It was the afternoon of Erev Rosh Hashanah, the eve of the Jewish New Year, midway through a month-long cycle of holidays meant to serve as an annual course correction for Jews: How did I miss the mark in the past year? How will I be a better person next year?

As the executive director of a synagogue, I was down to the last few hours of preparation before the community congregated and the process of individual and collective accounting for ourselves began in earnest (and in Hebrew). For the Holydays, we move our whole operation to the Oakland Convention Center, with its 1,400 seat auditorium, large enough for our whole congregation plus all of the “annual Jews,” those who only go to shul on the High Holydays. We bring a moving truck packed with prayer books, childcare toys and games, the sacred arc and the Torahs that rest inside it, gallons of wine, dozens of turban-shaped braided loaves of sweet challah bread, and boxes and boxes of promotional chazerai:¹ membership forms, event flyers and Hebrew school brochures. The whole production takes a half dozen staff and a hundred volunteers, plus the ten people on what I had dubbed the Bima² Team, our spiritual and musical leadership.

I was in the cavernous main auditorium, huddling with our cantor, our percussionist and our sound engineer, when my mother phoned. I excused myself to take her call, moving a few yards away to sit down on a short stack of burgundy chairs.

I watched a volunteer arrange flowers on the bima while I listened to my mother. “Sandy, you would have been so proud of me.” Her husband, Bill, was very ill with end-stage cancer, so I was glad to hear her sound so upbeat.

Mom went on to explain her boast: “I took Bill to the oncology clinic, and while he was having his infusion I went to use the private bathroom that’s attached to the infusion room. There were these cute little jars of talcum powder and moisturizer, and I wanted to steal them but I didn’t, because it’s Rosh Hashana. I really wanted them, but I left them there. Aren’t you proud of me for not stealing on Rosh Hashana?”

I was glad she couldn’t see me rolling my eyes. There were so
many things wrong with that question I didn’t know where to begin. Not only had Natalie missed the mark; she had missed the whole point of Rosh Hashanah. And once more, she was oblivious to her role reversal: in seeking my approval, she asked me to be the parent

so she could be the child. All I could manage in response was a strangled, sardonic, “L’shana tova, Mom. Happy New Year.” I added, “I love you,” before ending the call, mentally shaking my head to clear it of that surreal moment, and to bring myself back to the task of getting ready for the evening’s worship service.

I can’t say I was surprised by our very different approaches to preparing for the High Holydays, as my childhood was rife with incidents of moral vacuity. For instance, back in the 1960s, I think I was six or seven at the time, my family stayed for a weekend at a hotel on the Jersey shore. The morning we were to leave, we went out to breakfast at a restaurant on the boardwalk. When we returned to the hotel, there was a big commotion: the management had thrown all of our stuff out onto the boardwalk because we didn’t get back to our rooms before check-out.

Mom and Dad got really angry at the manager, and then, after a hurried, hushed conversation, they got even more upset: Mom’s diamond, pearl and emerald bracelet was missing. There was lots of yelling back and forth.

I remember feeling like I was Nancy Drew and Agent 99 rolled into one when I found the bracelet tucked in my mother’s suitcase, folded into a bra, then my lower lip quivering in confusion and shame as my father hissed his anger: “Put that back where you found it, and don’t let me catch you snooping again.” 

 

The hotel’s insurance company paid the $10,000 claim.

In addition to garden-variety insurance fraud, there was graft and bribery. In the 1960s and 70s,³ Mayor Frank Rizzo’s family ran Philadelphia’s construction boom as a pay-to-play game. My family’s steel fabrication company would have been cut out of those big contracts if Dad hadn’t paid bribes.

Being part of the city’s illicit business world made Dad feel important, and his entrance into that world, combined with the business success it brought him, exacerbated his innate arrogance. Anything that contradicted that conceit, such as my brother Alan’s imperfect grades, or my brother Barry’s defiance, enraged my father to the point of beating them.

My father interpreted his success as evidence of his exceptional superiority. When I think of him back then, I picture a puffed-up peacock in a garish orange and black plaid dinner jacket, with bright red cheeks and extravagant turquoise tail feathers.

