Mourning, Friendship and the Future

Liz and baby Helen

Baby Helen meets Liz

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.

Helen and Grandma

Helen and Grandma

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…”

Strolling on Shavuot and San Antonio of Padua


Mother strolling with baby

There was a painting that hung in the living room of our house when I was a child. My father’s good friend Mike painted it. Mike was an artist who had his art studio in New York and his apartment in Brooklyn. He also had a German Shepherd named “Renny” who sat on the floor of the studio while Mike painted. I’m not sure if the painting that hung in our house was a gift or if my father bought it. It was enormous. It seemed enormous when I was a child. From close up the image in the frame looked like watercolors of black, red, and gold with a hint of green. But, from far away Moses appeared with the Ten Commandments over his head looking down at the Jewish people from Mount Sinai as they bowed down to a Golden calf.

I had learned this story in school. Moses was so angry that his people were praying to an idol that he held the Ten Commandments above his head and threw them down and so they broke in half. This is what hung in our living room and above the Passover table every year when we invited our family and had to pull the big table out of the garage to fit everyone at the feast. Moses stood in a fit of rage at the top of a mountain and I learned every day that God was angry.

This was discouraging.

It was especially discouraging when in school the teachers asked us to “count the Omer.” The “Omer” are the days after Passover leading up to the holiday “Shavuot” in which the Jews celebrate the day God gave them the Torah. Shavuot is said to be a marriage between the Jewish people and God as it is a re-acceptance of the Torah, similar to a renewal of marriage vows.

The Omer lasts for 49 days and they must be counted and a prayer must be said. But, if a prayer is not said and you miss a day of counting you cannot say the prayers after that day, you must listen to someone else say them. In my house of liberal artists and unorthodox traditions I could never remember if I had counted the Omer, if I had missed a day, or if I had said the prayer right or not at all. What stuck with me more were the colors in Mike’s painting, that blood red of Moses’s cloak and the piercing gold of the calf.

In my house Shavuot was not a big holiday, hence the reason I couldn’t remember to count the Omer. My parents would have to sign a pink card that said I had counted it and I lost the pink card. I think my teachers had to give me five different pink cards. Charles Cohen found one of my cards in his box of Lemon Heads and returned it to me on the school bus one day. I hated math and I didn’t like to count. I didn’t want to believe at such a young age that our days were numbered. Besides, I already knew. There had been death in my family and Moses hung in my living room as a constant reminder of wrath and indignation.

Today my daughter is eight months old. Again, I count. I count her toes, her fingers and her months. She already has a life of her own, a personality of her own. She already has a different life experience than my own. For starters, Moses does not hang in our living room. That painting is still at my mother’s house somewhere in the attic. Here we have a menorah for Hanukkah, a chamsa for luck and a Virgin of Guadalupe for protection. My daughter is Jewish. My daughter is Catholic. My daughter is Mexican-American-Ashkenazi-Aztec. God is not angry. God is loving. It took me a long time to understand that.

Virgin Mary

The Virgin Mary on the day of San Antonio of Padua

This year on Shavuot Jews walk the streets in my neighborhood all night. It is traditional to stay up all night learning the Torah and walking. In Mexico they celebrate the festival of San Antonio of Padua. Adrian, my partner, sends money home for the festivities. San Antonio in Mexico is known as the “Saint of the Whole World.” He is best known for finding lost things. He also helps people find husbands or wives, helps women have babies and he helps the poor. The Jews in Midwood walked the streets praying and the Mexicans in Puebla walked the streets praying on the same day this year. My daughter hears Spanish and Hebrew and English and grows up knowing that God is a tapestry of colors like Joseph’s coat.

The Jews were wanderers for many years in the desert. They were seekers. I’d like to think this is still the case. The Aztecs were warriors and one of the most advanced cultures in science and technology of their time. Walking the streets of Brooklyn is sometimes like being at the Smithsonian Museum. So many different faces tell so many different stories.

I walk Helen down the street in her stroller on Shavuot, on the day of San Antonio of Padua. I imagine Moses walking beside us holding the Ten Commandments. Moses who exists in both the Catholic and the Jewish traditions. He does not look angry walking beside us. He looks serene. He understands my daughter’s mixed faith, race and religion. He stands beside us to teach us the lesson he himself learned as a child: that fire is stronger than gold.

As a baby Moses was tested by the Pharaoh. Since Moses had been found by the Egyptians in a basket floating down the river, the Pharaoh was superstitious that Moses might be a threat to him when he grew up. The Pharaoh had two bowls set in front of Moses to test him to see if he liked jewels and riches. A bowl of gold coins and a bowl of fire were set in front of baby Moses. Just as Moses crawled toward the bowl of gold an Angel swooped down and moved him to the bowl of fire. He burned his hand and stuck his fingers in his mouth to soothe the burn. Because of this Moses had a speech impediment and later on in his life it was God who would speak through Moses so that the people would listen. The Pharaoh was satisfied that Moses would not try to steal his throne after this incident.

What I never understood about the painting in my mother’s living room was the significance of the golden calf. All I saw was a mix of rage in color. It was not only that the Jewish people were bowing down to an idol that was not their God, it was that the idol was made of gold. Gold was the very thing the Angel had moved Moses away from as a child. Gold made the Pharaoh jealous. Gold took precedence over religion and faith. Gold was the reason Hernan Cortez murdered and defeated the Aztec empire. The Aztec Empire was known as the “City of Gold” much like Jerusalem. Everyone in every faith and every religion has at some point been tempted by gold.

Shavuot and the Festival of San Antonio of Padua both teach us the lesson of staying humble. The riches, the real gold are in our families, our traditions and what we teach our future generations. We want to reach for the bowl of shiny coins. We believe this is where our happiness lies. The Angel swoops down every time to burn our hands so that our speech is stifled in order to hear a higher power. We must be silent in order to listen. Not just one but many faiths teach us this lesson.

Moses walks beside my daughter’s stroller and we meet San Antonio along the way. Perhaps a long time ago San Antonio helped Moses to find the Torah again and Moses helped San Antonio feed the poor.