Sunday, September 6, 2009

Words of Torah and Closure

Last Saturday I observed my mother’s yahrzeit. Among other things, I gave the drash (kind of like a sermon) at Kehilat Hadar in my mother’s memory. I’ve pasted the text of that drash below.

Additionally, during the course of the last six months or so I’ve been studying the book of Samuel I with my chavruta, Rachel Petroff. We had a very unconventional study plan--most weeks we met in a local bar and studied for an hour and a half before the weekly trivia game. We planned to finish our studies on Sunday August 30th, the day after my mom’s yahrzeit. When finishing studying a book of Jewish law or the Bible, it is customary to have a siyum, a celebration for the completed effort. Where does this custom come from? According to Mechon Hadar:

The origin is found in the Talmud. Abaye was proud of the fact that whenever a pupil finished a significant portion of Torah he made it the occasion of a holiday for his students (Shab. 118b). R. Eleazar said, "One should make a feast on completing the Torah (Shir haShirim Raba 1:9).

The siyum itself is impressive, evocative and joyous. At a siyum, the community gathers with learners to eat a celebratory meal. Everyone learns and expounds upon the final eight lines of text, and then reads an Aramaic passage, known as the Hadran, which begins:

Many returns ["hadran"] from us to you and from you to us, Sefer Shmuel. Our thoughts be with you, and your thoughts be with us, Sefer Shmuel. May we not be forgotten by you, nor you be forgotten by us, Sefer Shmuel, neither in this world nor in the world to come.

The siyum was really lovely. Many of my friends were able to join me, as well as one of my mother’s friends from her leadership training institute, and a family friend from Chicago, along with his son. At the siyum I also spoke briefly about what we had learned, and about my mother. I spoke extemporaneously, but I sketched out my thoughts for my family, and I’ve included those below, as well.

It looks like it’s going to take me a little while to get my blog off the ground, but in the meantime, here are some thoughts on the end of my year or mourning.

Drash for Ki Tetze

Shabbat Shalom. This week’s parsha opens with the commandment of the yefat toar, the beautiful captive. We read, “When you take the field against your enemies, and the Lord your God delivers them into your power and you take some of them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her and would take her to be a wife you shall bring her into your house, and she shall trim her hair, pare her nails and discard her captive's garb. She shall spend a month’s time in your house lamenting her father and mother; after that you may come to her and posses her and she shall be your wife.

There are two basic approaches to this text taken by the foremost commentators. One is that the commandments having to do with hair, nails and clothing are there in order to make the woman so unattractive to the Israelite that took her that after she does them he no longer wants to marry her and won't go through with it. The other approach notes that this mitzvah comes right before the commandments about having a hateful wife and a disobedient child to imply that if you marry one of these women she will end up being a hateful wife, and the children you have will be disobedient. Both approaches are united in understanding the marrying of a beautiful captive as an incredibly bad idea that should be greatly discouraged.

Regardless of the approach you find most convincing, there are a number of confusing issues within the commandments having to do with this beautiful captive.

The text says v’asta et tzipornea, literally, you should do her nails. There is some controversy among the commentators about whether doing ones nails means cutting them or growing them. Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Ramban all believe that the captive is to grow her nails for a month, because doing so would apparently make her look unkempt and unattractive. However, there is another case of someone doing his nails in Tanakh (Mefiboshet, in Shmuel II 19:25) and in that case, it clearly means cutting one’s nails, not growing them. Cutting the nails would also complement the adjoining commandment to cut the captive's hair. Most translations now have settled on cutting (or in the case of JPS, "paring") rather than growing, but the text is unclear.

The cutting of her hair is also somewhat enigmatic. Some commentators have associated the cutting of hair with mourning practices, but this is quite strange—one of the practices of mourning is not cutting one’s hair for a month, so to begin mourning by cutting her hair seems odd.

Then we have the captive’s garb that one is to take off of the beautiful woman. What is a captive's garb? Is it something like a prison uniform? Or is it the clothing she was wearing when she was captured? Rashi explains that the captive’s garb is any kind of fancy and alluring clothing that the woman might have, because the women of other nations were accustomed to always standing around looking fancy hoping to attract impressionable young soldiers and convert them to the faith of the land.

