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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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Yahrzeit: Remembering the Love

by Joel Rudinger (Huron, OH)

“May the memory of our dear one be for a blessing.”

On the evening of the anniversary of my mother’s death,
I light a match and touch it to the wick
and the Yahrzeit candle catches fire.
My wife and I recite a blessing while its flame burns brightly in
its tiny glass.
For twenty-four hours, her light will kindle memories.

Each time I pass the flame, I say, “Hi, Mom,”
and when I switch off all the lights to go to bed,
the fire of her candle flickers like a happy angel in the darkened room.
“Good night, Mom,” I say and climb the stairs.
Her silence comforts me and I know
when I come down for coffee in the morning
her silent light will still be burning.

I remember
when I was four she stared at me in panic
when a neighbor carried me home draped in his arms,
blood dripping from my forehead
after I had fallen on the upturned barbs of a chain-link fence,
how she softly took me from him,
my bleeding face dazed and whimpering on her shoulder,
her housedress turning liquid red.

I remember
when she took me trick-or-treating on Halloween evenings,
shivering on the sidewalk as her little ghost collected candy door-to-door
and the dark December nights when she held my hand
and walked with me in silence down the street
to wonder wide-eyed at the colored lights of other peoples’ Christmas trees.

I remember
her fragrant juicy apple pies with the lattice crust that
perfumed the house,
the tapioca pudding we made together for dessert,
her Sunday chicken soup that brought our family together
at the dinner table,
when she gave the blessing over the Sabbath candles on Friday nights,
closing, covering, her eyes in prayer.

I remember
her leaving afternoons to give her program “Dolls for Democracy”
in churches, synagogues, libraries and schools, holding high her little dolls,
talking about people of different faiths and cultures down through history,
what they stood for, what they believed, how they worshipped differently,
how everyone could live together in a post-war world.

I remember
when she talked my father into buying a piano we couldn’t afford
and gave me lessons.
She took me to symphonies and concerts at the Toledo Museum of Art,
to the Nutcracker ballet every year at Christmas time,
and on summer Saturdays we’d walk the marble halls of the museum
looking at old masters: Picasso, DaVinci, Brancusi, Moore.

One day at the zoo, she tossed a shiny apple to a young gorilla
who leaped to the top of his cage and whipped it down at her.
It hit her in the head and crushed and stained her new white hat.
“I’ll never do that again,” she said, as I ran off laughing.

I remember
being sunburned to blisters on the beach at Cedar Point,
how she soothed my body with Vaseline to stop the pain.
When I was in high school, she tried to teach me how to drive
as I steered my father’s car into an iron cemetery gate.
She glowed when we shared our first beer together when I was in college.
“You are now a man,” she said. “How about another?”

I remember
how she embraced my decision to leave home to go to school,
to leave home after college to try a new life in wild Alaska.
She always let me find my own way, accepted my failures without judgment,
accepted my judgments without failure.
She embraced my wife and called her a sister and a friend;
she helped me care for my daughters when they were ill.

I remember
her weekly games of mahjong and bridge with friends,
how she collected ivory Chinese figurines and displayed them
on a little shelf,
her anger when my father died,
her battles with cancer and loneliness,
then the sudden stroke that left her without voice
and frozen in her tired body till she willed herself to die.

“Good morning, Mom,” I say when I’ve come downstairs.
Her candle’s burning low but still gives out some heat.
I go into the kitchen to make the coffee.

Each year I never see her light go out
as if she wants to leave in privacy.
I visualize a sudden poof and stream of smoke and then
the candle’s glass is empty of its wax.

Next year, we will repeat the ritual.
The Yahrzeit candle will be lit.
For twenty-four hours,
her flame will bring her back to us with memories.

Joel Rudinger, currently a Bowling Green State University Professor emeritus and Poet Laureate of Huron, OH, is a graduate of the University of Alaska, the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop, and Bowling Green State University. He has published numerous poems and stories in magazines such as the New York Quarterly, Colorado Review, Cornfield Review, The Heartlands Today, The Plough: North Coast Review, and New Waves.

