The Broken Sidewalk: A Mother’s Day Tribute
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The Broken Sidewalk: A Mother’s Day Tribute

Rabbi Michael Levy: As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah, the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center, Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewish experience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition, boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons, boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation.” Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, N.Y. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to email him.

Even when I was only 5, my mother, Etta Levy, encouraged me, her blind son, to explore the area near our house. She didn’t allow me to cross the street, but there was still plenty to discover.

The tree roots, searching for water underground, had cracked the sidewalk in many places. The slight downward slope followed by the large upward bump informed me that I was in front of our basement window. At the eastern edge of the property, I felt the pavement change to a different texture of concrete. Farther along, the recently repaved sidewalk by Anthony’s house was miraculously smooth.

A few years later, my mother ran alongside me until I could ride my two-wheeler bicycle on the sidewalk, turn around at the corner, and pedal back to our driveway. Like other kids, I had my share of falls.

A “Solo” Trip to School

On a cool spring day in 1964, I began my first solo walk from home to school. For six months I had been trained to swing my white cane ahead of me. When my right foot stepped forward, the cane was already exploring where my left foot would land on the next step. By the time my left foot went forward, the cane was one step ahead on the right.

At the first intersection, I listened for cars but heard nothing. I followed my cane off the curve and crossed Central Avenue. Three blocks later, I turned off LaReine and headed towards Brinley Avenue. Had the chilly day turned warm, or was the warmth coming from inside?

I reached the cobblestones at the corner of Brinley, and crossed the final intersection. Then I confidently followed the fence to the school playground entrance.

"Hello, Michael." My heart beat rapidly, but I acted cool, like twelve-year-olds do.

"Hi, Jackie."

Then Jackie said “Hello, Mrs. Levy.” If Jackie greeted her like that, she must be very close. Enraged, I turned and barked “You didn’t TRUST me.” I was too young to understand that my mother was the real hero that day.

She had almost succeeded in hiding her anxiety from me. She must have imagined me getting lost, walking out into traffic, wandering onto the railroad tracks …

I heard the retreating hum of her bicycle tires.

Forty-Two Years Later

On a pleasant summer Sunday, a home health aide was pushing my mother in her wheelchair, down the familiar two blocks from home to the Bradley Beach boardwalk. The smell of French fries, sun lotion and salt water swept me back to childhood days at the beach.

Parkinson's disease had robbed Mom of her mobility and was now attacking her mind. She didn't want to remain on the boardwalk for more than ten minutes. I dreaded her fading away again, immobile, in her living room. But she wanted to go home.

The short trip back was nearly over. The aide pushed my mother off the sidewalk into the quiet street to avoid those same bumps which I had explored. My mother said “I want to go on the sidewalk."

"It's bumpy. It's not good for you," the aide soothed Mom with her lilting Caribbean accent.

"Let her go on the sidewalk if that's what she wants!" It was easier for me to yell at the good-hearted aide than it was to acknowledge my sadness. My mother traveled the rest of the way on the sidewalk. It was the least I could do for her.

On January 20, 2008 my brother-in-law met me when I arrived by bus to Bradley Beach. He told me that Mom was having difficulty breathing. "She stopped breathing two minutes ago," my sister lamented when I arrived home. "She's gone."

Maybe Mom didn't want me to hear her last ragged attempts to breathe. But was she really gone? I didn't see her during that first solo walk to school, and I don't see her now, as I travel on the train and subway. Yet I imagine her still, accompanying me as I cross every intersection.

She maintains her silence. I guess she doesn’t want to interfere.

A native of Bradley Beach, New Jersey, Rabbi Michael Levy attributes his achievements to God’s beneficence and to his courageous parents. His parents supported him as he explored his small home town, visited Israel and later studied at Hebrew University, journeyed towards more observant Judaism, received rabbinic ordination, obtained a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University and lectured on Torah and disability-related topics.

As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah, the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center, Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewish experience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons, boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation.” Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to e-mail him.

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