Tag Archives: mourning rituals

The Siddur’s Healing Power

By Paula Jacobs (Framingham, MA)

It looks like any ordinary prayer book: blue cover, plain lettering, traditional Jewish prayers, and printed in the USA. While the prayer book has bound Jews throughout the world for centuries, I never imagined that an ordinary siddur would transform my pain to healing, while teaching me the real meaning of connection and community.

When I was reciting kaddish for my father at my synagogue’s daily minyan many years ago, the prayer book became my daily companion as a source of solace and cherished memories. During my kaddish year, the siddur linked me to generations past throughout the Jewish calendar cycle. As I prayed, memories flowed, reminding me of family holiday dinners, Chanukah parties, Purim celebrations, and more.

Through the prayer book, I gained a profound, lasting appreciation for the value of a prayer community. Granted, when I began attending minyan, I initially struggled with some of the communal customs: rapid-fire recitation aloud of certain prayers, calling out the page number before the Aleinu prayer, and light bantering during the services. Sometimes I lost patience with leaders who davened too slowly or too fast, made Hebrew mistakes, or chanted off key.

But the siddur taught me what truly counts, what community is all about, and how to appreciate the uniqueness of each individual created in the image of God. By praying in community, I learned the invaluable lesson to appreciate fully the humanity of those with whom we pray and the intrinsic value of participating in something greater than ourselves.

Once I understood that important lesson, I began to heal. I also decided to help other community members heal by creating a ceremony to mark the end of kaddish. This ceremony features the presentation of a siddur signed by minyan members, symbolizing the community’s support role during the year of aveilut or mourning.  

As I continue to conduct this ceremony 18 years later, I am grateful that the siddur keeps me connected to community. It’s something I think about whenever I present a siddur to a community member and whenever mourners share their personal stories or photographs and memorabilia with the entire minyan community after receiving their siddur.

I am also grateful that the siddur has connected me to a story greater than my own. As I reflect upon the more than 200 stories I have heard, I recall the nonagenarian who died surrounded by his loving children and grandchildren; the father who sent his young children alone from Cuba to make a new life in America; the 20-something widowed mother who became a successful business-woman; the first-generation American who became a judge; the Holocaust survivor who built a new life and family in America; the elderly father who fulfilled his lifelong dream of making aliyah; and other family members who left behind a legacy of treasured memories.

I look at the signatures of those who signed my siddur when I finished saying kaddish. I see the faces of those who stood beside me as we recited the Mourners Kaddish: the young woman mourning her mother, the elderly man reciting kaddish for his late wife, and others who have since moved away or passed on. We were once strangers but through death our lives have become intertwined. And it is the ancient Jewish prayer book that has bound us eternally together and enabled us to heal.

Paula Jacobs writes about Jewish culture, religion, and Israel. Her articles have appeared in such publications as Tablet Magazine, The Jerusalem Post, and The Forward.  If you’d like to read more about the ceremony that she created to mark the end of Kaddish, visit  https://www.ritualwell.org/ritual/traveling-mourners-path

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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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Sitting Shiva

by Leslea Newman (Holyoke, MA)

Mirrors are covered
Wooden benches are set out
Have a good mourning

Where’s the coffee pot?
I ask my father, who knows
my mother would know

Welcome. Please come in.
Sit anywhere. Except there!
That’s my mother’s chair

Ancient Hebrew prayers
cannot bring my mother back,
so what good are they?

My aunt spills her tea
when I speak to her softly
in my mother’s voice

White coffee cup smeared
with my mother’s red lipstick.
Don’t you dare wash it.

Chocolate rugelach
my mother and I both love
clog my throat like mud

My mother’s old friend
cups my face with both her hands
Fingers wet with tears

My aunt stands to leave.
“Call if you need anything.”
I need my mother.

Lesléa Newman is the author of 70 books for readers of all ages including the poetry collections, I Carry My Mother and October Mourning: A Song For Matthew Shepard (novel-in-verse) and the picture books A Sweet Passover, My Name Is Aviva, and Ketzel, The Cat Who Composed.

