage and inspiration) preceded this, my first shift to a more personal voice. I didn't anticipate the gifts that would follow for me and for you (some of whom are virtual pals in the blogosphere!).

Among the email messages:

"I was so self-involved to appreciate now lost opportunities…”

“Oh my... I could have written so much of it...”

“I opened your blog looking for something interesting and found [the post]. it was sad, touching and strange. we all, even an old lady(?) like me, getting to be 91 next sunday, G-d willing, would like to have a mother to talk to, to feel like a loved child once more. and there you are, left with the shell of the person who brought you into this world, having and not having a mother. sad.”

Stefanie said...

I am very impressed with your intelligent, sensitive writing on your blog. I was especially touched by what you wrote on your mother's birthday.

Anonymous said...

Shalom and Berachot Lach...Tamar
Seepur Yafeh Meod...Todah for sharing your Emah's story.

Janet said...

Good afternoon, Tamar --

I just re-read your blog post about your mother. I had forgotten that her b'day is May 14 (our anniversary -- 21 years, this year. YIKES!).

Anyway, I found your post moving and interesting the first time, and I found it to be a thought-provoker yet again.

Hugs to you,


John said...

Aloha Tammy: I thank you for sharing your rich cultural history and sensitive insight.


Pete said...

Thank you for this post, Tamar. It reminded me of my own mother in many way (although the superficial details of her life and your mother's life could hardly be more different).

My mother passed away 10 years ago, but she has really been gone for something like 15 years. Dementia took her away, yet left her body (and my responsibilities for her care) alive.

At the very end of her life, she demonstrated the dry, dry wit that I had seriously undervalued. About four hours before she died, she cracked a joke worthy of Groucho Marx. I smile every time I think of it. I'd share it here, but there is too much back story necessary to make it intelligible.

Lirun said...

it is beautiful.. and now my throat is locked..

sounds like she had some amazing השגחה going on..

שרה בכר said...

שלום תמר

תודה על ששלחת אלי במיוחד, את דברי ההספד המרגשים בתכנם ובצורתם ומענינים בפני עצמם כתיאור של תולדות דור שלם של יהודים המחפשים לעצמם מקום בעולם במיוחד הסבא והסבתא הורי אמך שכמוהם רבים רבים עם כל מטאן האינטחיגנציה והמסורות הנפלאות והאהבות הרבות, הלכו ואבדו בעשן השואה. אולי לכך התכוונה האישה ש כתבה שאמא שלך זכתה בהשגחה מיוחדת במינה. לא רק ההצלחות והדרך מלאת המאבקים שעחוותה ועברה בחייה אלא עצם ההישרדות של משפחה יהודית מודרנית ומסורתית שבצד ההצלחה החומרית תמיד הגשימה גם התפתחות רוחנית וחיפוש אידאלים בחיי היום יום.

גם אני מרגישה כמו אותו איש שכתב לך , שבעצם קריאת
דבריך הכנסת אותי לתוך החדרים הפנימיים הפרטיים ביותר שלך. אני לא " אינטרודר" כמו שהוא הגדיר אבל לבטח אני זוכה ב"כרטיס" ללמידה של נפשך במעמקיה. תודה לך על האמון תודה לך על הפתיחות ותודה לך על שיתופי בצערך ובחוויית האובדן . תמיד ישארו חללים ריקים שאיש כבר לא יוכל למלא. זו תחושתי גם ביחס ל מות אמי . כשהיא נפטרה הייתי בחדר בו ניסו להחיותה היא הייתה אז אישה צלולה מלאת אינטליגנציה. תפסתי בראשה שהיה עדין חם וצעקתי:" לאן הולכת עכשיו כל החוכמה שלך?" לא יכולתי להסכים לוותר על כל מה שהיה לה עוד לתת לי. וזו תחושה שמלווה אותי עדיין 24 שנים אחרי שנפטרה. תודה שוב ותתחזקי בנפשך מתוך חכמתך וממעגל חברייך וחברותייך תשאבי עידוד.

ממני שרה בכר

Tika said...

Hi Tamar,
A wonderful tribute to such a wonderful mum. Thanks for posting it.

Dvorah Smolensky Heckelman said...

Dear Tamar,

Thank you for sharing your sad news with me. I remember your Mother fondly as a young parent in Beth Hayeled. I was a very young teacher and you were one of my first students in Beth Hayeled, the school founded by your Father.(Z"L)

We all share a common ideology of the value and sanctity of each of our students and it was a priviledge to work in such an institution.

