My Fathers Shema

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 find that hard to believe. The spoken truth can be too painful sometimes. I knew better than to push him when it came to intimacy between the two of us.

I was raised in a Conservative Jewish Temple in Toronto who gave my parents a hard time for adopting children outside of their faith. My sister and I dutifully attended 8 years of Hebrew school as well as Synogogue every Shabbat with our father. All that he ever wanted was to love and obey the Torah, take care of his wife and raise us as proper and devoted daughters.

I grew up listening to my mother sing the mournful Hebrew prayers from the Temples choir. They were usually hidden way up high behind heavy wooden pews. If I was lucky, I could sneak back there in between that mornings Haftorah’s and before the Mourners Kaddish. The director would hand me fruit flavored hard candies, smiling over eyeglasses perched high on his nose. I would unwrap those QUIETLY while studying the faces of the other choir members. Elegant Rosalie with the dark rich hair also sang soprano alongside my mother.

Arthur, who returned home from work every day and kissed a Mezuzah before entering his kingdom, was a great Jewish cook. Known for his overpowering garlic dressings, Cabbage Rolls and his insistence on mashed potatoes at every Friday night dinner, my father spent every fall season gathering cucumbers from a farm he owned just north of Toronto. I have no recollection of the effort it took, but only the 50 jars of pickled cucumbers that miraculously followed, to line our cold dark basement. The fruits of this labor lasted throughout each winter. After he died in 2006, I opened the last mason jar of Arthur’s famous pickles with my best childhood friend, Jodi. We savored every crunch. They were piquant and tart. Exactly as I had remembered.

Memories of Passover were of the yearly purchase of a meat grinder to make his famous Gifelte Fish. And every year, shortly after the dishes were put back in their storage space, he gleefully returned those somewhat cleaned machines. Arthur prided himself on frugality.

Growing up, he used to bring home boxes of Trident gum that sat next to the pickled Cucumbers and the countless cans of Heinz Tomato Soup. You never knew when another war would cause us to be grateful for his foresight in food storage.

My father also loved his work: he was an Endodontist that went through school at a time that was not so favorable to Jews. He had to change his name from Israel to Arthur to escape the harsh cruelty of his non-Jewish Professors and classmates. On this history he built a thriving practice in downtown Bel Air, and worked right into his 80’s. I am not sure who would have signed up to be in his chair at that point.

My mother was a demure and soft-spoken lady who looked like Jacqueline Kenny O’nasis. 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, she battled with ongoing health issues such as IBS, and then Intestinal Cancer followed by Metastatic Lung Cancer. I know my parents loved each other and their lives with us. They appeared to be happy. I hold many fullfilling memories such as lighting the Shabbat candles with my mother to welcome in the Sabbath, as well as the enjoyment of our extended family tearing pieces from the Challa following the 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 memory of complaint but I can see looking back over family photos, that our faces began to take on the weighted sense of ongoing illness and impending defeat. My mother died in 1995 when I was in my twenties.

I don’t carry too many clear memories but this one is crystal.The night before my Bat-Mitzvah, Arthur came into my room and sat on my bed to face me. I remember squirming at the directness of the attention. He told me that I had studied diligently and that he was proud of that and that all I had to do was my best. I remember feeling like something profound had just transpired between us but I did not have words to understand my fathers sense of duty in this act. The next day, I stood at the Bima in a pink corduroy suit and looked out over the congregation that would always belong to just my father. His people. His Prayers. 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 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 before they figured out I was an escapee. Hiding was the easy part. A mother with 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.

I could not contain myself for long. It had to start leaking out somewhere. It manifested in wanting to fit in. And then the wanton desire to hide from how disgusting, shallow and utterly humiliating it is to be a teenager. How unsettling to breath without any conviction of my own. To see everything through the eyes of a family who all became unreachable islands.

It started with sneaking sips from my father’s liquor cabinet. This I slowly replaced with water to escape detection. The Pot, Hash, and alcohol at school parties morphed into daily ventures. The boys that only wanted to be “friends”. Stealing my mother’s Ativan and Percocet’s. More alcohol infused shameful back alley love. Moving from one high school to the next in an attempt to outrun my reputation. 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. There was no slow moving train for me.  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 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. He held on tightly to his leather jacket and wallet whenever I was around, even after years of sobriety. What can I say? Some things can’t ever be fixed. For all of this I exhale a full breath around. And what is it that I hear in return for the space I now try to breath into?

It is the prayer I heard as a young girl. Its solemnity wafting down from behind the cantor, carried by my mothers rich tones. A prayer that no longer belongs just to Arthur. I have heard this prayer all of my life.

“Sh’ma Yis-ra-eil, A-do-nai E-lo-hei-nu, A-do-nai E-chad.”

This I hear with my own voice now.



1 Comment

  1. Lisa, my name is Stephen Tesher. I attended Beth Tzedek with Michelle. I was completely and utterly infatuated with her for most of 7th through 9th grade at Forest Hill. As I was writing a short story about a time I completely embarrassed myself to win her affections I looked her up and found your site.
    It’s no coincidence. As you know, being in recovery, there are no coincidences. I, too, have been sober for some time as well.
    To my knowledge, Michelle passed away years ago. I hadn’t seen her since high school. I don’t know what kind of relationship you and she shared, but I want to let you know I was thinking about her. And as a result, found you.


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