Whatever the specific physical changes were, after they were completed, the Israelite man had to give the captive a month to cry for her mother and father (u'vacheta et aviah v'et emah yerach yamim) before she could be married.

As far as I can tell, this is the only explicit mention of a daughter mourning for her mother in all of the Torah, and possibly in all of Tanach.

The mourning for her parents is the most straight-forward part of this text--we know what it means, and we understand why she would do it--but I find it to be the most evocative. Most of what's happening to this woman is being done to her, without her control. She is taken captive, her appearance is changed, and she's about to be married to someone new, whether she wants to or not. Until this point there's no sense of caring about the woman's well-being at all. But the allowance of the month to mourn her parents is a recognition that though her past is about to be erased, she is entitled to some time to grieve for that past.

I don't want to give the text too much credit here--this seems like an all around horrific situation, with no real silver lining. But I think it's amazing that even in the midst of this cold-blooded approach to women's lives there's an acknowledgement of the universal need for time to grieve.

On my first day of my senior year of high school we learned this passage in my Chumash class. My teacher, Mrs. Wainkrantz, had found a commentator who explained that this parsha was read during the month of Elul because in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah we are all like beautiful captives. We all have to be stripped of physcalities. We all need a month to spiritually prepare ourselves for a reunion with God during the High Holidays.

I don't remember wondering this at the time, but in hindsight, what's remarkable to me about that interpretation is that it equates mourning with preparing ourselves for God.

Is mourning a way of preparing ourselves for God? Undoubtedly, it is for some, and is not for others. Some people, in the wake of great tragedy, will go closer to God, seeking comfort in religious life and spiritual practice. Others will feel alienated by a God they see to have abandoned them, and will distance themselves from religious life.

I want to close with a wish. I wish that we can all be beautiful captives, if that means preparing for a reunion with God. And I wish that when we go through great trauma in our lives, of any kind, but especially when it involves loss, I wish that we are allowed by others, and we allow ourselves, time to grieve.

Here’s the gist of what I said at the siyum:

Most of the book of Shmuel is focused on King Saul, who is really a tragic figure. In the first part of the book he's anointed by God to become the King, and he goes on to be a very successful warrior. But in one key situation, with the Amalekites, he disobeys God, and as a result, he falls out of favor with God. At this point, unbeknownst to him, God chooses David to be king, and Samuel (the prophet of the time) anoints David. From that point on Saul is haunted by what is referred to as ruach ra'ah, evil spirits. He becomes very unhappy, unsuccessful in battle, and enters into a protracted game of cat and mouse with David. Saul is constantly trying to kill David, and David keeps evading him. Finally Saul is faced with the Philistines in battle. He knows that he's up against a sizable enemy, and he tries to consult with God to see what he should do. But when he asks God, he doesn't get an answer. Samuel the prophet has died, and Saul seems to panic--he has no idea how to handle the impending battle. As we were studying this, I felt sympathy for Saul for the first time. He had been such a bully for so long, so unhappy and tortured, but here he is faced with devastation, and it's so sad to see how alone he is.

Earlier in his reign Saul had outlawed all witchcraft, but in his desperate search for a military strategy he asks his men to find a witch for him to consult, and we read the following:

And Saul disguised himself, and donned other garments. And he went, he and two men with him. And they came to the woman by night, and he said, "Divine now for me with necromancy, and conjure up for me whom I shall tell you." ח. 9. And the woman said to him, "Behold, you know what Saul has done, that he has abolished the necromancers and those who divine by the Jidoa bone, from the land; and why do you lay a snare for my life to cause me to die?" ט. 10. And Saul swore to her by the Lord, saying, "As the Lord lives, no punishment will happen to you for this thing." י. 11. And the woman said, "Whom shall I conjure up for you?" And he said, "Conjure up Samuel for me." יא. 12. And the woman saw Samuel, and she cried aloud. And the woman said to Saul, saying, "Why have you deceived me? for you are Saul!" יב. 13. And the king said to her, "Fear not, for what have you seen?" And the woman said to Saul, "I have seen angels ascending from the earth." יג. 14. And he said to her, "What is his form?" And she said, "An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a cloak." And Saul knew that he was Samuel; and he bowed down with his face to the ground, and prostrated himself. יד. 15. And Samuel said to Saul, "Why have you roused me, to bring me up?" And Saul said, "I am greatly distressed, and the Philistines are battling against me, and God has turned away from me, and has not answered me anymore, neither through the prophets, nor through dreams. And I have called you to let me know what I shall do." טו. 16. And Samuel said, "And why do you ask me, when the Lord has turned away from you, and has become (the supporter of) your adversary? טז. 17. And the Lord has done to him as He spoke by me; and the Lord has torn the kingdom from your hand, and has given it to your fellow-to David. יז. 18. Because you did not listen to the Lord's voice, and you did not execute the fierceness of His wrath against Amalek; therefore, the Lord has done this thing to you this day. יח. 19. And the Lord will also deliver Israel with you into the hand of the Philistines; and tomorrow, you and your sons will be with me. Also, the Lord will deliver the camp of Israel into the hand of the Philistines."

