Chayei Sarah - The (3) Lives of Sarah

For Congregation Ner Shalom, November 18, 2011

Sarah No. 1

This week's Torah portion is called Chayei Sarah, after the portion's first words. Chayei Sarah - "the life of Sarah," a portion in which, ironically, Sarah, our great mother, does not appear. Instead, the portion opens this way:

ויהיו חיי שרה מאה שנה ועשרים שנה ושבע שנים שני חיי שרה: ותמת שרה...

The life of Sarah was 100 years and 20 years and 7 years, 

these were the years of Sarah's life. And Sarah died...

We are then told that Abraham wept for her and eulogized her. But alas, we are not privileged to hear the words of the eulogy.

Certainly there would have been something about Sarah's larger-than-life life. An epic life. Great journeys. A hard-to-shake sadness, perhaps from decades of unreconciled childlessness. A sardonic sense of humor. Great physical beauty. A regal bearing, as is suggested by her name, Sarah, the Babylonian word for queen. An ingrained practicality, misread as harshness by those who didn't know her well. And a deep and enduring care for her people's posterity, evidenced first through offering her servant Hagar as a surrogate to bear Abraham a child when her own body wouldn't comply, and then by creating a sharp boundary between her family and Hagar's once she'd unexpectedly born a child of her own.     

Abraham, whom our tradition considers a mystic, might have noted Sarah's strong pull to the trait of gevurah, of discipline or boundariedness, in counterpoint to his own attraction to chesed, limitless giving. Even Abraham would have had to admit that he was constitutionally unable to say "no," and that Sarah had no such problem.

In the portion, Sarah's final age is announced in an unusual way; not unprecedented but unusual. Her years are fragmented, as if into different lives: 100 years and 20 years and 7 years. In Hebrew, the word for life - chayim - is grammatically plural. Always. There is no way to distinguish between a singular life and plural lives. Chayei Sarah, the name of this portion, could just as easily mean "the lives of Sarah."*1*

Which reminds me of a little Midrash that says that there were two Abrahams, and this was revealed when he reached out to sacrifice his son, and the angel called out, Avraham Avraham. Why say Avraham twice? The Midrash answers that there is the Abraham of the story and then there is an Abraham who lives in every generation of our people.

I'd argue that the same is true of Sarah. The lives of Sarah. The Sarah in the story, and the Sarahs who find their way into each of our stories. And I'm going to tell you about two of them.

(Sarah No. 2: Sade Jacobs, later Newman)

Sarah No.2

Sarah Number 2 is my grandmother, Sade Newman. Sade. Not Sadie. The question of Grandma Sade's name deserves comment before anything else. In 1903, in a village a day's ride from Bialystok, my great-grandmother Rayzl was pregnant, and so was her sister-in-law, also named Rayzl. The mother-in-law they shared, Chayeh Sorke, had recently died and these sisters-in-law, out of custom or affection or both, intended to name their daughters, if they had daughters, after her. But in order that those daughters shouldn't have identical names - a problem already plaguing the recent spate of boys in the family all named Mayshe - one would name her daughter Chayeh Sorke, like their mother-in-law and the other would reverse the order: Sorke Chayeh. My grandmother, though born second, was called Chayeh Sorke, like her grandmother.*2*

But within the next three years both families would cross the ocean on great ships and come down the St. Lawrence Seaway to Chicago, where the two cousins' names would be Americanized. And in the Americanization, the name order of both girls was mysteriously flipped. Chayeh Sorke became Sadie Ida. Sorke Chayeh became Ida Shirley. So somehow the precedence of names evened itself out.

But my grandmother wasn't done with the name changes. She was a formidable child, a spitfire. The name "Sadie" sounded like a diminutive to her, and I suspect she didn't ever want to be thought diminutive, either in size (which she was) or in spirit (which she wasn't). She shortened it to Sade and, while still a child, got all the official documents changed to suit, seemingly having staged an occupation of the Bureau of Vital Statistics in the same way she was known to occupy the school principal's office or talent competitions or whatever, until unbending authority bent to her will or skill or charm. She only ever answered to Sade, S-a-d-e, and if more educated acquaintances or later generations connected that name with a certain French Marquis, they were polite (or cautious) enough not to mention it.

But I knew her given name was Chayeh Sorke; she always told me so, and she knew I would listen and remember. And so whenever in my life I stumble onto this week's Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, I inevitably think of her, because "the Life of Sarah," Chayei Sarah, sounds like her name, plain and simple.

Now no one's life is easy, and hers was no exception. In pictures of her as a teenager, she's always in a cluster of friends, smiling, inevitably at the center. She married at 21 and I think over time had trouble fitting her strength of character into changing American expectations of wifehood and womanhood. She had a daughter, my mother. Some years later she had a stillbirth, an event that was never spoken of again, until in my teen years she whispered it to me so that I would know, for the record.

You see even as a kid I was the family historian. She perceived this, and began to give over the family history to me, all she knew of it. Some time, perhaps right around my Bar Mitzvah, I remember taking out sheets of ledger paper and beginning to draw a tree as she dictated the names of her many aunts and uncles and her scores of American cousins, all of whom she knew, all of whose children and grandchildren she knew, all of whom she talked to regularly on the phone. I loved making the tree and recording the names, but mostly I loved this act of transmission. My willingness gave her pleasure, and we two were conspirators in a secret plot for posterity.

As I think about my grandmother, Grandma Sade, Chayeh Sorke, I think she was not so dissimilar from the biblical Sarah. She certainly suffered. She had some terrible times of depression, and even worse times being treated for it. But she loved her grandchildren and her friends and her large family and that web of family - and its preservation and transmission - is where she established herself.