If you’d like viewing the book trailer for I Carry My Mother, visit:

“Sitting Shiva” copyright © 2015 Lesléa Newman from I Carry My Mother (Headmistress Press, Sequim, WA 2015). Used by permission of the author.

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The Poet Receives A Tool Box

by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)

Teacher and philosopher, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz writes in his book, My Rebbe, about a holy person, “…we see the connection with the beyond or hear it more in the spaces between sentences…. As they speak we understand that there is more above the line and below the line or between the lines.”

Poetry and holiness are intertwined. Poetry lives in those spaces between the lines: in the layout on the page, the white spaces, whether it is formal or free verse, what the poet says, hints at or doesn’t say, the grammar and punctuation, the connotation(s) of each word and so much more. It’s what makes me come alive when I write and edit. There’s that initial impulse, a word or line pops into my head or something startles me and lurks or most times haunts me until I write about it. Like the time I was sitting on the M104 bus going down Broadway in Manhattan. I saw a man with one leg shorter than the other, wearing a black leather shoe with a tall heel to make up the difference. I started writing about the man and the wife who loves him, makes his breakfast and kisses him goodbye each morning as he goes to work. I missed my stop.

It’s only in the last months that I feel poetry lurking. My father died three years ago, and I wrote four new poems during the first year. Then I stopped. I couldn’t and didn’t want to write anymore; I just wanted to be quiet. I didn’t want to talk most of the time, never mind try to write.  Then I stopped thinking about it. And then I stopped caring about it. I kept in mind something my poetry teacher, Mary Stewart Hammond, told me, “Sometimes you need to live your life, not write about it.”

Recently, I watched an interview with Sarah McLachlan where she talked about losing her father in 2010 and releasing her new album in 2014. “I don’t think anybody gets to this point in their life unscathed,” McLachlan said. “I’m 46 years old and this is the time when parents die, when big changes happen.”

“When you were dealing with all that, where were you musically?” asked [the interviewer]. “Nowhere …. I would play music, but I didn’t have it in me to write anything,” she said. “My father passed away almost four years ago, and it kind of took that long for me to recognize what I’d lost and what that meant to me moving forward, but also what he’d given me.” I know exactly what she was feeling. After my father’s death, it was not a time for writing; it was a time for grieving, for mourning, for reflecting. I was observing the traditional year of mourning, saying Kaddish, not going to movies, not listening to live music or buying new clothes. Like Sarah McLachlan, I didn’t have it in me to write.

At first, I didn’t care if my poetry came back. But after two years, I thought it might actually be gone. I tried to write a few times, but had no inspiration. I began to realize that I needed to wait for it to come back.  About six months ago while visiting my mother, I went to the basement and into my father’s tool room. After he died, we couldn’t clean it out. There were too many memories. He was a tool and die maker. I looked at jars filled with nails, screws, washers. On his workbench were micrometers, screwdrivers, levels, hole punches, two blue cotton aprons and other tools I couldn’t identify. I opened my father’s wooden tool box, and right there in the top drawer was a beige tin with “Revelation, the perfect pipe tobacco” written in red on the cover. When I opened it, I saw several short, round pieces of metal with sharpened ends. They looked like silver crayon tops. The tin had been in there for over thirty years but I never really noticed it. Until now. Poetry was swirling so fast in my head that I could barely keep up. I ran upstairs and started writing; a few minutes later, I had filled up two sheets of paper.

My father always encouraged me in my writing, was so happy when my book, How to Spot One of Us, was published and was always interested in my teaching and readings. There was my father, in his tool room, helping me to move forward. Encouraging me to write again.

Janet R. Kirchheimer is the author of How to Spot One of Us (2007).  She is currently producing BE•HOLD, a cinematic poetry performance filmhttps://www.facebook.com/BeholdAPerformanceFilm.  Her work has appeared in journals and on line in such publications as Atlanta Review, Limestone, Connecticut Review, Lilith, Natural Bridge and on beliefnet.com.  She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and received Honorable Mention in the String Poet Prize 2014. 