I find this to be a really moving passage. It's so interesting and strange and sad. In particular I think the way that the witch and Saul interact with the ghost of Samuel is interesting. It seems like the witch can see Samuel, but Saul can't, even though he is able to speak with the ghost. Rashi's commentary on this section mentions that when someone's ghost is summoned the person who is summoning the ghost can see it, but not hear it. The person who requested that the ghost be summoned can hear it, but not see if. And any passersby who are not involved wouldn't be able to see or hear the ghost.

This really spoke to me in relation to grief. After Eema died someone told me that the real challenge of grief is taking someone who was an external physical presence in your life, who you could go to and touch and see and hear, and making that person an internal psychological presence in your life, that you go to in a different way. Grieving is basically the process of setting up that person internally so you can access them as best as possible.

It occurs to me that Saul's problem is that he was never really able to grieve for the loss of God's favor. When it was gone he didn't ever think to himself that he should try to internalize the things that God told him to do, that he should try to make God's work his own work. Instead, when he came to a challenge he went looking for another external cue, and when he couldn't access one through his normal methods, and when his prophet died, he went against his own rules to bring back a physical manifestation in order to get directions. That was really Saul's greatest flaw.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Starting Line

In a few hours I'm going to light a yahrzeit candle for the first time. Tonight is the 9th of Elul, the one year anniversary of my mother's death. eema_at_table.jpg

It has been a pretty scary month since I stopped saying Kaddish. Two weeks ago the family gathered in Chicago for the unveiling of the headstone, and since then I've been feeling pretty strange. I'm calmer than I have been in months. I'm getting more sleep. I'm seeing more of the people I want to see more of. I'm riding my bike, and reading interesting books and staying up all night with friends drinking whiskey and laughing. I don't think I'm better, really. I certainly have a lot more "grief-work" to do, but I think that ending Kaddish allowed me to settle into my grief in a way that I never could during the eleven months.
For me, saying Kaddish was really a struggle. It hurt, but it felt important. I guess it was like the intense ache you get in muscles after you work out really hard. The next day it's painful, but also a sign of increasing strength. You're not exactly glad for the pain, but you appreciate that it's necessary for the work you have to do.

I'm glad to have those eleven months over, and I'm glad that after tomorrow night I'll feel free to go to plays, clubs and live music with my friends. But it's really scary and unbearably sad to think about my whole life stretching out in front of me without my mom. I'm going to get married without her and have kids without her. I hope one day I'll have books with my name on them-- and she won't see them.

I'm going out into the rest of my life alone. The yahrzeit is the starting line. Part of me is itching to get out there and run already, after a year of sitting at home. But part of me wants to hide in bed and never come out. I assume that I can do this, but wanting to, really wanting to, is another thing.

*A note about this blog: I'm planning to post a final update next week after the yahrzeit. After that I will start another blog, details TBA. If you have suggestions for a theme for said blog, I'd love to hear them. I'm thinking rainbows and kittens…

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Cooling Off: A Look Back

Only a few days ago I finished saying Kaddish, and today was the day my mother would have turned 56. In a few weeks the family will gather in Chicago for the unveiling of her gravestone. I feel almost as if this is the triathlon of grieving that we’ve all been preparing for all year. Within a few weeks, everything rushes to the surface, and then, on Friday night August 28th I light a yahrzeit candle, and say Kaddish, and it’s over.

