“All ‘dings’ in the refrigerator,” my grandmother told anyone who came to visit.

Perhaps unsure where all the “dings” (things) were hiding, my father, the youngest of seven brothers and one sister, would climb up on a chair to search the mostly empty shelves. All “dings” turned out to be a little butter, small containers of sweet and sour cream, a loaf of brown bread and a bag of potatoes.

It’s notAll ‘dings’ in the refrigerator that my grandmother was blind to her poverty. At the height of the Great Depression, my grandfather had lost his job at a tailor shop and saw only the occasional client in his home. And each night, there were children who left the dinner table still hungry.

So how did my grandmother envision a fully stocked refrigerator? Perhaps it was her generosity that allowed her to think only in terms of plenty. Besides, she could still put a meager spread on the table, which was more than many could do during the depths of the Depression. And there was always a way to stretch what they had when someone knocked on the door, hungry.

And knock on her door they did. Beggars in her primarily non-Jewish neighborhood, many of them family men, learned of my grandmother’s open door. No one asking for a cup of coffee and a slice of bread was ever turned away. One of the beggars, I’m told, had not eaten anything in four days. He was haggard and dirty, and no one had been willing to feed him. By giving him a roll spread with butter, and a warm cup of coffee and sweet cream, he said, my grandmother had saved his life. After eating, he and the others stayed, sometimes for close to an hour, to talk to the lady who always made them feel welcome. You see, it wasn’t only their stomachs that she filled.

I never met my grandmother, who died a month or so before I was born. I heard this story, and the myriad other stories that my aunts, uncles and older cousins told about my grandmother’s kindness, second hand. Although each story may have its own slight deviation from the truth, I can conclusively say that my grandmother both gave and inspired great love. To me, these stories transmit a legacy, a view of the world. Perhaps my grandma would have worded her legacy something like this: Each heart is an ocean capable of bestowing gifts, large and small, on its shores.

Given that both my parents modeled the values of chesed (kindness) while I was growing up, as a young child it was easy to incorporate my grandma’s legacy into my life. It was natural to see my father, a podiatrist, sometimes carrying trays of lasagna through our front door. I knew that the food had been given by a patient as both a “thank you” and in lieu of payment. It was commonplace, when I came home from school, to see my mother busily involved in sorting donations for various charities for which she canvassed the neighborhood. And when my young friends objected to my saying thank you to our housekeeper before she left, I relayed the lessons I had already learned and embodied: that politeness is something we offer to everyone.

Growing up in the sixties and seventies in a spiritually rich but primarily secular home located in a secular neighborhood, I often found that kindness was considered a dispensable commodity. The older I grew, the more I noticed how rare my family’s type of kindness was. At that time, the stress was on moving away from our parents’ and their generations’ norms, becoming uniquely oneself . . . as long as that self more or less conformed to everyone else’s self. And where I lived, in the suburbs, ego, self-composure and aptitude were more highly valued than watching out for the down-and-out kid who sat next to you in class.

As time went on, I found myself attempting to make sacrifices and compromises to the gods of popularity: choosing the “right” friends, wearing the “right” clothes. I even went so far as to blame my parents for my feeling of being different, for being brought up with a worldview that seemed “other worldly.” A worldview that was contrary to the society around me.

It wasn’t until years later, and very gradually, that I found a larger context for my grandmother’s (and parents’) kindness. My mostly dormant Jewish soul, unaware of observance and tradition in any conscious way, had showed itself only culturally. (Having been given the decisive vote about attending Hebrew school, I happily opted out).

Yet, I continually put myself, often without intending to, in Jewish surroundings. When I dug deep for who I was as a writer, and what type of stories I wanted to cover, I found at my core a Jew drawn to Jewish journalism. While covering cultural and community topics for Jewish newspapers and magazines, I learned about an opening for a school secretary in an Orthodox synagogue, a place where men wore kippahs and humble women volunteered in the office. Motivated in part by the atmosphere in the school, I began a clothing drive for Ethiopian Jews who were being brought to Israel. Here and there I took courses on Judaism, and I became a member of the social action committee of my Reform temple where, with a group of lovely and like-minded friends, I was fed what I now view as a rather light Jewish diet. I wanted more.

I believe she would be proud of me

Having earned a teaching degree, I started out (not surprisingly) as a teacher in a religious girls’ school. While my seventh grade girls were, well, seventh grade girls, there was still a sensitivity they had towards one another, a simple wholeness and purity of character that sometimes brought tears to my eyes. Later, as a public high school English teacher, I became close friends with a warm, Orthodox Jewish colleague who corrected several old canards about Judaism that I had mistakenly held onto: 1) Judaism, at heart, is not spiritual; and 2) the world of materialism and physicality is more highly valued than the world of spirituality. My friend explained to me how Judaism emphasizes faith and adherence to something far greater than ourselves, personal growth, ethics, and yes, kindness and sensitivity to others as a cornerstone of Jewish belief. Jewish spirituality, I began to realize, is embedded in the daily lives of practicing Jews.

It took several more years, and meetings with some extraordinary Chabad rabbis, before I became observant. In the process, I learned that not all Jews, observant or otherwise, have, like I imagine my grandmother did, a beautiful heart. However, Judaism does give us the knowledge and power to learn magnificent behavior through its laws, teachings and customs. And in adhering to Jewish law, I’ve found not only my spiritual home, I’ve found my spiritual community.

Although I never met my grandmother, I believe that if she could see me, she would be proud that I have continued her legacy of kindness—one that is deeply embedded in the Judaism she practiced.