Ways of Seeing: Celebration is a powerful healer
My childhood was punctuated by elaborate Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs that feel ever further away in this age of COVID-19. An abundance of food and drink was consumed as klezmer, pop and big band music wailed late into the night, inspiring circular horas and grapevines morphing into snake formations winding between the many tables throughout each course of the meal, wait staff doing their best to dodge the energized processions, grandmothers bouncing and jiggling in pairs with joyful ease, uncles and aunts showing off their ballroom finesse, while we children twirled each other wildly, ignoring the organized steps of our elders, often nearly bowling them over.
Our lives seemed to move from one family celebration to the next. “See you at Ruthie’s bat mitzvah next January!” we would chime on parting at the end of a glorious evening, already anticipating our next one. These events kept our scattered family connected and close. We kids were seated together at large round tables where we shared jokes and dances throughout the meal, while adults were placed in similar groupings to visit and catch up on family news.
As I grew into adulthood, I became aware that these events were costly, that some relatives could afford more elegant affairs than others, though in truth, coming together with a bit of food and festive music is all that was needed. Celebrating as a family was the only essential.
Recently, I learned more about the deeper value of these occasions.
My extended family includes several Holocaust victims, survivors, and children of survivors. Rachel and Ronnie, married to two of my cousins, are lifelong friends whose mothers met in a concentration camp during WWII.
As young women, their mothers helped each other endure hard physical labor and brutal treatment, sharing their meager food rations, a crust of bread offered when one of them felt too depleted to carry on. They vowed that if they survived the war, they would celebrate together with abandon at their future children’s weddings. To amuse themselves, they imagined the delicious foods they would serve, the sparkling jewelry that would adorn their elegant dresses, the joyous music and dancing.
Both women lived to fulfill their shared dream.
Rachel and Ronnie spoke with me about their mothers’ experience during the war as we leafed through photos of them in later years, always lovely and glowing and dressed to the nines. I came to understand the significance of these extravagant affairs as a way of healing wounds of the past, a way to say to the world, we are fully alive, we are free to celebrate each moment.
In Judaism, it is said that saving a life is equivalent to saving the world. Our responsibility to help repair the world is a concept known as Tikkun Olam. Sharing a crust of bread when it is all one has to give carries a high spiritual value. Following safe guidelines during the Pandemic is another form of Tikkun Olam.
Celebrating together as a family or community also contributes to healing the world. Festive gatherings have the potential to raise and strengthen our human experience. They help us acknowledge and physically express our deep connection to one another, making public our value as individuals and as a group in a spirit of good will and joy.
I look forward to the time when we can once again freely and safely celebrate and honor significant occasions and our human interdependence, holding and twirling each other in a close-knit circle of joy and loving compassion. Until then, I’ll do what I can to save the world with a facemask and social distance while limiting song and dance parties to a group of two in our kitchen or front porch.
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