Dreams of My Mother, for One Last Passover
Pearl Abraham Navigates the Space Between Hijab and Hasidim
The hijab was standard head dress for women in old Palestine, Jewish and Muslim. My grandmother, a native of Palestine, wore it. The thin black fabric wrapped around her head made her framed face glow, a moon in the night sky. When she went out, she added the longer scarf with panels that draped down the sides of her face and continued past her shoulders. For everyday wear, the black panels were embroidered in crayola colors; for significant occasions, she wore elegant black on black; gold thread was for weddings. Under her hijab, unlike her Muslim sisters, my grandmother had no hair.
She gave birth 14, maybe 15 times. One brother, everyone’s favorite, died in the war for independence; another, a girl, died in infancy; two, in childbirth. Ten survived, including my mother. By the time I met my grandmother, her body had long relinquished the memory of a waist, and remained permanently round, a barrel. How I knew her was sitting in her old kitchen on R’chov Slonim, peeling brunjenas at the small wooden table, stirring a pot at the stove, resting on the balcony, her thick legs always snug in strict black boots, and raised up on a stool.
I was more than a little afraid of her. She returned the disfavor, called me a spoiled American brat because I gagged on the margarine she had substituted for butter on my slice of bread. She found me altogether too sensitive when after a too-short haircut that had been my mother’s bad idea, my grandmother suggested a boy’s yarmulke and I cried. Turning up the faucets, she called it.
Her dedicated sons visited daily, on their way to or from work. One helped her into her boots, lacing and tying them snugly every morning. Before he went to work the late evening shift at the Jerusalem Post, my grandfather unlaced them, shrugged them off her swollen feet and helped her into bed, after which he stopped to tuck us in. Our beloved grandfather, a man who told each grandchild—and there were many of us—that she was his favorite and to prove it brought special treats: colorful Tassasan straws one day, chocolate Creme-Bos the next. His wife died at 64. The medical cause: Complications of diabetes. Her frequent pregnancies—birth control was never considered—had exacerbated the disease.
In 2010, a group of orthodox women in Beit Shemesh, Jerusalem decided to take the veil: the hijab, as it is now famously known. Whether this was a sympathetic or competitive impulse, a desire to stand with their Muslim sisters or a wish to participate in the global controversy, remains unclear. Either way, their husbands did not appreciate the self-imposed increase in modesty and petitioned their rabbis to rule against it. The rabbinic committee agreed with the husbands, ruling against the hijab. Ostentatious modesty, they stated, is sometimes a form of immodesty.
A 2011 graph that maps levels of violence against women geographically shows hijab-wearing countries scoring highest in incidents of acid throwing, genital mutilation, breast ironing, rape, and more.
Female genital mutilation is an ancient purification ritual (taharah in Hebrew and Arabic) based on a Pharaonic version of genital cutting. Ancient Rome’s version was infibulation, in which a fibula or brooch was used to pierce and pin a woman’s vagina closed. The Jewish version of the taharah involves a seven-day count of post-menstrual non-bleeding “clean” days, followed by thorough bathing and grooming, including nail and hair clipping, and finally the baptism-like immersion in the cloudy waters of the mikveh. Under the watchful eyes of a woman designated for this ritual as the figure of authority, the bather submerges three times, and is pronounced “kosher, kosher, kosher” for sexual relations with her husband. A missed knot in the hair, the rabbis ruled, renders the monthly baptism unkosher. Weighing the rather symbolic purification of the so-called unclean woman against her very realistic hair, the rabbis chose to protect themselves. Hair, a woman’s glory, lost.
As a result, the Hasidic bride faces an ordeal: The morning after her wedding night, her mother and mother-in-law arrive to shave her head. To compensate the bride for the loss of this significant feature of beauty, her mother-in-law comes bearing a gift of jewelry.
Mothers and grandmothers are often the agents of punishing customs and rituals performed on young girls. In the most disturbing scene of Infidel, the Somali-born Dutch Parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoir, the grandmother arranges to have an extreme version of the painful female genital mutilation performed on her granddaughters. Ali forgives her grandmother; arguments for cultural relativism notwithstanding, this reader could not.
During her child bearing years, my mother also struggled with her weight. For her sixth pregnancy, she purchased a blue polyester dress square as a box. It featured one minimal decorative item, a little buckle at the neckline. She continued to wear this dress even after delivery, because this time she wasn’t losing her weight. She started a diet, fell off it, started again. By the time she got some trace of her waistline back, she grew pregnant with her seventh, then eighth. There was a ninth child, and even a short tenth pregnancy, which fortunately didn’t keep. She must have been 44 by then, younger than I am now, and she dreaded the nine difficult months. My father claimed to be devastated by the loss, but after nine children, no one, including my mother, took him seriously.
