April 29, 2014
|Matt with his mother at his wedding
The death of a loved one leaves a hole in the life of the family. It seems that my father, a quiet man, had been a moderating influence on my mother and me. His passing in 2010 exposed tensions of which we had been unaware. In his absence, my relationship with my mother became fraught and, over time, we spoke less frequently.
So I was surprised when, one day, my mom said, “Matt, I need your help with something. I need a Jewish blessing.” That was the last thing I expected. “Oh,” I replied. “Why?”
My mom is a member and officer of a small church in rural Pennsylvania. She helps prepare the community meals the church serves weekly. My mom is rooted in her faith community. So why did she need a Jewish blessing?
The church held a Lenten class in the weeks leading up to Easter. Each class ended with a shared meal. The pastor encouraged participants to offer prayers before they ate. Thinking of me, a convert to Judaism, my mom asked her pastor if she might say a Jewish blessing the following week. “Will you say it in Hebrew?” he asked. My mom reluctantly agreed; what did she know from Hebrew? It's Greek to her. Then she realized she had access to a resource that might help her: Me.
Jewish blessings are usually directed toward a particular action or are said at a certain time of day,” I told her. “What were you thinking?”
“I don't know,” she said. “I found one online.” She began reading: “Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, shech...shecheyan—”
“Whoah,” I interrupted, hoping to stave off divine fury. “That's the Shehechyanu.” I didn’t think that reciting the blessing would turn us into pillars of salt or afflict us with boils, but there is a proper time and place for blessings. I thought about how to explain this to my mom, settling on, “There are a lot of rules around that one.”
“That's one of the reasons I wanted to ask you,” she said. “I don’t want to be disrespectful.” I confess that I wasn't expecting her to say that. It made me smile. She explained that the class would pray before they shared a meal of soup and bread.
“Ah ha,” I exclaimed. I stroked my beard and nodded, doing my best impression of a rabbi. “I have just the blessing for you. You can say the motzi. It's the blessing over bread.” The motzi is a straightforward blessing, and the absence from it of a critical phrase, “asher kidishanu b'mitzvotav vitzivanu [who sanctified us with His commandments],” an indicator that a blessing is intended uniquely for Jews, meant that I was comfortable sharing it for use outside of a Jewish setting.
I sent my mom the blessing transliterated into Roman characters, each phrase alongside the original Hebrew. My mom read the blessing. The transliteration of Hebrew into the Roman alphabet isn't always intuitive. Still, my mom did well. I was impressed. “You need to pronounce the 'ch' from the back of your throat,” I coached her. “Like this. CHHHH.” She demurred.
I advised my mom regarding the timing of the motzi, too. Recitation of a blessing should precede the action that is being blessed, with no intervening action or speech. “A Jewish person would recite the blessing and then immediately eat a piece of bread,” I told her. “It's about the intentionality of the action, of being mindful of what one is doing.” I gave my mom a translation of the motzi that had only two Hebrew words in it, “Adonai” and “amen.” I explained that Adonai is one of God's names and translates as “my Lord,” while “amen” means “certainly” or “faith.”
“I wonder what Dad would have thought of all this,” I said.
She laughed. “He'd be sitting in the corner wondering what was going on!” It was after my dad died that I got up the courage to convert. I realized that I had to do what was best for me while I had time. I knew that, were my dad still around, he would be bemused by my decision, but he would be proud, too, that I had the independence of mind to do what was best for myself.
I called my mom the next week to ask her how it went. “Everyone really liked it,” she said. She had printed out the blessing to share with her classmates. The class normally held hands during the prayer, but everyone wanted to see the blessing.
A small wonder: Talking about our different faiths had brought us closer together. It wasn’t on the scale of the revelation at Sinai, but it still felt profound.
“You know,” I said, “Shannon and I could lead a seder for you next year, if the pastor's interested.”
“Seder, seder, seder,” she replied.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Making sure I remember how it's pronounced. Seder.”
“Yes, Mom, seder. It rhymes with alligator.” This would be a long and ongoing conversation.