This poem is reprinted from Symphonia Judaica (Bottom Dog Press/Bird Dog Publishing) with permission of the author and publisher. For more information about Joel Rudinger’s work, visit Bottom Dog Press at http://smithdocs.net

 

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Yahrzeit

by Leslea Newman (Holyoke, MA)

Golden autumn leaves
drift lazily through the air
onto Mother’s grave

White winter snowflakes
fall all over themselves to
blanket Mother’s grave

Gentle spring raindrops
are sent down from the heavens
to wash Mother’s grave

Warm summer breezes
chase pale yellow butterflies
around Mother’s grave

Today marks a year
endless tears soak one small stone
placed on Mother’s grave

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.

And if you’d like to view the book trailer for I Carry My Mother, visit:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yf4ubYHObAM

“Yahrzeit” 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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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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Two year anniversary since my father died….

by Linda Cohen (Portland, OR)

After Linda’s father died in December 2006, she began her blog, 1000 mitzvahs, as a way to move through the grief that she was feeling at that time. “It has proved to be a transforming experience both for myself and my family,” she writes. “This mitzvah project has allowed us opportunities to talk more about my father, doing mitzvahs and sharing more family stories.” The numbers below refer to the number of mitzvahs that she has performed since starting the blog.

Today is December 1, 2008. My father died two years ago today. His death also coincides with my son’s birthday which turns out to be a wonderful blessing. Solomon was so excited today to turn eight. I had left three gifts on the table and he was so happy to find them when he woke up. Later, he confessed to me that he had peeked into one of the bags while I was still asleep. When he opened the presents he never let on that this was the case. I know sometimes my husband and I wonder if our kids really need one more toy, but today Solomon was so grateful for everything that he received. There were some baseball items (hat and cards), PJ’s, Legos, several gifts of money but his most favorite gift was a boxed set of Chaotic cards. He had been coveting them for weeks at Target and I was excited when I snuck them to the cashier without him seeing a few weeks ago. He was shrill with excitement when he opened them and saw what was inside.

I spoke with my stepmother today and she had gone out for dinner with my stepsister and her family. They ate Chinese food, told stories about my dad and toasted him. Officially in Judaism, you commemorate or have someone’s “yartzeit” on the Hebrew date of their death. So I have decided that even though it is sometimes easier to remember the English date, I want this date to remain Solomon’s special day and I will light a candle in memory of my dad next week on his yartzeit, December 8th. I am sure my dad would want it this way too.

820) Referred a friend to a colleague of mine for some services.

821) Have you ever offered to do something and then really wished you hadn’t? You might wonder why did I offer to do that? I had one of those moments this weekend and was even contemplating how I could get out of it. It was kind of a misunderstood offer that would require about an hour of my time which in itself was no big deal, it was just that it was in combination with my son’s birthday party on an already busy day. In the end, I just figured I should make the best of it and did, and you know what? Attitude is everything because it turned out to be exactly what I needed at that time of the day.

822) Offered to drive two children to Solomon’s party to help out the parents.

823, 824 & 825) Donated a gift certificate to a Mitten Tree project, as well as coordinated a donation of hand creams and purchased some baby clothes for the project.

826) Brought new magazines to my gym to donate to the reading area.

827) Donated in memory of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holzberg of Mumbai, India.

Linda Cohen considers herself a young, hip Jewish mother who does what modern Jewish mothers do. They bring the traditions into the 21st century. They take care of their families, their communities and get involved with organizations they care for passionately.

Linda feels blessed to be married to her insightful “renaissance” husband. She’s also the mother of two spirited and exuberant children who keep her laughing and always keep her humble. They all live in Portland, Oregon with their Cavalier Spaniel.

You can read more about her work at http://1000mitzvahs.wordpress.com/ where this piece first appeared. It’s reprinted here with permission of the author.

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