May 10, 2012
Dressing like my Jewish mother
On Mother’s Day, I’m going to wear my mother’s jewelry. No, this isn’t a mom’s day story about gender identity; it’s about Jewish identity and whether possessions can help pass it on.
As part of her legacy my mother, Pearl, left to my sister Wendy and me a set of Torah Fund pins. Each pin was an artfully designed wearable Hebrew word or words from the Torah, Proverbs or Psalms, and represented a donation my mother had made in support of Jewish study.
The Women’s League for Conservative Judaism has been producing a different pin design each year since 1957, and my mother, though not being able to donate toward one every year, had by 2008, the year of her passing, managed to collect 21 of them.
The basic Torah Fund pin represents a donation of $180, with the proceeds going to support both improvement projects and student aid at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
After my mother passed away, we wondered what to do with them. Keep them in a drawer, closed up in their neatly hand-dated white boxes? Give them to her grandkids? Sell them at an estate sale? Not made of silver or gold, their intrinsic value was not high.
Recently I saw several Torah Fund pins on sale on eBay, and it made me think: What do you do when you inherit something that represents another’s commitment? Even if you share their values, what do you do when the time, involvement, the financial contribution, and yes, the tzedakah, represented by something like these pins is not really yours?
Torah Fund director Carolyn Baron says the organization distributes “between 9,000 and 10,000 pins each year,” so I knew I was not the only one to ponder what to do with them.
Other Jewish organizations use donor jewelry to raise funds as well. ORT has the Golden Circle pin, Hadassah has a Founder’s pin, the Women’s Division of the Jewish Federations of North America has the Lion of Judah of 14k gold and Pomegranate pins, and the National Council of Jewish Women has a Triangle pin program.
Considering the history and reach of these organizations, a simple calculation nets potentially tens of thousands of baby boomers who will be faced with a donor jewelry inheritance.
“Some people have returned them to us, others keep them for their sentimental value,” Baron said. She’s also heard of pins “showing up in flea markets.”
So when I saw a couple of the Torah pins on eBay, one of them selling for $3, I should not have been surprised or saddened. But I was.
“Imagine a World Series ring showing up on eBay,” I explained to my 20-something son, Elan, trying to find an analogy. “Those are made with real gold and diamonds, but putting them up for sale still seems wrong, since they represent an achievement.”
My family’s solution was to have mom’s Torah pins framed. They are hanging in the entry hall of my home, not only serving as a reminder of my mother’s achievement and commitment but an invitation to Jewish dialogue as well.
Since most of the designs are based on a Hebrew inscription like “Na’div lev,” “a willing heart,” or ‘V’shinantam L’vanekha,” “teach them to your children,” they offer an opening for a conversation of Jewish values—or, as I discovered, a way for guests to demonstrate their translation skills.
Even so, once framed they can’t be worn.
Fortunately, while emptying my parents’ home, in the back of a drawer I found one remaining golden metal pin that must have been missed when my father, Murray, had the others framed. “Nishba’ti va’akayema,” “I have promised and I will fulfill,” it said from Psalms in a simple Hebrew typeface framing the form of a doorway.
Mom used to wear her pins to Sisterhood meetings. Lacking that association, this year on Mother’s Day I will simply pin this last one to my shirt. Though I was not the original donor, wearing it now will fulfill her promise in unexpected ways.
Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.