It is a source of great satisfaction to me that you have remained in touch and I value our friendship as we inform one another of our life's passages.

I hope we can meet person to person soon.

Hashem Yenachem etchem bain shor avlai tzion veyerushalyim

JeSais said...

so very sorry for your loss... what a treasure. and knowing what an amazing woman you are, your mother must have been proud of you.

Tulasi Ghimirey said...

Dear Tamar,

This morning I saw your blog and read the wonderful tribute ever I have read. What a good daughter you are.

As your mother will always be in peace coz she was a spiritual lady. This is being reflected by your nature.

You have stepeed out in any time....-No matter the day was sunny,cloudy,rainy or windy....Tamar was always there to help the poor and needy.

Especially my community has a personal connection with you. Today you are in pain and lost your mother forever.

Me and my family decided to light a candle for the departed soul. Let her soul rest in peace.

At the same time we pray the almighty to give enough support and courage to you. We did prayed for your long and a happy life.

We are so sure there is someone to comfort you in this hour of need. We miss you.

I read all the comments and found every words are lovely and soothing. I salute all this people for writing this wonderful comments.

Though I respect all female as my mother...but for sure it will be tough not having the most closest one"MOM"

Keep a strong faith and believe that you are in HOLYLAND.

And always keep your family tradition alive..the departed soul will rest in peace and harmony.

Tamar we love you.


Danny said...

What a beautiful letter. Your mother sounds like she was a truly amazing woman.

Anonymous said...

לתמר היקרה שלום,

מאוד מצטערת לשמוע על פטירת אמך.
לא משנה באיזה גיל "אמא זאת אמא"
ובודאי קשה, כשאת רחוקה ולא יכולה להשתתף בלוויה.
חשוב שהרגשת לפחות שמשהו מקריא דברים ונפרד בשמך.
זו באמת זכות להגיע לגיל זה ולמות בבית.
אני מקווה שנצליח עוד להתראות לפני חזרתך.

שולחים חיבוק גדול
רביבה,גבי מיכל ויובל

Angela said...


I am so sorry to hear of the loss of your dear mother. I read your blog post a few years ago when we first began corresponding and I was astounded by her many accomplishments, particularly as a woman of her generation, when opportunities were more difficult than they are today. Your tribute to her was beautifully and lovingly done, and it is so fitting that you had it read as her eulogy.

Even though your post was a way of "letting her go" a few years back, there is no age or illness that can prepare us for the loss of the one who is dearest to us. Please know that even though I never knew her, I grieve with you and am deeply saddened by your loss.

Thank you for sharing your memory of her with us and for including us in your beautiful tradition to honor her.

Much love,

Miriam Neumeier said...

when a mother dies it is like cutting once more the umbilical cord, no matter if to our knowledge only her body was still with us, we will never know if her ritired soul deep inside does not live her whole life again, the shell is closed, but the pearl inside lives and shines. even at my age, 93, I feel orphaned sometimes, and I suppose that is how you feel now.

המקום ינחם אותך בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים


Mayetta said...

What an incredible woman your Mother was; and what a long life she had! Now I see where you got all of your charisma! Thank you for sharing your tribute, the photo and the precious memories. The two of you resemble each other. I'm sure she and my Mom have gotten together by now. You have my deepest sympathy.
Mayetta Brown
Joe and Stella's daughter

BronzeBuckaroo said...

a beautiful tribute. I am one who enjoys a good biography more than works of fiction. Your mother's life, all her experiences, make for her own biography and the good read it certainly is. Thank you for sharring!

Can only imagined the folks she inspired. I mean, these words alone about her makes wished I could have known her and been inspired. Then, these words you sharred have caused her to inspire me now.

Tamar Orvell said...

Bronze, how wonderful your message. The bios that you publish on your grandmother and everyday s/heros inspire me endlessly, as do you. Thank you, friend.

Anonymous said...

My heart felt condolences. Your eulogy was powerful and exposed a beautiful sensitivity that spoke to the life of a remarkable woman spoken well from a remarkable daughter. I remember your mother with fondness.

Richard Mishkin

Riverwatch said...

Thank you for sharing this tribute to your mother. You shared those things that made her come alive for me. Thanks.
I just finished reading "My Promised Land" by Shavit. Perhaps that is why I am finding your blog fascinating.
Again, thanks.