In her final months, my mother lay in bed imagining her own death and shiva, the ritual seven days of mourning that would follow. She planned for it, considered how best to accommodate the mourners, her husband and nine children, and the community of friends and neighbors who would come to console us. She determined that the men would gather in the dining room, the women in the bedroom; the beds, the one she lay in as she planned and across the room, my father’s bed, would have to be dismantled and removed, the mirrors above the dressers draped.
She made to-do lists: folding chairs, cases of seltzer, plastic cups to serve in, extra pairs of slippers for the mourners, her nine children. She prepared our father for his life without her by purchasing dozens of shirts, socks and underclothes. She had a deep horror of stories about families splintered over their inheritance, and insisted on talking with each one of us about which portion we preferred. When she telephoned me, it was to get my approval of her arrangement: she had written me out of her will.
You have no children, she said.
She also wrote a long letter, a kind of last will and testament, a guide to life, insisting that each of us, no matter how busy with work and family, attend each other’s celebrations: circumcisions, bar mitzvahs, engagements, weddings.
In the end, though she had thoroughly tracked and traced in her mind’s eye the events following her death—the door through which her coffin would pass, the words and tears of her husband and children, the late arrivals at the funeral, the grandchildren old enough to be present, and the little ones who should be left at home—providing notes and lists for everything she could think of, filling in in the morning the details she had missed the night before, still, she could not have imagined the conversations we, the women gathered in her bedroom, would have, nor the laughter they would generate. Social creature that she was, she would not have wanted to miss them.
We didn’t know about her first lumpectomy. Unwilling to disrupt preparations for a grandchild’s wedding, or add medical expenses to the household budget, or even to talk about what qualified for her as a private woman’s issue, she scheduled the procedure without telling any of us, and went with our father to a local doctor who accepted Medicare coverage.
The pathology report wasn’t good, and after the wedding, she told a few of us about it. We all soon knew. On the phone with her after the mastectomy that followed, she offered to show me the side of her chest that was now flat, childlike, she said, with not even a nipple.
The surgery was extreme, leaving her physically asymmetrical. For some reason it was the loss of the nipple that appalled me. I imagined the surgeon disposing of it without a second thought.
I mentioned the possibility of reconstructive surgery.
Too expensive, my mother said.
My father’s opinion was that reconstruction wasn’t necessary. She was past her childbearing years, and wouldn’t need breasts or a nipple with which to feed an infant. A utilitarian point of view, it dismissed whatever personal attachment my mother might have to her body, her breasts. This dismissive practicality was the extreme opposite of the fashion industry’s fetish with the female body, and I found myself appreciating the value of impossible air-sprayed perfection. Losing her hair to chemotherapy, on the other hand, did not cause emotional agony: my mother had shaved since the morning after marriage to my father. This was one point for the hijab.
March arrived, it was almost spring, and her doctor, sent her home for Passover, sent her home to die really, though he didn’t or couldn’t explain that letting her fade from an accumulation of urea was the merciful way.
Not understanding what was happening when her mind began to deteriorate, my unathletic father picked her up in his arms—she weighed so little, even he could carry her as you would a child—put her in his car and checked her in again at Lenox Hill.
The accumulated urea was flushed out and she became fully aware and suffering, criticizing a technician who fumbled with her IV needle and left another blue bruise.
Ehr is a shister (He is a shoemaker), she said in Yiddish, as he fumbled.
She was in the critical care unit this time, in a room beside the nurse’s station.
My eldest brother arrived with cartons of tin foil, covered every surface in that room, rendering it kosher for Passover. My sisters cooked, packed and labeled the ritual unleavened bread, the bitter herb and lamb shank of the Seder plate. Trays and shopping bags full of the multi-course Roman-style meal arrived, complete with wine for four cups for the four of us who would celebrate, celebrate?, the first days of the holiday, at Lenox Hill.
Before sundown, my father and nephew moved in, with none of their holiday accessories missing: the shtreimels in their round boxes, their heavy satin black overcoats and belts, their white seder robes, and their tefilin bags, alongside the usual shirts, socks, and underthings. The little room was all clutter, with hardly an unoccupied corner, and the nurses’ station buzzed with irritation. Finally the head nurse took it upon herself to warn my father that he would be evicted if he didn’t get his luggage and things out of sight.
