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In Memoriam: Laughing over chocolate

My paternal grandmother, my last remaining living grandparent, passed away early in the morning of Sunday, January 16, the 11th day of Shevat. This is the eulogy that I delivered at her funeral the following day.


When I was faced with the difficult task of thinking about what to say in memory of my beloved grandmother, Grandma Joan, I was utterly silenced. Where would I even begin? She meant so much to me—so much to all of us—in so many different ways. It is difficult to know what to say.

When faced with the task of speaking about something that seems too vast to put into words, the Jewish liturgical poets often expressed the enormity and difficulty of the task by writing an alphabetic acrostic, as if to say: Even the entire alphabet is too small to encompass this thing!

This is how I feel about my grandmother. Even the entire alphabet—all of the words made from all of the letters that we have available to us—is too small to encompass all that she was.

While I think that she, of all people, would so have appreciated an acrostic poem written about her, I decided, instead, to focus on a few of the things that I learned from her.

One was the way that when she listened to you, she focused her full, undivided attention on you. Those large eyes, turned on you, seeking out yours, listening closely to what you were saying, and offering so much sage advice—that was Grandma Joan. I honestly never thought about this quality of hers until yesterday, when I realized that I would never again be the focus of her undivided attention. She always treated me this way, whether I was a young child coming to her with a small problem or a young adult, coming with her for advice on a professional matter.

One example of this focus—of her undivided attention that I lapped up—was her memory of my eclectic food preferences. I told her once, when I was around seven, that I liked chive cream cheese, and after that, for years and years, she always had chive cream cheese for me when I came. She also remembered that I loved cranberry juice, and would get it especially for me, and that I disliked tomatoes and salad dressing. I was shocked that she could keep these things straight, with so many grandchildren.

Grandma Joan focused her full attention on you when you spoke and she always took me so seriously. One example of this was our correspondence, when I was perhaps middle school age, about the existence of God and our conflicting views about the role that mitsvot, or traditional Jewish commandments, should play in one’s life. We had a very interesting written correspondence, back and forth, about this.

Grandma Joan not only listened with undivided attention, and took everyone, from adult to child, seriously, but she gave such good advice! Some things that I already knew but had a tendency to forget—break large, overwhelming tasks down into small ones—and others that were utterly foreign to me but have more than proven themselves over my life: you can cook without recipes. Her bean salad recipe is a staple of my non-recipe cooking repertoire.

Grandma Joan not only focused, listened, and advised, she also encouraged. She always expressed such pride in my writing and artistic accomplishments, especially at a time when the school environment I was in did not particularly encourage artistic pursuits. She loved to talk about the genes for writing, storytelling, and art that we shared, and I loved to listen! Although she felt that she had lost so much from the Alzheimer’s in recent years, she continued to take drawing classes and to show me her art, and when I wanted to make a necklace to wear to my brother Avi and sister-in-law Shira’s wedding last May, I went to her for her impeccable eye for design and beading. Although she felt that she couldn’t help me because she didn’t recall all of the principles of beading, I really wanted her eye for design, which she shared, as she always did, so generously.

Grandma Joan shared generously and enthusiastically of all that she had. Whenever we came to visit, she would put out spreads for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When Miriam and I would go down to Mount Vernon for our joint annual birthday trip, she would take up to farms, farmer’s markets, the zoo, and doll museums, but more than that, she taught us how to make chocolate pudding from scratch, how to make jello with fruit juice, how to sew our own doll clothes or otherwise craft them from Grandpa Israel’s discarded paisley ties or holey socks.

When I think of all of my grandmother’s many talents—from her psychological insight, to her gift of words displayed through so many poems and essays throughout the years to her studied completion of many New York Times’ crossword puzzles, and her artistic pursuits from drawing to beading, her cooking and meal presentation, her love of reading and her longstanding participation over many years in one book group, the way she was so careful to conserve all that she had so that she could give as much as possible to others—I think of the woman of valor described in the book of Proverbs, in an acrostic, because words cannot contain her wonderousness.

