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I was in the seventh grade when my father died. I had already been asked to leave an Orthodox yeshiva in the fifth grade because I had been a “behavior problem.” I was on my second life at a private school in Brooklyn Heights. Brooklyn Heights is one of the oldest, richest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Truman Capote, Henry Miller and W.H. Auden all lived there. I was not from there, I was not rich and I knew no one. But my school was there and I made my first set of friends who weren’t Jewish.
When my father died I’m not sure that anyone in my new school knew our Jewish customs for mourning. For example, we covered our mirrors to erase vanity. We sat on the floor because when death is upon us the living should not be comfortable. The belief is that we should be uncomfortable because by getting used to discomfort one can learn to go on. We left our doors open for neighbors, friends and family to visit for seven days. This is a period called “shiva” and this word in Hebrew also means “seven.” The traditional mourning period after someone dies lasts for seven days and we call this “sitting shiva.”
I had one friend from this Brooklyn Heights private school who did come to my house to sit shiva. Her name was Liz. She didn’t live near me but she didn’t live in Brooklyn Heights either. Her father drove her to my house and when she got out of the car she looked lost and confused. She was not Jewish but she knew it would mean a lot to me if she came to visit. I can’t remember what we said to each other that day. I only remember that she showed up.
A few months ago Liz texted me to tell me that she’s pregnant with a baby girl, her first. Her due date is October 23 and my baby Helen’s due date this past year was October 24. Liz came over to meet Helen. Over the years we have kept in touch and fallen out of touch and then got back in touch again. Life and its winding roads have kept us close in spirit but not always in body. When Liz met Helen for the first time it was as if my past was meeting my present.
Here’s another strange coincidence. Liz recently moved back to Brooklyn from L.A. and she bought an apartment just three blocks away from where I live. Without knowing it, we have been living back to back for a while. Helen and I went over to drop off some clothes and play with Liz’s dog, Wally. While we were visiting, Liz took out a book I had written for her in the eighth grade. It was an English assignment to write a short book about someone you admire and I had chosen to write about Liz.
Liz read the book out loud to me while sitting pregnant on her couch. Helen chewed a stuffed animal and listened, too. The book was about how we used to hang out in the bathroom and how many times Liz had dyed her hair and how much I admired her for being a good friend. I didn’t recall writing that book. What I did recall was how very lost I felt in the eighth grade.
I felt I had never been Jewish enough for yeshiva, but I wasn’t not Jewish enough for private school in high class Brooklyn Heights. I never felt pretty. I never felt special and I never felt God listened to what I had to say. I felt that God had betrayed me, taken away my father, made my mother unreachable and my brother disappear.
God has a funny way of showing up. This past Sunday was Liz’s baby shower. I attended with Helen and saw four or five people I haven’t seen since the sixth grade. Many of the guests heard me speaking Spanish to Helen and asked where I was from. I told them our backstory. I explained that Helen is Jewish from my family and Mexican Catholic from her Papi’s family. After the shower I went to my mother’s house to visit and watched her coo over the baby.
The Jewish mourning period lasts for seven days but the mourning period for a parent that dies lasts for a year. This is Jewish law. What Jewish law does not say is that sometimes we mourn for a lifetime. Sometimes we mourn the dead for years and then we mourn ourselves. We mourn who we were and more so who we weren’t or who we didn’t know how to be. When my father died and Liz came up on my porch to sit shiva that was the seed that stayed in my heart. A girl from outside of my religion and culture came to visit during a crucial time in my life. I was 12 1/2 on my mother’s porch that day. Today I am 35. Today I understand that compassion is not one religion and neither is God.
