Tag Archives: mourning

Yahrzeit

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

In my changing neighborhood
the Asian dollar store has replaced
the old Woolworth five-and-dime.
I go in and ask for a Yahrzeit candle.
The owner quizzically looks at me.
“A memorial candle,” I explain.
He finds one on the back shelf.
It’s the anniversary of my father’s death,
and I have bought the candle to say Kaddish.
Is one candle enough to honor
the man who helped raise me?
Pluses and minuses, Dad, if you must know.
I have trouble lighting the wick;
I struggle over the Hebrew words.
Shouldn’t there be more
in the way of ritual and remembrance?
Light a candle, just one candle, they say.
As I stand over the flame,
I am still debating whether one candle
is wholly insufficient or entirely too much.

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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Filed under Brooklyn Jews, Family history, Jewish identity, poetry

Sacred Memory

Martha Hurwitz (Barre, MA)

This past Yom Kippur I was invited by the Rabbi of our synagogue to share memories of someone I loved as a segue into the Yizkor service.  I immediately thought of my mother because my memories of her are happy ones and I credit her for any good and admirable qualities I may have. 

However, I heard an internal nagging voice that said, “What about your father? What memories would you share of him?”  This was not a question that I wanted to hear or to answer.  My father was not an easy man to love or to live with.  Personal relationships and sharing emotions were very difficult for him.  He needed to be the center of attention and the one who was always right.  He believed that women should take a supporting role and made it clear that, while I should aspire to become educated and “polished,” it was in order to become a suitable spouse to a professional and successful husband, not to showcase any accomplishments of my own.

In the 20 years since I became a Jew, I have struggled with the liturgy surrounding memory of loved ones because it seems to be about the excellent examples of those who have died and how their memories are a blessing.  Clearly, memories are not always positive or, at best, may be conflicting and difficult, but in a Jewish context are considered sacred.  How can memory be a blessing or be considered sacred when it still causes sadness and confusion? I waffled back and forth, trying to convince myself that it would be just fine to go with the positive and glowing eulogy that I had prepared when my mother died.  In the end, I gathered my courage and decided to risk being vulnerable and share my struggle with the memories of my father.   I calmed my fears by assuring myself that I certainly could not be the only one who wrestles with this question.

 As the Rabbi prepared the congregation for Yizkor, I sat in a heightened state of nerves, barely able to absorb what he was saying. Fortunately I managed to retain his statement that alav ha-shalom is meant as much (or perhaps even more) for the living than the dead.  With shaking voice and trembling knees, I shared my struggle and memories of my father.

In the end, of course, it was a powerful experience both for me and for the members of my congregation.  It is clear that I am far from the only one who struggles with memory and how to integrate it into the sacred liturgy.  I ended my thoughts with “Dad, I forgive you and I love you.  Alav ha-shalom.” My father died in 2001, but it was not until that day, 14 years later, that I was able to begin to mourn for him. 

Since then I have thought a great deal about the liturgy surrounding memory and what may be the purpose of such ritual. I have begun to see that it is not so much to suggest that memory by itself is sacred or that those who have gone before us were perfect. Rather it is an opportunity to take all memories, difficult or not, and place them into a sacred space.  I know there are some memories that may be too painful and negative to ever be resolved in this way.  But remembering within the context of Jewish ritual and tradition is a way that sadness and confusion can be eased and even those who were flawed and left hurts behind can rest in peace within us.

Martha Hurwitz grew up on a farm in upstate New York and was raised in the Society of Friends (Quakers). She married into a lively Jewish family in 1983, converted to Judaism in 1996, and has enjoyed learning and studying Torah ever since, both in study groups and by reading various sources at home.  Having always enjoyed writing, she recently started a blog called “The Golden Years Revisited,” (www.cultivatingdignity.com) to explore and share the experience of getting older and poke fun at some of the myths and stereotypes regarding old ladies!

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Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity

Glorified and Sanctified

byVan Wallach (Westport, CT)

Recently I heard about the death of a woman I once knew named Adina. She had been one of the very first women I dated after moving to New York in 1980. I found a paid death notice in a newspaper from several years back, saying she succumbed to diabetes and breast cancer. She was fifty-one—younger than I am now.