One verse, in particular, stands out as apt when remembering Grandma Joan—Proverbs 31:25:

עֹז-וְהָדָר לְבוּשָׁהּ; וַתִּשְׂחַק, לְיוֹם אַחֲרוֹן

"Strength and splendor are her garments, and she smiles at the last day."

My grandmother was, indeed, a strong, and in her own, utterly unique way, a splendorous woman, and she smiled and laughed almost to the last day.

When I had dinner with Grandma Joan a little under two weeks ago, and brought her a bunch of desserts, since I had read a New York Times article that said that people with Alzheimer’s should have all the chocolate they want, we laughed together a lot. I know that my grandmother’s more recent years were a struggle, and that she was so sad not to have the truly spectacular memory that she had in her earlier years. As late as her 70s, she was learning a new language—Yiddish—and learning new exercises and eager to share in her grandchildrens’ love of technology, as baffling as she sometimes found it, and as proud as she was of her non-touch tone phone. Still, when I visited her a little under two weeks ago, we shared scrumptious coconut ice cream and taste-tested three kinds of chocolate, and made fun of the labels. We were literally giggling like schoolgirls over the overwrought copy on the chocolate labels. When I was looking over old photos of her, her wide, bright, complete smile really stood out for me.

Grandma Joan, indeed, laughed almost to the last day. I feel so blessed that I was able to share in her laughter, and bask of her focus, and learn so much from her, for so many, many years.

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I invited a non-Jewish friend of mine over for tea. Normally, someone's status as a Jew or a non-Jew is not so important in my daily life, but it happens to be that the vast majority of my friends are observant Jews. It's difficult to socialize with non-Jews, what with rules about eating out, and since I don't really like to drink alcohol, that remove the ever-popular bar option.

So, I have this non-Jewish friend, who knows that I am Jewish, and I know that she is some kind of religious Christian. She does liturgical dance, which sounds really cool, and refers to Jesus as "Jesus Christ."

So, anyway, she is over for a cup of tea, and because I don't have so many non-Jewish friends, I forget about the calendar on my fridge--with Shevat/Tevet written on some of the days, and parshiyot, and local candle-lighting times. Suddenly, that strikes me as weird. She asks me what "Shevat" and "Tevet" are, and I explain that there is a Jewish calendar that is different from our regular calendar, and that those are the names of two of the Jewish months.

Then she says, "So, you don't believe that Jesus Christ is your Lord and savior?"

And I say, "No, I don't."

And she says, "You just believe he's a prophet, right?"

And I say, almost apologetically at this point, "No, I don't believe that he was a prophet, because I don't believe that a lot of what he said was the truth. I believe that he was a teacher."

Super awkward. I hope I didn't offend her. I don't mind if she thinks that Jesus is her Lord and savior. I mean, it's totally alright with me.

But then she asked me what he had said that I didn't believe, but the truth is--Jesus said some pretty nice things! Many of which I believe! And I couldn't remember what was Paul and the various apostles and what was Jesus, so I kind of didn't know what to say. I said something about getting rid of the need to follow all of the commandments, and she said that she followed the ten commandments, but then I told her that there were 613.

Then we got into an interesting discussion about my eating habits:
"So, you'll never have a tuna melt!"
"No, tuna isn't considered meat."
"So you'll never have a hawaiian pizza with bacon and pineapple?"
"No, because bacon isn't kosher, so I wouldn't have it even if it wasn't meat and milk."
"So you don't eat ham?"
"Doesn't that bother you?"
"No, not really. What really bothers me is that I can't eat vegetarian food out cooked. Like, pizza without any meat on it. Or a baked apple. Or a hard-boiled egg. Also, sometimes Shabbat bothers me."

I did not get into the gender thing, or various issues I have about kohanim and converts, or how some Jews are just absolutely crazy.

So I turn to you, dear readers. What did Jesus himself say (even if as reported by Mark, Luke, John, etc.) that was so objectionable to our rabbinic antecedents? Thanks.

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