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The Heart of a Jewish Woman

The Heart of a Jewish Woman

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Who am I? I know that I am a friend, wife, and mother. I am all these things. But I also know that I am a Jewish woman and that is something I have always felt yet not always been able to define. This is my spirit, my soul, my emotions. Is it possible I can conceive of myself as nothing other than being a Jewish woman with a Jewish heart? What makes this so? Is it my birthright, my having been born into a Jewish family? I have a strong need to know at this time of my life.

This is my spirit, my soul, my emotionsA child is seemingly born a blank slate on which much needs to be written by those in her world. How is it written? How did it happen that this child, born to parents who spent little, if any, time shaping her world Jewishly through their stories, music, rituals or traditions, somehow managed to learn how she fits in with her People? How did it happen that now, in the bloom of her adult life, she finds that she does have the heart of a Jewish woman?

Could it be the fact that she was also born of four grandparents whose presence in her life provided, from her earliest years, the food for her soul? Despite all that seemed missing from parental training and joy in their own Jewishness, she was absorbing and learning from others in her life. Her mother had given her a Jewish soul. But it was these four parents of her parents who reached across a generation to give her the gift of a Jewish heart. Grandma Bella and Rachel were the most powerful influences. The child wouldn't know this until later. And even then, it would be impossible to explain which experiences, large and small became part of the tapestry.

I think of one such experience with Grandma Bella, a comfortably plump woman whose arms were so often a haven for my sadness after my father died when I was but ten years of age. My mother, wanting a time of solitude in her grief, sent me to visit Bella in New York City. She met me at the train station with a hug that could have easily taken my breath away. I had learned by now to cover my cheek with my hand to avoid what I have come to call Jewish pinches.

The next morning, after a huge breakfast of eggs with lox, bagel, and coffee-flavored milk (our secret), she told me there was a surprise waiting. I was led to the door and told to wait as she joined me in the hallway with a small parcel. She held a box from which she took a tubular object not unlike a pen. "Do you know what this is, mein kind (my child)?" She briefly brought it to her lips. Right then and there, I was to learn of the mitzvah of mezuzah. A mitzvah, she said, is to do something for others and for G‑d… something joyful and part of living Jewishly. We were going to do a mitzvah for our home, our family and our G‑d. Watching her with awe, I felt strangely happy.

When she nodded her permission, I closed my eyes She told me that she would put the mezuzah on the frame of the doorway. Gently and reverently, she opened it to show me a rolled piece of parchment paper on which were printed prayers. "What does it say, Grandma Bella?" She took my face in her warm hands, looked into my eyes and told me that the prayers were about our love for G‑d and His Teachings. I wanted to feel the strange writing and, when she nodded her permission, I closed my eyes and, for a moment, the space between me and G‑d was erased.

Grandma Bella spoke softly to me as she placed the mezuzah diagonally on the door frame. "It's crooked," I whispered, unsure of whether I was intruding on a holy moment. She smiled and explained that, a very long time ago, there were two very important rabbis who had a difference of opinion about how it should be done… one wanted it to be vertical; the other horizontal. Finally, there was compromise, for the sake of family harmony. It would forever be diagonal. I exhaled and placed my forehead against her bosom.

Her task completed, she bent and lifted me to the mezuzah. I watched her kiss her fingertips and then touch the small tube. "Now, Shirley, do what Grandma did just now." She hugged me tightly and said, "Whenever you come to visit me and Grandpa, you will see our mezuzah and know that G‑d is part of our home and family. It will remind you that we must love G‑d and live a good Jewish life."

When I returned to my mother, it was to a place where there was no mezuzah on the door frame. I so wanted to share what I had learned with her and asked if we could have one. "Sure, sure, Shirley," she said, looking away. We never did. But now, as I write and remember, it had been here with me all along… part of what has become the heart of a Jewish woman.

Shirley Coles, formerly of Rhode Island, now resides in Flagstaff, Arizona with her two cats and her favorite pastimes: reading, writing essays and poetry, and volunteering as a tutor of ESL, Spanish, and Creative Writing. A graduate of URI with a masters degree in mental health counseling, she is a member of Phi Beta Kappa. She has three married children and three granddaughters.
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Leslie Glater Las Cruces NM November 5, 2015

This memory of your visit to your Grandmothers home brought tears to my eyes .. remembering my own Grandma and Grandpa. I sure miss them. Thank you for sharing. Reply

Anonymous melbourne, AUSTRALIA August 5, 2012

Shirley Coles A lovely indeed beautiful tale. Reply

Mileen Kirkpatrick Satellite Beach, FL/USA June 28, 2012

The Heart of a Jewish Woman I was raised by nominal Protestants, yet from the time I first read about Judiasm and its customs in third grade, I have felt very strongly drawn to the faith. Throughout my life I have taken every opportunity to learn more. There are Mezzuzahs on our doors, I am studying an English translation of the Talmud and have attended services at our local Chabad synagoge. I am also learning about the Mitzvahs and am familiar with keeping the holidays. In short I know a little at the age of 65 and have also found through Geneologic research that I do indeed have Jewish ancestors. So, though I may never ask to be formally accepted, I truly do feel that I, too, have "the heart of a Jewish woman" and am very proud of that. Reply

Shalah Billings, MT, USA October 29, 2007

Glimpse Into Shirley's Heart You paint a lovely picture of the home of your heart where love is king. Who is this LOVE? G-d. Reply

Daphna NY, NY June 13, 2007

Holy Home This story was so inspiring. Like Shirley's Mezuzah, there are many ways we can make our homes holy. I surround myself with photos, paintings, and blessings for the home from Israel and it changes the whole aura of home for me. They say home is where the heart is, I think it is beautiful to make the home a holy and lit up place. Reply

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