This afternoon on my way to work I stopped inside a church. It is a small church very near the famous Brooklyn Heights. I stopped in to meditate and ask for guidance. Though I pray in synagogue I often find that churches have a much more calming effect on my spirit. There was a woman in the church praying and I took a seat in the back. She was the only other person there and I don’t think she felt me come in. Sometimes I say a Hebrew prayer, sometimes a Buddhist prayer, but today I closed my eyes and began the Prayer of St. Francis. “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” As my eyes were closed I could hear the woman begin to cry. Her crying turned into sobs. “Where there is hatred, let me sow love…” I opened my eyes and the woman was lying on the floor faced down. She had thrown herself in front of a statue of Mary and was crying into her own arms.I wanted to hug her, to reach down and say, “Miss, is there anything I can do?” But, my 12 1/2-year-old self was already lying on the ground with her… “Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith…”
Then I began the Hebrew prayer called Shemah Yisrael, (Hear, O Israel), which I usually sing when I feel sadness, just as I sang it every night before bed as a child. The second verse came to me immediately: “Two thousand years is a very long exile. The time has come for it to end…”
When I was 8 years old I had a good friend who lived around the corner from me. His name was Nachshon. We took the same school bus to school and at the Orthodox Yeshiva we attended we were in the same class. I went to his house often after school to play video games or just to hang out. He rarely came to my house. My family was not religious enough for his family even though we had a kosher home and my parents tried hard to educate us in Judaism. My parents were liberals. They had been actors and met on stage. They believed in finding out about oneself both inside and outside of the religion. For this reason the Jewish community at my Yeshiva rejected many of my parents’ beliefs and therefore my brother and I were rejected as well, though in a subtler manner.
I was allowed into Nachshon’s home where the rules of kosher/non-kosher, religious and non-religious were in tact and could not be stirred. He was, however, not allowed into my own home. At 8 years of age I didn’t care. He had a Nintendo and my brother and I did not. He had better toys, better games and carpeting in his basement. He had what I didn’t have, or so it seemed.
Then something happened to Nachshon, or rather something happened to his father. One day Nachshon didn’t show up to school. In the middle of Torah study that morning our teacher told us all to put on our coats, we were going somewhere. Once outside we boarded a yellow bus. The bus twisted and turned through the sooty Brooklyn streets until we were close to my own neighborhood. We ended up in front of Nachshon’s residence.
I had been to his house many times before but never with my whole class. There were twenty of us: the girls dressed in long skirts and long sleeved shirts, the boys with yarmulkes, black pants and white shirts. We looked like a sea of exclamation points shuffling through the small doorway. The house was dark and the mirrors had been covered with black fabric. There were low boxes on the floor in the living room for the family members to sit on. It was then I realized what we were doing there. We went, as a class to sit shiva. Shiva is the traditional Jewish mourning period. It usually lasts for seven days and family members sit on the floor or on low boxes, they cover their mirrors and in my neighborhood they leave the door open for visitors to come and go. It is a “mitzvah,” a good deed to sit shiva. As a child it is terrifying.
Nachshon looked small in his own home surrounded by guests from all over the neighborhood. His father had been sick for a long time. No one knew any of the details. He died of some kind of cancer and now the closest family members sat around the living room on low boxes reciting his name and weeping.
That year I stopped going to Nachshon’s house to play. He didn’t speak to me in school. I heard that his mother wanted him to hang around only very religious Orthodox Jewish boys and girls. I was not in that category. The next year I was kicked out of the Yeshiva and I didn’t see him again for a long time. Then one day something happened to me, or rather something happened to my father.
I saw Nachshon again four-and-a-half years later at a shiva for my own father. He showed up on the front porch with sad eyes, dressed in a black suit, his yarmulke a patch of crimson velvet on his head.
“I’m so sorry about your father,” he said. It was the first time he had ever been to my house. Death had brought him there. Death, sympathy and compassion had overcome my “not Jewish enough” family. Though he came on his own. There was no school bus, no long skirts following his lead. He came alone. It was the last time I ever saw him. I felt as if his presence was an apology.
Today I have a newborn. She is Jewish by her mother, Mexican-Catholic by her father. I wonder what she will feel as she grows up in the neighborhood I grew up in. Her father speaks a different language and her mother wears rock t-shirts every day of the week. Does this make her less Jewish? Will parents be afraid to send their children to our house? How will this make her feel? What will I say when she says “Why?”
I will tell her I lost a very close friend a long time ago because of fear and judgment. I will tell her something broke between us because the community that surrounded us did not know how to bind us closer together in a time of mourning and instead shifted us apart.
I would like my daughter to grow up understanding the customs of each religion. The way Catholics and Jews deal with death is of equal importance. But more than this I want her to make her own decisions about religion and I want her to be able to turn to spirituality in times of great distress. I want her to have courage the way Nachshon had when he defied the community and walked up on my front porch to pay his respects. I will explain to my daughter one day that in that one fixed moment in time we were who we were as Jews but more so as resplendent human spirits.
I have a talkative family. Mostly, our everyday conversations are about routine topics such as schedules, work, food, sports, and updates on family and friends, but there are moments when we have rich conversations about meatier subjects such as ethics, history, faith and fate.
