Zipporah’s mother, Selma J. Borowsky, and (below) one of her letters home
Anyone who has seen the movie or read the book Gone with the Wind will know what I am talking about when I say my mother was a 'Southern Belle', a Jewish Scarlett O’Hara. Her credentials were not strictly authentic because she was born in Poland and brought to America at the age of three.
Her Virginian accent, replete with ‘you all’s’, and her whimsical notions about southern hospitality were a constant source of merriment in our Yankee household.
Mother’s beguiling charm and flighty manners were no measure of her fortitude. She was a tower of strength to the family. She also had a wicked sense of humor and a high sense of drama, a combination that might have made her a great actress.
She was a stand-up feminist, uninterested in housekeeping – dust and disorder didn’t concern her. She had more important things to do with her time: read, write poetry, enjoy the wonders of nature, and contemplate philosophical questions.
Mother was an ardent Zionist and couldn’t see how cooking and cleaning would advance that cause. All her life she continued to be unconventional, irreverent and unpredictable.
The ‘mess’ in our house was basically caused by the fact that my mother was a collector, though not in the traditional sense. She simply could not throw away anything.
Greeting cards, stacks of newspaper clippings, my father’s speeches, outdated invitations, notes, doodles, bills, ads, junk mail – the newly arrived joined the yellow with age – all haphazardly piled on a mountain of papers resting on a table she called her desk.
When I needed to retrieve a report card for school or an important document I had left for her signature, she would assure me with the utmost conviction, Don’t worry, Darling. I don’t know where it is, but my hands will find it. And to my amazement, they always did.
About once a year, usually before Passover, she permitted me to pick out a few worthless items and dump them in the trash basket. Nevertheless, she checked them once more before final disposal.
When my mother passed away I had the unenviable job of wading through the mass of papers she had collected during her 88 years. Unexpectedly, that task turned out to be a bonanza. Some very interesting things surfaced which she had salvaged.
One intriguing item was a bill, a formal bill from me to my parents for fresh air – 2 hours in the park at 5 cents an hour. Total due = 10 cents. Evidently, I had been sent out reluctantly for an airing and decided to make ‘them’ pay for it. I was familiar with household bills, we got so many of them, I simply copied a sample bill in printed letters. It was even marked Paid in Full.
Then there was a note I found addressed to my father, scribbled in my childish handwriting. My father was a renowned Hebrew educator; constantly busy promoting the study of Hebrew as a modern language in the American and Canadian school systems. When I was a child, he was rarely at home at my bedtime and I got into the habit of leaving him unfinished poems I had written or brief notes reporting on my progress at school, which always interested him. One way to get his attention. The note I found read:
Dear Abba, I have a test in Bible tomorrow. I stayed up late studying but I don’t think it helped much. Wake me up early if you want to ... otherwise don’t complain if I don't get a good mark. Love. Your daughter who never sees you!
Decades later, there I was, sitting cross-legged on the floor surrounded by mountains of family papers, sorting them into smaller piles – to throw out, to keep, to decide later.
Suddenly, I came across a frayed folder of British Mandatory Palestine Air Mail letters. It contained every single letter I had written home when I was an American student on a one-year program at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1947-1948.
With great foresight, Mother had lovingly preserved my eyewitness account of the historic events that had marked Israel’s War of Independence and the birth of the State, as they were happening.
I had joined the Haganah underground defense force, had served as a medic during the Siege of Jerusalem and, later, in the nascent Israel Air Force.
It was a mind-blowing experience to read letters I no longer remembered writing. I found myself reliving every letter, reminded of what I had seen, felt and thought. An emotional trauma.
I put the letters aside to read at a later date, fully realizing their importance for my own children and grandchildren and others. Who would tell them about this? A teacher in history class? I WAS THERE!
When I finally got around to dealing with the letters, I found that they were arranged chronologically, so that with very little editorial effort they formed themselves into a manuscript. The book, Letters from Jerusalem 1947-1948, was first published in 1987 by the Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel, It was widely acclaimed and ever since then has had a life of its own.*
My mother, who had always encouraged me to write, succeeded in making an author of me even from beyond her grave. Bless her memory and bless her mess!
*The book is available from Amazon in paperback and in a Kindle edition at $11.99 from http://goo.gl/uvwklk, as well as a new Hebrew edition firstname.lastname@example.org