He extended his alleged preeminence to his children, instilling in us a conviction that we were, in fact, better than everyone else (except him): smarter, more righteous and more deserving in every way; my mother concurred. It was our very own version of the Jewish mishegas4 about being “chosen,” but bigger, brighter. If there was a privilege, we were entitled to it. Entitlement became a way of life.

It would be many years before I learned that this attitude is not normal. Worse, it wouldn’t do me any good. But I didn’t know any different.

If you don’t learn integrity and humility at home, where do you learn those values? I understand why you would choose to be different from your parents; but how do you do it? How do you leave a home of lies, violence, arrogance and shame, and learn how to live a straightforward, honest, calm life?

Ultimately, I escaped my family’s dynamic, with its suspect morality, but how? I find myself excavating memory, looking for clues. Oh, I understand a little – surely everyone has a few moments in life that are obvious turning points. But how did they add up to give me a moral compass, one with a needle that doesn’t spin endlessly, uselessly? With two narcissistic parents, how did I learn the give and take, the empathy needed for marriage and friendship?

In late December, 1996, my brother Alan’s older son Marshall died unexpectedly. A few days after the funeral, my mom had an errand to do at a bank on Philadelphia’s Chestnut Street, and I accompanied her. Snow flurried down as we made our way along the icy sidewalks, people calling out a muffled, “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” from within their scarves and ski masks as we passed them. I found the strangers’ holiday greetings uplifting: it was a comfort to me that despite our sadness and grief, the world kept spinning and other people were happy. But each time we received a strangers’ wishes for our merriment, my mother whimpered. Her face was contorted in pain, her wretchedness so raw it seemed like her skin was turned inside out. Puzzled, I asked her what was wrong. She lamented, “How can everyone be so cheerful, going around like everything’s normal, when I’m so miserable and sad? I feel like screaming at them, ‘Don’t you know that Marshall’s dead?’”

Poor Natalie! Our responses were so different. How was I able to receive the warmth of the holiday season, while she could only turn away from it in bitterness?

That December was also my first inkling of problems with my spine. Before I flew to Philadelphia for Marshall’s funeral, my friend and physical therapist Edie gave me a back brace and exercises, to convince my bulging lumbar disc to resume its original, non-bulging shape. That allowed me to get to the funeral from San Francisco without exacerbating the pain and compromising my spinal cord.

I thought this issue with my back was just a one-off, a single episode with no implications for my future. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Unfortunately, as psychologically different as we were, my mom and I had similar physical issues, both of us ultimately living with decades of musculoskeletal problems.

When Bill died just ten days after Natalie chose not to steal toiletries, she took to her bed. As she aged, my mother allowed pain to tell her what she could and couldn’t do, and her depression convinced her to accept those limitations without a fight. For seven and a half years, she left home only to go to the hospital, and she left her bed only to use the bathroom, almost willfully losing her mind.

Her story terrifies me.

I interrogate these memories in part from fear of becoming my mother; if I’m honest, I’m also scared of becoming my dad. I think of my fear, my anxious insistence on who I am not, as negative space, like the white space around and between these letters. It’s part of the pattern of shapes on the page, but negative space can’t add up to a story, or a life; it can’t really add up to anything. That negative space is nothing but resistance and defensiveness and a desperate need to put a whole lot of empty between who my parents were and who I want to be.

I write the black letters on the white page to create the positive space, the positive story of who I am: a leader, a mom, a wife, a friend, a writer; a mensch.5

But like all of us, I’m both the positive and the negative space. I need them both to make a whole life, and like all stories, I need both to tell the whole tale.

[1] Miscellanea; bits and pieces of things.

[2] A raised platform or stage from which worship services are led.

[3] Although Rizzo was not elected until 1970 and not seated until 1971, his predecessor retired well before the election and named him “Acting Mayor.”

[4] Craziness. What I’m calling mishegas is Jews’ buying into a common misperception that being “chosen” meant that Jews were chosen for the privilege of a covenantal relationship with God. According to Rabbi Alan Lurie, this is a misreading of the biblical text. Rather, Jews were said to be “chosen” to be of service, to work toward tikkun olam, repair and healing of the world. (see https://www.huffpost.com/entry/jews-gods-chosen-people_b_1079821.) A far cry from the entitlement behavior with which I was raised.

[5] A good person.