These thoughtful discussions are never planned, they happen organically. But while the timing of them is unpredictable, I have noticed that they tend to take place in three locations: in the car, around the Shabbat table, and in nature.
Maybe these conversations happen in these spots because we are relaxed, our minds are cleared of to-do lists, and our hands and eyes are freed from electronics. Or maybe the settings put us in a contemplative mood. Whatever the cause, I cherish these opportunities to connect with my family, and especially my son Sammy who is about to enter his preteen years officially.
In these magical moments, my husband and I get to hear our son’s thoughts about life, values, God, and spirituality, and our son hears the same from us. Depending on the themes we’re discussing, we weave in details about history, Judaism, books, science and other relevant topics. Because our son is present and engaged in these conversations, he absorbs and is more receptive to the information being presented.
On a walk in the Vermont woods during our recent summer vacation, the subjects of life and death came-up. I pointed out a nurse log on the side of the path. A nurse log is a decomposing tree trunk that provides the moisture and nutrients necessary for the growth of new plants. We learned about them last summer during a hike in Alaska.
As we looked at the log, Sammy said that all living things, including people, are like nurse logs. He explained his theory of what happens when people die and are buried. He said that as the bodies decay, nutrients are added to the soil, the enriched soil nourishes the growth of new life in the form of plants.
I thought his idea was quite logical, in line with Sammy’s often scientifically oriented thinking. Then he said, “But the question is, do people live on in some way. What happens to a person’s soul?”
I explained that many Jews believe we live on through the legacy that we leave behind – our family, reputation, work and good deeds. Sammy acknowledged that this was one way–a tangible way–to think about living on, but that wasn’t what he was talking about. His thoughts were metaphysical in nature.
He said he believed that when the body decays part of its soul moves into the plant that grows from the soil that has been nourished during decomposition. When an animal eats the plant, it absorbs the soul. In this way, the soul moves up the food chain eventually reaching another person.
My husband and I listened intently while Sammy shared his ideas. We were fascinated by how he easily his mind moved between rational and mystical thinking, and how he interwove concrete and abstract concepts.
I shared with him that the idea that the soul moves through different realms after death is present in Judaism. “Really?” He said.
“Really. Some Jews believe that when they recite the Kaddish for a loved one who has died, it lifts the soul of the deceased from one spiritual world to another moving it ever higher each year that the Mourner’s Prayer is said.”
“Wow. That’s pretty cool,” Sammy replied. He then added, “Don’t you love when we have these kinds of conversations? I mean we were talking about a nurse log and now we’re talking about the soul.”
My husband and I do love these conversations as much as Sammy. They are unlike our everyday parent-child interactions. There is no nagging, admonishing, reminding or repeating. We appreciate these small opportunities to build connection and family intimacy because, in our hyperscheduled, too-busy-for-downtime lives these moments aren’t always easy to find.
One of the teachers at Baby’s school (aka daycare) was killed in a car accident last weekend. She was much loved at the school and has a daughter who would have moved up to Baby’s class in the next week or so. (That child is safe with her grandma, out of school right now.)
While I’m thankful that Baby is too young to comprehend this loss; my own confusion on how to react has me thinking about his confusion when situations like this–death–arise in the future. Death, unexpected or not, is confusing enough for adults and adults of one faith. How much more so will it be for Baby as he grows, when he’ll be dealing with two faiths? While he’s being raised with a Jewish identity, half of his family is not Jewish. Plus, we live in the Bible Belt, where most people assume you’re like they are and that words like “He/she is safe and at peace with Jesus now” will give you as much comfort as it gives them. How will we help him navigate the well-meant condolences of others, and offer his own? How will we help him understand (far, far in the future, G-d willing) that we’ll sit Shiva for Bubbe and Zayde and Grandma and Grandpa D, but not for Granny and Popi or Grandma and Grandpa G? (Or, wait, will we sit Shiva for Granny and Popi because they’re Daddy’s Mommy and Stepdaddy, even though Granny and Popi aren’t Jewish? See? Confusing!)
Probably people are going to tell me not to worry about these things yet; that there’s lots of time to figure it out, and they’re probably right. I HOPE AND PRAY they’re right. But as time and this blog goes on, you might discover I’m a bit of a planner. And while this is hopefully very long-term planning, it’s still something I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on. How would you/have you handled it in your own families?(Author’s note: I promise to not post such “downer” topics all the time. This is just something that, sadly, has been on my heart since I found out Monday.)