Today my Aunt Bess turns 100.
Aunt Bess has always been the biggest fan of my writing. That’s a good thing, since my family can't fly to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and expose her to any of our many germs. Better to gift her my paltry words than a powerful virus.
To understand my relationship with my Aunt Bess, travel back to 1950s Oak Park when Aunt Bess and my Bubbie (along with their husbands) bought houses next door to each other on Leslie Street, just a few blocks from the Oak Park Park. When I showed up, I got to run between the two houses just like my mom and her cousins had a generation before. So Aunt Bess wasn't some distant figure I only saw once or twice a year. She was kitchen table snacks and Shabbos dinners and cousins coming to visit. She was — and is — a living embodiment of family and love.
While my Bubbie taught me to love the Jewish people, my Aunt Bess taught me to love the Jewish religion. About lighting candles, about covering a shabbat challah, about kashrut. Each time I light candles on a holiday and wave my hands three times in front of my face, I see Aunt Bess doing the same. Each time I cut into a challah, I think of my Uncle Milt cutting the challah and lovingly walking the first piece over to Aunt Bess. The basis for ritual and religion in my life was formed by Aunt Bess and her family.
In my family, atheist Jews and secular Jews and Reform Jews and Conservative Jews and Orthodox Jews all exist in loving close relationship. For this, my Aunt Bess and my Bubbie were the template, strong enough to be replicated over generations without blurring. Their Jewish journeys diverged in adulthood. Bubbie retained the secular Judaism of Workmen's Circle; Aunt Bess took a more observant path.
This never seemed strange or novel to me growing up because everyone accepted each other — different beliefs and practices never inhibited family love and togetherness. If only this could be an example to the whole Jewish people.
My Aunt Bess and Bubbie also taught me through their example the meaning of sisterly love. My sister lives 10 minutes (rather than 10 seconds) away and our children are ever present in each other’s lives. We talk almost every morning. We are carrying on a tradition set forward for us two generations earlier — sisters as best friends.
Decades on, Aunt Bess continues to set the gold standard of what it means to be a lifelong learner. When I considered reading from the Torah for the first time on my 40th birthday, I knew I wasn’t too old for the mitzvah — my Aunt Bess was called to the Torah for the first time in her 90s. She stood at my side on the bima and gave the first Aliyah. When I taught my first class for JLearn, my Aunt Bess (then a spry 99) zoomed in every week to learn about interfaith marriage from biblical times to modern day.
To my Aunt Bess, age is a number — not an impediment to living life and learning for learning’s sake. So what will she make of my kvelling? Perhaps she will permit me, if only as an expression of how much I have learned from her. From her kindness, from her dedication, from her love.
A freylikhe geburtztog, biz 120. I love you, Aunt Bess.