My grandmother passed away this morning. She was 95 years old and she had congestive heart failure and pneumonia, but somehow we still thought she might make it. She had an incredible resilience. After Saturday it became increasingly clear that she was not going to be able to survive this illness.
I have been meditating on the different meanings of the Hebrew word zechut. One meaning is merit. In the previous post I discussed the idea that my grandmother had the merit of longevity because she took care of her parents. Both her mother and her father-in-law came to live with her and my grandfather. My mom always translated this concept in Judaism to "mitzvah points in heaven." Once a graduate school acquaintance told me I had zechut for keeping shabbat at an academic conference. I simultaneously find this a theologically troubling concept and, uh, kind of believe in it. (So sue me. It's not the only idea that I think is terrible but nevertheless believe.)
Another meaning for zechut is privilege. Once I met a feminist scholar in Israel who said of one of my professors, Zeh zechut l'hakir otah, It's a privilege to know her. Of course now I'm thinking about this in relation to my grandmother. I do feel that we had a tremendous privilege. Especially as she lived so long. I was very lucky. I never really felt that she and I had a lot in common--well, sense of humor, but not interests or style. She was very interested in clothes and her appearance, and liked to go out on the town. I like books and I'm kind of boring compared to my grandma's high style at my age. But when I became pregnant we found something great and profound to share. I liked to talk with her every morning on the way to work, to tell her about my pregnancy and about the baby, and to hear her extremely fond memories of my dad as a baby sixty-some-odd years ago.
Another meaning of the word is right, as in human right. In the course of my studies, I learned about a feminist organization in the Yishuv, the Zionist settlement of Palestine before the state of Israel. They called themselves the Equal Rights Association, in Hebrew Shivui Zichuyot. (I don't have any of the stuff in front of me so I hope I didn't misremember the name.) I can't relate the idea of equal rights to my grandmother very strongly. Though she seemed to approve of my interest in feminism, she wasn't really a feminist herself. She did like to tell me that she thought her mother would rather have been a career woman than the mother of seven children she actually was. The ideas of human rights that are a part of the colloquial ideas of American patriotism though, she was for those. As a first-generation American, she liked to use the phrase "free country."
About my son she said, "This is his America."
The last connotation I have for zechut is from Pirkei Avot, Provide for yourself a teacher and get yourself a friend; and judge every man towards merit. (Or, a better translation might be : judge every person favorably.) I suppose this merit is related to the first one, the one that results in reward. My grandmother had a lot of tact. I don't know whether she judged everyone favorably, but she liked to let them think she did.
I don't have any more thoughts to tie this up, unfortunately. I have been reading through stacks of old papers here at my parents' house. I was a prolific writer at age 16 and 17. Everything always tied up neatly, as though poems and short stories were legal arguments. I can also see the origins of my weird 19th century diction in writing from 20 years ago. Perhaps with these few readers I can commit to finishing and publishing things that are not argued through to the end. We're all just sad here.