This essay is reprinted here with the kind permission of The Best American Poetry Blog (http://thebestamericanpoetry.typepad.com/the_best_american_poetry/), where this essay first appeared.  

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How To Bury Your Mother

by Leslea Newman (Holyoke, MA)

Slip out of the dark limo
into the bright light of day
the way you once slipped
out of your mother:
blinking, surprised, teary-eyed.
Turn to your father
and let him take the crook of your arm
like the crooked old man
you never thought he’d become.
Feel your heels sink into the earth
with every sorry step you take.
Weave your way through the graves
of strangers who will keep your mother
company forever: the Greenblatts,
the Goldbergs, the Shapiros, the Steins.
Stop at a small mountain of dirt
next to a hole that holds the plain pine box
that holds what’s left of your mother.
Listen to the rabbi mumble
prayers you’ve heard a hundred times
but this time offer no comfort.
Smell the sweet honeysuckle breeze
that is making your stomach buckle.
Feel the sun bake your little black dress.
Wait for the rabbi to close
his little black book.
Bring your father close to the earth
that is waiting to blanket your mother.
Watch him shove the shovel
into the mound upside down
showing the world how distasteful
this last task is.
See him dump clumps of soil
onto your mother’s casket.
Hear the dull thuds
of your heart hammering your chest.
Watch how your father plants the shovel
into the silent pile of dirt
and then walks off
slumped over like a man
who finally admits defeat.
Step up to the mound.
Grasp the shovel firmly.
Lift it up and feel the warm wood
between your two damp hands.
Jab the shovel into the soil.
Toss the hard brown lumps
into that dark gaping hole.
Hear the dirt rain down upon your mother.
Surrender
the shovel to your brother.
Drag yourself away.
Do not look back.

Lesléa Newman is the author of 70 books for readers of all ages, including the poetry collections, I Carry My Mother and October Mourning: A Song For Matthew Shepard (novel-in-verse) and the picture books A Sweet Passover, My Name Is Aviva, and Ketzel, The Cat Who Composed.

If you’d like to take a look at the book trailer for I Carry My Mother, visit:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yf4ubYHObAM

“How to Bury Your Mother” copyright © 2015 Lesléa Newman from I Carry My Mother (Headmistress Press, Sequim, WA 2015). Used by permission of the author.

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Anniversary

by Jacqueline Jules (Arlington, VA)

Eight years after
the seven-day candle in the tall red glass,
I light a small candle
and consider your existence
in a realm beyond my knowledge.
If life on earth is only one stage in a series,
you could be safe in an ethereal cocoon,
preparing to emerge with splendid wings in Eden.
I’m ashamed to say
your transformation into something better
brought little comfort to me in the beginning,
as I decried my status as a caterpillar,
a frightened worm, vulnerable to a large and hungry bird.

Living without you
was never as difficult
as living with your death.
The burial of a face
that still smiles at me in photographs
seemed, at times, slightly less credible
than spaceships landing on my lawn.
If I believed in death before,
it was the same way I believed in another universe
and other life forms—somewhere out there—
I wasn’t prepared . . . .

To light a candle every year in place of going out to dinner,
seeing a play or planning a party. This summer
would have marked twenty-five years together.
Would we have gone dancing? A little circle
of light flickers on the ceiling, waltzing with the shadows.
I smile. You are dancing for me,
whirling in the endless light of memory.

