I have a unique family. I have so many relatives within a one square-mile area that we had a float in our city’s Fourth of July parade called Dozens of Cousins. Some of my favorite memories involve weekly Friday night dinners at my Great Auntie Phyllis’ house, where she successfully piles 30+ people, week after week, stuffing them full of all things good and Jewish — from matzo ball soup to brisket. Surprisingly in-time for dinner, my Great Uncle comes home from the hospital — head-to-toe in surgical scrubs — to talk bones with some aching relation. He has an orthopedic practice with his three sons and one daughter-in-law. We sit, we eat, and we schmooze. This weekly gathering is nothing compared to Rosh Hashanah dinners, or Thanksgiving. Every dinner ends with my Great Aunt and her dear friend Mary-Joe hand-counting how many people came and how it differed from weeks and years in the past. This year’s holiday was different. Still lots of food and family, but my grandmother’s absence (she passed away last Thanksgiving) was a noticeable and uncomfortable void.
After my Bubby Cyrille’s death, Jewish holidays became difficult to celebrate, and I was dreading moving to New York to spend my first Rosh Hashanah away from home. I had an apartment, a job, and a reasonable amount of good friends from work. I even had family. My New York family is great, and incredibly hospitable, but no dynamic can possibly replace that of my Detroit roots.
On Rosh Hashanah, I was invited to dine with the delightful Wexler family. I had done some work with Lisa and her radio show in the past, and in a quick e-mail exchange, I had mentioned not having anywhere to go for the holiday. Like any good (and typical) Jewish mother, she insisted that I join her family. I hesitated responding at first, because while we had welcomed many a wandering friend into our home and my Auntie Phyllis’ over the years, I never thought I’d be in that position of need.
I left work early that day, and hopped the Metro North train to Connecticut. The beautiful state scenery was a welcome change of true beauty compared to the concrete jungle that I gaze over during my normal morning commute. Lisa’s father, Sol, who I had met before, picked me up. A proud father and grandfather, Sol spent the quick 10-minute car ride raving about how his children have achieved such success, and how proud he is to see his grandchildren follow suit. He reminded me of my Zaydie Sam, my role model and hero, the sweetest (now tied with Sol Kamen) grandfather in the entire world.
Walking into Lisa’s beautiful home, I was welcome by both a barking bichon and the smell of a skillfully and lovingly prepared Jewish holiday meal. The buffet was bedecked with a spread of foods including her mother Gloria’s famous (and only made twice a year) brisket-style meat, vegetables, and some other tasty sides. People started trickling in following services, and the true matriarchy of this family was revealed when Lisa, who had spent the day davening and cooking, chanted the pre-meal Rosh Hashanah blessings. She effortlessly recited the Hebrew, and led us to the nearby water so we could wash away our sins in the Tashlich ritual.
Lisa, her sister, and her mother wrote a book, Secrets of a Jewish Mother. The book is filled with practical, albeit quirky, advice on how to lead life, all from the Jewish mother perspective. I made my positive and supportive thoughts of the book clear in a review on Amazon.com, and while the review was taken down, my thoughts remain the same. I witnessed this family, and their interactions, and saw so many reflections of my own family within them. In addition to those similarities, I was amazed by the amount of advice I received from Lisa’s family members, many of whom contributed similar advice that was featured in her book. Her Aunt Cooky, who reminded me, like Lisa’s mother, of my father’s mom, talked to me about the importance of religion and the role it plays in my generation. She also asked me who I was dating and why I’m a vegetarian. You see, practical conversation mixed with a small Bubby-style nudge, that’s Jewish parenting, and that’s the wisdom and nature of a Jewish mother.
I spent the entire night talking with members of this incredible family, observing their dynamic, especially in relation to my family, and was not surprised when I saw living proof of the words written in the book. True Jewish mothers to the core — a bit overprotective, but loving nonetheless — if you’re looking for the gift to give, and because I’m not sure Lisa can facilitate the entire Jewish population of the Internet for her next Rosh Hashanah dinner, I highly recommend buying her book, Secrets of a Jewish Mother, for the surrogate experience to what I was fortunate enough to have experienced in reality.