My grandmother, Mama, loved life with a passion. Despite surviving the anguished suffering of Bergen Belsen, Mama never lost her fire. I often wonder how she, as a young mother, was able to hold on while watching her little children shoved into cattle cars, starving, shivering, terrified, and surrounded by the stench of death.

Mama’s pots hanging on the wall . From that tiny kitchen came so much love

Arriving to this country brought more pain. How does one begin life again?

My grandparents, Mama and Zayda, decided that they would somehow build a Jewish day school as testimony to the eternal spirit of our people. We may go through darkness, but we kindle a light and illuminate the world around us. We never give up.

The neighborhood had many Jewish children who were unaware of their legacy. Shabbat, Jewish holidays, the stories of our people, were all a mystery. Even knowing one’s Jewish name was hidden in a cloud of uncertainty.

At the crack of dawn Mama would be baking her delicious Hungarian cakes and cookies for the students in her school.

I recall sleeping over Mama and Zayda’s tiny house. At the crack of dawn I would get woken up by the sound of clanging pots. Mama would be baking her delicious Hungarian cakes and cookies for the students in her school. She would then fill her impossibly huge bag with treats and kippahs. Off we would go in time for the busses to arrive.

Mama stood at the school doorway being sure to not miss one child. Despite being under five feet, her spirit reached the heavens. No one would ever dare start up with my Mama.

Boker tov, good morning!” Mama would greet each and every student before they’d step foot into the building. She would then say their name and kiss each child’s head. Only after they would respond with their own “Boker tov, Mama,” would she reach into her bag and hand them one of her homemade delicacies. “Now let’s make a bracha, a blessing together.” Mama would patiently utter each word and then wish the child a wonderful day.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was learning one of the greatest lessons of love.

Use a child’s name. Look at them. Make them feel wanted. Show them that you care.

To this day I meet adults who can’t help but smile as they remember Mama. Somehow the image of the tiny woman with the huge heart remains. They recall the warm greetings, the sound of their Hebrew names, and the blessings they made together.

“You can’t imagine what those mornings meant to me,” I am told, over and over again.

This year I have had the privilege of teaching young women in Manhattan High School for Girls. I leave my home before the sun rises and sometimes arrive a bit early, depending on the traffic I encounter. Standing on the stairs, I watch a figure greet each girl by name with a warm “good morning.”

For a moment I am back with Mama.

I call out to the woman on the staircase.

The Nazis took away his name and reduced him to a number. We must value and cherish our Jewish names.

“Mrs. Rottenberg, I must tell you that you remind me of my grandmother, Mama.” As I begin to describe my grandmother’s language of love, Mrs. Rottenberg smiles. “Where do you think I learned this from? I used to work with Mama every day in the yeshiva! I’ll never forget how Mama greeted every child by name.”

I am floored.

 

Wedding photos from Mama blessing me before my chuppah

“You know,” she adds, “my father was in the concentration camps. He told me that the first thing the Nazis did was strip him of his identity. They took away his name and reduced him to a number. My father always told us how we must value and cherish our Jewish names.”

We have the opportunity to give our children the greatest gift of their lifetime. Each and every day.

Call your child by their name. Look them in the eye. Give warmth. Show them that you love them.