I’ve been wondering a lot about what I’ll take away from this year. My last blog post struck a chord with a lot of people, I think, and I got a lot of phone calls and emails from old friends and strangers who wanted to check in and said all kinds of nice things. As I was reading the emails earlier today it struck me that the number one lesson I’ve learned about this stuff is that it’s always better to acknowledge someone else’s grief than to ignore it out of fear of saying something inappropriate. Maybe this is petty, but there are some people who never got in touch with me after my mom died, and though I’m almost certain it’s because they were worried about saying the wrong thing or just repeating clichés, their absence is something I will never forget, and may never be able to get past. When people who I wasn’t really in touch with anymore made contact to tell me they had heard and were sorry, it was really powerful. People showed up at our house during shiva who I never got to speak to because there were so many people there, but just seeing that they made it was really important to me.

Shortly after I moved to Nashville I went on a date with someone who I didn’t know very well. While we were out he told me that his father had died a few months earlier, and he was visibly upset about it. Later on he brought it up again. And I remember thinking it was kind of inappropriate that he was bringing it up, and—this really makes me cringe—I remember so vividly thinking he should just get over it. I don’t think I even said anything to him about being sorry. I have thought back to that moment literally hundreds of times since then, and my regret is just—well, monumental doesn’t really cover it.

The way that cancer (or any disease, I’m sure, but my experience is with cancer) can devastate a family is something most people my age haven’t dealt with, and I do think there’s something about being in our situation that you really can’t comprehend until you’re in it, too. But I don’t think that matters as much as people say it does. Even if you can’t sympathize you can empathize. You can just say, “I’m really sorry this crappiness is happening to you.” The difficult part is really getting over yourself to the degree that you’re going to be comfortable either repeating a cliché, which is almost unavoidable, or risking saying something stupid and/or hurtful. Acknowledging someone else’s grief is more important than feeling good about yourself. Keep repeating that until you believe it.

The other thing that’s been on my mind today is a very specific feeling of dread. My mother died when she was 55, almost exactly a year after she was diagnosed with cancer. She was the fourth woman in three generations of her family to be diagnosed with breast cancer. It seems inevitable then that breast cancer will again be a major presence in my life, likely only 25-30 years down the line.

It’s hard to convey what it’s like to walk around all day feeling like you have a ticking bomb strapped to your chest. In a very weird way, I find it almost reassuring. If my fate has been set, then I really better get to work to accomplish what I want to accomplish in my life. It’s sad, of course, but in a very abstract way. It’s also frightening. But more than anything I feel this dread that I used to feel before exams, or conversations that I knew weren’t going to go well. I feel like my breasts have said to me, “We need to talk.” But we’re not actually going to break up until I’m in my fifties. Because however it happens—to my sisters, or my cousins, or me—I just know that it’s going to be bad. (Please spare me the talk on how everything is going to be cured in 25 years. I don’t buy it.)

I think a lot of my trauma this year has been related to knowing that even though the rest of my life is probably not going to be as hard as these past two years but that at some point I will be dealing with similar issues. I want a get out of cancer free card. I want to know that this won’t be chasing me for the rest of my life, but that’s just not an option.

Life is hard, is what I’m saying. I know that’s not a secret, but it’s something I didn’t take very seriously until cancer became a part of my life. And now, every day it’s a new revelation. This is hard. I am ready for it to get easier.

(The photo is my mother on mother's day a few years ago. My cousin Abigail is in the foreground. Photo courtesy of my cousin Joe Nicholson.)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Ending Kaddish on Tisha B'Av

In a few hours we begin mourning the destruction of the Temple. Tisha B'Av is considered the saddest day of the Jewish year, and this year it also marks exactly eleven months from the day my mother died. Tisha B'Av is the last day I'll be saying Kaddish.

