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  Playing Our Piece

Playing Our Piece

Finding a reason in life to sing.


I grew up knowing that my mother grew up in a way quite different than I. Just how different, though, I wasn't quite sure. As the unbelievably positive person she is, my mother never wanted to dwell on the past, especially a sad one. She is perpetually optimistic, always confident of a brighter road ahead. Looking back at the war years and the hardships she lived through seemed pointless to her.

Over the years we asked for details, to see Holocaust films together, to tour the ruins of her childhood and relive some of her past with her.

"If you want to understand what I went through, watch The Pianist."

No interest. Bits and pieces would sometimes be recalled, always in a positive context. "We met such nice people in the cattle car! We learned to make toys out of calves' knuckles..." Always the kindness, the focus on appreciation, on future, on life.

One night a few years ago my mother called me. "I finally saw a movie that says it all. If you want to understand what I went through, watch The Pianist."

I was surprised. My mother's not all that musical. But I took it out the next day.

There was no parallel that I could see between my mother and the Jewish-Polish musician Władysław Szpilman, the subject of the film. He was not observant, she was. They were not from the same place in Europe. What common message did she feel it conveyed? What made it resonate with her?

The film was meaningful and moving. A renowned pianist remarkably got through the war, resiliently using his contacts and strategic skill. He lived through the unlivable. To maintain his sanity, he composed a piece in his mind, building and elaborating upon it throughout his most difficult of times. He played it repeatedly on an imaginary instrument, visualizing and hearing it in his mind. In the most devastating and inhumane of conditions, he held on to the image of beauty and grace.

My mother cannot play the piano. Where was the comparison? The next morning I phoned her, anxious for some answers.

"You watched it?"



I admitted confusion and my mother explained. "Forget about where he was from and who he was. He got through it by playing his piece. That's all you need to know to understand my experience. I had my own ‘piece.' I would close my eyes and imagine a pair of shoes that fit...a loaf of bread...a chuppah...a bris...a mikva...celebrations to share with family and grandchildren...I created my own piece, and I knew I would get to play it."

I got it.

I often find myself thinking of 'my piece.' My son once told me that the root of the Hebrew word for song, shira, is the word yashar, straight. The sense that life is linear -- believing that point A will lead to B in some sensible, God-driven way, as opposed to being random -- gives us reason to sing. We find examples of songs sung at such times of clarity: the Jews at the splitting of the Red Sea, realizing the end result of their years in confusion and servitude . The song of Chana, experiencing personal salvation in the form of a child after almost two decades of yearning. The song of Devora, celebrating God's hand in yielding a miraculous national victory.

At each point, the song was the result of clear understanding of God's plan and His involvement in making it unfold.

My mother's piece has been and continues to be a beautiful one. She married and raised a family of committed Jews in the heart of Connecticut. It was a far cry from Galicia, but she created a home with Jewish values, open and inviting to all. She shared her "piece" with everyone, fueling positive thoughts and inspiring belief in many Jews distant from their heritage. She did much for many in a way that empowered them to believe that they did it on their own.

The one complaint we always had was that we could never get much sympathy from my mother. The joke was that if someone went to her crying about their house burning down, she would shrug it off and see it as an opportunity to redecorate. The low points and lulls in the music never led her to question there still being a climb to the climax of the piece.

My mother truly made it to her own Carnegie Hall

Living a life filled with acts of kindness, surrounded by grandchildren and great-grandchildren, my mother truly made it to her own Carnegie Hall.

Life has provided me with some interesting twists and turns. With each, I turned to my mother for insight and she has never disappointed me. At one particularly difficult time, she matter-of-factly said, "Nothing lasts forever. The good times don't, and the bad times don't either." There are crescendos and dips in the score of the music. But the ultimate direction is one of intricate beauty.

August 2, 2009

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Visitor Comments: 20

(20) Anonymous, August 18, 2009 3:56 AM

WOW-Your Mother is My Inspiration

I am living through a very difficult marriage and as a result, I recently started seeing a therapist. Although he has been very helpful, he made a point to tell me during my first appointment that I am a "Polly-Anna" and am in denial about my situation. As the days passed, I pondered the therapist's comments and realized that he was wrong. If I were a Polly-Anna I would be in DENIAL about my challenging situation, but I am completely aware of my difficult life (I remember very clearly the morning several years ago that I cried as I faced that realization). Like your mother, I have made the CHOICE to focus on the MANY positive things in my life instead of dwelling on the few negative things. My "songs" are the hope and actions that come as a result of this hope as I am pulled closer to my ultimate goals--freedomm and an opportunity to become an official and full-fledged member of the Jewish Family. Thank you for sharing your mother's story.

(19) tes padla, August 14, 2009 9:46 PM

the reason for my optimism is that i play my piece all the time

i can truly understand how your mother survived with such an optimistic attitude even in the midst of dire circumstances. i myself look on with hope to the promises that God has caused to be written in the Bible and for the promises i received for my personal life. and i play my piece when embroiled in a situation that seems hopeless. and i have seen that what was hopeless yesterday, became disentangled the next day or the next week. i only need to "play the piece" until then.

(18) Eliav, August 12, 2009 6:15 AM


It's people like your mother, those whose will triumphs over all circumstance that truly inspire me. Thank you for sharing this with us. Keep on singing.

(17) Anonymous, August 9, 2009 5:59 AM

Amazing, inspiring, and beautful article

I love it's message and I will treasure this story

(16) Anonymous, August 6, 2009 8:56 PM

Jewish Thought is Circular as Well

I agree with comment 14 from Hillel. We learn that much of our teachings are circular as time is only an artificial concept, and tikkun olam is espec. circular. Talmudic learning requires us to turn an aspect of thought &/or learning around and around and try and understand all viewpoints. Great article!!!! I am of Galician & Polish decent and my son plans to major in music ed, he plays composes at his great-uncles (A"H") piano. Thank you.

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