Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Mollie, Ishmael and Making Peace

I am thinking about food, family meals and the American bounty we are about to celebrate. My Aunt Mollie comes to mind.

I have a particular vivid memory of Aunt Mollie, who was my grandmother’s younger sister. I was approximately eight years old when Aunt Mollie visited our family in St. Louis. Soon after her arrival, the house filled with the smells of stuffed peppers, stuffed artichokes, meatballs, and marinara sauce. She and my mom spent the better part of her visit in the kitchen so that she could teach her favorite niece some of her favorite, and best, recipes.

It never occurred to me to wonder how my Aunt Mollie came to master Italian cuisine. (Actually I never thought much about such culinary distinctions. It was all part of my family’s cuisine.) Some years later the secret was revealed.

When Mollie was sixteen years old she ran away from home and married Joe Ladisio, an Italian man some 25 years her senior. Imagine that! The Greenberg family came to this country in 1911. Ten years later their youngest daughter told the family she was dressing up for a job interview and instead eloped. Mollie was banished. My Nana, angry and betrayed about sister’s lies, was forbidden from speaking to Mollie.

Some two years later, Joe reached out to Nana. Mollie was hospitalized and gravely ill. The doctors feared the worst. Miraculously she recovered, but as a consequence was never able to have children. She and Nana reconnected. Still, Aunt Mollie, and most especially Joe, was never allowed to attend family occasions. She was never again welcomed into the family home. Bubbe Sarah, the most devout member of the family, and the woman for whom I am named, ruled it was forbidden. Aunt Mollie was forever banished.

Not from my grandparent’s home. There she, and Joe, were welcome. And there she grew close to her niece, my mom. My nana never openly flouted her mother’s edict. She did not argue with her. She just quietly went about doing what she believed to be right. She refused to abandon her sister.

This week we read about the death of both Abraham and Sarah. Sarah dies first. Abraham buys the cave of Machpelah that will serve as the burial plot for all of the patriarchs and matriarchs, save Rachel. Later the Torah reports: “And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented… His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah.” (Genesis 25:8-9)

It is a curious report. Ishmael, Abraham’s son through Hagar, was banished soon after Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah. In fact it was Sarah who insisted that Hagar and Ishmael be sent out to the desert. Miraculously, God saves them and promises that Ishmael will become a great nation. Ishmael marries an Egyptian woman and settles in the wilderness of Paran, the eastern Sinai desert. We learn little else about him.

The Torah becomes silent about Ishmael as it takes up the story of Isaac.

The divide between the descendants of Isaac, our Jewish people, and the descendants of Ishmael, our Muslim brothers, begins here. The peace that continues to elude us starts at this moment.

And then, seemingly out of nowhere, Ishmael reappears. The two brothers stand together. They join hands to bury their father.

How did Ishmael know about his father’s death? There is only one possible answer. Isaac informed him. Perhaps it is also possible that Isaac and Ishmael remained in touch. In defiance of their parents, or at least in defiance of Sarah, Isaac maintained contact with his brother Ishmael. I wonder if it is even possible that Abraham knowingly, although quietly, approved of his sons’ connection.

When Bubbe Sarah died, Mollie stood with her sisters and brother, and buried their mother. They once again joined hands.

Perhaps peace will come, between brothers and sisters, and between the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael. Perhaps it will come in defiance of parents.

Enjoy your Thanksgiving celebrations. Relish in family. Give thanks for the promise of America.

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