“May the L-rd make you like Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah.”
The lights in the chandelier are dimmed. Four candles are burning in brass candlesticks on the side table in the next room over. The frenzied rush of cooking, straightening up, and showers has been replaced by a quiet calm. My parents, sister Alexis and I gather around the dining room table, which is covered with a white tablecloth, hand-embroidered by my aunt. My mother looks beautiful in a flowing silk caftan covered in swirls of every color of the rainbow. I lean my head on her arm and stroke the soft silk. She is relaxed, something I don’t see all week, and I think she looks like a queen. The four of us sing Shalom Aleichem to welcome the Shabbat angels into our home. Alexis walks up to my father, who is sitting at the head of the table in his antique wooden armchair. He places his hands on her head and blesses her, “May the L-rd make you like Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah.” My turn is next. We return to our seats, and all eyes are on my father, who grasps his wine cup with one hand, but doesn’t raise it. The custom in our house is to recite Kiddush sitting down. I am not sure if it’s because it’s hard for my father to stand or because my parents just like the idea of sitting after a long, busy week. Since neither of them grew up religious, they pick and choose customs. My father recites most of the Kiddush alone, and we sing the last few lines together.
We all go to the kitchen to wash our hands before my father recites the blessing over two loaves of challah that my mother baked earlier that day and cuts one. She passes all of us slices, then withdraws into the kitchen, returning minutes later with bowls of curries and brown rice that she and my father cooked together. I inhale the warm, spicy smell. Alexis wrinkles up her nose as she dips a piece of challah in her grape juice and sucks on it. She doesn’t like spicy food. My mother serves the two of us the mildest dishes, but even the cucumber-yogurt raita is laced with cayenne. Our father suggests we eat challah and drink milk if it’s still too hot. At the end of the meal, we all bensch together. The paragraph for Shabbat, which my sister and I don’t know from school, my father recites aloud, and we all listen and answer, “Amen.”
This was what Friday nights in my home look like when I am in kindergarten. As I grow older, the picture changes slightly. My parents often invite guests, friends and colleagues, my father’s college students, neighbors from around the corner, or travelers passing through Syracuse stranded in a snowstorm, unable reach their final destination before sundown Friday.
“May G-d bless and protect you.”
I am now in third grade. We are hosting a family of new immigrants from Azerbaijan. Throughout the meal, my sister and I get to show off what we’ve learned by helping our father explain the rituals of the songs, Kiddush, and two loaves of challah to these Jews who were cut off from religion for so many years, behind the Iron Curtain. After singing Shalom Aleichem, Alexis stands beside our father, who places his hands, one at a time, on Alexis’s head. Our mother holds his elbows steady. He blesses Alexis, and she leans over to receive a kiss on her forehead. I follow suit. It is time for Kiddush, but my father doesn’t begin. Instead, he stares at his wine glass and stifles a smile. Mouth closed, he tries to hold back a snicker, but his smile soon overtakes his whole face, and a deep laugh shakes his whole body.
“Emotional…incontinence!” he manages to gasp in between bursts of laughter. I stare at the little silver cup of grape juice on my plate and finger the base nervously. I’m so embarrassed. This happens almost every week now. I have no idea what the words “emotional incontinence” mean, but I know that it’s not normal to laugh through Kiddush. My parents say it’s because of my father’s MS that he sometimes starts to laugh or cry for no reason. I hope the guests who have never been at another Shabbat table don’t think this is what all religious Jews do. Wouldn’t it be nice if my father could stand and raise the Kiddush cup and recite the prayer in a loud, clear voice, like other fathers?
Within a year, Alexis and I are receiving our Friday night blessings after our mother has sliced and passed around the challah. The family has started to follow the German custom of washing hands for bread before reciting Kiddush and taking care of all the rituals in one sitting (sitting for Kiddush is also a German custom) so that my father won’t need to get up from the table and drag his feet into the kitchen to wash his hands once he’s already settled in his armchair. We give up the old practice when it takes my father a full ten minutes to get from the dining room to the adjoining kitchen, wash his hands, and get back to the table, with my mother’s help.
When I am in fifth grade and Alexis is in seventh grade, we move to a new house without stairs to get to the main level. For our Friday night blessings, we lean over so our mother can lift our father’s hands, place them on our heads, and hold his arms steady while he whispers the blessings. As with Kiddush, these blessings often take several minutes to complete because they are interrupted by uncontrollable fits of laughter. Neither Alexis nor I dare complain of a stiff neck. This is just part of the routine, so we stand patiently, waiting for the kiss signaling the end of the blessing. The family has reverted to our old custom, the more common one, of washing our hands after Kiddush because my father is always in a wheelchair, even at home. My mother pulls his hands up to the sink to pour water over them.
By the time I am in eighth grade, my mother’s role in the Friday night blessings has changed from placing our father’s hands on our heads to placing her own hands on our heads as we stand next to him and listen to him recite the blessing. Our father can’t hold his hands up for a whole minute, even with assistance. If an attack of laugher drags on for too long, sometimes our mother takes over. Apparently, our parents have come to the consensus that this is one more area where our mother can compensate for our father. This is not taking over his role, but another way of helping him. No matter who ends up reciting the blessing, we get two kisses, one from each parent.
