Every year, on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, there is a tradition to welcome the ushpizin into the sukkah. Ushpizin is an aramaic word for “guests,” and with this prayer, we welcome a list of Biblical figures into our sukkah as our special guests over the course of the holiday.
Each Sukkot, my father recites these lines in Aramaic*: I am honored to welcome to my sukkah the following distinguished guests: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, amd David. Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Miriam, Deborah and Ruth… and Judy.
When I think of Judy Goldberg, one of the first things I think of is how her presence at our table was one of the things that made Sukkot special. Whether she stayed with us overnight, or just for a single meal, Sukkot didn’t live up to its full potential unless my father had the chance to welcome her to our table.
I found out this morning that Judy passed away during breakfast. She was in a rehabilitation facility, recovering from a recent spinal cord injury. She seemed to finally be doing better, but now she’s gone.
Looking back, it’s ironic that my father welcomed her to our sukkah as one of our honored guests. Judy could never truly be a guest in our house; Judy was family.
True, she wasn’t one of our blood relatives, but that didn’t change the fact that she was like another aunt to us. (And this was true even though she had plenty of actual nieces and nephews with whom she was always incredibly close.)
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know Judy. She visited frequently when I was a kid, and I took for granted that she walked with a cane, and that one of her legs was shorter than the other. I knew that she had a disability, that her bones were brittle, and broke easily, but to me, for the most part, she was just Judy.
I don’t know whether it was Judy who first introduced me to the existence of American Sign Language (because Linda was on Sesame Street when I was a kid), but she helped to pique my interest in it. I still remember the keychains she gave to me and my siblings, the ones shaped like hands, where the middle two fingers could be bent inward to form the sign for “I love you.” Thinking of that keychain still brings a smile to my face.
When I celebrated my bat mitzvah, it was Judy who offered (with my parents’ permission) to take me to get my ears pierced, and when I told her I honestly wasn’t interested, she bought me a different bat mitzvah gift instead: two journals and a pen with which to write in them. She knew me so well, even then.
Years later, after I graduated from high school, Judy sent me another set of journals. I spent a year in Israel before I began college, and my father brought her gift with him when he came to visit me that November. I put her gift aside for a few weeks so that I could open it on Chanukah. This time, in addition to more typical journals, she included a gratitude journal, with five lines for each day in which to write five specific things I was grateful for.
She couldn’t have known that I was feeling a little down just then. I’m not sure she realized just how much her gift helped me to feel better. I started using that journal soon after I opened it, and at first, it was a struggle to fill the five lines. Over the weeks that followed, though, the task became easier and easier until, a few months later, I was stuffing extra lines above and underneath and into every available space in the margins.
At that point, I stopped writing in the gratitude journal. I decided that I needed more space to record my gratitudes, and so I began to write daily journal entries in a regular journal instead. It’s been about fifteen years since Judy gave me that journal, and over fourteen a half since I began to keep a daily journal. Though I sometimes miss a day or two, I haven’t given up that habit, and I know that I’ve grown as a writer because of it, and because of that one well-chosen gift.
Judy really did know me well. Judy knew what I needed.
Judy knew things about me that my parents didn’t know, or that I told her first, before I told them. Conversations with Judy were safe spaces. I could be vulnerable in front of her, and trust her to be supportive of me, or to give me a (figurative) kick in the pants when I needed it, even if I wasn’t ready to hear it.
I feel like any description of Judy’s life would be incomplete without talking about her professional accomplishments, including the Initiative for Women with Disabilities, which she got off the ground and ran for many successful years. I should talk about how she served as a role model for people with disabilities, how she was an athlete when she was younger, and how she had a masters degree in rehabilitative counseling from NYU. How she achieved so much and touched so many lives.
But that’s only a small part of who Judy was to me.
To me, Judy was the one who taught me to see the person first. She helped me fall in love with American Sign Language (even if I never really learned it), and she encouraged me to be a writer and a positive thinker. She opened my mind to new possibilities, and she left an indelible mark on my life.
*English translation up to the ellipses comes from a siddur that’s back in my apartment, where I currently am not, so I’ll edit this later once I have access to the name of it.