In the Jewish calendar, autumn is the official time of self-evaluation.
For me, the stock-taking increasingly revolves around the question of transitions, personal and political: One child leaving for a more distant college than before, another deciding where to depart for next year, shifts in relationships with older generations of the family, new kinds of work and challenges as LILITH broadens its coverage to grow beyond the narrower spectrum of issues the magazine addressed at its inception 14 years ago.
About leave-taking: My own grandmother left her little town near Zhitomer when she was about 19, in 1904. She was going to Canada alone, on a ticket sent to her by her betrothed, my grandfather (a man her family disapproved of). The part of the story I remember best from my mother’s retelling is that Bronya’s tearful farewell to her family included embracing the plum tree that grew in her yard.
My sweet-faced, silver-haired bobbe, who taught me to play “casino” and to gamble with a special ivory dreidl that she’d brought with her from the Old Country, was, according to her only child, a mystic who interpreted dreams and could read tea leaves, palms and people’s faces. What was she seeing about her own future when she embraced a plant?
My bobbe’s willingness to make change, to change her whole life, to leave her parents and sisters and brother and plum tree for an unknown place half a world away, is different only in degree from the risks taken by any departing child, any woman transforming her life. Her acknowledgement of the pain involved, hugging the plum tree, which like her parents would not make it to the New World — yet leaving anyway — has always seemed to me to be the message. You acknowledge the past and move on.
How does this emblematic tale connect to this time and the transitions in my own life? My bobbe’s certainty that things would be better is a notion I feel I have to reinforce in myself every day: that there is an asymmetry to the arrow of time, that we’re making progress, that our departures will indeed bring us to better destinations.
The hallmark for women today, if we’re honest in this season of self-evaluation, seems to be a humbling uncertainty. The declarative nature of our ideologies ten or fifteen or twenty years ago — that we were certain we could transform the world, or at least repair it — has led many of us to a quieter desire to explore some subtler implications of our choices.
Two illustrations will suggest to you why I feel this way. My daughter Rachel sent me a postcard from Israel featuring a woman in traditional, long Middle Eastern dress, her entire head almost obscured by the huge bundle of twigs she was carrying on it. The photo caption: “Women’s Lib.” And my son reports that many of his college-age women friends, themselves having been raised in daycare, are uncertain that they want to be as absent from their offspring as their own parents were.
The clarity (even with its pain) that my grandmother felt when she moved into a world new in every sense feels absent today. We need to examine the ways in which we transmit the message about social and personal change. Let’s hope that we can become as convinced again of progress and of our role in it as my beloved bobbe was when she unwound herself from that plum tree and moved on.