Ear­li­er this week, Ilie Ruby wrote about the idea of b’sh­ert. She has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

I always begin like this, with Irv, my grand­fa­ther, and then I describe him, An angel on Earth, nev­er anoth­er like him. I repeat this as I have been told, though he died long before I was born. I used to think about his life as a tree with roots reach­ing far into the future and encir­cling the past. Irv is my name­sake, a hard act to fol­low. I can still hear my grand­moth­er telling me at night, May you live as he did and be just as blessed. May you see those who are unseen, and hear those who don’t speak. 

What she meant, I learned lat­er, were the sto­ries of my grand­fa­ther, and more, of the peo­ple he knew. I’m told that when my rel­a­tives sat shi­va for Irv, who died sud­den­ly at 46, leav­ing a young wife and two daugh­ters who would mourn him for­ev­er, strangers came from near and far to share untold mem­o­ries of him — the gifts he bestowed, the count­less lives he saved, the sup­port he’d offered through mon­ey, coun­sel, friend­ship, always with­out judg­ment and with­out any fan­fare. He was not rich, but com­fort­able. As a child, I thought him a saint, before his frailty and human­ness appeared to me. Still, there was a divin­i­ty about his con­nect­ed­ness — to the wan­der­ers and those who found them­selves caught in moments of frac­ture. Today, I think about how dif­fi­cult this must have been for him to embrace it all, giv­en his own com­pli­cat­ed and pres­sured life. 

Because of his capac­i­ty, I think about the expan­sive­ness of Judaism, about hands that pray over can­dles in the most tra­di­tion­al and uncon­ven­tion­al of places. Bless­ings fill a home as prayers are sung, wher­ev­er that home may be, how­ev­er it is made, regard­less of its trap­pings or its archi­tec­ture or its abun­dance or its lack. Whether those who pray are down on their luck, or up on it, whether they are the bestow­ers or receivers of gifts.

When vis­it­ing book groups, I am often asked about this uncon­ven­tion­al Jew­ish fam­i­ly in my newest nov­el, a sin­gle moth­er and her two daugh­ters who are home­less in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, who find solace in the reflec­tion of the female face of God, the Shekhi­na—per­haps an uncom­mon path. They wan­der through the desert, their enchant­ed land­scape rife with Jew­ish rit­u­al and mag­i­cal real­ism. When I began the sto­ry, I want­ed to know these wan­der­ers, these com­plex and com­pelling souls I imag­ined my grand­fa­ther would have embraced. As I wrote I thought about the con­flu­ence of tra­di­tion and spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, of the way ances­try is passed down through both sto­ries and inher­it­ed mem­o­ry, of lives pieced togeth­er like a quilt, with col­ors of raw sur­vival and mis­takes and com­pas­sion and per­son­al mythol­o­gy. I want­ed to write a book about a Jew­ish fam­i­ly nav­i­gat­ing life on the fringes of con­tem­po­rary soci­ety. Most­ly I want­ed to write about peo­ple step­ping out from behind their cir­cum­stances and claim­ing their voices.

Per­haps Irv was the man he was because of of our Hun­gar­i­an-Russ­ian ances­try, com­prised of many wan­der­ers. There are famil­iar sto­ries of pogroms. Of the Holo­caust where count­less rel­a­tives were lost. Of immi­gra­tion. Of home­less­ness and of splen­dor. My own jour­ney took me from Boston to Jerusalem, through the Mea Shearim, and into the lives of the kib­butz­im. Climb­ing moun­tains near the Dead Sea and plung­ing hands into the mud below, clear­ing vines in a vine­yard at dawn as if try­ing to unmask a col­lec­tive Jew­ish uncon­scious are expe­ri­ences I will trea­sure. I think about those who wan­der most­ly inside their hearts and minds, too, about the warmth of my bril­liant and curi­ous grandmother’s kitchen, about her insights, and how her Yid­dish still res­onates with­in me like music. I think often about live­ly dis­cus­sions where elbows bear down on worn table­cloths, where explor­ers and heal­ers and naysay­ers and matri­archs refine and rede­fine how Jew­ish peo­ple live. Today, as I raise my own fam­i­ly I find solace in a prayer group of expan­sive thinkers. I think about the divin­i­ty that ignites in the space of cre­at­ing, when a sense of right­ness directs con­ver­sa­tion, when moral com­pass­es find their true North in integri­ty and for­give­ness. My grand­fa­ther lived the way Jew­ish peo­ple live, and so did all the wan­der­ers he knew. This knowl­edge, his lega­cy, is why I begin with him.

Vis­it Ilie’s offi­cial web­site here. 
Raised in Rochester, NY, Ilie Ruby is the author of The Salt God’s Daugh­ter (Sep­tem­ber 2012) and the crit­i­cal­ly-acclaimed nov­el, The Lan­guage of Trees. She attend­ed the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­ni­a’s Pro­fes­sion­al Writ­ing Pro­gram, where she was fic­tion edi­tor of The South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Anthol­o­gy. Fol­low­ing her life­long inter­ests in edu­ca­tion and writ­ing, she has worked as a 5th grade teacher, an edi­tor of fic­tion and non­fic­tion for pub­lish­ing hous­es, and in film pro­duc­tion on a PBS series. Ruby is the win­ner of the Edwin L. Moses Award for Fic­tion, cho­sen by T.C. Boyle; a Kerr Foun­da­tion Schol­ar­ship; and the Phi Kap­pa Phi Award for Cre­ative Fic­tion. She is a recip­i­ent of the Wes­leyan Writer’s Con­fer­ence David­off Schol­ar­ship and the Bar­bara Kemp Award for Out­stand­ing Teach­ing. Ruby, also a painter, lives near Boston with her hus­band and three children.