Millions of Americans are celebrating holidays early this week, although our Christian neighbors may not know much about the Jewish High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah now and Yom Kippur yet to come) and the Eid al-Fitr (the festive family feast days that end the fast of Ramadan).
One spiritual lesson we all share is the need — whatever our faith tradition may be — to periodically examine and refresh our religious commitments.
Today, we’re reminded of that lesson by guest writer Debra Darvick, whose book, “This Jewish Life,” is widely recommended as a great choice for people who want to learn more about the everyday feel of life in Jewish communities. If you enjoy ReadTheSpirit, you’ll find Debra’s book a similarly engaging collection of dozens of stories about real people. Click on the cover or the title of her book to learn more.
For the High Holidays, Debra has sent us, “Polishing Souls and Silver,” a wonderful story about a holiday custom in her household that we think you’ll find familiar, whatever your background may be.
SOULS AND SILVER
BY DEBRA DARVICK
some Jews, the merest whiff of a roasting brisket or simmering chicken
can evoke a flood of High Holiday memories. For me, it’s not brisket
or chicken, or even the spicy aroma of a fresh-baked honey cake. Odd
as it may seem, my magic key to the past is the sweetly acrid smell of
silver polish. One sniff and I am at my mother’s kitchen table
feverishly polishing the silver in anticipation of our High Holiday
company. She would snag me from late-summer idleness, propelling me
into the kitchen. The holidays were bearing down on her, the silver
was dull. It was time to get to work.
days the scent also reminds me of the days long past when my children
were young. I would snag them from their own late-summer idleness and
usher them into the kitchen to help with the polishing. They fussed
initially — Why do we have to do it? — but soon enough were happily
smearing slippery pink paste, vying to see who could come up with the
blackest polishing cloth, the shiniest silver.
we worked I was struck by the similarity to what we go through with
such intensity during the High Holidays — the polishing up of
ourselves. We vow to remove the tarnish of our faults so that others
can see our God-given shine. We promise to polish our characters so
that we can become vessels for good.
Some pieces are easier to work on than others. My favorites
are the children’s baby spoons. Two swift swipes and they are done,
bright as the toddlers who dipped them into countless bowls of oatmeal
and strained fruit. How much tarnish can settle upon a child? Looking back, it seems so simple to keep little ones sparkling: love
them; laugh with them; bathe, feed, and clean them and they shine with
their own inner light.
The older our children get, the harder it is to keep them
polished. Not only can they speak, they do. Frequently. They have
their own ideas about how their world should be structured. They
sometimes let their mother’s polish — a loving amalgam of advice,
discipline, and affection — trickle from their surfaces like beads of
chilled water on a glass. I know I must guard against seeing only the
tarnish and not the sweet light that emanates from them.
Putting them to work on their Kiddush cups
(wine goblets), I take up a fruit bowl from my grandmother’s sister.
Long and low, it is shaped like a small halved melon and is festooned
at each end with a cluster of grapes and leaves. As beautiful as it
is, it is a dangerous piece. The grape leaves are sharp and I have cut
myself more than once in a moment of carelessness.
Polishing it, I am reminded of a prayer our family recites each
Sabbath “….Keep us gentle in our speech. When we offer words of
criticism, may they be chosen with care and spoken softly.” Cloth in
hand I think back to the times I have been too quick to correct, the
times I have been anything but gentle. With the grape leaves, as with
my loved ones, I have learned to ignore a little shadow of tarnish. It
adds depth, distinction. The bowl is no worse for my reining in my
polishing fervor. Neither are those I love.
My husband’s Kiddush
cup, a gift from my mother, was the only piece of sterling we received
when we married. In 1980 the cost of silver was astronomical and my
mother, among all those in attendance, could least afford the
extravagance of that gift. My cloth slides easily against its simple
curves. Used each week, it needs little work; when I finish it, it
gleams bright as it did on our wedding day years ago. Each Friday
my husband raises this sterling goblet and we sing the blessing as a
family, banishing any crises and peevishness that tarnished the week.
Each Friday I am reminded just how full my cup really is.
My husband and I purchased silver candlesticks for ourselves on our first wedding
anniversary. They have seen us through many a Shabbat and I reflect
with satisfaction on how our Sabbath ritual has evolved from a simple
dinner and three brief prayers, to a joyous family meal, replete with
blessings over the children and the inclusion of the Eshyet Chayil (Woman of Valor) and a prayer honoring my husband.
our children hear my husband read, “A woman of valor seek her out for
she is to be valued above rubies;” or when they hear me recite,
“Blessed is the man who reveres the Lord … his descendants will be
honored in the land. …” I hope they internalize the importance our
tradition places on marriage and on appreciating one another.
The bulk of our silver comes from my grandparents. Their home was not steeped in Jewish ritual, but the ruach, the Jewish spirit, was always there.
I think of my grandfather —
committed Zionist, tireless fighter for civil rights, storyteller
par excellence, possessor of a contagious joie de vivre. What a
tradition to uphold! Have I done enough to carry on his legacy? My
grandmother, when she was stronger, was the community’s balebost (homemaker par excellence) against whom all others were measured. The standing joke was that even the edges of her blintzes (crepes)
were folded into hospital corners. I scrub a little harder remembering
her standards, then ease up as I remind myself she sent us the silver
not only as a housewarming present, but because she was “just a tad
tired of polishing it all.” The greatest gift they gave me was their
unconditional love. I never had to be the best or the smartest or the
prettiest. I existed and therefore was loved. Drying the heavily
wrought handle of a water pitcher, I say a silent prayer of thanks for
having had two such remarkable grandparents.
glance over at my son and daughter, hard at work on their small silver
cups. My son’s was made by a distant cousin on my husband’s side. Its
surface is etched with scenes from a pre-war village in Poland. The
cousin perished in the Holocaust, his death a part of Hitler’s final
solution. I gain a measure of satisfaction knowing this unnamed man
has lived on in his work. His cup is a strong symbol that tyrants
cannot vanquish us.
My daughter’s cup, a gift from my sister-in-law, is a contemporary
footed goblet, washed inside with gold. It is a cup to be grown into,
much like her Jewish heritage. I had her name engraved on it with a
ulterior motives: that the cup will one day grace her own Shabbat
table, that when she sips from it each Friday, she will savor in some
corner of her soul memories of the Shabbat meals of her childhood.
children’s shouts of — “Haven’t we done enough, Mommy?” — break into my
“Yes,” I tell them skimming over a spot here and there, “We
enough. Let’s put everything back and go for some ice cream.”
ferry the goblets and tableware from kitchen to dining room, I hope
for a year of unsullied brightness.
I know I hope in vain.
will creep over the fruit bowl and the baby spoons just as our day to
day lives will be coated with an occasional veneer of impatience,
frustration, and misunderstanding.
Nevertheless, I take comfort in
the knowledge that as Jews, we are given the opportunity to begin each
new year with gleaming intent.
CARE TO READ MORE?
Visit Debra’s own Web site, where she writes about Gardening, Motherhood, Books and the Writing Life.
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(Published in the ReadTheSpirit online magazine.)