When Even Challah Seems Haunted

What Remains of Jewish Home When Mom's Mind Slips Away

By Lenore Skenazy

Published November 28, 2011, issue of December 02, 2011.
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What makes a home Jewish? I’m not talking about the discussions, the jokes, the smell of pickled fish. I’m talking about walking into, in this case, my ailing mother’s apartment in Skokie — the town where the Nazis marched because it was sooo Jewish — and wondering: How do you know a Jewish lady lives here? Aside from the mezuzah, I mean?

Because the facts on the ground here are that my mom is disappearing. She has Alzheimer’s and sometimes she can summon my name, sometimes she can’t. Sometimes she understands that she is looking at a photo, sometimes she expects it to talk. Sometimes she talks to it. Sometimes — tonight — when I said, “Have some toast,” she heard, instead, “ghost” and wondered what I was trying to give her. She didn’t look scared, just confused. Looking at the toast didn’t make things any clearer. Even eating it didn’t do the trick. I’m not positive she remembers what bread is.

“I TOASTED YOU SOME CHALLAH!” I cried, desperate to get the point across.

“Oh, challah!” She looked delighted… for a second. Then we talked about the ghost some more.

My mom has a caregiver who, bless this woman, keeps the place clean and neat, and keeps my mom clean and neat and well taken care of and, sometimes, smiling. But even as my mom slips away from me, so does the character of her home. I live far away; the caregiver lives with my mom. And over the years, she has been clearing out the clutter, starting with the Jewish funeral home calendars. (That’s probably a good thing.) Slowly, the cabinets are emptying of the Manischewitz egg noodles. There’s no longer a pile of the Chicago Jewish News because my mom can’t make sense of a newspaper anymore. The things that made my mom my mom (always reading, or planning to read) and this Jewish home a Jewish home (Hadassah greeting cards for all occasions — so long as the occasions are a baby, bar mitzvah or death) are evaporating.

What’s left that still makes this home Jewish, now that the caregiver’s Bible tracts sit next to the sofa?

Well, of course, there are still my mom’s cookbooks. The ORT cookbooks from the ’70s, featuring recipes by Chicago Jewish ladies who still called themselves names like “Mrs. Max Shulman.” I’ve written about their concoctions before, with some amazement (they’re shockingly full of treyf!), but I’d feel a little lost if they weren’t still here. Ditto, “The Settlement Cook Book.”

Then there are all the remnants of a musical life: the piano, the yellowing sheet music, the abstract bronze sculptures of viola players and such. It’s not that only Jews played music, of course; it’s that a Jewish home without music would seem strange. Everyone I knew growing up played an instrument (or at least spent years begging to quit, like me). So here in my mom’s home, there are the Billie Holiday 78s, from early in her marriage, right on up to the CD player — the last music technology she mastered before… well, before she stopped mastering new things. Which was a few years after she stopped being able to play a Chopin waltz and a few years before music stopped being anything other than meaningless noise. Nowadays, the only song that I can sing that my mom remembers is “Dayenu.” So “Dayenu” I sing.

I guess that makes the home pretty Jewish.

The art does, too. Lots of it, and also, a lot of books. Again, it’s not that other ethnicities don’t read and appreciate art. Just that the combo of these artifacts seems more Jewish than, say, a whole lot of cat posters and Christmas ornaments.

And not just any books. On the shelves sit, as if by edict, a book or two by Saul Bellow along with Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen” (though “My Name Is Asher Lev” is an acceptable substitute). There are also a few books directly about our people, notably, “Jews, God and History.” And then a goodly showing of our boys Kafka, Terkel and Singer, and an Arthur Miller play. (Guess which one?) Faulkner gets thrown into the mix, because if you were part of a book club anytime in the ’60s or ’70s (and if you were Jewish, you were), he was there, too.

The plaque announcing a tree planted in my father’s memory — that certainly signals our creed, as do the Haggadahs in the storage closet (courtesy of the coffee company). Even a kitchen cabinet full of ancient spices hints at a certain strain of Jewish cooking, because my mom never used them. A few years ago, I found a box of cloves so old that the address for McCormick’s didn’t include a ZIP code. ZIP codes hadn’t been invented yet.

So I guess there’s a lingering Jewishness to this home, even if it’s less obvious than back when my mom blithely kept track of our lives on the Weinstein Funeral Home calendar. It’s here in little shards, in the closet, in the cabinets, in wisps of the old ways. Maybe my mom was right: There are ghosts here. You can find them in the challah.

Lenore Skenazy is the author of the book “Free-Range Kids” (Wiley, 2010) and the founder of a blog of the same name.

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