Excerpt from My Grandfather's Blessings by Rachel Naomi Remen M.D., plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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My Grandfather's Blessings

Stories of Strength, Refuge and Belonging

by Rachel Naomi Remen M.D.

My Grandfather's Blessings by Rachel Naomi Remen M.D.
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    Apr 2000, 368 pages

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There is a blessing that is said whenever one encounters something new and of significance in one's experience. My mother was present at the moment when I met my grandfather. Soon after I was born, she took him to the hospital to see me for the first time in my incubator. She told me that he had stood regarding me in silence through the viewing room window for a long time. I had been very premature. Concerned that he was anxious or even repelled that I was so small and frail, she was about to reassure him when he whispered something under his breath. She had not quite heard and she asked him to repeat it for her. He had turned to her with a smile and said in Hebrew, "Blessed are Thou, O Lord Our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive and sustained us, who has brought us whole to this moment." It is a blessing of gratitude for the gift of life, and it was also the beginning of our relationship.

My grandfather was a man of many blessings. These blessings were prescribed generations ago by the great teaching rabbis, and each is considered to be a moment of mindfulness--an acknowledgment that holiness has been met in the midst of ordinary life. Not only are there blessings to be said over food; there are blessings to be said when you wash your hands, when you see the sun rise or set, when something is lost or when it is found, when something begins or ends. Even the humblest of bodily functions has its own blessing. My grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi and he said them all, tipping his black fedora to the Holy many times each day as he dealt with the smallest details of daily life.

I was the child of two dedicated socialists, who viewed all religion as the "opiate of the masses." Although such blessings were never said in my own family, saying them with my grandfather felt quite natural to me. At one time I knew many of them by heart, but I have long since forgotten them. What I have remembered is the importance of blessing life.

When I was young, I seemed to be caught between two very different views of life: my grandfather and his sense of the holy nature of the world and my highly academic, research-oriented uncles, aunts, and cousins. All my grandfather's children were doctors and nurses, and many of their children are as well. As I grew older and time created a greater distance between us, my grandfather seemed to become an island of mysticism in a vast sea of science. Desperate to be successful and make a contribution to society, I gradually put him in the back of my memory with the other things of my childhood. He had died when I was seven. It would be many years before I would make the connection between his ways and the work of medicine. Sometimes if you stay the course long enough, divergent paths reveal themselves to have the same destination. My grandfather blessed life, and his children served life. But, in the end, it has turned out that these may be one and the same thing. As a young doctor, I thought that serving life was a thing of drama and action and split-second judgment calls. A question of going sleepless and riding in ambulances and outwitting the angel of death. A role open only to those who have prepared themselves for years. Service was larger than ordinary life, and those who served were larger than life also. But I know now that this is only the least part of the nature of service. That service is small and quiet and everywhere. That far more often we serve by who we are and not what we know. And everyone serves whether they know it or not.

We bless the life around us far more than we realize. Many simple, ordinary things that we do can affect those around us in profound ways: the unexpected phone call, the brief touch, the willingness to listen generously, the warm smile or wink of recognition. We can even bless total strangers and be blessed by them. Big messages come in small packages. All it may take to restore someone's trust in life may be returning a lost earring or a dropped glove.

From My Grandfather's Blessings : Stories of Strength, Refuge and Belonging, by Rachel Naomi Remen. © April 10, 2000 , Rachel Naomi Remen used by permission.

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