Natalie Portman's Directorial Debut & Paper Towns' Nat WolffBy Gerri Miller
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My Grandma Harriet died a few weeks ago, at the age of 95. She was beautiful, creative and could expertly apply her lipstick without a mirror. She was my favorite hug. She cooked up the yummiest tuna noodle casseroles and the tastiest matzah ball soup. She lived a long life full of family simchas (celebrations), fancy dinners out with my grandfather and travelling around the world. When I got the call that she passed away, I was sad, but grateful that she lived a long, rich life.
A week later, I found out that my colleague’s wife was tragically killed in a car accident at the age of 37. N was vibrant, involved in the wider Jewish community and the mother of three kids. She was passionate about education and inclusivity. My heart broke when I read the news of her unexpected passing.
Death confounds me. After these losses, my theology was shaken up, once again. Why was my grandmother blessed with a sweet long life when people like N are tragically taken away from us so suddenly? How is it determined: Who shall live and who shall die?
We are moving into the High Holiday season in the Jewish calendar. The Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) are a time of contemplation, reflection and spiritual awakening. The Shofar is sounded to pull us out of our sleepy routines and open our hearts. It is a time to deeply connect with ourselves. And it is a time to face our own mortality. In the “U-netaneh Tokef” prayer, it is sung, “Who shall live on and who shall die.”
As a kid, I was taught that on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), we are either written in the book of Life or the Book of Death. And on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), our fates are sealed. Like many children, I pictured Gd as an old man in the sky, who looked exactly like Moses with a long white beard and a cane. My personified Gd lived above the clouds and wrote two lists each year: those who would live and those who would die. And I worked hard to be my best self so that I wouldn’t be added to that dreaded death list.
I have outgrown my childhood theology. It doesn’t serve me anymore. This simplistic theology that only the good are rewarded with long life contradicts with my understanding of the world.
I don’t know why people die when we do. I don’t understand why my grandmother got to live a long healthy life while N was taken from us too soon. I continue to grapple with death. The answers to this are bigger than me and beyond my comprehension.
What I do know is that the Gd of my understanding provides me comfort in the midst of uncertainty. I can lean on The-Abundant-One when I feel scared, lost and sad. When my grandmother passed away, I felt held by a nurturing presence. I experience Gd working through my community as they surround me and my family with love. When I learned of N’s death, I cried out to the Mystery. It felt unfair and unjust! My heart cracked open and I felt a deep pain. And yet, I experienced a sense of awe at the outpouring of support and strength from the wider community. The way in which she has been memorialized in countless stories is breathtaking. To me, that is Gd.
Today, I understand the “U-netaneh Tokef” prayer to be about surrender. We are not in control. These words are a reminder of the cycle of life and death. How can I honor the ways in which death is always present? What legacies will live on? What old habits will die? This year, as I sing the line, “Who shall live and who shall die,” I will be reminded of my own mortality and how I choose to live my life this year.
My mother, Beatrice Case, died one week ago, on March 16, 2014. She was 95 and had been remarkably healthy until just two months ago. She was a much-loved woman, especially by my 97-year-old father with whom she shared 72 years of marriage. My dad says his “secret” for a long and happy marriage is to never go to bed mad and always say “I love you.”
I don’t usually like to talk about my family in connection with my work at InterfaithFamily. But there is something important that I want to share to honor her memory.
My mother’s father was a traditionally observant Jew. My parents were founding members of the Conservative synagogue to which my mother schlepped my older brother and then me to religious school three times a week, a 25-minute drive each way. They made their opposition to intermarriage unmistakable to my brother and me.
In my eulogy I said that in the spring of 1968, when I was a senior in high school, I had started going out with Wendy, who wasn’t Jewish at the time (or for many years later). One day I asked my mom, “what would be so bad if I kept on going out with Wendy?” She said: “Well, you might really like her a lot, and you might go to college and not meet any one you like as much, and then you might get back together with her, and then you might want to get married.” That’s exactly what happened.
I also said in my eulogy that six years later, when I told my parents that I wanted to marry Wendy, they had a choice to make, and they put their love for me and their devotion to their family above anything else. Wendy feels that they came to embrace her as their own daughter.
At shiva the next day a cousin, who visited with my father while the funeral was taking place (he isn’t able to travel), told me that at about the same time as I was giving my eulogy, my father started telling her about exactly the same thing. He said, “Bea and I talked about it. We decided that we didn’t want to turn our backs and lose our son. And look at the wonderful family that we got.”
