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Two weeks ago, I wrote that I didn’t know yet what I would do for Yom Kippur. In the end, the Books of Life and Death helped me answer that question. Just before Yom Kippur, a beloved relative in my husband’s family passed away after a brief illness. On Erev Yom Kippur, we found ourselves driving the short distance from the Chicago suburbs to the Milwaukee suburbs for the funeral and interment ceremony of Ben’s great-aunt Elaine.
Elaine, already in her eighties, became ill a few weeks ago with a blood disorder. Doctors told her that she had two to four weeks to live. Just days before Rosh Hashanah when the Days of Awe would begin, sealing all lives in the Book of Life or the Book of Death for the years to come, phones across the country rang as Ben’s family shared this sad news.
Elaine and her sister Pauline had hosted Ben’s and my rehearsal dinner: As always, Elaine baked cookies and desserts by the hundreds, bringing them on the plane to the celebration. Her sister Pauline, always the artist, made delightful tissue-paper flower decorations for the rehearsal dinner tables, decorations that still brighten our home more than ten years later.
My in-laws purchased emergency plane tickets and visited Elaine in her hospital room. With over a week remaining until she eventually passed away, she talked vigorously, offered advice and stories, and, knowing the end was near, ate chocolate of every variety at nearly every meal.
Although I could not know for sure, to me it seemed that Elaine had done what so few of us have the courage or opportunity to attempt: She had chosen that this would be the end of her life. She rejected invasive, intrusive treatments that might cure a body that was already into its eighties, and a mind which must have missed the presence of her husband Al, who passed just over two-and-a-half years ago.
I did not know Elaine very well, although I often felt I knew her through her baking, her generosity and warmth, and the stories I’ve heard through the years. My encounters with her were always studded with humor, welcome, compassion and joy. Before I first met Elaine, my future mother-in-law (herself a convert to Judaism) told me that Elaine “taught [her] how to be Jewish.” Living in the same city, Elaine welcomed Karen lovingly as a new member of the family and of the Jewish people.
This effusive welcome greeted me the first time I met Elaine, who enfolded me in a bear hug before passing the plate of Hanukkah cookies, insisting I eat some. Elaine always brought desserts to funerals, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and any other gatherings at which food offered welcome in ways that went beyond words. I remember especially her mandelbrot and her crescent cookies dusted with powdered sugar, and my surprise when I learned that she received “her” cheesecake recipe from my mother-in-law!
Elaine’s funeral service at her synagogue was filled with the sounds of tears and occasional laughter as her sister, daughter and son offered eulogies. Already set up for High Holiday services, the chapel had been closed off from the large hall outside, where chairs already stood in rows waiting for that evening’s Kol Nidre service.
At the graveside interment, friends and relatives carried her plain wooden casket with a Jewish star engraved on top to the open grave on a beautiful, warm-but-not-hot fall day. A gentle breeze stirred the leaves in the trees, and the sky glowed that bright blue that only happens when the darker days of fall hover just around the corner. After a prayer and the Kaddish, everyone present helped to shovel soil back into the grave until the hole was filled and Elaine lay at rest next to her husband. I couldn’t help but feel that Elaine would be happy to be near him again.
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” I thought to myself, searching for words to describe the symmetry, and finding I could only use those which were most familiar.
As the stunning blue sky of the day before Yom Kippur waned toward the darkness of night, Ben and I drove home, our thoughts on the year that had just passed and the one just starting. He hummed Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire,” a folk song inspired by the High Holiday liturgy. It’s a powerful song even after the Days of Awe have closed and when a beloved person hasn’t, herself, chosen “by brave assent” that this could be her time.
If Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, of making amends for the sins of the past year, I feel that all of us who knew Elaine received a special blessing over these last few weeks. As she lay in the hospital and then in hospice, holding tenaciously onto life even as it slipped from her grasp, she found time to make peace, again, for the hundredth time, with every one who came to visit. For each person, she offered a final message, shared one more story, and once again made the people in her life feel welcome. I was not there in her final moments, but I am comforted by the hope that she found atonement (or “at-one-ment” as I’ve heard it be called) with her life as she had lived it, a life which was, by all accounts, beautifully lived.
