Orphan by Choice. Or Not

There is no need to remind me that my parents are dead. Especially now, in these days before Rosh Hashanah, which for me, ever since my parents died, has been the orphans' season.

"I'll see you in the grave," our friend K. yelled after us at the kibbutz nursing home where my brother and I went last week, to visit D., a dear relative. I told K. we weren't about to die so fast. "You want to live?" she shouted rhetorically. "So live. But not here. Get out of here."

The day before, D.'s friend, who was two decades younger, had passed away. I told D. that I'd seen him on the street just a week before his death, and that he looked as healthy and happy as always.

"It's unbelievable that he's dead," I said to D., and he, in response, gently informed us that, "We're all going to die. I'm not saying right now: You're still very young and have decades more to live," he added thoughtfully so as not to shock my sensitive soul, "but at your age, you should know that in the end we all die. It's a fact. Even your parents have left this world." As if there were any need to remind me, especially now, in these days before Rosh Hashanah, which for me, ever since my parents died, has been the orphans' season.

I picture my good-intention-paved road to hell as starting with a long corridor that is essentially a gallery. On either side hang pictures that I can never forget. In one of them, there is my father, a blue satin skullcap on his head, the sharp creases indicating that it was just taken out of its bag. And he's wearing a white wrinkle-resistant shirt, sitting alone at the teak dining table in a little room. To his right is a decorative wall that is painted, I'm afraid to say, in egg yellow. A lovely view of the Haifa bay, lit up with thousands of lights, is visible through the window behind him. He dips a challah crust in the gefilte fish jelly. Despite the holiday shirt and the rarely seen skullcap on his head, his face looks very sad.

In the next room, called "the living room," on a sofa that opens up into a double bed, sit his two children: my older brother and I. My mother, wearing an accusatory expression, is moving between the table in the hall to her armchair in the living room, situated opposite the Grundig television. My brother, 14, is at the height of his rebellion against his parents, and fighting what he calls hypocrisy and religious coercion. Accordingly, a week before the holiday he already informed them that he had no intention of sitting at any holiday table where any words of any Jewish text were going to be spoken. And I, at 10 years old and his wide-eyed disciple, followed suit.

This is why that year my parents had to decline the annual invitation to join the holiday meal with our cousins on the kibbutz, and why they also disappointed my grandfather and grandmother, who wanted to join their daughter for the holiday. So now we're all here, in our apartment in the housing project for city workers, for reasons of principle declared by a fanatic, anti-religious and very charismatic 14-year-old, turning the holiday of our father, the scion of an ultra-Orthodox family, into a total disaster.

What lengths I went to in the following years to avoid spending the holiday with my parents! What excuses I came up with in my feverish brain, what distances I covered, just so that when the holiday rolled around again, I wouldn't find myself with the two people for whom my presence that evening meant everything, and to whom I could so easily have given joy, had I not forgotten that of all the principles in the world, compassion is the most important.

Avoidance of holidays with the family became a kind of sport for me and my friends. Once I even hosted a holiday gathering for a large number of friends who, like me, after employing sly manipulation or just outright lies, had evaded the need to celebrate with their families. We proclaimed ourselves "Orphans by Choice," thinking we were being original and witty, and admirably faithful to ourselves. It didn't really hit me then that one day it would be too late.

Everyone's going to die, but no one ever really believes that his parents, the pillars of the world that were right there when he first came into this world, are mere mortals. No one can truly imagine what being orphaned really feels like before one actually becomes an orphan, whatever the age.

It's just the days leading up to the holiday that are tough for me, because even though I long ago tired of being an orphan, especially "by choice," no one asks me to come anymore. But I do like the holiday itself. It's very easy to enjoy when around the table are the people who call me "Mom." If the concept of choice has any true meaning, then my children are my family out of choice. Luckily for me, my children do not deny me the pleasure that I so often denied my parents. So far, they still choose me as their mother. I hope that they'll never stop, and just so I won't have to remind them that one day it will be too late for them (for, as K. so kindly pointed out, I'm also going to die), I hereby declare that I definitely expect to see them for the seder, too.