My mother passed away on June 30 (28 Sivan) after a long illness. Her life was bound up with 20th century Jewish experience, and she has certainly influenced my own views of Judaism and the world, and, of course, she helped shape my personality.
Below is the eulogy I gave at her funeral.
What can a son say about their mother? And how can anyone sum up another person's life, trying to put together a few pithy adjectives that neatly wrap up a complex human being, who herself changes over the years. And how can one tell of their own mother, without telling more about their own relationships and fantasies, than they tell about the objective truth? And do I really know the objective truth. Does anyone? So I won't try. But I will try to share a few, perhaps disconnected and necessarily subjective memories and vignettes, to give you a flavour of this remarkable woman, Jeanette Nestel.
My mother was born in 1923 in Stanlavov Poland. Her parents were, what today we might call modern Orthodox, while her grandparents, uncles and aunts were, what today we would call ultra-orhodox. One of my favourite pictures of my mother is in a large family portrait taken in 1929 when she was 6 years old. Standing in the middle, is an impressive array of bearded Hasidim, besides their matronly solid wives. In the back row stand fashionable looking 1920s teens – some pious, some left wing Zionists, maybe a closet Communist. And in the front row the little kids, my mother among them – wearing a short skirt a sweater and woollen tights, arms crossed with both a bored and piercing look in her eyes, that seems to be saying – you can force me to sit here for this dumb photo, but you can't make me smile. I'd rather be out digging in the back yard.
My mother was a great story teller, and the stories of her childhood evoked a now lost world of Jewish life in interwar Europe: of great piety and brewing revolution, of great dreams for a better world, crashing on the bitter reality of an evil rising all around them.
One story that my sister Gail reminded me of yesterday was when my mother went to visit her own grandmother, the wife of the saintly Froike Shoykhet, in their shtetl. Once on Erev Shabbat, her grandmother took my mother around as she collected donations of food and other necessities from the local shop keepers. Then she carried the baskets full of shabbat supplies, my mother in tow, to the doors of various homes scattered throughout the village. As she did so she said to her young granddaughter “Don't ever tell which houses I dropped these goods off at. No one must ever know who needs charity. These people are poor, but they should not be deprived of their dignity.”
What is remarkable about this story for me, is not just that it happened, but that my mother re-told it so often and in such remarkable detail – more detail than I have. It made a deep impression on her. Not only did it idealize the life of those pious Jews in her eyes– it imbued in her a sense of justice and charity and decency that she, in turn passed to me and my sisters Irene and Gail, each in our own ways.
But my mother herself was not pious. She was a bit of a rebel and a bon vivant - as she liked to tell us. She told of the time as a pre-teen, she tried to put on make up and tweeze her eyebrows, something strictly forbidden in her home. Not only did she managed to cut off most of one eyebrow completely, but worse, much worse, she had to face her father's wrath when he found out. She also told of later, when as a young teenager, she took the streetcar downtown to meet her boy friend to go a movie – on Shabboss no less! She was ratted out by her sister, and when she emerged from the movie theatre, on her boy friend’s arm and eating a ham sandwich, there was her father - waiting. He literally dragged her home by her ear. There are many other stories in the same vein.
During those years she joined the socialist Zionist movement Hashomer HaZair. There she was taught to dream about an idyllic life of peace, equality, creativity, and freedom on a kibbutz in the land of Israel. In her later years, she idealized those beautiful teenagers and young adults who dreamed, together with her, those beautiful dreams. Though most of these dreams came to naught, these Shomrim stood tall in her pantheon of ideal human types, together with her pious grandfather and grandmother. And to the very end she remained a bit of a lefty, largely as an influence from those 1930's days in Hashomer.
Sadly the biggest influence in my mothers life was the Holocaust. Almost all of her family and friends were killed, and she herself witnessed things no one should have to see. My mother wrote a book detailing her Holocaust experiences. For those of you who have not read it, I highly recommend it. It is a real page turner, and proof that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. But the take way point of her holocaust experience is this: that while it deeply scarred her, it also honed her defiant will power, her sense of justice (though often falling into an exaggerated sense of self-aggrievement), and her sheer will to live and survive. After the war she just wanted to LIVE! She often described her immediate post war years first in DP camps in Europe and then as a poor immigrant in Toronto as the best years of her life. After the horrors of WWII and the constant fear and struggle to just survive, living free and hopeful and safe and within a like minded community of Jews must have seemed like heaven. Though a life long Zionist – believing fiercely that Israel was necessary for the physical survival of the Jewish People – she always loved Canada for taking her and her a family in, when no one else would. She often said – without any sense of irony – that Canada was the best place in the world. Maybe it is significant that her funeral is on Canada Day.
