As I was packing boxes and preparing to leave my childhood home and move into my first post-college apartment a few months ago, I stumbled upon a letter I had regretfully misplaced years ago.
The letter was from my Hebrew school teacher and bar mitzvah tutor at Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek, Laurie Bellet, who is now an art teacher at Oakland Hebrew Day School.
It was part of a bar mitzvah gift she gave me that came along with a book titled “The Fall of Freddie the Leaf,” which details the life and death of a leaf, and is a popular bereavement book for children. Laurie gave me the book in 2003, two years after my mother died.
My mom, Stephanie, died of cancer at the age of 52. I was 11. I have plenty of daily reminders of my mom, and I knew I didn’t need a letter for that. What finding Laurie’s letter did, however, was remind me of the birth of my Judaism.
I have never considered myself a religious person. My father grew up Reform, and my mom was born to a Jewish father and Catholic mother. She later converted to Judaism because it was the faith she identified with growing up.
Many Jewish children begin going to religious school when they’re in kindergarten. I didn’t begin until third grade, and when I did start going I didn’t understand why.
My family always observed Jewish holidays, but our home was not particularly religious. Laurie’s letter clued me in to why I started religious school, and why studying for my bar mitzvah became an integral part of my life after my mom was diagnosed.
It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized my mom knew her cancer was likely terminal. She had spent her time volunteering and helping around the classroom, which happened to be the class Laurie taught.
Laurie would keep my mom occupied with tasks so that she could spend as much time with me as possible without appearing to be intrusive.
Laurie wrote that my mom loved all of the various Jewish books in the classroom. One of the books was “The Fall of Freddie the Leaf,” and Laurie decided to read it to the class for Tu B’Shevat — rather than doing a customary activity like planting seeds.
I was 8 at the time, and I preferred playing over listening to the story. Laurie recounted in the letter that my mom reprimanded me in front of the class, telling me to be quiet and pay attention.
My mom knew why Laurie was reading the book, but I did not. As Laurie wrote, I was doing what 8-year-old boys like to do.
That was why Laurie gave me the book for my bar mitzvah. I had been through a life-altering event at a young age. I understood clearly why Laurie had read the book.
Finding the letter during my move brought back a flood of memories. It reminded me why I worked to have a bar mitzvah service for two years after my mom died. It was for me. It was for my mom. It was so I could become closer with my culture. And it was so I could honor her memory.
After my bar mitzvah, I would attend High Holy Day services from time to time with my dad, but I thought the days of regularly observing my Judaism were over.
And then, three years ago, as I was working toward my journalism degree in school, I got an internship at this newspaper. I returned as an intern the next summer and was hired full time in May 2013, just days after I graduated college.
Once again, Judaism became a daily part of my life. I’m not religious, but I realized I didn’t have to be to respect and appreciate my culture.
I’m leaving J. for a new job next week, but I’m not afraid of losing my ties with Judaism. I couldn’t even remember my origin with it until a few months ago, but Laurie’s letter reminded me why I will never lose it.
The letter reminded me to be thankful for what I have, to appreciate my mom’s commitment to being Jewish. And it reminded me that life is a cycle. Just as in “The Fall of Freddie the Leaf,” life has a beginning and an end, and then another beginning for someone else.
Jon Roisman has been J.’s editorial assistant and calendar editor. Contact him at [email protected]