Eviction! A NYC threat I had lived with for many years, first as a student going to school on student loans, without a cent of parental aid, then as an unpublished, underpaid writer. Without money for rent, I would end up trapped in my father’s house again, a kind of prison. Through my twenties and thirties, this scenario was a recurring nightmare. There, in the setting of Lenox Hill hospital, the word seemed incongruous and appropriate at once. Wrested from city living, with apartments too small and too expensive, the word described my mother’s condition in terms taken from life rather than death. Though the warning was intended for my father, it was my mother who was on notice.
My nephew and I got to work, stored suitcases under the hospital bed though it was on wheels for a reason. The room’s one narrow cupboard was reorganized for efficiency. The bathroom became a walk-in closet. And on the small round side table, the pressed white cloth, and on it, some family silver: the Seder plate, the silver cups.
My father’s vocals announcing the unleavened bread as the bread of sorrow that our ancestors ate in the land of the pharaohs attracted an audience. Given the circumstances—the room, the table, the limited number of chairs—the absurdity of his invitation in Aramaic to all who are hungry and tired went unnoticed only by him.
My nephew and I lifted our cups, held up the unleavened bread, and chanted the refrain, “Pesach, matzoh u-Marror,” while keeping my mother engaged and involved. She drifted off, tiring easily. I urged haste, though this night with its annual recitation of the Haggadah was one of my father’s glories, giving him the patriarchal throne, a blue Naugahyde armchair this year, on which to lean and drink and tell the story of our escape from Egyptian enslavement into the Sinai desert, only to find ourselves burdened by a heavy ransom for our release, the ten commandments, which somehow came with 316 additional dos and don’ts attached, thus trapping us into another type of servitude. But this is not how my father put it.
He sang the songs celebrating our ancient myth of freedom. To give our mother the greatest pleasure, my nephew and I chose her father’s melodies, the ones she grew up hearing in old Palestine. Her lips mouthed the words, her eyes misted. She could hardly eat by then, her mouth all thrush from the chemo, but to please our father who selected the thinnest fragments of the hand-made, home-made matzoh, she attempted to chew and, when he wasn’t looking, spit it into a napkin I provided.
The next morning, when I arrived to stay with her while the men went to services at a local synagogue, she had on an oxygen mask to help with her breathing. She was desperately unhappy, her wide open eyes imploring me to do something; the mask scared and incapacitated her, she couldn’t make herself understood. She had refused long-term life support despite my father’s argument that he was required to make every effort to keep her alive, and now she worried that her will would be disregarded.
The aide, who came to change the sheets and bathe her, explained that her oxygen levels were very low, that they would remove the mask if she improved. I translated, explaining that this was only an oxygen mask, not life support, though I wasn’t sure this was true. I begged her to breathe deeply, relax her diaphragm and allow air in, allow the levels to rise so the mask could come off. I tried distracting her with stories from life. She’d wanted to see a daughter of mine, one child, she said, and I offered her Emma P, my black and tan dachshund. When my nephew returned, ahead of my father whose climb up the six flights of stairs was slow, we sang her favorite songs to relax her. She breathed with difficulty.
My father arrived, escorted by a group of young men from the synagogue, who had agreed to render some service, to help him fulfill a promise he had made during the long night, though it wasn’t clear to me or to them what exactly they were here for. They stood at the door awkwardly, picked up the chant of the Kaddish at my father’s signal, and my father answered the refrain.
The Kaddish is a prayer for the dead, but sometime during the long difficult night my father promised to begin praying for my mother’s soul early. A believer to the end, she was afraid of the judgment that awaited her, of the hell she would have to endure. My father tried his best to soothe her, arguing that her years of suffering on earth, the nine births, the miscarriages, all her pains in life, especially these last years of cancer and surgeries and chemotherapy, had already expiated whatever sins were on her conscience.
What sins, you might ask, could a woman who sacrificed her life to restrictive Hasidism and to what must have been, at times at least, unbearable wifehood and motherhood, have to worry about?
Knowing her as I did, I think she might have delayed going to the mikveh to avoid another pregnancy, a form of birth control that would, to her mind, count as a mortal sin. What else? As one of nine who experienced her frustrated and unhappy phases, I wouldn’t be fully honest if I didn’t mention her failings as a mother. And of course there would have been the daily gossip, the damage of wagging tongues, a sin no one or hardly anyone, entirely avoids. There were surely other sins, but after 67 years of what could not count as an easy life, they still amounted to a negligible collection.
Over the years my mother arrived at some kind of acceptance or way of understanding my independence from custom and law, from family and community and religion. But this understanding came with its own set of bylaws, with a different set of difficult standards. She required, given that I hadn’t sacrificed my body to marriage and motherhood, that I appear always at my best: her idea of what looked best, in full dress, in the right shoes, hair salon-ready.
