I'd like to tell you a little about her, but how do you distill a person's life into a thousand words?
This story will have to do. It happened shortly after Dad's passing, when she moved from Florida to Baltimore to be close to my brother's family.
One day, the whole gang went out for dinner at the Kosher Bite, a Kentucky Fried Colonel kind of joint but Judaized with a falafel option in addition to the usual burgers and greasy over-battered chicken parts. So there all the Baltimore Jaffees are, chewing away, and in walks - The Rabbi.
Rabbi Menahem Goldberger is heaven's vision of a Hasid: tall and slender as the high school basketball star he once was, vigorous in his early 40s, strikingly handsome and prematurely gray. His face, but for his warm, twinkling eyes, is all but hidden by a billow of once carrot-orange beard that cascades in dense waves down his chest. He was dressed, on this weekday evening, not in his shabbosdik satin bekkishe and streimel, but in his civvies, as it were: a long, dark coat and a round, felt hat. Naturally, he stopped by the Jaffee table to honor Mrs. Jaffee.
The conversation covered the usual pleasantries. Finally, the rabbi wished everyone a hearty appetite and continued on his way. In the afterglow of his presence, there was a brief silence. And then Mom spoke the words which Jaffees will forever repeat whenever we try to get at the essence of our mother: "Such a lovely man! He must be Reform!"
Mom was obviously no anthropologist of the Jews, but she knew what she liked. And, in Jewish matters, as she came to insist, "I like the Reform!"
So, naturally, any rabbi she liked was by definition Reform. And she grew to love Rabbi Goldberger, even after she learned that "Reform" was about the last adjective you might use to describe him.
By the end of her life, a few years after that meeting, she had left her cavernous Reform temple and, despite the segregation of the sexes and the imposing barrier of a Hebrew worship service in perpetual fast-forward, she became a member of Rabbi Goldberger's shul.
Now, the move from Reform to Hasidism is about as extreme a trip as you can make and still be in the same religion. What made Mom do it? It had absolutely nothing to do with theology.
Truth be told, if Mom was "religious" in any conventional sense - before or after she became a hasid of Rabbi Goldberger - I couldn't say how. For most of her married life she practiced some of the Jewish customs learned form her own mother: lighting Shabbat candles, observing as best she could the dietary complexities of kashrut, preparing holiday meals that included Jewish soul foods like chicken soup, kishke, kugel, and my favorite - a rich mound of chopped liver with a carved radish plunked into it.
In her late middle age, she and Dad became regulars at the Friday night services at their Reform temple in Deerfield Beach. She admired the temple rabbi as a paragon of breeding and educated intelligence: "He's so modern!" she'd exclaim.
For years, when I published a book or an article, she'd bring it to her rabbi so he could explain to her what I was doing. And she'd proudly report back on his opinion: "The rabbi says it's very technical!"
Had you asked Mom why she lit candles and made chicken on Shabbat, she certainly would not have replied: "I am following the laws of the Torah in love and service to my Creator!"
More likely, she'd have dashed off an impatient conversation stopper: "I do it to respect my parents," or "I do it so you rotten kids will have a Jewish home," or "I do it because that's what I do."
So why did she join a Reform temple after all those years? It boiled down to this: "I'm meshuga already with this rule and that rule. I like the Reform! You rotten kids can be religious! Crazy!"
But one day she left the Reform. And she was very clear why. As usual, it had nothing to do with theology. Mom knew love when she experienced it, and she knew that Rabbi Goldberger loved her. When she was ill, he visited her in the hospital regularly, fulfilling the commandment of visiting the sick.
The intelligent, educated, and above all "modern" rabbi of her temple, by contrast, never showed. He was perhaps busy cultivating the young families who were the future of his congregation. Or maybe he was engrossed in one of my articles.
Anyhow, Mom may not have been much of an anthropologist, but she was no dummy. After leaving the hospital she resigned from her temple and started paying her dues at Rabbi Goldberger's shul.
Some time before her death, Mom made Rabbi Goldberger promise to bury her. As she told me once, "What-I should ask that pompous nishtgutkeit from the Reform who knew from nothing about your articles!?"
Rabbi Goldberger kept his promise. When the time came, he joined me, my brother Norm, and Norm's son David on an early Friday morning flight to Florida to bury her next to Dad.
Time was scarce: David's Bar Mitzvah was scheduled for that very Shabbat in Baltimore, and guests were coming from all over. So after the service Rabbi Goldberger jetted with us back home, just ahead of the setting sun that signaled the beginning of the Sabbath rest.
Empiricists might claim that Mom didn't live to see the Bar Mitzvah of her first grandson. But everyone in the shul - Reform and Hasid alike - agreed that her spirit permeated every moment of that memorable morning. But what stands out for me is this: Rabbi Goldberger's gentle voice rising in his sermon, reminding us of the healing providence that brought David Jaffee to Jewish manhood through an act of compassion: bringing his Grandma Belle to her rest before his own rejoicing. May her memory be for a blessing.