“May G-d shine His face upon you and be gracious to you.”
My sister and I both attend a boarding school starting in ninth grade, coming home for Shabbat once a month and for holidays. When we are away, our parents call us on Friday afternoon to wish us a good Shabbos, and our father blesses us over the phone. After not seeing our parents for a month at a time, every trip home means time to catch up, but also a new view of our father’s declining abilities. Each visit, I notice my father growing weaker and weaker. Each time I see him, he is less able to use his hands, and it is more difficult to hold himself up in the wheelchair.
After the Friday night meal at home, I sit on the stairs leading down to Alexis’s basement bedroom, and the two of us talk for hours, sometimes about school, but mostly sharing our worries about our father. Sometimes, we just need to get out of the house. We take a short walk to the playground near our old elementary school and swing out our frustration as we share our fears. With home health aids only coming for two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening and our mother at work, our father is home alone most of the day. What would happen if he falls out of his chair when no one is home? Even back when I was in seventh grade, I had come home from school once to find him leaning out of his wheelchair at the dining room table, brake handle pressing into his side, a pool of vomit on the floor. He had been in that position of over an hour. After he fell over in his chair a few more times when he was home alone and couldn’t call for help, my mother began to secure him to the chair with a strap velcroed around his chest. She hesitated to do this because she knew that once our father could rely on straps to hold him up, he would stop relying on his muscles, and any muscles not exercised would be lost forever.
During my first year studying in Israel, my father begins to lose his voice. When my parents call on Friday afternoon, I can’t always hear my father clearly. I miss a word of the Shabbat blessing here and there. Sometimes, my mother repeats the blessing after him so I can hear the whole thing.
It has been about ten years since my father has even tried blessing me over the phone. My mother blesses my sister and me when each of us speaks to her every Friday. I can accept this; it is much more than the blessings I miss from our father. Alexis and I both live in Israel, and we can’t speak to him on the phone or Skype. We speak to our mother on speakerphone, so he can listen, but we can’t hear him. It is only on rare visits, usually about once a year for a holiday or summer vacation, that we can have a real conversation. We grasp at these opportunities like my children chase wisps of cotton candy flying out of the machine into the wind. They are sweet and fleeting. On Friday nights when we are together, Alexis and I, in turn, stand between our parents as our mother places her hands on our heads and our father whispers a blessing we cannot hear, but at least we can see his lips moving. Our father nods to signal that he is done, and our mother kisses each of us on the tops of our heads.
“May G-d lift up His face unto you and give you peace.”
I now have my own home and my own Shabbat rituals. I decided when my oldest son was born that I want to bless my children as well, even though usually only the fathers bless the children on Friday night. Like my parents, I have chosen the less common custom. My husband and I sing Shalom Aleichem and Eishet Chayil along with as many of our four children as we can encourage to join in. Sometimes, they are already playing musical laps, the one-year-old sitting on me, the three and five year olds each claiming one of my husband’s knees. At other times, they save the climbing until the zemirot at the end of the meal. Before Kiddush, the children line up in size and age order to receive their blessings, first from my husband, and then from me. My three-year old usually complains that he wants to be first. What can we do? He has two older siblings. Long before it is her turn, our one-year-old starts jumping in her high chair and patting herself on her head, between her pigtails, looking forward to her blessings. My seven year old trembles with excitement and looks up at me with big, blue eyes as I whisper, “May G-d bless and protect you.”
As a child, receiving the blessing, these were simply words, a ritual. What I felt was the experience of connecting to my parents through the act of being blessed by them. As a mother, there are so many things I want my children to be protected from, like some of the painful moments I experienced as a child myself. Each of them needs protection from something else. Bullies. Nightmares. Ear infections. Lice. Cancer. Terror attacks. So much can go wrong in life. I want all of them to be safe, all of them to have friends, all of them to succeed. I know that life is complicated, and the amount of protection I can offer them as their mother is limited. As I place my hands on each warm, soft head, I feel that I am offering them into the hands of the Source of all blessing and protection. I am admitting my personal limitations and asking for help in raising these little sources of lots of blessing in my life.
The children glide back and forth as in a dance, rising from their seats, lining up, switching parents, and returning to their seats, weaving their way around the table. I kiss one sweaty head, stroke another’s fair locks, flip over an inside-out yarmulke, and brush bangs from eyes. Right now, everyone is happy, healthy, and calm. Right now, life seems perfect. And in my mind, I hear my parents’ voices, whispering:“May G-d bless and protect you. May G-d shine His face upon you and be gracious to you. May G-d lift up His face unto you and give you peace.”
Miriam Burstein is an English teacher and freelance writer living in Israel. Visit her blog israelisalad.wordpress.com. This essay is part of her MA thesis in the Shaindy Rudoff Creative Writing program in Bar Ilan, overseen by Professor William Kolbrener, author of “Open Minded Torah.”
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.