Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Shirley Kopelman Meyers, January 10, 1927-November 8, 2020

I like to tell people I made aliyah when I was young and stupid and that that’s the way to do it. When I made aliyah at the age of 18, I wasn’t thinking about what it would be like to have an aging parent far away, and not be able to help. I didn’t think about how, someday, in middle age, I would long to care for my mother, as I only I would have cared for her had I been there. But I was not there, except in fits and starts, two-week visits that were somehow never enough for either of us. And now she’s gone.

In the middle of the morning, the message came: “Our mother went to the true world this morning.”

I was not even surprised. I had seen it coming. She was 93. She was fading. This was Sunday morning, and she had fallen asleep in the middle of our last phone call, on Thursday night.

I watched her funeral on Zoom. Which was a blessing. I always knew I would not be going to the States for her funeral, as she had forbidden me to do so, some years ago.

A child of the Great Depression, my mother was practical. She didn’t see the point of me spending all that money on a ticket when she wouldn’t even be there to see me. Never mind that in some respects, the rituals are for those who remain. My mother had made her wishes clear, and I was stuck with respecting those wishes, and her.

Because of the Depression, she couldn't go to college. But at age 46, widowed with 4 children, she became a student at the University of Pittsburgh. It took her 8 years, but she got her degree in journalism. 

Had there not been a pandemic, perhaps no one would have thought to set up that Zoom funeral I got to see, so at least I had that: the beautiful chill autumn day, some red and gold leaves still on the trees in the Beth Shalom Cemetery, in Millvale, Pa. 

We visited my dad a few years ago. Now she is next to him.

On the other hand, had there not been a pandemic, I might have been able to see her one last time. But I was terrified at the thought of picking up the virus during my travels and that I might somehow, unwittingly, bring it to her, when I loved her almost as much as life itself. The thought of making her sick was paralyzing, in its most literal meaning. That thought kept me here in place in Israel, and far away from her.

And I think that was difficult for her. Knowing that I wasn’t going to be there that one more time. Perhaps—at least a little—she gave up hope that I would ever come again. It was not going to happen: a thing that made life worth living when she could no longer walk, see or hear, a visit from her baby.

It hurts that I hurt her that way. And it hurts that I lost my mom. But in spite of the terrible pain of losing my mother—of missing out on being able to care for her as only I would have cared for her—in spite of depriving her of my presence at the end, and missing her funeral, I do not regret making aliyah. “Non, je ne regrette rien.”

I regret nothing.

Is aliyah a selfish act? In some ways, no doubt, it is.

There’s no doubt it was excruciating for my mother not to have me with her all these years, when she loved and needed me so. It was I who picked up and left Pittsburgh to make aliyah to Israel. I who made the decision, and simply did it—made aliyah—when I was young and stupid, and unaware of what the future held. It was painful for my mother to not be close by my children, her grandchildren, whom she loved so dearly.

I put out photos of my mother in the shiva house, and there was one photo where you could see just the edge of her face, and she was glowing with love for a newborn grandchild she held, and you could see it, that love, though much of the picture was in shadow, including the object of her love, obscured. How it must have hurt her, to be so far away from them, her grandchildren, whom she would have loved to have cuddled and loved and known.

As evening fell on the day my mother died, Z”L, my rabbi’s wife came to my house to help me do kria, to help me tear my shirt just over the heart, as one does for a mother. “This is the price of aliyah,” I said to her, and she knew what I meant: that I hadn’t been there to care for my mother or be with her at the end, that I was observing the rituals from a distance: that I wasn’t there.

It was all a part of the price: the price of aliyah.

She issued no bromides or platitudes, my rabbi’s wife. My rabbi’s wife, who is wise, said something I’ve held onto, during the past two weeks, through my shiva and the days that followed. “Look,” she said in her quiet voice. “That’s Lech Lecha. You did Lech Lecha.”

This was a reference to the Torah portion not long past, Lech Lecha, in which God directs Abram to leave his native land and all that he knew, for a “land that I will show thee.”

Now the LORD said unto Abram: 'Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto the land that I will show thee.’ Genesis 12:1

One can only imagine the depth of Abram’s faith, leaving his father’s house like that with no second thoughts. But I was no Abram. The repercussions of the act were not clear to me at the time of the act: It is not an easy thing to leave a mother, or to leave all that I knew. I gave up one life for another, yet the shock and the pain of it all, came on only over time. It was a gradual sinking in.

And now that I’ve experienced this loss, I think that had I known how painful this all would be—the not being there—the enormity of this thing, I might not have made aliyah, at all.

I don’t think I could have done it, though I regret nothing, “Non, je ne regrette rien.”

It was the right thing to do, to make aliyah, and I’m glad, every day, that I did.

I didn’t know what I was doing at the time. I only longed and yearned to be here in Israel and I made it happen. But there was a cost to aliyah that makes Israel and my living here, all the more dear to my heart. I put my people ahead of myself, and even my own dearest mother, z"l, by moving to Israel. And how can I regret the chance to play a part in this noble project, the building of our national home, making Israel stronger, just by dint of being here?

“Non, je ne regrette rien.”

I wish that things had been different. I wish that my mother hadn’t fit into Pittsburgh the way I wished I fit Israel: like a glove. Because then she might have come here and I could have taken care of her. She would have had the chance to really know her Israeli grandchildren and great grandchildren, growing up under a different sun, proud and free in the Jewish State. 

Instead of snatching a few weeks here, a few weeks there, for a birth or a bar mitzvah.

But it was understood: my mother was a Pittsburgher, born and bred, and she would never live anywhere else. It was who she was.

And the truth is, it is who I was, and the last several times I visited there, I found myself touching the trees, and the buildings, the low walls and soaring yellow street lights, and would shed a tear or two as I said goodbye, over and over again. The smells of that place! The sight of that curb, that hill, this tree! A sensory experience that reached down to me, toward some primal place, an essence.

But Israel had called, had always called, that nobler cause from afar, from when I was little. This too, was me. Perhaps the ultimate me, the place I had to grow into. The place I had to earn.

Yes, I was young and stupid when I made aliyah. I hadn’t seen the cost. But no. From afar, from this distance, I regret nothing.

“Non, je ne regrette rien.”

I regret nothing in part because I live in a wonderful community that embraced me in my sorrow, came to sit with me, talk with me, cook for me. The people here know they are my family, since my family cannot be here. And they try hard to fill the breach. They know that I gave up my real family to be here with them in our land. And that makes them my family, in some ways more even than the real family I knew as a girl.

But community cannot replace my mother. It is hard to lose a mother. It hurts: another one more installment on the price of aliyah, which I continue to pay in ways and amounts I never anticipated, back when I was 18, young, and stupid. I think I never could have done it—made aliyah—if I’d known the price, how much it would cost, how much it would hurt.

It’s the kind of knowledge—well, it’s better not to know, to be young and stupid: to dare to just do the thing without knowing what’s ahead, the repercussions of the act. Did Abram know what was ahead, the trials and tribulations? Can anyone really make an informed aliyah, for instance know loss of this sort without having been in it, away from a mother they love, so far away?

Now I can say I’ve been there. I’ve dwelt in the country of my loss and I know the price of aliyah.

And still, I am here.

Today, and hopefully for a long time, I am here in Israel. And I do not and will not regret that.

“Non, je ne regrette rien.”

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