Rest in peace, Elaine. May your memory be always for a blessing, and may those whose lives you touched be inscribed this year in the Book of Life.
My parents and extended family have always supported my own interfaith family. There are many ways they have said or shown this to me. When I think about when I knew it would be OK for me to bring home a partner who wasn’t Jewish, I always remember one specific conversation. I can’t remember exactly when this happened, but if I had to guess I would say it was during my Hebrew school confirmation year. The class curriculum, about understanding our Jewish identity as emerging adults, would have been an easy opener to summon up the courage to ask how my parents felt about me dating people who weren’t Jewish.
My mom knew her answer right away.
“I want you to find someone you love,” she said, “and if you really love each other, then you can figure out the rest.”
My mom was a clinical psychologist. Outside of her practice, she was a great friend, an excellent advice giver, and shared the role (with my dad) of #1 life advisor to our extended family. In other words, she had the inside track on a lot of relationships.
Wearing her many hats, my mom had seen successful marriages of all stripes, and she had witnessed the pain of marriages that ended in separation and divorce. She had seen same-faith and interfaith couples who thrived, and couples who had struggled to make their relationships work, regardless of religion.
My mom wanted her three children to find love, the kind that sustains life’s ebbs and flows and would encircle her future grandchildren (who were always in her plans, I suspect) with love and stability. She wanted to be sure that no matter who we ended up with, she and my dad would be a closely connected part of our lives. And more than anything in her life, she wanted to protect her children from pain.
She wasn’t saying “Being Jewish doesn’t matter,” nor was she saying “Your partner’s religion, and their family’s religion, don’t matter.” What she was saying was that she wanted us to learn how to love, and how to be loved. When she said we’d figure out the rest, she really did expect that. My parents always modeled a kind of loving partnership where being married meant you worked through things, not around them. When we had partners, we would need to figure “it” out, whatever it was.
Ultimately, my parents wanted us to be happy. I believe my mom was concerned that if she put limitations on our choice of partners, we might not endeavor on a truly full exploration of what we wanted in a partner. It was most important to her that we learn how to both love and “figure things out,” with either a Jewish person or a person who was not Jewish. My mom understood that religion was important, but not necessarily the magic key to a successful marriage.
I am thankful that my parents opened the door for me to find my right match, and gave me confidence that they would support my relationship based on its merits. This week would have been my mom’s 67th birthday. As my dad, sister, brother and I celebrate her and remember how much we miss her, I am lucky to have my husband and his family watch over me and hold my hand. On her birthday, I will pause and thank my mom for the ways she embraced my husband, and for not missing a beat in telling me to #ChooseLove first, with faith that the rest would follow.
There are many ways we all #ChooseLove in our lives. See the gallery and share your story!
Last week was my mother’s yahrzeit, the observance of the anniversary of her death. For someone who wasn’t raised in a Jewish household, or in a Jewish-but-luckily-not-bereaved household, yahrzeit is one of those traditions that you don’t really know about until you have to. There are public parts of observing yahrzeit, but the most powerful and probably widespread component is a private ritual in the home – a tiny glass candle burning for 24 hours, commemorating a day that you need to study up to remember, since it is the Hebrew calendar anniversary of a person’s death, not the Gregorian calendar date. It is traced to Talmudic times, and references a biblical verse about the human soul representing the lamp or flame of God.
When I light my mom’s memorial candle, there is a part of the ritual that is about bringing her into our home through the candle’s flame. Even more than the reminder of her spirit that the candle symbolizes, what is meaningful to me is the act of yahrzeit. When I light the candle, and watch the flame climb down the wick, placing it in a window, I bring my mom into myself, going through the steps I watched her take as a daughter who lost a parent early in her adult life.