As my parents began to make it economically in Canada, my mother blossomed. She became very active in Haddassah, founded a chapter of “greener” Haddassah ladies, and won several awards for raising 'record' sums of money – or so she told us. She worked first as a milliner, than a rooming house owner, and later she dabbled in real estate – buying older houses, fixing them up and reselling them. In the mid 50s she started a career as an artist, first painting and then sculpting. Again she won several awards and had numerous shows and sold many of her pieces. (My sister Irene, has clearly inherited many of our mother's artistic genes.) My mother always thought of herself first and foremost as an artist and was very proud of her art, and if you come to the shiva you will see some of her work. In addition my mother always had a great sense of style, of aesthetics, and an amazing eye for, and memory of, physical details.
My mothers zest for life, especially in the 60 and 70s sometimes expressed itself in certain neveau riche trappings – though in my mothers case they were always tasteful. In the stylish evening dress she wore to my sister Irene's wedding in 1960, she looked like a movie star, and she knew it and she revelled in it. My own bar mitvah looked like something out of Good Bye Columbus. In the videos we have my mother looks radiant and beautiful. Friends of hers, who knew her in those years described her as “a ball of energy”, “a Spitfire”, “feisty,” “strong willed”, and “a morale booster.” Part of this was due to the love and support she received from my father Julius. He had met her right after the war, and swept her off her feet and supported her with his own confidence, competence, generosity, and joie de vive. Though they had their tense moments – like all couples – they also deeply met each others needs and re-enforced each others better attributes.
My fathers passing in 1979 was another major turning point in my mother's life. Though she actually coped more than competently with the family finances and with her own living arrangements and continued art career, she seemed to lose some of her confidence. She often asked me for advice and support which I felt completely inadequate to give. For all her spunk and talent she seemed to feel she needed a man to support her – at least emotionally – and without my father, she slowly seemed – at least to me – to lose some of her confidence and joy, and as the years went by, more and more often, to let her fear overwhelm her hope.
While the Holocaust had always been simply a fact of life in our family, my mother dwelt on it more and more as she got older. But often in a paradoxical way. While obviously a great tragedy and source of immense and deep sorrow for my mother (she would often cry when remembering her own much loved and murdered parents) it was also a source of pride and hope. Pride that she had beat the odds and survived. And hope because of those good people who risked their own lives to help her survive. Human beings, she seemed to have concluded, are capable of great evil, but also of great courage and goodness. But it sometimes escaped her that most people were between these polar opposite types. Sometimes she would equate a shoddy car repair man with the anti-semites who blackmailed her and stole from her during WWII. Incompetence or laziness was sometimes construed as evil and malign intent. Or so it seemed to me at times. But then, at other times, she emitted a deep belief in the potential goodness of people and a hopefulness for a life daringly and forcefully lived. Her grandchildren Dan and Hadar were telling me yesterday of the strong impression it made on them when, years ago, my mother showed them baby clothes of my sister Irene that she had saved from the war. The clothes had been patched so many times that all that was left were the patches. The original fabric was all but gone. And they recalled the dress my mother had made for Irene from a flour sack. And Irene herself likes to tell of how, after the war in the DP camp, my mother made Irene a birthday, and for a balloon, gave Irene a blown up condom, somehow obtained from an American GI. It was this resourcefulness and relentlessness, and energy and will to life - as much as sadness and cynicism - that my mother carried with her. The two fighting for dominance, especially in her later years.
I want to finish on a totally personal note. For me, my mother was a dominant, and in many ways larger than life personality, even into my adulthood. (I suppose that is not so unique for a child of survivors.) She was fiercely loyal and protective and proud of me - often without good reason. And that has given me a sometimes insufferable sense of self confidence - which has mostly stood me in good stead. She could be extremely generous and had a fierce sense of right and wrong. All of which I admire and have learned from. But my mother could also infuriate me with her sometimes cynicism, sometimes pushiness, sometimes self absorption, and sometimes complete arbitrariness. She was and is a complete ball of contradictions to me. And not only can't I sum her up easily, my feelings and opinions about her, have and do change often. I am not even sure if what I have just told you now is truth or mythology. All I know for sure is that she loved me a lot and I loved her. For me that is more important than the biographical details or any single interaction. My mothers' death is the end of an era. She was a guide, a support, a foil, a link and an anchor. For me she was both real and mythological. And now she is gone. And I don't really know how that will effect me, or what new stories I will construct about her in the years ahead.
May her memory be a blessing.
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[My mother published the story of her Holocaust years - a remarkable tale and a good read. You can order the book here