Family Symbols and Stories
Mar 20th 2015

Working in a synagogue keeps one conscious of the Jewish calendar, and it seems we are always getting ready for one holiday or another. From Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to Sukkot and Simẖat Torah, anukkah, Purim, Pesaẖ and Shavuot, our Jewish life is defined by the sights, smells and symbols that light up our lives. Daily and weekly, ritual objects give context and colour to who we are. Symbols, wrapped around experiences, come to life from childhood to old age, from generation to generation, through stories. Our stories recall and transmit our experiences and link them with those of family, friends and community. 

People often ask, “Do you remember when...?” or “Where were you when...?” Given an anchor—a reference event or symbol—we recall and even relive our past experiences. Our senses: sound, sight, smell, taste and touch, help retrieve memories and allow us to feel like and relive how a holiday looks and smells. Imagine your bat mitzvah aliyah, your first taste of maror on Pesa˙h, the smell of latkes on H̱anukkah. Read the following phrases and imagine. Can you picture the experience?

  • Did your bubbie or auntie make gefilte fish or grate horseradish for yontif? Did you help? 
  • Did your dad make cheesecake for Shavuot? Did you stand on a chair and mix beside him? Do you remember those first bites?
  • Did your kids make hamantashen for Purim? Did you have a flour fight?
  • What was it like when you heard or blew a shofar for the first time? Who were you standing with? Who held you? Is it different today?
  • As a child, did you light your own ẖanukkiyah? Was it oil or candles? Did you hold the shamash?
  • Do you remember receiving your tefillin? Your tallit? Do you have a favourite kippah? What do you think of when you say the brakhah before wrapping yourself in your tallit? Did you tie the tziziot yourself?

Jewish life is vibrant, fun and enriching. Living Jewish is something that we do every day, in small or large groups, at home and in the synagogue. Each experience enhances and gives our lives a richness and texture. Every event and new relationship adds a new chapter to our storybook life.

When I go on a trip, I take pictures to help recall my experiences. Back in the day, I used to make prints and share them with others. Now, most of my photos live on a memory card or in a digital picture frame. Sometimes, they make it to a photo/storybook. Undoubtedly, the very best are stored on my mental hard drive and are accessed by different stimuli. I share these pictures through stories with friends and kids. The more we talk and share our lives, the more the pictures come to life.  

One of my most enlightening experiences has no pictures but is relived each time we prepare to take out the Torah from the Aron Kodesh. I came from a small town and our little shul had only three Torah scrolls. I remember, as a child, standing beside my dad as he had the honour of opening the Ark—it was a thrill! Then one day, we came to “the big city”, to Toronto, for Shabbat services. This time, rather than in a small shul of 20, I was in a huge sanctuary with hundreds of Jewish voices all chanting together. It was b’kol eẖad, with one voice—and then the doors of the Aron Kodesh slid open to reveal more Torah scrolls than I could count. There was so much polished silver adorning the Holy Scrolls that I stood in awe! 

When I had my own children, I shared that moment, that story as an example of an experience that connected me to the Jewish people who, throughout our history, participated in the same rituals. Singing together, we are one people. I felt so then and I still do today.

The winter is cold and the city is harsh. Inside Beth Tzedec you will find warmth and tenderness. We are a community that cares about each other. We may have a very large kehillah and sometimes it may feel that it’s hard to connect. However, as my friend Diane Grafstein says, “the more you come, the smaller the place becomes”. I encourage you to come to shul, and share your stories with your family, your friends, with me. There are so many ways to connect, so many ways to experience Jewish life. The doors are always open. Please come in.

To make a gift that will strengthen our Synagogue, please contact me at 416-781-3514 ext. 211.