I have very vivid memories of my mom lighting the yahrzeit candle for her father when I was a girl. I never knew my grandfather, but I knew the sacred moment when my mom was by herself with the flame of the candle every year, and felt the spirit of the candle flame holding court in our house for 24-hours every spring. Over time I have learned the ways that this act was one way she expressed her duty and gratitude as a daughter. Lighting the candle on her father’s yahrzeit expressed her obligation to remember, to make space for him and their relationship on the same date every year, and to keep the reminder of loss alive for 24 hours.
The obligation was also uniquely her own. While we shared many aspects of our Jewish practice and our emotional lives in my household, my grandfather’s yahrtzeit was an individual tradition. Following in her footsteps, I make it my own, too. With my mom’s memorial anniversary within days of Mother’s Day each year, I spend lots of time with Eric and the girls talking about my mom, visiting her grave, and doing special things that remind us of her. But lighting the candle is my own moment. It is my own personal obligation, and I think there is a power in holding it as an individual tradition, and having my girls understand that it is a part of remembering their grandmother that is my responsibility.
Last week, I snuck a moment to myself just after the girls’ bedtime, lighting the memorial candle in its small glass jar. I took the moment not only to reflect on my loss, but more importantly on my mother, and on what it means to be a daughter. I remember all of the life she breathed into me, all of the ways she made me into the person I am. I remember that it is my obligation to hold onto her spirit in this world, and to weave her memory into the ways I live my life.
I’ll never know know how important it would be to my mother that I light the candle every year. What I do know is that when I do it I am honoring her in the way I watched her honor her father, which means something to me.
The night before I left for my family vacation, I paid a shiva call to a friend who had just lost her sister. In the middle of my visit, a rabbi friend-of-the-family led those present through the first night’s shiva minyan. Before we began the Mourner’s Kaddish, the rabbi explained that this night was a very special Shabbat. It was Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation. After the somber observance of Tisha B’Av, Shabbat Nachamu begins seven weeks of consolation, of shifting from mourning to comfort as we clear our minds and prepare for the New Year. It was a beautiful frame to put around this heartbreaking time, and gave those of us present a sense of purpose in being with my friend’s family in that moment. It also fortified me as I prepared for my annual trip to the Maine lakes, a trip that my Mom organized for 29 years, including 2012, the year she, like my friend’s sister, lost her life to cancer.
When I arrived at the lake, I sensed so many things that were missing, so many things to mourn. The plastic bins she packed neatly with games and crafts were missing, replaced by a mish-mash of last-minute items I had thrown into canvas bags. There was an empty seat around the campfire, and no easel set up on the dock, waiting for a sunset to paint. When I think of my mom in Maine, I see her smiling in the oversized neon green and blue plaid shirt she inherited from an old high school friend of mine, and her laughter echoes off of the lake. There are so many ways in which she is not there, and I mourn them all each year that I go up without her.
But this year I carried the rabbi’s words about Shabbat Nachamu with me, and tried not to look back quite so much. There were consolations and small comforts all around me if I opened my eyes to the present. The beauty and tranquility of the lake are gifts that live on. My Dad, siblings, and our kids and partners are still a family: a family that treks hours through weekend summer traffic to be together, to cook hot dogs on an open flame and then to find a new stone to overturn – a new farm to visit, or a new craft project to undertake. I can see a paintable sunset and relish it, even if I can’t paint it like my mom could. My nephew, whose entire life began after my Mom died, is making his way fiercely in the world and reminding me of how much of life remains for all of us to discover.
And then I found another new joy that surprised me. My girls are becoming friends. Not in the way it’s been, where I can get Ruthie to distract Chaya with a book while I change my shirt, or where the girls sit beside each other at the table but interact on separate mental planes. A real friendship is blossoming between them, one which is uniquely theirs, and in which I am only a supporting character. While we were on vacation, they created their own games together, skipping rocks in the pond side-by-side and enlisting my sister and me for hours of “beauty salon” activities. They sought each other out to try new jokes and held hands in the backseat of the car. And there was nothing as consoling as this friendship, which has to be one of parenthood’s greatest gifts.
