After My Mother Died, Another Woman Took Me Under Her Jewish Wing
When I converted to Judaism, I found the ‘Jewish mother’ I never had—a woman who resembled my own mom in surprising ways
I was born on Tisha B’Av—although I didn’t know that for forty-some years. Growing up in a small Midwestern city in an entirely agnostic home deliberately devoid of any religious influence, I’d never heard of the holiday. And neither, I suspect, had my mother.
Patricia Martin Gibby was raised Christian in even a tinier and more out-of-the-way place than her youngest daughter was. A brilliant and beautiful girl, she earned a scholarship to college that plucked her from her impoverished town in the Rocky Mountains and desposited her in the academic atmosphere she would take to like a thirsty plant to water and live in happily for the rest of her life. When she and my father got engaged, his friends told him they approved of her because “she was pretty and she was smart.”
Another trait she had in spades, one that really flourished in adulthood, was her musical ability, especially her love of singing. As a young girl, Mom played guitar and warbled cowboy songs on an honest-to-HaShem ranch, and when she grew up and left the West she always found a way to be singing. If a college where Daddy taught didn’t have a vocal group, Mom assembled one, the best of which was Earlham College’s Choral Ensemble, which performed early music (Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque). They sometimes rehearsed at our house, and I loved to drift off to sleep listening to the sound of their complex harmonies blending in the living room. Mom herself had a gorgeous soprano voice—not thin or tinny, but rich and golden-sounding. She always sang out, full throttle, with nice vibrato (not too much), embarrassing me in public when I was little—during “The Star Spangled Banner,” for example.
Mom had a hard time relating to me most of my life; I suspect that we were too much alike in some ways for her to feel at ease with me. But I’m proud of the characteristics we shared: enjoyment of reading, a wide streak of weepy sentimentality, skill at foreign languages (Mom became a French teacher). And especially our love of singing.
Mom died fairly suddenly at age 73 (I was 35) of kidney disease; on Jan. 1, 2000, just hours after I had flown out to see her, she decided to quit dialysis, and her body gave out exactly two weeks later. This happened four years before I became a Jew, so I have no way of knowing what she would have made of my new Jewishness. But even though my mother didn’t live to see me become a Jew, I wanted to create a connection to her in my new life. Toward the end of my conversion process, when I needed to pick a Hebrew name, I selected Shirah (song), not only because it starts with the same sound as my given name, but because it honors Mom, whose real purpose in life was to sing.
So, I never had a Jewish mother—something some people might consider one of the quintessential elements of Jewish identity. But I have unexpectedly had something quite similar: a relationship with someone who has filled some of the role of a Jewish mother for me, while simultaneously reminding me uncannily of the mother I grew up with.
One of the first things my rabbi, Roly Matalon, did when I began studying to become a Jew was assign me a mentor. He gave me the phone number of a lady in the congregation, and I called her up one afternoon and introduced myself nervously. But I needn’t have been shy. Mim Warden turned out to be one of the most gracious and kind-hearted people I ever met. Though vastly younger than my mom, she nevertheless, I marveled to discover, was beautiful and dressed gorgeously, very much like Patricia Gibby. And, like Mom, Mim is extraordinarily well educated, particularly musically; her greatest pleasure is to listen to, organize, and sing in choral groups. Mim even echoes Mom a bit physically—like two different breeds of bird: Mim having a swanlike quality about her, whereas Mom resembled something more like a round little dove.
Mim and I took to each other right away, and we both chalked it up to a rabbi’s intuition. But I also began to wonder if HaShem had a hand in it as well. Mim spent the year of my conversion study showing me the Jewish ropes. I sat with her at shul every week and mimicked her bowing and tippy-toe movements, asked her questions, followed her lead. She immediately introduced me to dozens of congregants (including machers!), so before long I could walk into the shul and greet people I legitimately knew, people who were predisposed, on account of Mim, to like me.
I remember laughing when I told my siblings about her: “She even looks like Mom.” My brother and sister came out to New York to attend my conversion ceremony (God bless them), and they both agreed with me that the resemblance was remarkable. And that I was lucky to have Mim as my guide and friend.
The similarities between Mom and Mim are legion. However, Mim, unlike my mother, accepted me unreservedly, admired me, and encouraged me, not only as a Jew but in general. Though she has her own grown kids, I, who am not blood kin, also owe her a debt of gratitude and intend to fulfill whatever “filial” responsibilities to her that I can and that are appropriate. For instance, she makes a Passover Seder at her apartment every year at which she feeds a mixed group of Jews and Christians. She allows me to help with the cooking and serving all the traditional foods, as a Jewish daughter should, and those Seders have come closer than anything else to a genuine experience of Jewish familyhood—davka the thing I never had—in my short Jewish life. Even helping her turns out to be her gift to me.
The event I consider to be proof of HaShem’s role in my winding up under Mim’s wing came about in the summer of 2007, when she and I were both in Israel with our shul. Friday evening found us all at a kibbutz in the north, getting ready to spend Shabbat with our community’s Israeli friends. It was a magical summer evening, with the clear, dry air of Israel around us, the sky turning breathtaking colors of pink and blue as the sun set. All of us were decked out in white, and it would be hard to imagine a more perfect Shabbos. Services ended and we made kiddush, and then Mim, whom I had been sitting next to, spontaneously turned and placed her hands on my head and with a beautiful smile gave me the Blessing of the Children, as younger parents around the room were also doing to their little kids. Lip trembling and eyes filling with tears, I accepted the blessing, the first blessing of any kind I had ever received in all my 40-plus years on earth and my two years as a Jew.
My mom loved me, but it never would have occurred to her in a million years to do something like bless me. Maybe I had to be a Jew before receiving that gift.
Mothers, in the best possible circumstances, are supposed to instruct their daughters on how to be in the world. They model ways of being and teach the things they can’t model themselves. Pat Gibby imparted to me some values she didn’t know were Jewish and that I didn’t recognize as Jewish until I met Mim: a deep and clear graciousness with other people, hospitality, appreciation for the beauty of creation. Most of all, perhaps, regarding the old adage that every Jewish girl is a princess to HaShem, my mother modeled a variety of feminine dignity (dignity born of intelligence) that I found also in Mim later on, when I was more prepared to hearken to the lesson and begin to cultivate it in myself.
If I could have simply observed my mother, from the outside, like a friend, I might have been encouraged to take more cues from her, and she might have been more readily forthcoming with the wisdom she had to teach. But I missed that opportunity, for the most part. She and I grew close in a new way just months before she died. Almost as soon as I was ready to be a dutiful (Jewish) daughter, my mother left me to continue her own journey. And eventually I met Mim, a conduit of the most appropriate kind of maternal care. She listens and advises but keeps the right kind of boundaries between us: the healthy boundaries of adult friends.
Last year, in trying to locate Italian Jewish songs, I discovered a hauntingly pretty melody for this time of year that combines a tune of lament with an unusual nusach for Eicha, the grief-stricken book we recite on Tisha B’Av. I played it over and over and tried to commit it to memory. This is exactly the kind of thing that, in times past, I would have called my mother up and sung to her over the phone, to share the prettiness with. She wouldn’t have known much about Jewish music, of course, but I would give anything to be able to share it with her now. Luckily for me, I do have a mom of sorts who I am confident will like it.
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The holiday never resonated for me, until I understood its message about connecting with other Jews—even Messianic ones