Also at shiva my mother’s childhood next-door neighbor and friend Elaine was talking to Wendy and said that my mother lived a “charmed” life. Wendy said, “probably the worst thing that happened to her is that Ed married me” and Elaine said, “that’s right.” Wendy said, “if I’m the worse thing that happened to her, I guess she did have a pretty charmed life,” and Elaine readily agreed. Because Wendy and I have been married for almost 40 years. Our daughter and son are happily married to wonderful partners; my mother adored all of them, and the feeling was mutual. My mother got to meet and know three great-grandchildren; the oldest one, who is three, is asking, “where is great-grandma?”
I would like to think that my mother and my father could see into the future the whole little universe of our loving family that would result from their loving embrace. But that embrace made something more than a loving family possible – they opened doors to continuing Jewish life. Wendy and I have been very Jewishly engaged. We can’t know for certain what our children’s families’ long-term relationship to Judaism will be – but our daughter’s wedding was officiated by a rabbi – my parents got to attend – and so was our son’s; each of our grandsons had a bris – my mother got to attend the second one, just last November; and our 8-month old granddaughter currently is a regular attendee with her parents at services at Mishkan in Chicago.
I said in my eulogy that my mother leaves behind the ongoing radiating ripple effect on the world that she and her thousands of interactions have had. She set a great deal of warmth and brightness and loving-kindness in motion. And she set the possibility of an ongoing Jewish future in motion too. I know that for me and my family her memory will always be a blessing.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Connecticut, the 26 people killed, 20 of whom were children. My children are in elementary school. I was scared to tell them because I was afraid they’d never want to go to school, but with media everywhere and emotions so raw, they found out about the tragedy. I struggle with what to tell them. I struggle with letting them leave the house. I want them to go out into the world without fear. I worry that they won’t want to go to school and that they won’t want to go to sleep.
Several years ago, my second son, Sam, was scared and having trouble sleeping. When Sam used to fear monsters, I could calm his fear with helping him control his imagination. But this time the fear was real. My older son, Rob, had nearly been hit by a car while his brother was two steps away. Rob walked into the street as a car came around the corner and he walked into the side of a moving car and bounced back onto the sidewalk. Fortunately, Rob was fine physically, but emotionally, we were all affected. Sam saw it happen and became anxious all the time. The school noticed the problem too. I spoke with the school psychologist and she suggested prayer. My inner agnostic didn’t take her seriously at first, but I quickly realized that this idea had some merit. My kids already knew the Jewish bedtime prayer, the Shema. Religious Jews say it several times a day but at night, it seems to have special meaning. The translation is “Hear o Israel, The Lord our G-d, the Lord is one.” I explained to my kids that we should say this prayer together every night. It is our way of letting go of the fear and stress we have and having some faith that G-d will take care of us. As a parent, I noticed that the kids immediately relaxed and were able to get some sleep.
After the incident in Connecticut, I began to think more about prayer. I thought about the concept of saying a prayer before we eat — Hamotzi. We eat all the time, why should we take a second to say thanks? Today I realized that the act of prayer makes us realize that we can’t take the simple things for granted – like our kids will be safe when they are at school. We should say thank you for what we have. The agnostic voice in my head says that if there is a supreme being, he doesn’t have time to listen to my prayer for the food that we eat. I now realize that prayer isn’t just for G-d. Prayer is for us; to save our sanity in an insane world, to give us a moment of calm and appreciation of the good things. I feel that if we have the balance of appreciation, we can ride out the tougher things like a bad day or a human tragedy with a little more strength. Prayer gives us calm, focus, and a little bit of inner peace. Oprah Winfrey used to recommend keeping a journal of appreciation — write down the good things in your life every day and it will help you avoid depression. I now realize that religion is way ahead on this concept — appreciate what you have and it will save your soul today, tomorrow and in the future. It can get you through a bad day and help you sleep at night.
In a few months, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia will be offering a class called “Raising a Child With Judaism in Your Interfaith Family.” These online classes (with two in-person sessions) teach about various Jewish rituals such as the Shema and Hamotzi. As a parent, I realize how meaningful these small prayers are toward helping us all function and appreciate the life we have. As we share more details about the class, including how to register, in the coming weeks, I hope you will spread the word about this class and encourage even the most cynical to look into it. When we watch tragedy take place in the world, I find prayer to be one of the more powerful weapons in our parental arsenal. In the meantime, I say a prayer for the families in Connecticut. I am so sorry for your loss.