My mother's lipstick
September 29, 2017
An elderly woman approached her rabbi one year during services. “Rabbi!” she exclaimed, throwing her frail, skinny arms open wide. Given the fact that she stood barely five feet tall, the rabbi bent down to accommodate her. Maybe it was her height, or her age, or just a moment of awkwardness, but she missed planting a kiss on his cheek completely, and instead laid a big red smooch on his pristine white tallit, his beautiful prayer shawl that he wore only for special occasions. Flustered and embarrassed, she paused, but he didn’t. He embraced her with a big hug, and they exchanged the warmest of greetings.
It may have been during the Torah processional, or before services began, or afterwards, but it doesn’t really matter when, or whether it was Shabbat or the High Holy Days. What matters is that it happened, what happened later, and continues to occur to this day.
If you were wondering, this is a love story, but not the typical kind you’ve heard before. Nor is it a fable or a tall tale. If anything (and given her diminutive size) it’s a very short one. It’s about the love and mutual admiration between this tiny old lady and her rabbi. The lady was my mother, who passed away nearly four years ago, and the rabbi is Aaron Rubinger of Congregation Ohev Shalom.
You see, Rabbi Rubinger and my mother had a special relationship. While her health allowed she attended as many of his adult education classes as she could. When she was in her late 70s she was part of a b’nai mitzvah class, so he bat mitzvahed her. If there was a time when he couldn’t lead a class he was giving, he asked my mother to stand in for him as the substitute teacher. And when she was dying and he visited her in the hospital, she opened her eyes and said, “Rabbi!” It was the last word she ever spoke. He loved her, and she loved him back wholeheartedly.
Ever since then, whenever I attend a service in which Rabbi Rubinger is wearing that tallit, he points out the lipstick stain to me. “That’s your mother’s,” he’s told me now numerous times. “I will never wash this tallit because it reminds me of her.”
Over the years the lipstick, I’ve noticed, has faded. It’s not as rich, nor as bright red as it used to be. But it’s still there, still obviously in the shape of her lips. This year during Rosh Hashanah services Rabbi Rubinger pointed it out to me again, and I could tell he was reliving that moment and recounting her importance to him once again.
Time passes, and all things fade, even the faces and voices of the ones we’ve loved most and lost—our parents, our siblings, our close friends. What Rabbi Rubinger reminded me of was not that the lipstick stain belonged to my mother. I knew that. What he, perhaps inadvertently taught me by living it and showing me, is that certain things, certain moments, certain events are worth remembering. These may not be what we expect. It might be the sound of a dog’s bark, or a rainbow appearing at the worst time, or a clumsy handshake, or a warm embrace. But something imprints itself. Something says, “Remember.” And we do. And it stays with us and changes us for the rest of our lives.
Judaism teaches us, and the High Holy Days emphasize, the importance of what we choose to remember. During the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we are supposed to reflect back on the past year and ask forgiveness of all those we’ve hurt or wronged. But how can we ask if we don’t remember? And why do we choose to remember certain acts when we are oblivious to others, or simply forget? Remembering, then, is key to the Days of Atonement, perhaps even more central than the actual act of asking people—and God—to forgive us. We are told from an early age that Judaism is about our actions—what we do here on earth. But before we act, we must remember, and what we remember shapes who we are.
Rabbi Rubinger chooses, every time he wears that tallit and sees the hazy remnants of my mother’s lipstick, to recall her and their relationship. And he’s helped me remember as well. My love for her, for this world full of the most amazing moments and people, for the blessing of life and our years of accumulated moments worth remembering.
May this New Year be a blessing to you, filled with love and health and happiness. May it be one to remember in all the best possible ways.
And that’s the good word. Feel free to pass your thoughts and comments on to the Heritage, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.