I did not write this post. The title’s “Mother” is my grandmother, Ruth Radman Meyer; “Me” is my mother, Bernice Meyer Saltzman. My mother wrote and delivered this speech in February 1995. Fifteen years later, I am still impressed and inspired every time I read it. This tribute to my grandmother is also a testament to my mother’s outstanding abilities as a scholar, writer and parent. I am publishing it this week to honor my mother’s memory on her 10th yahrzeit (anniversary of her death).
Truths My Mother Taught Me
Presented by Bernice Meyer Saltzman
to the Jewish Women’s Club of Richmond VA
Tuesday, February 28, 1995
Bernice Meyer Saltzman 1994
One of the blessings of being sixty-something is that you are in the position of learning from people both older and younger than you. Recently the young 39-year-old Rabbi Simeon Glaser of my synagogue in West Hartford titled his shabbat sermon, “Truths My Father Taught Me.” I quickly saw a variation of this title as appropriate for my presentation to the Jewish Women’s Club. I also liked the title because “Truths” contains my mother’s name (Ruth Meyer).
My rabbi’s father, Rabbi Joseph Glaser, had died at age 69 two months before his son gave this sermon. I think this particular sermon, not in any way a eulogy but rather a loving exposition of his father’s ideals, advice and actions, may have been part of my rabbi’s grief-healing process.
My mother died a year and a half ago at age 85. My grieving process actually began about two years before she died, when I saw her becoming very frail and started to think what life would be like without her. From that time I began sorting and organizing with her during my visits, her vast collection of memorabilia and photographs, a joint project that gave her much pleasure. (Ruth was probably the only teenager of her generation who owned and used a box camera and she saved everything!). I’ve continued the sorting and organizing on visits since her death. It’s an activity that keeps her present in my life and made it easy for me to accept the invitation to speak to this group because so much of what she saved relates to the JWC. I believe that this presentation marks the end of my grief-healing process. Its preparation has been an opportunity to think about, without grief or sadness, what my mother taught me about Judaism and about living.
Ruth Radman Meyer 1955
I owe this opportunity to my dear-friend-since-childhood, Martele Sporn Wasserman, who thought of me when she was assigned to program this meeting and who suggested I build the topic on my mother as my first and best teacher.
[I always have a wonderful sense of continuity whenever I’m in Richmond. It comes from the fact that I and my five childhood friends, Jo Elsner Adams, Jena Rosenbloom Sager, Doris Tartarsky Abraham, Dore Abramson Trestman, and Martele, never disconnected from one another though some of us left Richmond after marriage. We could look back to our mothers who were also friends from their youths, maintaining lifetime ties either in the JWC, the Temple Sisterhood and other organizations, vacations at Virginia Beach or around the bridge table. And today some of our children who became friends in childhood continue to keep in touch. With the passing of Martele’s mother, Jean, last November 11, all of our mothers are now gone. Gone also is our beloved Dore who died shortly after her 64th birthday. All of these wonderful women, the mothers and the daughters, are in my thoughts today.]
• • • • •
Jews know that Torah means much more than the Five Books of Moses. For us Torah includes the entire Bible and Talmud and all the products of the study of these treasures: midrashim, translations of Scripture, the Prayerbook, rabbinic responsa, ethical wills (sometimes even bubba meises). The rabbis further decreed that Torah is also to be found in the actions of any righteous person.
Another rabbinic formulation of the concept that one teaches best and most by example is their phrase, ma’aseh avot siman l’banim. “The deeds of the parents are a sign (or beacon) to the children.” The Ramban (Nachmonides) and other commentators used the phrase to describe the chapters in Genesis about the patriarchs, specifically to the fact that so many incidents in the life of Abraham are repeated or emulated in the life of Isaac and Jacob.
Of course, my life has not been a repeat of my mother’s life. But her deeds have been and are a beacon and a model for me. Though I adore and admire my father for the constant and consistent devotion he has given to me all my life, I know he’d be the first to say that my mother was the one who transmitted the values and verities of Judaism to my brother and me.
Like her Biblical namesakes, my mother, Esther Ruth Meyer, was determined, intelligent, modest and loyal. She taught me much of what I know about living – from the facts of life (when I was 10) to how to accept old age and death with grace and dignity. She showed me that Judaism is a source of strength and inspiration and informs almost everything we think about and must do in our world.
How did she become such a source of wisdom and a sign for the way? She was born and raised in America as the eldest daughter of a typical East European immigrant Jewish family. Parnassa, earning a living, took precedence over religious observance and education. The only educational “enrichment” my mother received was several years of piano lessons, the seed, no doubt, of her lifelong love of classical music. However, Jewish holidays and life cycle events, Yiddish, tzadakah, kaddish, supporting the shul, etc., were real and present in her life from birth. They surely had a great deal to do with her and Leonard joining the small band of young families that founded Richmond’s first Conservative synagogue in 1933.
In that same year Ruth became one of the eight (some papers show ten, some eleven) young women who started the Jewish Women’s Club, dedicated then as now to learning.
In the last 10-15 years we’ve become familiar with such phrases as continuous education, adult education, personal growth, self-help or support groups, and women’s issues. I have long admired and marveled that the Jewish Women’s Club, founded as a weekly study group, pioneered these concepts before anyone put a name to them. I have no doubt that the JWC was Ruth’s “learning center” where she gained the equivalence of the college education that gender and poverty had denied her, where she acquired many of the skills that enabled her to cope with marriage, motherhood and maturity, where she harvested the truths that informed and enhanced her Jewish identity.
• • • • •
My mother had some choice guidelines on derekh eretz, decency or acceptable behavior. Actually she expressed many of them in timeworn cliches. But, reflecting on them the past year and a half, I know they had solid Jewish underpinnings. I’ll share a few with you.
How many times I heard “If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything.” According to the Talmud (Arakhin 15b), lashon hara – the evil tongue or slander, is a hideous capital crime. The sages remind us that slander kills three persons: the one who tells it, the one who accepts it, the one about whom it is told. One of my favorite condemnations of slander is by Ben Sira (19:10): “If you hear something said, let it die with you; have courage, it will not make you burst!” Continue reading