In her 80s, Alzheimer's disease overtook her and began to erase her memory. We never had an official, bilateral goodbye. But we had closure anyway. As the disease progressed, she recognized everyone, even strangers, as a friend or relative, kissing them and fussing over them. Like Sarah No. 1, she began living in reverse. Sarah No. 1 was an old lady who then became a mother. Sarah No. 2 was a mother who then became a little girl. I, still in my 20s, would visit her and she'd decide I was her father. I'd speak to her in my schoolbook Yiddish, and she'd talk back in the domestic Yiddish of her childhood. I didn't mind her thinking me her father. Somehow it didn't matter which end of the line of transmission I was on. We both knew we were on it together.

(Sarah No. 3: Sarah Ekshtayn Chinsky)

Sarah No. 3

Sarah No. 3 was born Sarah Ekshtayn, in a tiny, independent Jewish farming village called Kolonja Izaaka. Back at the turn of the last century, waves of the village's children had emigrated to America, my grandmother's family among them. But in each of the village's 17 Jewish homesteads, one child remained to inherit and farm the land. Sarah Ekshtayn's parents had been the ones of the Ekshtayn family to stay. In our tribe it was my grandmother's Uncle Itzik.

Our family, the Knishevitsky family, according to the records, held Kolonja Izaaka Farm No. 11. Farm No. 10 was held by the Ekshtayn family. Had my family stayed, Sarah No. 2 - my grandmother - would have been the next-door neighbor and probable babysitter of Sarah No. 3, who was perhaps 12 years her junior. But all of this I learned later.

Only 5 years ago did I even discover the existence of this village and my connection to it. In my research I found a short Yiddish essay about life there, included in the Memorial Book of a nearby town, and written by one Sarah Chinsky, née Ekshtayn. The Memorial Book was published in 1968, and Sarah Chinsky's essay included her memories of being a teenager in Kolonja Izaaka in the 1930s. She painted in living color the life my family had left behind and which I could only imagine in black and white. Cherry trees, beehives, and the unpaved, poplar-lined road that ran straight through the village. Shabbos, harvest time, market day. The healing rituals of the town wise-woman. The friendships the young people had with the youth of the nearby shtetlach.*3*

In her essay, Sarah Chinsky mentions my grandmother's cousin, Uncle Itzik's son, one of that wave of Mayshe's born to our family at the turn of the century. The next time I saw Mayshel's name was in the Yad Vashem database of those killed in the Holocaust. It was on a daf ed, a Page of Testimony, recording his death and that of his wife and his mother and his three children. The page was dated May, 1999, and was signed by, again, Sarah No. 3, Sarah Ekshtayn Chinsky.

The Yad Vashem database allows you to search on any field including the name of the person submitting testimony. I found that Sarah Ekshtayn Chinsky had submitted over 60 such pages of testimony, that is, record of over 60 adult members of the farming village and their children. Sarah herself had gone to Palestine with her family in the 1930s, and 65 years later, she sat down in her kitchen in Tel Aviv and somehow managed once more to walk up and down that poplar-lined dirt road, referred to affectionately by the colonists as the boulevard; from house to house, remembering each person who lived there and recording their name for history. Talk about gevurah, about strength, tenacity, heroism. Could any of us remember 17 of our childhood neighbors, spouses, children? She did not know the details of any colonist's death. She only knew that they had lived, and that they lived no more.

I imagine her drawing a map, so as not to overlook any of the 17 families. I've since been told that her younger sisters sat with her to add any names of their early childhood playmates that Sarah might have missed.

I wondered when this heroic woman, Sarah Ekshtayn, had herself died. The internet was silent about her. And one day in 2008, figuring I had nothing to lose, and that maybe I'd find an old neighbor or a child of hers, I wrote a letter, and addressed it to the Tel Aviv street number she'd written on the Page of Testimony in 1999 and I sent it off into the ether.

Her first aerogram to me arrived within two weeks. It was in Yiddish and Hebrew in an unsteady hand. We wrote to each other for a couple years; we even met once on Skype, with her son acting as the computer jockey. Despite my declarations that I would be coming to Israel soon, I didn't make it in time. She died last year at an unconfessed age somewhere, I suspect, in her late 90s.

I never met her in the flesh, but she shared with my grandmother, Sarah No. 2, and with our mother of Biblical proportions, Sarah No. 1, a desire or a calling or maybe just an unwanted but unrefusable duty to transmit history; to make sure the stories, the experiences, the truths, the longings of our past find some home in the present. And we, the Sarahs of the present, regardless of our given names, will have to do the same. We will be the transmittors. We already are. We will send something of our lives, chayei Sarah, the lives of Sarah, into the future. It is our calling, it is our inevitability. And what we choose consciously to transmit is for us to decide. May we choose well.

ברוך אתה ה' פוקד שרה:

Baruch Atah Adonai, pokeid Sarah.

Blessed is the One who appoints the Sarah in all of us.


*1* And in fact the first verse ends shnei chayei Sarah - literally, the years of the life of Sarah. But the shnei could also mean the number "2," making the verse end with "the two lives of Sarah."

*2* This was likely because her mother had a living sister named Sorke, and custom would have frowned on her sharing a name with a close living relative.

*3* About this she wrote:

Our dear young people numbered, takeh, rather few. But we drew the attention of all the villages around, and their many young people frequented our Kolonye. In the evening, when our young men and women were still in the fields, who should arrive for a visit but a whole company of meydlach and bechoyrim from Krinek, and Amdur, and Sokolka. Just as if they had all agreed to organize a surprise for us. Suddenly, like thunder and lightning it would start, and we would hurry back from the field, our sickles and scythes in our hands. Soon we would all have assumed a yontifdik appearance, greeted all the guests, eaten, drunk, sung and danced until late at night. And by then it would be too late for those young people to go home, so they would take themselves out and sleep in our haylofts.