My Fathers Shema
Updated: Aug 8
In 1970 I was adopted shortly after birth in northern Ontario, by Joyce and Arthur Arshawsky, a Jewish couple in their late 40’s and 50’s who could not have children of their own. I was their third. My sister, Michele, was 4 years older than I. The first child they adopted was a boy but a few months after bringing him home, the birth mother took him back. She had changed her mind. My father said they were so devastated that he could not remember what they had named him. I knew better than to push him when it came to intimacy between the two of us and never probed him for more.
My sister and I dutifully attended 8 years of Conservative Hebrew school as well as Synagogue at Beth Tzedec Temple in Toronto. My mother was in the temple's choir. I grew up listening to her deep mezzo-soprano voice intone the mournful prayers from behind huge marble pews. On some Saturdays, I would sneak back there in between that mornings Haftorah’s and before the Mourners Kaddish. The director would hand me fruit flavored hard candies in white crinkly cellophane wrappers, smiling at me over his eyeglasses perched on the tip of his nose. I would unwrap those QUIETLY while studying the faces of the other choir members. Elegant Rosalie with her dark rich hair also sang soprano alongside my mother.
Despite my parents sincere commitment to this way of life, the temple gave my parents a hard time for adopting children outside of their faith. All that my father ever wanted was to love and obey the Torah, take care of his wife and raise us as proper and devoted daughters.
The strongest memories I have are of Arthur returning home from work every day by kissing the Mezuzah that hung on the right side of the door frame. He was a great Jewish cook, renowned for his overpowering garlic salad dressings, cabbage rolls and his insistence on mashed potatoes at every Friday Shabbat dinner. Recollections of Pesach are etched by the intense cleaning of the kitchen cupboards and the exchange of the Chometz dishes for our kosher-for-passover ones. Two sets of each dish for Milichg and two for meat. Then there was the yearly purchase of a meat grinder to make his famous Gifelte Fish marked by the frugal return of said cleaned grinder.
Every fall, Arthur harvested cucumbers from a plot of farm he owned just north of Toronto. I have no recollection of this labor, but only the 50 jars of pickled cucumbers lining our cold basement cellar. These he doled out to friends and family over the year, mindful of saving some until the next harvest. After he died in 2006, I opened the last mason jar with my childhood friend, Jodi. We savored every crunch. They were piquant and tart. Exactly as we had remembered. Amidst sacks of potatoes and rice, the cellar was also lined with countless boxes of orange Trident gum, and cans of Heinz Tomato Soup. You never knew when another war or famine would cause us to be grateful for his foresight in food storage.
My father moved from Saskatchewan to Toronto in the 50's to attend school, changing his name from Israel to Arthur to escape the cruelty of anti-semitism. On this history he built a thriving Endodontic practice in Yorkville, taught at the University of Toronto and worked right into his 80’s. Letting go of the role of practitioner and teacher was torturous for him.
My mother was demure and soft-spoken lady and looked like Jacqueline Kennedy. She stored white gloves in the drawers beside her bed and always dressed up, "like a lady lisa" before going out. She grew up with an abusive father who lost his law practice to alcoholism and eventually died of Cirrhosis of the Liver. From my earliest memories, Joyce battled with Inflammatory Bowel Syndrome and then Intestinal Cancer. I know my parents loved each other and their lives with us. I cherish the memories of lighting Shabbat candles with my mother to welcome in the Sabbath, and then having our extended family over, tearing into fresh warm pieces of the Friday night Challa after recitation of prayers over bread and wine. But as my mother became consumed with the sole task of survival, my father had to attend to many of our daily needs such as making dinner, cutting our hair, preparing our lunches and taking us to school. He was there to teach us how to ride bikes, carve pumpkins and help with school projects. All of this he did without one complaint. My mother later died of Metastatic Lung Cancer in 1995 when I was in my twenties.
One of the most crystalized memories I hold of him is the night before my Bat-Mitzvah at 13. Arthur came into my room and sat on my bed to face me. I remember squirming at the directness of his attention. This was not done in our family. He told me that I had studied diligently and that he was proud of me and that all I had to do was my best. I remember feeling jittery and nervous by this act but I did not have the context to understand the dissonance created by my fathers sense of duty and my own inability to rise to this occasion. The next day, I stood at the Bima in a pink corduroy jacket and matching mini-skirt and looked out over the congregation. My hair had been braided the night before on purpose so that it would lay in jagged rows across my shoulders. I tied it in two clips. I gulped in the stale air. So quiet. A place that would always belong to just my father. His people. His prayers. I only wanted it to be over soon.
I didn’t plan on being a disappointment to my family. No one ever sets out that way. I stayed under the radar for quite a long time. Hiding was the easy part. A mother with a terminal illness and a stoic father who buried himself in what he loved to do, pretending that all was well in his palace on Elmsthorpe Avenue.
It started with sneaking sips from my father’s liquor cabinet. This I slowly replaced with water. The pot, hash, and alcohol at school parties morphed into daily use, a betrayal of my own body with boys that only wanted to be “friends” and the dive further into shame and utter humiliation from a reputation I couldn't get out from under. Stealing my mother’s Ativan and Percocet’s. Moving from one high school to the next and then dropping out entirely. Cocaine, PCP, Heroine. Leaving home for months on end. Returning only to steal what I could when they were not home. Living in a crack house. The withdrawal before the next high. This was no slow moving train. After a few weekends in jail my parents came to my rescue and took me to a long-term treatment center in Arizona. They did the best they could and luckily for me, it worked. I have been sober since November 4th, 1989.
You never forget the look of shame and bewilderment however in the eyes of those who once fed and protected you. My humble father who proudly took his new baby home from the hospital. He had every intention of raising me to be a proper Jewish woman. Even after years of sobriety, Arthur never looked at me the way he did that night before my Bat-Mitzvah. I was now someone he did not know and never would. Years after I entered sobriety Arthur still held tightly to his leather jacket and wallet whenever I was around. Some things are just broken and can’t ever be fixed.
I did not continue practicing Judaism when I left Toronto. I was an outsider, a pretender co-opting the moment. This was my fathers world. Instead, I forged a path of my own. A path of breath and growth. A journey toward the heart. Layer after layer. For all of this history that makes up ME, I exhale a full breath around the story that was HIS. And what is it that I hear in return for the space this breathe creates? It is the prayer I heard as a young girl. Its solemnity wafting in the tones carried by the choir and the voices of its congregants
“Sh’ma Yis-ra-eil, A-do-nai E-lo-hei-nu, A-do-nai E-chad ”
It roughly translates to Listen up - God is everywhere. Its not a religious association I have but a deep standing up within myself. Its a reminder to turn in. Its a sacred calling to meet my soul's yearning to be one with the divine which is everywhere. In the moment I hear that prayer, I have an overwhelming sensation that I am home. I am whole. I am at peace in my heart. A place I can claim as my own.