I stood in front of over 60 people and started to cry. Not a gentle or misty cry — I was shaking and could barely speak.
My mission had been simple: say a few words about my grandfather and introduce the blog I’ve started with the archivist from SMU’s Bridwell Library to honor his legacy of social activism and progressive thinking. Not exactly a tear-jerking topic, yet as I stood there in front of people who knew and loved my grandfather — my papa — in the temple where he served for over 20 years and where the sanctuary is named for him, I was overwhelmed not so much by pride or love, but by loss.
I hadn’t been in this part of the Temple since I was a teenager. For the two summers I’d worked here as a camp counselor, I was known less by my own name and more exclusively as “The Rabbi’s Granddaughter.” It was an identity that felt absolutely foreign to me at first. Not because it wasn’t true or because we weren’t close, but my papa had retired the year I was born so I never knew him as the rabbi, or the orator, or as Forbes magazine called him, “the conscience of the city.” And by the time I was working at his temple, he’d already passed away.
What I couldn’t know when I took that camp counselor job at Temple Emanu-el is that it would set off a series of events that would change the course of at least one life that was not my own.
Until then, I’d spent summers in Austin with my mother. That was the arrangement: the school year in New York with dad, the summers in the capital city of Texas with mom. I hated those summers. My mother wouldn’t put me in camp, and I was too young to drive to a job. I was endlessly bored and would give myself assignments like designing logos for MTV or riding the exercise bicycle for hours while I tried to figure out when to expect Duran Duran videos to play (every five hours it turns out). I can’t even tell you how many times I watched Star Wars on HBO. I also tried crazy diets like only eating popsicles or popcorn. Obviously pop in every form was very important to me.
For the summer that I was turning 16, my nana asked me if I wanted to be a camp counselor at the Temple in Dallas. I’m convinced that I said yes before she even finished the question. Something real to do! With other people my age! Out of the house at last!
My mother was not thrilled that I would be away from her during the little part of the year we got to spend together, which I don’t think I’d even considered. This was one of many steps in my life that a therapist would later call my “survival instincts.”
Distressed by my decision — especially since I hadn’t consulted her — my mother abruptly decided that if I was going to live in Dallas for the summer, so was she. She broke up with her longterm boyfriend, packed her bags, and moved in with her own mother, as did I. Three generations of women under one roof for three Texas-hot months. I would return to New York at the end of the summer, but it would be many years before my mother moved out of that house. And Dallas would be the last place she ever lived.
Those two summers working at the Temple were happy times for me. I loved making new friends with the other counselors and spending time with my grandmothers. I learned to drive from teachers we called “Coach.” I got to spend Friday nights at the mall and have that quintessential suburban American experience. Being The Rabbi’s Granddaughter gave me an identity that I cherished, and the world I knew with my mother expanded during those summers because I had purpose, a voice, and, perhaps most importantly, a way out.
Within six years of my last summer working in Dallas, both of my grandmothers would pass away and my mother’s decline into Borderline Personality Disorder would increase rapidly. I would return to Dallas on emergency visits to get my mom out of the hospital or to meet with her doctors or to make sure she was eating. And then before I’d turn 30, I’d lose her too. All in Dallas. And the Temple played an important character throughout. My nana died as the result of a drunk driver who struck her car just outside the Temple while she was on her way to high holiday services, and my mother is buried at the cemetery next door (with a view of Neiman-Marcus).
Cut to May 2018. When I started to cry in front of all the people who had gathered in the Temple to hear me talk about a blog, I thought it was nerves. Panic. Insecurity. Stage fright. But why? Was it wanting to do a good job? Wondering if my papa would be proud of me? Surely all those things were a factor or… maybe none of them were. There I was in my papa’s temple, crying not for the moment or the actual words coming out of my mouth, but for all that had been lost since the last time I stood in this very place. Since the last time I was known as The Rabbi’s Granddaughter.