Eventually, she got around to noticing that I had done something with my head at least. You were meant to be one of the boys was her greatest compliment. What most impressed her was the professorial title I’d somehow finagled.
I didn’t attempt to explain that working in academia wasn’t exactly the crowning achievement she imagined; that my life as a writer was more important to me; that although teaching provided financial stability, the job was also a sign the work wasn’t selling well enough, a mark of a kind of failure.
One day, during a phone conversation, she wondered which was the greater achievement: my books, or her nine children and numerous grandchildren. Her question demands reconsideration now and then, when for example I tear open an envelope and find another $13 royalty check from Recorded Books, and when teaching Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse again, my students and I discuss Mr. Ramsay’s insecurities: Will he ever make it to z, will his work live on, will he be read hundreds of years later, as Shakespeare is. But the Ramsays also have children, four of whom live, which is to say they will survive in their DNA, if not their work. We know by the end of the novel that Mrs. Ramsay’s work in the social arena lives on in memory. Her guests remember her natural beauty, her boeuf en daube. For a generation, anyway. About the survival of Mr. Ramsay’s books we remain doubtful.
Some hours after the recital of Kaddish, when the hospital’s morning shift left and the evening staff came on, a young woman in a hijab stepped in to take my mother’s pulse, listen to her breathing, and test her oxygen levels. This was 2008. America was still in search of Osama bin Laden; many were still convinced that all Muslims meant us harm, and that we, a Christian nation, represented virtue and righteousness.
I worried about how my Jewish father would handle a Muslim woman tending his critically ill wife—my conservative father, who regularly pronounced that all Arabs were murderers despite the actual numbers and facts that indicate plenty of Jewish aggression. But when he saw this young woman, conservative full skirt under her doctor’s coat, long, dark hair under the hijab, Semitic features as familiar to him as his own, my father was entranced. In love even. I could see it in his face.
She’s his favorite doctor, my nephew confirmed.
On my way home, I stopped at Barneys and headed straight to the 6th floor: the jeans bar.
Is it necessary to explain how obsessed with jeans I was even before I moved out of my father’s house, before I ditched the skirts I’d grown up in, the a-line and gathered and pleated skirts of Hasidic life? And then, how disappointing my first pairs of jeans were. Adapted for women, they were too long in the rise, too high at the waist, not properly fitted for my knees. On my body, no pair hit all the right places at once. Then low rise jeans arrived on the scene—Sevens for all Mankind—and I was in seventh heaven.
My mother died a week later, after the eighth day of Passover, after saying goodbye to all her children who converged on Lenox Hill, in her tiny room, two hours after sundown. At dawn, my eldest brother, who was relieving our father for a night at home in a real bed, noticed that she wasn’t breathing.
Attempting resuscitation, as Jewish law requires, the CPR crew broke every rib in her fragile body. When all the tubes were removed, the bleeding wouldn’t stop. Her white burial shrouds were stained red.
At the funeral, as is customary, my father and four brothers spoke, each remembering our mother at her best. During the seven days of Shiva, friends and neighbors and old acquaintances who visited told of their interactions with our mother, their stories. At the three-month mark, when the headstone was delivered and placed, my brother published a pamphlet of his memories of our mother and gave each of us a copy.
His writing continued in the style of the eulogy, giving tribute, giving events I remembered as tragic or at least unpleasant a positive spin. I was witnessing, I understood, the making of myth, a hagiographical process in which the real mother I had known was turned unlikely saint.
She came to me first as a homeless woman, complete with grocery bags stuffed full of bedding, her old European down pillow and featherbed, her pots and pans and cutlery, detergent and sponges to wash them. She stood across the road, facing the house, her own former home, seeking a place to sleep. I went out to help her into the house, but she shook her head. Not allowed. Dreams being what they are, I didn’t question the rule, as if it made rational sense, as if I’d known this edict.
Her second appearance was a joyous one, with my mother in her element, in Brooklyn for a day of pre-Passover shopping, covering ground efficiently, getting everything on her list done, underwear and socks for everyone, pajamas for the youngest ones, white shirts for our father, a new dress from Fixler’s on Lee for me.
The third time she appeared to me, she was divorced from our father: happily single, busy, and working a full time job to feed the nine of us. We were living in a small city, not one I could identify, but with a Main Street close enough that we could walk to restaurants and cafes for dinner. My sisters and I were responsible for the children and the house and we all pitched in, so that when our mother came home from work, she could get out, enjoy city living.
My third dream imagines for her a happier life. But of course, she would not have wanted it.