Paul Greenberg

My mother's yahrzeit came twice this year. Yahr-zeit: Literally, time of year. It's shorthand for the anniversary of a death in the family. According to Jewish custom, it's observed for a husband, wife, mother, father, brother, sister or, God forbid, a child.

You light a candle and say a prayer. I did it twice this year because my mother died in the Jewish month of Adar. It's the month that's repeated every Jewish leap year to make the calendar come out right, so Passover will stay in the spring and Chanukah in the winter and the harvest festivals at harvest time. (Yes, it takes a whole month to even things out in a lunar calendar. The Muslims don't, and their feasts are moveable indeed.)

So every few years, when Adar comes twice, Sarah Ackerman Greenberg gets an extra yahrzeit, which is just like her frugal self, always getting a little more out of everything. You'd be frugal, too, if you'd grown up on a battlefield in Poland during the First War, not knowing whether the village would be German or Russian territory when you woke the next morning. If you did.

She never quite believed in what she'd found in America: work, family, home. At least not till her last years, after she'd married off her first grandchild, when she relaxed slightly. Till then, she went to sleep as she had in that Polish village in no-man's land, as if she didn't know whether it would all still be there in the morning. I do believe she was surprised when it was.

All the while, she worked and worried and saved and sewed. I grew up in a house in which even the washcloths had been mended. So it's no surprise she'd squeeze another yahrzeit out of a year, too. Growing up in her house, I mistakenly thought the Yiddish word for sin, neverah, meant waste. ("You finish those potatoes! It would be a neverah to throw them away.")

I cherish an old photograph of the passengers lined up on the deck of the S.S. Manchuria when it arrived at the Port of Boston on February 10, 1921. If you look carefully through the faces, you can find a 19-year-old girl -- pudding face, pug nose, broad Slavic features, dark hair drawn severely back, unsmiling in the dignified photographic style of the day. A face indistinguishable from those of millions of other Eastern Europeans who flocked to the Golden Land at the turn of that century.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.