My grandmother lived just shy of her 100th birthday. Rhoda Neder Sorensen was a promising pianist who was orphaned at age 16, necessitating the need to support herself. Her early years were not easy.
Until age 12, I lived next door to Grandmother Rhoda. She was a small, petite woman with flashing dark brown eyes, a sweet smile and a work ethic that was passed on to her four children. When I was in college, I lived with Grandma Rhoda for one year. She always wore a crisp cotton-print apron she had sewn herself. Each day when I returned from school she would be in the kitchen preparing something delicious. Her specialties were ketchup, pear jam with maraschino cherries and walnut pieces, pickled beets and an amazing fig pudding with “whiskey” sauce served on holidays only. Her basement shelves groaned from the weight of her bottled fruit, sauces and vegetables. Grandma Rhoda was a Presbyterian, she converted to Mormonism because her husband was a Mormon and she wanted solidarity and peace in the family. For some unknown reason, her baptism papers were lost and she refused to be re-baptized. She never went back to church.
Grandmother Rhoda’s progenitors came from Germany and were Jews.
At age 20 I missed a golden opportunity to understand Grandmother’s unique history, her issues with Mormonism, her debilitating migraine headaches, her keen intelligence and love of music, her coping with raising a family on a working farm while her husband worked a city job. I missed my opportunity because I was too young to realize the importance of truly getting to know my grandparents on a more intimate level, to absorb and understand their views, passions, disappointments and joys. I missed my opportunity due to self importance as a college student living a good life.
But for some inexplicable reason, the Jewish blood that flows through my matriarchal lineage is a real living part of me, resulting in a deep kinship for the Jewish culture, faith, and history. Last week my husband, son, grandson and I had the opportunity to visit the Donahy Street Synagogue, Budapest, Hungary.
This beautiful synagogue was nearly destroyed during WWII. The Nazis’ used the second floor for their command headquarters and the sanctuary level to stable their horses. Utter desecration. The last ghetto of Europe was set up at the beginning of December 1944.
The ghetto included 162 buildings on the streets behind the synagogue. These broken, empty, decaying, bleak buildings stand as a colossal memorial, a testament to the evil that man is capable of.
Today the Synagogue is restored to unimaginable beauty; its hallowed chambers filled with ritual, education, music and symbolism. The courtyard garden of the temple has become a cemetery for the war’s martyrs. Many mortal remains were buried here due to lack of surviving relatives to identify the bodies. During that last year, 600,000 Jewish men, women and children died. They simply vanished leaving few traces of their lives.
At the back of the synagogue is a magnificent memorial tree commemorating the victims of the Holocaust. This weeping willow tree-made of stainless steel and silver- has thousands of tiny leaves, each bearing the name of a person whose life was cut short. There stands a Hebrew inscription that asks: Is there a bigger pain than mine?
Because I wasn’t mature enough, I missed walking in my Grandmother Rhoda’s sensible black, high top shoes. We need to walk in another’s shoes literally and symbolically to have even the slightest inkling of what their lives are about. We all are more than our name, we each have a heart, a soul and a story.
There is a Yiddish saying, “We are all meshuganeh.” Translated that means “lovingly crazy.” I like to think of my Grandmother as “meshuganeh.” Her dark eyes were always sparkling, her baking pans filled with fragrant foods, storage shelves laden with foods in green Kerr glass jars, her lovingly tended vegetable garden was plentiful, in free moments her hands glided upon the ivory piano keys and she had a huge heart. Meshuganeh is a pleasant sort of word. I like the idea of being lovingly crazy.