An Accident of Mirth
My mother, 85-year-old Hazel Gersten, the world’s best Jew, takes communion by mistake—and thinks it’s funny!
By Mary Beth Crain
Last Sunday an event occurred that will surely go down in history, at least in the history of Temple Emanuel, Rochester, N.Y., and the Jewish People. My mother, Hazel Gersten, the oldest living Temple Emanuel member, the Jew of Jews, who never in her entire life set foot in a church, Catholic or Protestant, except for maybe a wedding or a funeral…. My mother, Hazel Gersten, took communion! At age 85!
Here’s the story. Until a month ago, Hazel was living on her own in a retirement apartment house in Rochester. Then she suddenly went downhill faster than those Olympic Grand Slalom champs. She lost much of her eyesight to macular degeneration and began falling. She grew increasingly unable to do the most basic things unassisted. So, she went into the hospital, and from there was transferred to The Brightonian, a high-class skilled nursing facility, for rehab.
Now Hazel had always expected that sooner or later she would go to the Jewish Home, where her parents and aunts and uncles all lived out their last years among old friends and enemies. Every Jew in Rochester knows every other Jew, after all, and their relatives too, from Moses on down, and sooner or later they all tend to wind up in the same place, playing Bingo and Jewish Geography to the end.
But this was not to be Hazel’s fate. Since neither my brother nor I live in Rochester, we’ll be moving her to Michigan in April, where we’ll both be able to take care of her. For now, however, she’s quite happy at The Brightonian, even though it’s a distinctly non-Jewish residence that offers, among other Goyische amenities, Sunday church worship.
The Brightonian is a great place and Hazel loves the activities and seems hell bent on participating in every one, from spelling bees and sing-alongs to Pokeno, Reading Aloud, and whatever else comes her way. Last Sunday, what came her way was Holy Communion—which, to Hazel, was apparently just another fun activity.
I was in Rochester, arranging her affairs, and got to her room around 1:00 p.m. “So what did you do this morning?” I asked.
“Oh, let’s see. I had a big breakfast, and then the manicurist came, and lunch was very good, although I couldn’t eat a thing after that big breakfast, and… Oh, yes, I took communion.”
“What are you talking about?” I said.
“Well, this lovely couple, an older man and a woman—I think she was his wife—stopped in, and they were so sweet and friendly! They asked me all about myself and we had such a nice chat. Then they asked me if I’d like to take communion. Well, I said no, thank you, but I think this poor gentleman was deaf, because he held out that little cracker, and well, what was I going to do, refuse?”
“So…you…took…Holy…Communion,” I said, in shell-shocked slo mo.
“I guess so!” she laughed airily.
“What do you mean, you ‘guess so?’” I yelled. “Did he say ‘Body of Christ’ when he gave it to you?”
“I don’t remember,” she mused. “I just opened my mouth and he put it on my tongue.”
“How did it taste?”
“Oh, a little like matzoh. It wasn’t bad.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t ask for a second helping! Hazel, do you realize you ingested the transubstantiated body of Jesus Christ?”
“Oh, Mary Beth, it was only a wafer!” she sniffed. “Don’t get so excited!”
“Were these people Catholic or Protestant?” I asked.
“Who knows? They left some literature with me. On my tray table, over there.”
I checked the tray table, and there, very thoughtfully placed, was an Our Lady of Lourdes parish bulletin.
“They’re Catholic,” I announced. “Oh boy. You know you committed a big sin. Non-Catholics are forbidden to take communion.”
“So what are they going to do?” she shrugged. “Sue me?”
“I’m calling the rabbi!” I teased. “We’re putting it in the Temple Bulletin!”
“No, you’re not!” she laughed. “Don’t you dare!”
“But Hazel, we have to! You’re a Catholic now! You’ve taken Jesus unto you! Oh, I can just see the story: ‘Hazel B. Gersten, Oldest Temple Member, Takes Holy Communion and Announces: If I’d Known How Tasty Jesus Was, I’d Have Converted Years Ago!”
By this time Hazel was laughing so hard she started having a coughing fit. A hefty black aide stuck her head in.
“Miss Hazel, why you be coughing?”
“My daughter is making me laugh!” Hazel gasped.
“Well, don’t you be laughin’ so hard or you choke, and then we be callin’ the medics!”
“Oh, she doesn’t need a medic,” I said. “She needs a priest.”
“Why she need a priest?” The aide was confused. “I thought she be Jewish.”
“Not anymore. She took her first communion today. Now she’s got to get baptized fast, or she’ll go straight to hell. No passing GO, no collecting $200.”
“Oh, Lordy,” the poor aide looked even more confused. “Why you do that, Miss Hazel?”
“I don’t know!” Hazel howled, tears streaming down her cheeks. One thing about my mother, she’s got a great sense of humor.
“See? Here’s the parish bulletin they left her.” I handed it to the aide and pointed to the section marked “Baptisms.” “It gives the times you can get baptized, and you can even make an appointment to be anointed.”
“Anointments by appointment!” Hazel shrieked, and went into another laughing/coughing fit.
“Mmm, mmm,” the aide shook her head. “Miss Hazel, you gonna be baptized, you want to do it proper. In a Baptist church. You don’t want to get mixed up with these Catholics.”
