Transmission of Tradition — A Cousin Considers

My grandparents Frank and Rebecca, who emigrated from Radauti, with my Aunt Pearl and Uncle Art, c. 1920. Art passed away in 2010.

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

As part of this project, I am examining — in an anecdotal way, to be sure — what I call the transmission of tradition. Specifically, I am looking at what happened between the generations of my (probably fairly religiously observant) women ancestors buried in the Jewish cemetery in Radauti, Romania and the generations, in the U.S., who came after.

The tombstones of my great- and great-great-grandmothers in the Radauti Jewish cemetery are marked by candlesticks. These two women probably fulfilled the women’s commandment to light the Shabbos candles — and maybe the other two commandments, too.

But what about us today, their descendants?

I myself am not observant, and most of my cousins married non-Jews. I have already recorded on this blog responses from some of my aunts and cousins, including my aunt Pearl, now 94 and, sadly, the recent victim of a stroke, and my cousin Nancy, who found a new direction in tradition through her involvement in the Seattle Women’s Torah project.

I’ve asked several other cousins about their relationship to Jewish tradition, observance and identity.

My cousin Merrick (Nancy’s sister and the daughter of my father’s younger brother Matthew) offered moving and evocative memories of her childhood in a small mill town on the coast of Oregon, where hers was the only Jewish family for many miles around, and a thoughtful meditation on the meaning of ritual and tradition.

Yes, Mom lit Sabbath candles when we were growing up. Even though Mom is not especially religious she probably didn’t ever consider not lighting Sabbath candles, but I suspect Mom & Dad had a special appreciation for this weekly ritual because we were so isolated from Jewish…. anything.

She didn’t hold her hands over the candles or circle them at all, she stood with head bowed and said the blessing (in English); now she holds her hands over the candles and says the blessing in Hebrew. It was sort of a special honor when we were little to be the child who she held the match out to & got to blow it out. Later, I would like to watch her as she had a certain way she shook the match to extinguish it. Friday dinners were usually a more special menu too, something like a beef roast, rice, salad, & vegetable. The candles would usually burn for some time after we left the table. It was really kind of pretty to go back into the dark kitchen for some reason with the candles burning low.

One kind of funny memory involving the Sabbath candles: We were all watching TV in the living room one Friday night when my (then) boyfriend (now husband), Mike, stopped by late and walked through the kitchen into the living room and joined in with us. After a while he remembered and said ever so helpfully, “Oh, Mrs. Gruber, you left the candles burning in the kitchen so I blew them out.” We were all stunned, and then burst out laughing. We had to go in and look at the stubs of candles sitting there in the candlesticks. No bolts of lightning… and the house still stands.

I don’t recall if I lit Sabbath candles as a young single woman. I doubt it. But candlesticks were a special wedding gift from Mom & Dad when Mike & I were married. I don’t remember if I lit candles when we were just a couple (which was only a year), but when I had children I did light Sabbath candles. I probably didn’t light them every Friday, but often (I will have to remember to ask my kids if they remember lighting Sabbath candles).

I loved lighting the candles… for any number of reasons, but really one of them was the connection I felt to a long, long line of women who did this before me and with me. Whatever Jewish traditions, few as they are, that I practice they have always connected me more to my lineage than to God…. Sabbath candles most of all. As my kids got older and life seemed busier and busier I looked forward to the brief moment of calm and gathering that lighting the Sabbath candles brought. It was refreshing. Somehow as Friday nights became obligated with the kids high school activities, Sabbath candles just didn’t get lit more and more often and then not at all. I haven’t lit Sabbath candles for years.

But now that I’m a grandmother myself, I’m realizing my grandchildren will probably only know Jewish traditions (other than Hanukkah & Passover) if I do them. Lighting the Sabbath candles is something I will begin again this fall. It’s kind of funny though, since it’s been so long since I’ve lit candles I feel kind of awkward about doing it. Will my family all roll their eyes and indulge me? Or make fun of me? I want it to be just a very natural, real part of Friday night. I wish I wouldn’t have quit, because now I will have to work to maneuver it back to that. And maybe I can’t get it there…

Tradition? I grew up as a member of the only Jewish family in a rural Oregon town. I admire how much tradition Mom & Dad (and grandparents and family), were able to pass on to us in that situation, but there are big gaps. I’m aware of that. But I still live in Toledo so I don’t have a very good gauge to know what Jewish tradition can really look like if you have a Jewish community. Right now, I don’t have a lot of Jewish tradition that I practice, but like I said earlier, that will be changing… at least a bit.

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