Pearl Gruber Kaplan, RIP

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

My Aunt, Pearl Gruber Kaplan, passed away Friday in Santa Barbara, California, at the age of 94. She was my father’s oldest sister; the oldest of my immigrant grandparents’ seven children; a military veteran; a mother; a grandmother and great-grandmother; a highly independent woman who lived her life on her own terms. May her soul be bound up in the bond of life.

I’ve already posted this before, but in 2009, when I was starting this project, I asked Aunt Pearl what her recollections were about her mother (my grandmother) lighting Shabbos candles and what her own relationship with the tradition had been. Pearl, ever iconoclastic, had this to say:

Yes, my mother lit the candles, closed her eyes and said the blessing; then we all sat down to the traditional (and always the same) Friday night dinner of roast chicken.  I don’t know whether she continued the ceremony after my father’s death.  But I have the candlesticks; and I’ve painted a still-life of the lit candles.

My parents emigrated from Eastern Europe and brought their religious observances, with them.  Success,for a man, was measured by his profession and /or income;  for a Jewish girl, it was marriage and her role as Queen of the Kitchen. She was the  guardian of the various rites and rules of the Orthodox faith, which she observed seriously and zealously.  The mother of a friend had four daughters, three of whom (including my friend) were successes, i.e. married. The ‘failure’ was the unmarried administrator of a large hospital in another city.  That was then, but the cultural mindset remained pretty much the same until the Conservative and Reformed congregations loosened things up a bit.  And of course Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, et. al.

Later, my cousin took a photograph of Aunt Pearl, with the candlesticks and the still life she had painted of them.

My Aunt Pearl, with my grandmother's candlesticks, and a painting Pearl painted of them

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.

Transmitting Tradition: The Women’s Torah Project

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

One of the themes I am exploring in this project is the transmission of tradition. My great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother whose tombs I found and photographed in the Jewish cemetery in Radauti, Romania were buried under gravestones marked with candlesticks, denoting the signal role of  women in Jewish tradition and practice of lighting and blessing the candles on Shabbos.

Both of these ancestors of mine — Ettel and Chaya Dwoira — were probably religious (or fairly religious…) women who observed the tenets and traditions. In my generation and younger, however I know that few of us carry out anything more onerous than eating lox and bagel, holding or attending a Seder, making sure that children are bar/bas mitzvah and going to synagogue occasionally. Almost all the marriages of our generation of cousins have been “out,” to non-Jews.

One of my cousins, however, has been involved in a project that takes traditions  and refashions them from a feminist (or at least a female) viewpoint. It is the Women’s Torah Project in Seattle which aimed at ushering in  “a new era for Judaism and feminism” by commissioning “the first ever Sefer Torah to be scribed by women.”

The project was completed on October 15, 2010 to some fanfare.

It is not only the first Torah written and embellished by an international community of women, it is the first Torah literally sewn together in community. Dozens of people had the opportunity to fill in letters, sew the parchment panels together, and tie the scroll to the rollers. Many others watched or helped the six scribes put the 62 panels in order, under the exultant wings of Shekinah.

The completion of the Torah garnered a lot of press,including THIS PIECE in the Forward and THIS in the Seattle Times. The Project produced this video: