Tag Archives: death

Water and Stone

by Aslan Cohen (Chicago, IL)

I never knew there was a real connection between laughter and death. To me, death was the solemnity of the shiva: covered mirrors, torn shirts, itchy beards. When I first visited my grandfather’s grave, I silently placed a small, unpolished stone above the black rectangle of his marble tombstone. Only rocks, in their mineral mutism, can adequately represent the congenital silence of our ancestors. I took that as a general truth. After all, only rocks remain.

Which is why I thought the goyim were so mistaken in using flowers. Most of the flower market in Av. Revolución, far from where the Jews live on the Western edge of Mexico City, consists of oversized funerary arrangements. People have them custom-made for their lost ones. And I just couldn’t understand how those kitschy amalgamations of colorful impermanence could be used to coronate the most serious thing in life.

Little did I know. Because many years later I went with some ‘goyim‘ friends of mine to the graveyard that is in Santa María del Tule, in the outskirts of the city of Oaxaca, on the Day of the Dead. It was an extremely humble place, about a five minutes walk from the Tree of Tule, a cypress of a species we call ahuehuete (which means “old man of the water” in Nahuatl), and which is said to be one of the oldest trees alive. If you go there you’ll find small children that, in exchange for a coin, will give you a tour of the shapes around its wide, wide trunk, and which included, when I was there, the ass of Shakira and the nose of Celia Cruz.

The path to the cemetery was adorned with long strings of petals, which, as I later found out, connect the individual graves with the particular house where the dead person used to live. Through this endless network of smells, life branches in and out of the cemetery, reminding us that our vane pursuits are nothing but a meaningless dance we perform during the short trajectory that goes from our doorposts to our graves.

I mention dance because there was music inside the cemetery. People danced to it in pairs. I remember there was a huge trombone playing with the band. The tunes were not particularly sad, but neither were they frivolous. Something in them captured the sweet-and-sour irony of the encounter of absence with life. This is the irony on which the Mexican Day of the Dead is predicated.

But the exact feeling it gave me is very hard to convey, especially because it was accompanied by the sight of whole families sitting in a circle around the place where their loved one had been buried, drinking and talking with the dead. They tell them about last year: a grandchild’s birthday, the departure of such-and-such who went looking for a job to the United States. They bring the dead their favorite meal. I saw apples and bottles of Coca-Cola over the tombstones. They placed them at the very same spot where I had once burdened my grandpa with a stone. I even saw a bottle of Corona in one of them.

And further down I saw a widow, a very old lady filled with wrinkles, who had brought nothing more than a single glass of water to share with her late husband. She told me that. And I remember being very moved. I am moved to this day. The images of that graveyard have been mostly blurred out from my mind, but I can still see the brown jícara (calabash) with still, transparent water enclosed in it. And I realize it is the very opposite of my grandpa’s stone. But, when all is said and done, they are really the same thing.

Aslan Cohen was born in Mexico City, where he grew up in the Syrian Jewish Community. Today he lives in Chicago with his wife, where he pursues a PhD in Biblical Literature at the University of Chicago.



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Family Gathering

by Carol Westreich Solomon (Montgomery Village, MD)

Past Pennsylvania farms, harvest-bare,
I drive to the cemetery
Where my uncle waits for my aunt
Beneath a half-empty headstone.
Next to me, Aunt Dellie rambles
About Yiddish class
Until crackling gravel announces our arrival.

“Come, so many to visit,” she says,
Scooping stones into my cupped hands.
She dips beneath the gate chain
Protecting the dead.
By height, tilt, shade,
She navigates the headstones
To those she’s come to see.

Her aunts.
Her sister.
Her father.
Her mother.
Plop go the stones, our calling cards.

Tucked among thinning headstones
Her grandmother’s grave.
Faint numbers record the length of her years
But not her strength
When a husband wanders.

Near my uncle’s grave, an alabaster headstone
Straight and proud,
Not yet buffeted by winter winds
Or chipped by mower-churned stones.
Cousin Linda.
“So young.  See all the stones.  They all came for Linda.”

“Who will come for me?”
She brushes dead grass from her husband’s headstone,
The ground uneven,
The marker leaning in.
No family gathering in granite awaits the rest of us.
Planes, schools, jobs
Have scattered us all.

Her reunion done,
Aunt Dellie washes death from her hands,
Then dips beneath the chain
Separating her from her loved ones.
Still, she invites them into my car
And they travel with us
For the rest of the day.

Carol Westreich Solomon has returned to her first love–creative writing–after exploring literature and writing with high school students in Maryland.  As the lead consultant of Carol Solomon and Associates, she previously taught writing to adults in corporations and government agencies.  Her YA novel Imagining Katherin was designated a 2016 Notable Book by the Association of Jewish Libraries.  Her work has also appeared in Lilith,  JewishFiction.net, Persimmon Tree, Poetica, Little Patuxent Review, Pen and Ink, The English Journal, and The Washington Post.

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My Brother’s Death

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

He was my younger brother,
perhaps older in wisdom than I.
He had a gentle heart and caring nature,
never forgetting a birthday or anniversary in our family.
He loved nature and history, and a good joke,
and loved being outside making sure the birds were fed.
In his younger days he loved riding his bicycle
through the streets of Brooklyn.
He loved old movies and could tell you
every John Wayne movie ever made.
He loved comic books,
especially Superman and Supergirl.
He loved his mother with a bond
that was true and enduring.
His passions were simple, and anybody who met him
enjoyed his quick wit and genuine smile.
According to the rabbi at the grave site,
as the body is set to be lowered into the ground,
it is believed that the soul hovers
over the pine box and the deceased
can hear your final messages.
“Goodbye, Gabriel, my brother,
I wish I could have given you a happier life,
but failing that, I wish you a full afterlife,
of walking pain-free and strong,
wherever that may be.”

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/


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Of Death and Coffee

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

So, three older Jewish guys

are sitting around a table

at an older Jewish restaurant

talking about death.

It’s the subject of some worried inquiry

as all three approach the finish line.

“Jews don’t believe in heaven,” says the first man.

“Your soul lives on after you,” says the next.

“Perhaps,” says the third, “the big surprise

is there is absolutely nothing – gornisht.”

“You mean this is all there is?” the first one asks.

“Could be,” replies the second.

“Maybe it’s like this,” the third man says,

“just ten minutes before you die,

you get a message, like an e-mail, from God,

telling you exactly what’s gonna happen.”

“That would be nice,” the first man agrees.

The three men stare into their coffees,

each one contemplating his own mortality,

together as friends facing the dreadful uncertainty.

“Same time next week?”

“God willing.”

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/


Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, poetry

Making the Most of Life

by Shira Sebban (Sydney, Australia)

Like most of us, I usually try to avoid thinking about death. Its seeming finality – the enormity of the thought that we are never coming back – is not something I have ever managed to face and comprehend fully no matter how hard I try. Instead, heart thumping, courage faltering, I usually come to a screeching halt just before plunging over what seems like the looming precipice beyond.

Yet, on the ninth anniversary of my beloved father’s passing and just a few days after attending the funeral of my dear friend Shimon, I find myself drawn to musing about death and to be able to do so more calmly and rationally than ever before.

Selfless and discreet, Shimon was a caring man, a listener, who preferred not to speak about his own trials and tribulations and devoted much of his life to helping others through his nursing work and later as the hospital chaplain for our synagogue. Listening to the rabbi’s eulogy for Shimon, I felt uplifted and a sense of inner peace soothed my soul – just as my friend would have wanted.

I do not normally derive comfort from a Jewish funeral service. Nor are you meant to. The tearing of relatives’ clothing over their hearts to symbolize their pain, recital of prayers – “You return us to dust… the best of … years have trouble and sorrow; they pass by speedily, and we are in darkness” (Psalm 90) — and the harsh thud of earth shoveled onto the coffin, all serve as a wake-up call to those who grieve.

In addition to honouring the deceased, mourners are required to confront the reality that not only have they lost their loved one, but that their own lives are finite: “Teach us to number our days that we may attain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90) Indeed, this is the source of the Jewish tradition of wishing mourners “a long life” – not because we would be so heartless, as I once thought, as to desire that they live for a long time without their loved one but because we hope they will enjoy “long days” from which they will derive meaning and purpose, striving to make the world a better place.

My mother would often quote a passage from the Talmud, which is traditionally recited for a man at a Jewish funeral: “It is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (Tarfon, Pirke Avot, 2:21)

At Shimon’s funeral, the rabbis recited a beautiful poem, “Life is a Journey,” by the late Rabbi Alvin Fine of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El, which provides a realistic summary of the fallible human condition. Failure certainly does not preclude meaning:

“From defeat to defeat to defeat, until, looking backward or ahead,
We see that victory lies not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey, stage by stage, a sacred pilgrimage.” (from Gates of Prayer, published by the CCAR)

Perhaps I have become more aware of death because I have been writing the life stories of my late grandfather and of my mother, who is now sadly in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease. In the course of this journey, I have been fortunate to have been able to trawl through a treasure trove of family letters, some dating back as far as the 1930s – snippets of social history, which regrettably, with the advent of email and the Internet, come to an end around the year 2000. It is sobering to realise that I will not be leaving the same legacy for my children.

Written in English, Hebrew, Yiddish and even occasionally Polish, these letters have crisscrossed the globe. Desperate letters in Yiddish from a sister in Lodz, Poland, in 1935 to her sister, my late grandmother, in Tel Aviv; hundreds of letters in Hebrew, which followed my mother’s journey from Tel Aviv to Melbourne, Australia, in the late 1940s and back again, and then on to London and Montreal a decade later and back to Melbourne once more in the late 60s; and letters in English spanning four decades from my Canadian father’s family in Toronto to their brother in Melbourne and from my adopted Melbourne “aunt” and close family friend to my mother,  providing vignettes of what life was like for Australians in the 1950s and 60s.

In perusing these letters, each preserved in its original envelope, what quickly becomes clear is that no matter what advances technology may bring, fundamentally little has changed: human beings still experience joy and suffering, success and failure, complain about the economy, celebrate births and marriages and bemoan divorces and deaths among family and friends. Life continues – whether you are there to witness and experience it or not. As the ancient Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) teaches: “there is nothing new under the sun.” (1.9) “One generation passes away, and another generation comes; And the earth abides for ever.” (1.4)

So much toil and trouble, fuss and bluster, anguish and elation. Yet, after we are gone and our contemporaries have also vanished with the passing years, what remains? For the creative few, a contribution to knowledge they may have made; a book they may have written; artwork they may have produced. For those with means, a legacy in bricks and mortar or a charitable foundation to which they may have contributed. For the vast majority of us, the living legacy of our children, grandchildren, and possibly even great-grandchildren, as well as photos and other memorabilia and perhaps sayings or traditions handed down from generation to generation.

My late father was a quiet man. On the first anniversary of his passing, the rabbi likened him to the Ancient Israelite tribe of his Hebrew namesake Issachar, whom Moses exhorted to rejoice quietly “in your tents”, in contrast to fellow tribe Zebulun, who was to be happy “on your journeys”. (Deuteronomy, 33:18)

In his own discreet way, my father did whatever he could to care for and support his family. He would do anything for the ones he loved and he was everything to us. To him, home and family came first, and I will never forget how on the day he died, he urged me to leave his hospital bedside and return to my husband and young children because “they need you”.

My father stood like a pillar at the centre of our lives. We were all accustomed to depending on him, and when he died, we felt his absence keenly. In the days and months that followed, I could not help but ask myself how it would have bothered anyone if he had been allowed to continue driving through the streets, helping to lighten the load of his family and friends?

At my friend Shimon’s funeral, the rabbis also quoted from Ecclesiastes:

“Kohelet wrote: ‘The eye never has its fill of seeing.’ (1.8) … God, be now with those whose hearts are broken because, whenever parting comes, it comes too soon.”

Unfortunately, such words of comfort were missing from my own father’s funeral and shiva. The rabbi went to great lengths to urge the family not to respond to the embraces of friends at the funeral; he only agreed to attend shiva once at my parents’ city apartment; and when at his request, my mother, sister and I came to the synagogue each evening during shiva to recite Kaddish, we found the main sanctuary cold and dark, with the men comfortably ensconced in the small, cheery annex used during the week. The annex did not have a mechitza (partition to separate men and women), and so the men insisted that we file into the main sanctuary and sit in the row closest to the annex, the windows of which were opened so that we could hear the prayers.

Until my father’s passing, I had been fairly sure that there was nothing after death. Although I keep a traditional Jewish home and had spent years studying philosophy, I could not seem to accept the idea of “eternal life” and “everlasting peace” in the “world to come”. Yet, when I lost my father just a few hours after spending the night tending to his needs in hospital, I began to question my former apparent certainties. How was it possible that my father could be there one minute and gone the next? What had happened to his persona, to the essence of who he had been, to his soul?

Ecclesiastes teaches:  “And the dust returns to the earth as it was, but the spirit returns unto God, who gave it.” (12.7) Today, while I am still not sure whether or not I believe in God, I draw comfort from praying that my father’s “soul be bound up in the bond of everlasting life” and I strive to honor his memory through my actions.

As Rabbis Sylvan Kamens and Jack Riemer wrote in their poem, We Remember Them, also recited at Shimon’s funeral:

 “As long as we live, they too shall live,
for they are now a part of us,
we remember them.” (From Gates of Prayer)

Shira Sebban, a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia, worked as a journalist for the Australian Jewish News. She previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. You can read more of her work at: http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=13636  

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“Oh, Wow, Oh, Wow, Oh, Wow!”

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

“Oh, wow, oh, wow, oh, wow!”
– Purported to be Steve Jobs’ last words.

Did you see something?
Or someone?
Visionary on earth,
did your far-flung sight
earn you special access,
a quick peek into the anteroom of heaven?
Maybe He wanted to show you
His new communication system,
a celestial Facebook that would unite
those separated by time and distance.
Or maybe, He wanted to give you a preview
of all future gifts He means to bestow.
Or maybe, He wanted to give you a tour
of His world-wide-web connection.
Tell me, Steve, what did you see?
Before I book passage to the great beyond,
I would like some idea of my itinerary.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in a new YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy,  edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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