Adina and I had a tumultuous relationship, thanks to our wildly different social backgrounds and degrees of sophistication: suburban Long Island versus small-town Texas, intense Jewish education versus no Jewish education. Still, we had a connection: we were writers and Jewish and on the prowl. Adina played an influential role in my life at the time.

Our shared practice of Judaism provided many of my favorite memories of our times together. We joined her friends to hear Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach sing during Purim at B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side, a favored hunting ground for singles. I attended a seder with her family on Long Island on the snowy Passover of April 1982. With Adina’s encouragement, I visited Israel in May 1982 and wrote about the experience for the Forward newspaper.

The little markers of memory accumulated over the months. I have photos of Adina at B’nai Jeshurun and with her friends Rena, Rochel and Marilyn. She sent me postcards from her trips to Israel and Peru. We called each other “Y.D.,” short for “Yiddish dumpling.”

For what turned out to be our last date, I stunned Adina with tickets to what I called “Bereshit,” the Hebrew name for the book of Genesis—we saw her favorite music group, Phil Collins and Genesis, perform at Forest Hills Stadium in August 1982. That was the end. She called it quits after that.

Other relationships would follow, but as time passed I thought fondly of Adina. We parted in frustration, not anger. Four years later, on a rainy evening on the Upper West Side, we ran into each other again. We immediately had a long catch-up coffee klatch in a diner. Adina had left journalism to study social work, while I was several years into a stint as a globe-trotting freelance writer. Freed from the anxieties of stillborn romance, we shared a warmth and were happy to see each other.

“Don’t be a stranger,” she said in her distinctive, cigarette-raspy voice.

We never saw each other again. The next year I met the woman I would marry. The new flame burned bright and I fed it all the oxygen I had. Old flames flickered and went out.

Long after my divorce in the new millennium, I became curious about Adina and uncovered the death notice. I mentally overlaid my life on top of her last years and wondered what type of friendship, if any, would have resulted from contact. Maybe nothing, but I like to think we would have stayed connected this time as friends with common interests in Judaism, journalism, travels to Latin America and, well, life. I had changed since we dated—becoming more at ease with myself, more Jewishly literate, comfortable in groups. In any case, I found myself aching and sorry that we had had no contact for those last twenty years. I never had a chance to say goodbye to Adina.

That’s one missed farewell in a digital world that logs birth and death regularly. I would never have known about Adina’s passing without the Internet. Online, the once-hidden and unfindable becomes common, jolting knowledge. Through Facebook, I read daily about the illnesses of friends’ families, with prayer requests and mentions of deaths of parents, siblings and, most grievously, children. On Facebook, I learned that the son of one friend from Mission, Texas, for example, was killed in Afghanistan, bringing the war to me in a terribly personal way. We’re in our fifties and older; passings happen and the pace quickens with age.

I learned about Adina’s passing at the exact same time I was experiencing something entirely new in my Jewish life—a shiva call to a house of mourning. I had attended Jewish weddings and funerals, but had never visited a family sitting shiva, or mourning of a death.

“Not even your grandparents?” somebody asked after I mentioned this anomaly.

“No, not even my grandparents,” I said.

But a death occurred in a family close to me, an uncle of my girlfriend, and I wanted to pay my respects. I had no idea what to expect, although I knew of the traditional rituals of covering mirrors and tearing clothes.

So I visited some people I knew, the relatives of the elderly man who had died. I gave them my condolences. Some wore small black ribbons. I recognized the rabbi who conducted the service, which consisted of prayers I had heard many times before and could read and mostly say in Hebrew. This included the Mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. This prayer does not mention death but rather magnifies and sanctifies the Name of God. It begins,

Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon; and say, Amen.

As I looked around the room, I thought about how ancient tradition and ritual created such emotional support at a time of ultimate loss. People are not left to flail on their own in the darkness; they—we—have a way to mourn that links them to generations past and future.

The moment seemed right and as we prayed I said the Kaddish for my late friend. I had finally found a way to say goodbye to Adina, Y.D.

Van “Ze’ev” Wallach, native of Mission, Texas, writes frequently on religion, politics and other matters. His interests include travel, digital photography, world music and blogging, which he does at http://wallach.coffeetown.press. This essay is reprinted from A Kosher Dating Odyssey: One Former Texas Baptist’s Quest for a Naughty & Nice Jewish Girl by Van Wallach (Coffeetown Press), with the kind permission of the publisher and the author. For more information about the book, visit: http://coffeetownpress.com/

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