This is the part where I would like to be writing something about healing and powerful the experience of saying Kaddish has been. I'd love to have something beautiful to say about being embraced by tradition, and finding myself truly invested in it in a way I never had been before. I could say something about moving forward, about treasuring the past while moving towards a life of future happiness… but that would all be complete and utter bullshit.eema_pesach.jpg

So many calamities happened to the Jewish people during the month of Av, that the Mishnah famously warns Jews from conducting any legal trials during this saddest of months, because during Av the verdict is sure to come out against us. This is somewhat enigmatic--one might expect the rabbis to try to paint the day in a more positive light and make some kind of statement about redemption coming eventually. But no, Tisha B'Av is set aside as a day to mourn for the past of the People of Israel--for everything we had that was destroyed or taken away from us. The insistence on sadness is so great that even studying Torah, that greatest of mitzvot, is prohibited (with a few depressing exceptions) on Tisha B'Av, lest we derive too much pleasure from our studies and forget the somber mood of the day.

I find all of this focus on sadness both satisfying and unjust. On the one hand, I fully appreciate the ability to spend tomorrow moping around feeling generally miserable, bitter, and forlorn. I'm pretty sure I have perfected miserable, bitter, and forlorn this year, and as I enter into the final formal stages of mourning for my mother, it is nice to be allowed--required, even--to focus on just how appalling the last two years have been. Conversely, I'm a little peeved that Tisha B'Av has taken the specialness of this moment from me. My last day of saying Kaddish was when I wanted to stand up in my community and have one last chance to show people that there are young people mourning amongst us. Selfishly, I wanted the attention, the hugs, the sympathy that many people get on their final day saying Kaddish. And I won't get that, because everyone else at minyan will be absorbed in their own thoughts of misery, persecution and pain in Jewish history.

This is all a nice little microcosm for how I've felt all year. I appreciate some of what traditional Jewish mourning practices seem to be saying and teaching, but ultimately, I find myself let down by the rituals and communities I had hoped I would find comforting. It has been eleven months of saying Kaddish, and I do not feel healed.

When my mom was sick I remember telling people I felt like I was falling apart, and I used to picture myself literally falling apart, limbs tumbling off of my torso. I was so upset all the time, I remember thinking things could not possibly get worse. On mornings when I held my mother as she writhed in pain, and at one point actually asked me to call my sisters so she could say goodbye to them, I remember thinking--it cannot get any worse than this. This is the hardest thing I will ever do. But I was almost laughably wrong. The days since my mother died have been thousands of times harder than the days that she was dying.

I had this vision of getting into a routine after my mother died. I thought I would find comfort in the day to day things, and that I would slowly begin to feel better. But the horrifying truth is that there was no routine to fall into without my mother. In the months after my mother died I felt as if my life exploded. I was no longer falling apart myself--instead, everything around me seemed to have gone psychotic. People who I loved and who had been supportive where suddenly hurtful, rude, or noticeably absent. Traditions--both religious and family--disappeared, or were transformed into grotesque acts that only demonstrated just how bizarre life could be.

The plain truth is that I have never felt more abandoned than I did this year. By my faith, by my community, by my family and friends. Even by my mother.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

"The Dead" and Saying Kaddish Alone

Last night was the kickoff event for this summer's fellows at Yeshivat Hadar. It was a great event, with some wonderful study sessions and warm welcomes from a number of rabbis and guests. At the end of the event we davened Maariv, and though there were well over a hundred guests from a variety of age brackets, I happened to be the only person saying Kaddish.

This happens more rarely than I would expect. In the morning I tend to daven Shacharit at a Conservative shul where more than half of the crowd is in avelut. For mincha and maariv I'm usually at Orthodox shuls with a decent sized crowd, and at least a handful of guys saying Kaddish. But on Shabbat at Kehilat Hadar, and last night, and the yeshiva's inauguration, it's just me.eema_stroytelling.jpg

There is something terrifying and horribly sad about this. It is an inescapable moment of declaring my grief to a room full of people, many of them strangers. Though I've come to have a grim familiarity with my misery this year, rarely do I feel the words of Kaddish really move me. Their meaning is infamously not about death or bereavement, and the Aramaic, though familiar to me in some ways, still sets up a barrier between my recitation and a true internalization of what I'm saying. But when I am speaking alone, the words loom huge and intimidating before me. The responsibility seems heavier, more poignant, when there's no one else around in similar straits.

It is at moments like this that I miss my mother the most. She had many talents, but making people feel less alone, whether that was through welcoming people into our home, visiting the sick, or generally reaching out to people she knew were having a hard time, was an area where she was noticeably effective and strong. Walking home last night I thought about how much I wished I could call her and tell her how hard this year of saying Kaddish has been, and how disappointed I've been in my own traditions.

