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Finding Common Ground with Mom

April 29, 2014

Matt and his mother
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.

Hebrew for "blessed are You [,my God]." Introductory words to many Jewish prayers. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "brings forth" or "expels," the first unique or identifying word of the blessing over bread ("...brings forth bread from the earth"). Some say this blessing over bread, others recite it as a catch-all before a meal. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.
Matt Rice

Matt Rice is an information professional living and working in the Philadelphia area. He converted to Judaism in 2012 and had an interfaith marriage in 2013, which he blogged about here.

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