One of my favorite Jewish notions is that of sacred continuity – that we must remember our past in order to best be in the present and plan for a better future. Shabbat Nachamu is a bridge from a recollection of loss to an appreciation of what is around us. During my week on the lake, I made a small pilgrimage over that bridge. And with the New Year approaching, I will carry the clarity I found in Maine and continue to seek out consolation and joy.
This week we marked my mom’s birthday. She would have been 65, and had she not died last year, we would have had a wonderful celebration. Instead, we moved through the traditions we are trying to create in her memory: a lobster dinner (very un-kosher, but something she loved), a trip to the cemetery, a visit to one of her favorite places, lots of hugs, and a little time for introspection.
One of the things I have always believed Judaism “does best” is mourning. The prescriptive rituals provide a structured way to traverse one of life’s most painfully unbounded times. When I was first mourning my mother, these rules gave me things to do even though I felt completely rudderless. When I observed her first yahrtzeit this May, I found comfort, and a connection to her, as I performed the same rituals I had watched her do for her father throughout my childhood – lighting the candle, standing for her in the synagogue, visiting her grave.
I have thought a lot about these rituals, and as I learn to anticipate the ebbs and flows of grief, they markedly fall short when it comes to her birthday. The yahrtzeit date represents the death itself. It is a day that had no meaning before she died, and now represents the beginning of loss.
Mom’s birthday is a whole other ball of wax. As far as I know, Judiaism doesn’t put much weight on a birthday. But my mom loved celebrations, and relished any chance she got to celebrate anything. Birthdays are very special in our family because of her. Two of her birthdays have passed since she died, and I am surprised by the things that get to me. I am especially caught off guard by how much I grieve the things I don’t do, like not buying her a present, or not having to decide what kind of cake to get. And on this day more than most, I miss her beaming smile when that cake would come out, and the joke she would surely make about getting older, or getting cake stains on her shirt, or something else silly from the year that just passed.
I recently discovered Renee Septimus’ blog about the job of a grandparent on the Jewish parenting website Kveller. It seemed fortuitous to discover her posts the week of Mom’s birthday, as it felt like something Mom could have written herself. It reminded me of the loss for Ruthie and me as a mother-daughter unit without a Jewish Grandma. I hope to return to Renee’s blog to glean a few more echoes of what my mom might have said to me. And in honor of her birthday, I want to share a piece of what I read at Mom’s funeral, to give you a glimpse of the kind of grandmother she was for us:
I have counted my blessings every day for the last three-and-a-half years to have experienced life with my mom as a Grandma. In so many ways this felt like the role she had been most meant to play her whole life. Mom was herself as a grandmother – fun, creative, full of life, honest, and real. She was exceptionally devoted to Ruthie, and from the day she was born Mom re-arranged her crafting efforts, her shopping expenses, her plans, and really her whole life around the smallest member of our clan. The dividends were huge – I think of Mom as Ruthie’s favorite friend, the person who knew the most about her and with whom she shared the greatest delight.
But even more than what Mom gave to Ruthie, Mom was an incredible grandmother to Eric and me. Mom recognized a huge part of her role as a grandmother as a shift in how she should mother me. She was gentle and kind and most of all reassuring. She supported every choice we made (or didn’t make). She made it clear that the most important thing we had to do was to love our daughter unconditionally…and that the rest would follow. She never made me feel pressured or even capable of making a mistake (with the exception, perhaps, of my letting Ruthie choose non-matching outfits), and always reminded me that motherhood is hard work, and that taking care of myself was not just a nicety but a necessity. I have endless gratitude for the ways in which she made it possible for me to be a mother, and feel that without question the greatest unfairness of Mom’s premature passing was all of the grandparenting she is not going get to do, both for the grandchildren to come in the future and for my brother and sisters.
While Judaism may not mark the birthdays of those that have passed, I was raised to believe that one of the ways you live on after death is in the memories of those left behind. So there may be no rituals prescribed for these days, but the memories arise in full swing, perhaps allowing Mom to live just a little bit more.