“Oh, whatever,” I said. “She just needs an emergency baptism, period.”
I had the aide going for a while longer, until she finally realized I was kidding.
“Ooh, you bad!” she laughed. “You need a baptism too!”
Naturally I couldn’t wait to phone the family and let them in on the Good News. Hazel has two sisters—Bluma, who’s 82 and lives in Florida, and Helen, who’s 91 and lives in New Jersey. They each have a daughter, my first cousins Claire and Margie. We three have spent most of our lives making fun of our mothers, aka The Bretstein Girls.
I called Claire, who lives in North Carolina.
“So what’s the latest with Hazel?” she asked.
“Get ready for the big one,” I said.
“Oh my God, what? She fell again?”
“Oh no, much more serious. Hazel Betty Bretstein Gersten took communion!”
“WHAT?” Claire shouted.
I relayed the whole story.
“Wait til Margie hears!” Claire screamed. “And Bluma! And Mike!” Mike is her non-practicing Catholic husband. “He’ll die!”
I then called my brother in Michigan. He wasn’t there, so I informed my sister-in-law, another non-practicing Catholic, that Hazel had taken communion.
“NO WAY IN HELL!” she yelled.
“She did! These Catholic lay ministers came in and she thought they were so nice that she figured what the hell, she might as well!”
“That’s the biggest sin!” Deb laughed and laughed. “She’s in deep doo doo!”
“I know! She’ll have to be baptized and confess and say six thousand Hail Mary’s!”
Indeed, Hazel was in deep doo doo, on both sides of the fence. Although when I asked my dear nun friend, Sister Janet Harris, if Hazel had committed a sin, and she replied, “Absolutely not! It was a beautiful act, of pure giving and pure receiving.” Jan has always been one of those ultra-liberal, tolerant, all-embracing nuns who has remained sane in spite of the church, not because of it. Catholic doctrine is firm on the subject: non-Catholics may not take communion because it is indeed a sin to ingest the holy Eucharist if you don’t believe it’s the actual body of Christ. As Paul proclaimed in I Corinthians: “Whoever therefore eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord… For anyone who eats or drinks without discerning the body eats or drinks judgment upon himself.”
And Jewish doctrine isn’t any more lenient. In Orthodox tradition, Hazel would be declared an apostate, and everyone would sit shive over her as though she had died.
However, somewhere in both religions there’s room for the intercession of saints on the sinner’s behalf. So I’m counting on Hazel’s parents and my dear grandparents, Annie and Louie Bretstein, who I’m sure have attained sainthood, to straighten things out with God. I can just see it:
GOD: So, Annie and Louie, what can I do for you?
ANNIE: Oy, God, our daughter, Hazel Betty, took—what do they call it, Lou?
LOUIE: The wafer. The wafer.
ANNIE: The wafer.
GOD: You mean the body of my one and only son?
ANNIE: Oy, he should live and be well, she didn’t know what she was doing! Hazel has always been a little tsmished. You know, confused. Ever since she was a little girl.
LOUIE: That’s right, God. And she’s old now, bless her heart, and can’t see too well, and besides, she doesn’t know from borscht about goys and wafers, schmafers. She probably thought it was one of those Fig Newtons they hand out at “Nourishment Time.”
GOD: Well, I think this is a matter for my son to decide.
He presses a buzzer.
Son? Dad here. Can you come up for a minute?
Jesus arrives in a twinkling.
JESUS: Hello, Dad. What’s up?
GOD: A little issue I thought you could straighten out for us. It seems that Hazel Betty Bretstein Gersten, the daughter of these two good people, Annie and Louie Bretstein, accidentally took communion at her nursing home. Being unbaptised, not to mention Jewish, this puts her in a grave position. The Catholics assign her to Purgatory without possibility of parole. The Jews declare her an apostate and sit shive for her. Since it’s your body she ate, I thought you should decide her fate.
JESUS: You mean you called me in her to waste my time on trivia? Dad, I was just on my way to Iraq, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran, and New Orleans, where they’re all either slaughtering each other or making WMDs to do an even better job, or are homeless, penniless and completely without hope. And that’s just this morning’s agenda! We’re coming to the end of the world and you ask me up here to deal with an old lady who took communion by mistake? Well, here’s my verdict: I DON’T GIVE A F---!
ANNIE: Such language!
LOUIE: From Jesus H. Christ!
GOD: Well, you know, he always had that streak of righteous indignation, bless his heart. Thanks, son. I was hoping that would be your response. I brought him up right, didn’t I?
ANNIE: He’s a good boy. Handsome too!
LOUIE: A good Jewish boy. If only he hadn’t gotten those meshugenah ideas. He could have become a dentist and saved the world a lot of tsurris.
ANNIE: Now, Lou. He got Hazel off the hook. He’s all right.
Yes, Hazel’s hopefully in the clear—for now, anyway. I talked to her today and said, “Tomorrow’s Sunday. Are you going to take communion again?”
“I don’t know,” she answered freshly. “I just might!”
TO BE CONTINUED…
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Contributing editor Mary Beth Crain's last piece for SoMA was My Furry Valentine.
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