In a way, it's good to have these startling and solitary Kaddish experiences every once and a while, because they infuse the experience with a meaning that I often feel is missing. But then, when those moments arrive it is shockingly overwhelming. One moment I'm fine, and the next I'm drowning in this feeling of being totally alone and set apart from a room full of people.
We all have this feeling every once in a while, it's not exclusive to grief, but it's one that I think we feel more acutely when we are grieving.

In James Joyce's famous short story "The Dead" the protagonist, Gabriel, finds out at the end of the story that his wife Gretta was in love with a young man who died many years before. Gretta is reminded of her old love because of a song she hears at a party she and Gabriel attend together. Just as they are leaving the party one of the guests begins to sing The Lass of Aughrim, and Gretta suddenly gets a gleam in her eye, and color in her cheeks. Gabriel thinks she's in the mood for love, but back at their hotel he finds out she was grieving, thinking about her old beau, Michael Furey.

The story focuses on Gabriel and his experience, but this morning I reread and for the first time sympathized with Gretta. The Lass of Aughrim was her Kaddish, and there she was at a party and suddenly this song comes up and she's the only one in the room who knows how meaningful it is.

Joyce doesn't seem particularly interested in Gretta at the end of The Dead. He focuses on Gabriel, who has this sudden moment of realizing how insignificant he is and can be in the world. All night he's been singularly self-absorbed, and then he hears this story about his wife's past and he realizes that it's not all about him--that other people have loved and lost while he was mired in his own world. In the penultimate paragraph Joyce writes, "His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling."

Though I dread the moments of being the only person in the room who is saying Kaddish, I also hope that by standing up there alone, saying the ancient words that mean my mother is gone, that there's someone sitting in the room who is shocked into thinking about all the devastating losses that everyone experiences all over the world. I hope someone is inspired to be a bit more sympathetic, to a deeper level of perspective and compassion. Because as the year wears on I've become more and more aware of how much loss is stacked up around us every day, and how each of us has suffered in ways no one else will really understand.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Happy Second Passover! I Call a Life Do-Over

Today is Pesach Sheni, or Second Passover, a day ordained by the Bible as the silver medal for those who can't win the Passover gold.

Basically, on Passover God commanded the people to offer a paschal sacrifice. Pretty simple. But what about the guys who happened to be impure on the first day of Passover, because they had been in contact with a corpse, and thus weren't allowed to offer a sacrifice? Were they just SOL? Nope. The guys went to Moses and asked how they could fulfill the mitzvah, and Moses asked God, and God said they should just come back in a month and make their sacrifice then. That day a month later is Pesach Sheni. Yay, hooray, everyone gets to make their paschal sacrifice. rhonda_and_eema.jpg

Some people think of Pesach Sheni as a symbol of second chances, of opportunities to do things over that we didn't do really well to begin with. If, for some reason, Passover didn't feel particularly redemptive this year, today is the day to give it another shot. Eat a piece of matzah and some bitter herbs. Think about the exodus.

Weirdly, Pesach Sheni is prescient for me this year. I didn't feel redeemed over Passover this year. I felt oppressed and sad and more than a little whingy. And guess what I'm doing today, on Pesach sheni? Going to sit with a family whose mother is in hospice.

The woman who is dying was close friends with my mother, and is suffering from the same thing that killed my mother. She has two daughters, one who's my older sister's age, and one who's my age. She worked in Jewish education (like my mother) and she's no longer awake. I'm going back to Chicago to say goodbye to her, and to sit with her family, and yesterday in the grocery store I had this sudden and random thought about what I want to say to this woman when I see her lying in bed. I don't know that she'll be able to hear me, but I want to tell her how important her life was to so many pre-schoolers whose lives she changed at school. How much I used to love going over to her house to eat her famous pudding pie. How impressed I am at how long and hard she fought her cancer diagnosis. How grateful I am for all of the support she gave my mother. And also--and this is where I started crying in the grocery store--I want to tell her that if/when she sees my mother I need her to tell my mother that I miss her every day, pretty much every minute. That I have a million questions for her. That I love her so much. That I should have said that a lot more often.

