Our last Shabbat

Our last Shabbat

Let’s begin with a sadly serious question: when you’re in the final innings of the game, what would you like to remain? For my grandmother Lillian Berman, z’l, it was the Shabbat candles — along with their close relative, Kiddush — that remained kindled until the very end.

My grandmother lived close to 100 years; it was a good life. After tending lovingly to my grandfather as he fell victim to the cruel fate of Alzheimer’s, Grandma rallied to live 20 more years. She was one tough cookie.

Grandma lived most of her life in Michigan, following her family’s flight from communist Russia, and as the legend goes, coming perilously close to being thrown off the side of the boat because she was sick. We were blessed to be able to visit her regularly, especially during her later years, when time gradually took its toll on her faculties.

My penultimate visit was particularly memorable. During a 2012 work trip to Chicago, I decided to stop in Detroit on my way home to spend Shabbat with Grandma. It would be our final Shabbat together, and despite its somewhat depressing nature, I will cherish it forever.

We celebrated Shabbat in Grandma’s assisted living facility, where she spent her final few years. Her apartment was perfectly nice, appointed with a selection of her most cherished furniture and possessions –- years earlier she had moved out of the house she shared with my grandfather into a two-bedroom townhouse.

The downsizing process continued. During those days, Grandma had around-the-clock professional care and would occasionally confuse people -– for example, that Shabbat, I alternated between being referred to as my father, brother, and myself. I’ve been called worse.

Despite the fog rolling into her mind, Grandma had remembered to take out her Shabbat candles and a kiddush cup. When the time came, I helped Grandma kindle the flame and light the Shabbat candles. Her weathered hands (I still remember their touch) shook but she managed to get the job done -– her determination and kavanah were never in question. The candles burned brighter than ever before –- the light bouncing off her eyes, revealing the vestiges of a mischievous soul reveling in the blessing of another Shabbat.

Next, I had the privilege of reciting Kiddush. Something inside me knew there was a strong chance it would be my last with Grandma. I focused deeply on each word, reciting them loudly, clearly, and smiling at Grandma along the way. When I was done, I was spent. But the wine never tasted so sweet, and I have yet to recapture the spiritual high of that Kiddush.

As children we tend to put our grandparents on mythical pedestals. These are the people who spoil us rotten, for whom we can do no wrong. Countless times Grandma came to my rescue, reminding her son (my father) that I was “a good boy” and he should take it easy on me. Our grandparents were larger than life — having made their youthful mistakes on someone else’s watch, they were a more perfect version of our parents. Of course, everything is a matter of perspective. If ever I needed a shot of confidence, all I needed to do was pick up the phone and call Grandma –- instantaneously, I was a rock star, a mensch, and the best-looking guy in the world.

Grandma also epitomized the law of conservation of matter — that matter can be neither created nor destroyed. As she aged, her body shrank, but the size of her meatballs grew. After 9/11, when airport security understandably become more intense, Grandma flew from her home in Michigan to visit our family in New York. As was her custom, she packed two suitcases –- one for her personal belongings and another full of frozen meatballs and cookies. Everyone has their priorities -– bringing my family her bespoke (today they’d be called “artisanal”) baked goods and meatballs was high on Grandma’s list. When she arrived at our home, she asked my siblings and me to help her empty the “food bag” — upon opening it, we started cracking up: airport security had wrapped official-looking industrial-grade tape firmly around Grandma’s food bag, indicating that her meatballs and cookies had been inspected and deemed kosher for air travel. To my grandmother, it was but one more minor obstacle on the meatballs’ sacred journey into our stomachs.

Not long after that fateful Shabbat together, Grandma died. My wife was early in her pregnancy with what would eventually become our daughter Leah –- named after my Grandma, Lillian “Leah” Berman. The next day, we went to the airport to fly to Michigan for Grandma’s funeral — she would be buried next to my esteemed grandfather, Avraham Berman, z’l. It was a weirdly bittersweet moment, watching my wife explain to my father why she could not fly to Michigan for the funeral — doctor’s orders due to a high-risk pregnancy. We had not yet told anyone she was pregnant, but life finds a way. Our family briefly celebrated the news outside of LaGuardia Airport and returned to the solemn matter at hand.

I recite the Kiddush each week during our family’s Shabbat dinner. The pandemic put a pause on having guests join our table and some of our usual decorum went out the window. Our kids and I have a weekly comedy routine where they see how long it will take for me to reprimand them with my eyes as they try to distract me during Kiddush.

It’s not exactly great parenting, but the little voice inside me reminds me that this too will fade; before we realize it, our children will be grown up and I’ll miss the distraction. That same voice also reminds me that — no matter how long the week — it’s imperative to celebrate Shabbat as a family, to light the candles, recite the Kiddush, and bless the challah. When everything else has been packed away in the attics of our minds, the words of the Kiddush should remain ready to open the front door and welcome the eternal Sabbath bride.

Ari Berman is a partner at the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. He lives in West Caldwell and is a member of that town’s Congregation Agudath Israel.

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