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Numbers are a big deal in Judaism. Hebrew is an ancient language, but numerology is hidden in every letter of scripture. This is something I learned very early on: Numbers matter. Our time on this earthâ€”our nights and our days are numbered. So it wasnâ€™t surprising that I grew up on 23rdÂ street in Brooklyn and my father died on August 23. I was 12-and-a-half years old.Â By Jewish law, I was a woman. But by losing a father at such a young age, a part of me remained fixed in timeâ€”always a little girl.
This year marks 23 yearsÂ since my father died and I still havenâ€™t set foot in the cemetery since childhood. This has nothing to do with numbers. This has to do with the fact that my father, a Brooklyn boy through and through, was buried in New Jersey of all placesâ€”Paramus, New Jersey. If I know one thing about the spirit, itâ€™s that my fatherâ€™s spirit wouldnâ€™t be caught dead in Jersey. Heâ€™s not really there.
The dead live in our hearts. They live with us throughout our numbered days. Sometimes they ride the trainÂ or the bus with us. They help us cross the street on particularly tired days. We canâ€™t see them, but they are around.
In Jewish tradition, my family believes that after death our souls go back to God. My husbandâ€™s family of Mexican Catholic tradition believes that the dead hover around all the time, just in case you need them. Once a year on Dia de Los Muertos (The Day of the Dead), Adrianâ€™s family travels to the cemetery to leave the favorite foods of the deceased. I believe in all of that, but I also believe that my father still sometimes likes to visit my motherâ€™s living room and sit in his big blue chair.
So this year, as my mother got dressed in her usual Sunday cemetery garb, she called to ask me the same question sheâ€™s been asking me for 23 years, â€śAre you coming with us to the cemetery today?â€ť
My father was crematedâ€”that is unheard of in Judaism. He sits on a shelf in a small jar behind a stone that says his name in both Hebrew and English. On the day he died, one of the neighbors remarked, â€śThereâ€™s Big Dave in a little jar.â€ť Iâ€™m not sure my husbandâ€™s take on cremation and Iâ€™m nervous about asking him, but as it turns out, our two religions and cultures have more in common when it comes to death and dying than I would have suspected.
In Adrianâ€™s village, when someone dies, the family stays up all night because they believe that the spirit of the person is still in the house. Then he informs me that the body must be buried within a 24-hour period. This is true in Judaism as well! Adrian alsoÂ tells me that people are cremated in Mexico, but thoseÂ people are usually from a bigger city whereas he is from a smaller village setting.
What Adrian canâ€™t comprehend is that almost my whole family is buried in the Paramus cemetery and there is an empty lot next to my father that belongs to my mother whenever sheâ€™s ready to join him (hopefully no time soon). He says thatâ€™s the strangest thing heâ€™s ever heard. I try to explain to him that itâ€™s kind of like owning real estate and he refuses to believe me.
But, both of our religions have a high respect for the dead. We both have special prayers. Both of our families wear black when someone dies. We both cry. Both of our families visit the dead once or twice a year. Except for me.
I talk to my father every day. And she may not know that I know this, but my mother talks to him every day too. There is a picture of my father in my living room holding me as a newborn. His face is close to my face and I have just been born. In that photo, my father is happy. He owns a house. He has a son and his daughter has just been born. Heâ€™s happily married. He goes to the theater once a week. He eats dinner out. He waters the lawn. In the photo next to him is a picture of Adrian and our little one, Helen Rose. In the photo, she has just been born and Adrian holds her in the exact pose as the photo of my father and me. Adrian is happy. His first child has just been born. He has a new apartment. He sees his friends and brothers once a week. He eats dinner out. He waters his plants.
Itâ€™s been 23 years since my fatherâ€™s death. So much has happened without him, though it feels as though he were here just yesterday. In Kabbalistic terms the number 23 signifies a kingdom. Usually it refers to an inner kingdom. As a Jewish girl from Brooklyn who started a life with a Catholic boy from Mexico, I feel as though my choice to create an interfaith family has kept my inner kingdom and my familyâ€™s inner kingdom intact. The choice to give my daughter a vast knowledge of who she is breaks tradition and yet holds it in place forever.
I never visit the cemetery on the anniversary of my fatherâ€™s death. Itâ€™s clear heâ€™s still among usâ€¦in his own way.
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 sonâ€™s thoughts about life, values, God, and spirituality, and our son hears the same from us. Depending on the themes weâ€™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 Sammyâ€™s often scientifically oriented thinking. Then he said, â€śBut the question is, do people live on in some way. What happens to a personâ€™s soul?â€ť
I explained that many Jews believe we live on through the legacy that we leave behind â€“ our family, reputation, work and good deeds. Sammy acknowledged that this was one wayâ€“a tangible wayâ€“to think about living on, but that wasnâ€™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. â€śReally?â€ť He said.
â€śReally. 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 Mournerâ€™s Prayer is said.”
â€śWow. Thatâ€™s pretty cool,â€ť Sammy replied. He then added, â€śDonâ€™t you love when we have these kinds of conversations? I mean we were talking about a nurse log and now weâ€™re talking about the soul.â€ť
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 arenâ€™t always easy to find.
Jewish thought has a concept of Cheshbon HaNefesh – making an account of the soul. Every day one should spend some time thinking about their day – what was done well, what could be improved. We return to that concept big time at Elul, the Hebrew month leading up to Rosh Hashannah, kind of a Jewish version of New Year’s Resolutions.
At Spring time, right before Passover we rid the house of chametz, that which is leavened, or puffed up. Between the fall and the spring, we forget about our personal resolutions, and maybe let our egos get the best of us. We return to our not-so-evil-but-not-so-great ways. Passover is a time to clean out the soul again and see if we are heading in the right direction.
For the first time, as I cleaned my kitchen, these were the thoughts that went through my head. As I cleaned, I was removing the gunky stuff, not letting it get too thick (since I cleaned it last year and every year). I felt it liberating, that the Jewish calendar provides opportunities for soul cleansing and redirecting.
Do you see Passover cleaning as a chore? Or do you feel it is an opportunity to rid your house of the puffed up gunk (of the soul)?