Rachel’s father died young, but her elderly Rabbi grandfather survived him and the Holocaust, faded tattoo at his wrist he made no effort to hide. Rachel’s son Jacob attended the Yeshiva School for religious studies, and I remember the day she cried when she first heard him recite his morning blessings that included praising God for not creating him a woman.
Her behavior riled the family patriarchs. They did not approve of her gentile feminist friends, dismissing them as irreverent and foolhardy, among which they counted me since she and I met browsing shelves at the University Women’s Center. She would tell them to their dismay she was, after all, the diamond cutter’s daughter who learned the value of taking rough stones and turning them into polished gems—a practice she applied to her own spiritual and intellectual life.
Rachel’s only keeping with Jewish ways was to wear a gold and diamond mezuzah pendant necklace her father left her that she touched habitually. That she refused to keep kosher didn’t surprise me either since many of my Jewish friends were progressive and not conservative in their observances. What did take me by surprise, catching me completely off guard, was that she wrote a will in her late twenties and in it named me her son’s guardian, a conversation I told her would have to wait for another time.
Her Jacob and my boy Jameson got along more like closely knit brothers than accidental pals, enjoying climbing monkey bars in Schenley Park, sharing makeshift superhero costumes in Rachel’s Squirrel Hill backyard, or side-by-side glued to the TV screen watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Rachel and I, also becoming more like sisters than single mothers on playdates, continued to enjoy our “the personal is political” discussions during this second-wave feminism and a deepening affection for each other.
Suddenly, and out of character, I didn’t hear from her for days then weeks. Her phone disconnected and no answer at her door, my concern heightened enough to call her grandfather at the synagogue. He told me, matter of factly, she had been taken by the same genetic blood disease that took her father and abruptly hung up the phone.
Jameson and I saw the Rabbi and Jacob only once after Rachel passed. Jacob, wearing a yamaka, had grown sidelocks. He shyly looked our way as we were leaving Rhoda’s Deli and they were crossing Murray Avenue heading toward The Diamond Cutter, a jewelry store. Jacob tugged at his grandfather’s coat sleeve, looking up at him briefly saying something.
The Rabbi glanced our way, then simply shook his head “No.”