Jacqueline Jules is the author of many Jewish children’s books including Never Say a Mean Word Again, The Hardest Word, Once Upon a Shabbos, Sarah Laughs, Miriam in the Desert, and Goodnight Sh’ma. Visit her at www.jacquelinejules.com

“Anniversary” appears in Stronger Than Cleopatra, a collection of poems about going forward in the face of loss. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author. For more about the book, visit ELJ Publishing at http://www.booknook-eljpublications.com/store/p4/Stronger_Than_Cleopatra.html

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Passing Along a New Tradition

by Ferida Wolff (Cherry Hill, NJ)

I have paid many shiva calls, the Jewish visit of condolence, over the years so I’m aware of the general customs that prevail: enter the house without knocking, let the mourner initiate conversation, bring something edible to the shiva house. The traditions help mourners focus on their immediate loss and then segue into the stream of life again.

My sister and I were sitting shiva for our father at my house. People entered through the open front door without knocking, as is traditional, but then the traditions bent themselves somewhat to the circumstances. Some of the visitors were my sister’s friends and some were mine, but none were our father’s; they had never met him.

Dad had moved around a bit – from New York to New Jersey to Florida and back to New Jersey to be near us when he and our late mother needed extra care. Yet he always considered himself a New Yorker. He had no real connection to New Jersey in general or to the place where he spent his last years. Much of his family still lives in New York, his city of birth. When we made plans for his burial, there was no question as to where it would be; he was buried on Staten Island in the same cemetery as his mother, father, brothers, wife, and countless other relatives. After the burial, those attending services spread out to visit the familiar graves and to place stones on the plots as reminders that the loved ones have not been forgotten. We knew that the same custom would prevail whenever family members went to visit our father’s grave, too.

So my sister and I chose to mourn back home where we felt most comfortable.

That is where our friends came to pay respects to us, the sisters they knew, with the intention to console. Several of the visitors were not Jewish, unfamiliar with our traditions, but it did not matter to us. When they rang the bell, someone in the house answered. We were just glad they were there.

“I’m so sorry,” they each said in the way consolers do. It is hard to know what to say to mourners. Each person wants to make her friend feel better. Sometimes a hug is the only thing needed. And there were plenty of those.

They asked about our father so, in a tradition reversal instead of listening to stories, my sister and I told them. Some memories were difficult. Our childhood years were an erratic emotional mixture. There were some difficult times but there were also some fun times to offer: the annual (sort of) family picnics, huge Pesach dinners at our grandmother’s house with thirty-five people all trying to wash their hands at the same time, stories sprinkled with our father’s propensity to pun.

Shiva plates piled up: homemade cookies, muffins, mini-quiches, chocolate covered pretzels, tea sandwiches, all brought on dishes from our guests’ kitchens. Coffee and tea flowed and the conversation was a welcome consolation for us all.

After the mourning period was over, I started returning the platters to their owners. One of my friends, however, suggested that I keep the cut-glass dish her food came on. It was presented with love and blessings for both the mourners and my father’s spirit.

“Pass it on, if you like,” she said.

I thought that was a wonderful idea. When I made a shiva call some months after when my friend’s brother had died, I did exactly that. I filled the same dish with cakes and blessings and brought it with me. Later my friend wanted to return it, as I had, and I told her what my other friend had said to me. She smiled.

“Oh, how lovely,” she said. “I will.”

Her reaction made me realize that this small gesture of condolence carried a larger meaning. The caring that was transmitted with the platter affirmed our personal connection as well as an understanding that life continues and it is enhanced by friendship, compassion, and memory. It was like a holy embrace at a particularly hard emotional time. I knew that I would continue to do this in the future, passing on this new tradition.

And in giving my friend the plate, I experienced a sense of release from my own grieving which, for me, led to gratitude. I understand now the true value of the custom of shiva. It is the most comforting embrace of all.

Ferida Wolff’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Moment Magazine, Midstream, Horizons, and Woman’s World, among other periodicals. An author of seventeen books for children and three essay books for adults, she has also contributed stories to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series and HCI’s Ultimate series, as well as online at www.grandparents.com and as a columnist for www.seniorwomen.comYou can visit her website for more information www.feridawolff.com or her blog at http://feridasbackyard.blogspot.com/ And you might enjoy her most recent book, Missed Perceptions: Challenge Your Thoughts Change Your Thinking (Pranava Books).

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