I guess it kind of is a day of second chances.

(Cross-posted at Mixed Multitudes)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Feeling Sorry For Myself

I am a champion whiner, but even I have to admit that there comes a time when we each need to stop feeling sorry for ourselves, stop complaining, and get back to the business of living. I often find myself looking forward to that point in the midst of a crisis. Yes, there’s some appeal to wallowing in one’s sorrow, and allowing oneself to maintain a certain sense of misery when bad times seem to be the rule, and not the exception, but I find that I hit my threshold after about twelve hours, and then, ideally, I would like to go on to some task that I can focus on instead of my own shitty situation.

This year has afforded me many more opportunities to wallow than I’m really comfortable with. It seems that every week or two there is some enormous issue that saps 90% of my mental energy, and gives me another reason to feel sorry for myself. My grandmother died a few weeks ago, shortly before that my sisters and I found out some news that upset us. Since then we’ve celebrated Pesach without my mother, and found out about a number of deaths and illnesses in our community, as well as upcoming simchas among our community and friends. Even good things are still tinged with this sense of strangeness, a foreign and empty feeling I’ve come to know as I go through life constantly thinking about how my mother would have reacted to a piece of news or a major historical event.

It’s not difficult to imagine what my mother would have said about most of these things. I knew her very well, of course, but these have tended to be events to which there isn’t likely to be a variety of responses. She would have been sad to hear that some of our friends are sick, and would have mourned my grandmother's death. She would have grinned and hugged those who are engaged, married and expecting babies. But knowing what she would have thought and said is no consolation at all. The reason we have friends and the reason we cling to our families is not to hear the words we all expect at happy and sad occasions, it’s to feel, somehow, that both joy and pain are being shared by those we love. We want to see our own feelings mirrored in others because it lightens our load when we’re downtrodden, and increases our joy when we’re happy. When my mother died, I lost perhaps the biggest and most important mirror in my life. She was the person that so many of us went to when we wanted sympathy, pride, love, acceptance and even grief reflected back at us. And like all good mirrors, though she most often reflected back what you already knew or thought, she was unafraid to tell people when they were being unreasonable, and needed to shape up.

I think about this idea often as I say Kaddish at minyan, because I am not at all sure how my mother would have reacted to my frustrations and the theological confusion I now feel about saying this mourning prayer. I remember one or two conversations we had about her own experiences saying Kaddish for her father, but I was 14 at the time, and didn’t have any concept of what the experience would be like for an adult. I still don’t think I have a concept of what it’s like to say Kaddish when you’re in your forties and fifties. So I don’t know what she would have said if I would have told her that I find myself resenting going to shul, bored and angry during most services. Would she have shared my frustrations, or would she have reminded me of the history and significance of the Kaddish through centuries of Jewish life, and of her own commitment when her father died? I can see either. Or actually, neither.

I feel sorry for myself, again.

[The photo is of me and my mom when I was about eight years old. I chose it because I think we look so much like each other—mirror images, if you will.]

Cross-posted at Mixed Multitudes.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Life Used to be Normal

A year ago today I had a fairly normal day. I had lunch with my friend Jaya. I went to a yoga class and had a writing workshop and things were basically fine. My mom had just finished chemo for her breast cancer, but the doctors had told us that once she was done with that the chances of the cancer ever coming back were 3%. Though I was concerned that the drugs seemed to have done a serious number on my mother, giving her endless headaches, and leaving her feeling weak and constantly tired, I was very glad it was over, and unconcerned about a relapse, seduced by that magical 3%.eema_in_jerusalem.jpg

That was the last normal day of my life. The next morning my dad called me at about 6:30 in the morning from the hospital. Over dinner the night before my mom had had a seizure, and my father had rushed her to an emergency room. Overnight she'd undergone a series of tests that revealed the cancer had spread to her brain, where it was spotting the gray matter and putting pressure on her brain causing the headaches, and ultimately the seizures.

It's a bizarre thing, realizing how quickly life can change. One minute you're eating dinner, the next minute you're dying. One minute you're lying in bed, the next your life is crashing down around you.

I spent most of that first day of not-normal life holed up in my apartment with a good friend. I remember I kept checking the news, as if expecting to see my mother's diagnosis splashed across the headlines. I spoke with various members of the family all day, all of us traumatized, confused, disoriented. That was the beginning of six months of lessons in how quickly things can change. In meeting after meeting with doctors we got new and always astounding information. The cancer spread inconceivably quickly, and as soon as we finished treatment for one issue, a new one cropped up. Finally, there was the ultimate change, from life to death.

One of the things that I often think about when I'm struggling with saying Kaddish is how is provides a sense of stability in this year. Many things are still changing in my life, but there is a constant running through my days. It's not a fun constant, and I haven't found it to be healing in the way that many people have told me they find Kaddish to be healing, but it provides a rhythm to my life now that I didn't have before.

Still, I'd take a hundred more years of changes for five more minutes with my mom.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Member of the Tribe

Recently, a friend’s father died suddenly, and I found out a few days later through a mass email that one of her friends sent around. Reading about it, I felt like I was being punched in the gut. Another one of my friends joining the horrible club of those saying Kaddish, and mourning a parent at a young age. The minyan I attend most mornings has gotten a few recent additions because of a death in the community, and children who have joined us for their year of avelut. One of the newest faces at shacharit is only a few years older than me. I haven’t been able to look him in the eye yet.

I have always been fiercely protective of my friends (something I certainly learned from my mother) and in the face of grief, though I know I’m powerless, I still want to somehow cover these people in a bubble of safety and tranquility. (This is a concept not foreign to Jewish ideology. At Ma’ariv we ask god to ‘spread over us Your shelter of peace…shield us from enemies and pestilence, from starvation, sword and sorrow’ (u’fros aleinu sukkat shlomekha…v’haser m’aleinu oyev, dever, v’herev v’ra’av v’yagon.)EemainLondon.jpg

While I was sitting shiva a friend of mine (whose own father had died only six months earlier) came to be with me, and memorably stood right in front of me with arms crossed, looking appropriately menacing, so as to dissuade people from coming over to make me cry any more than I already was. I wish I could do the same for all of my friends who are suddenly in this situation. I’d like to be there, physically, to protect them, but metaphysically, too. I think constantly about building some kind of magical force field that would prevent others from joining this miserable community.

And then there are the surreal moments where I am grateful for my horrible lot. Sometimes this comes while hearing about others going through struggles that are far more terrible and heartbreaking than mine. Young mothers who die suddenly, leaving infants, those with missing children, or babies undergoing grueling and unsuccessful treatment for cancer and other diseases. It’s true when they say that it could always be worth, and I do, somewhat grotesquely, feel lucky to have had the opportunity to say goodbye to my mother, to hold her hand while she slipped away from us, to care from her in the months leading up to her death. More often than not, though, when I find myself feeling grateful it’s because I have somehow been given access to this community of strong young people, who are able, despite horrible circumstances, to go on and build lives of success and happiness. People who are compassionate beyond their years, who are good listeners, and deep thinkers, and care for others in a way that embodies grace and love. Given the option, I would still wish to be ignorant of these people, to live without this all-encompassing grief. But if I have to be here, I’m so glad to be surrounded with good company.

(The photo is from a family trip to England in 1988. I was 3, Deena was 6, and Renana was in utero.)

Monday, January 26, 2009

Mourning Stinks

On Sunday afternoon I went to mincha/maariv at an Orthodox synagogue in my neighborhood. Last week some random lady there told me that because I sat in the back, instead of next to her, the Kaddish I said didn't count, and later in the week she emailed me to lecture me on "the special structure of Kaddish." Hey thanks, lady. It's not like I work at a Jewish educational website or anything… Anyway, I probably should have taken the hint and never gone back, but some of the other possibilities in my neighborhood don't have a great reputation for always getting a minyan, so this week I was back at the same place, and when I walked into the women's section I was greeted by…big smelly garbage bags. Many big smelly garbage bags taking up the entire section.trash.gif

There is a metaphor here, and it is not even remotely subtle. Women are trash. Trash belongs where the women usually go. Wow. Thanks.

I was standing in the doorway in shock when a couple of guys showed up to try to figure out what to do with the trash bags so there could be some space for women to daven (I know, novel!). It turned out that the trash bags were full of clothes that had been donated and were going to Israel to families in need, which is nice, I guess, but doesn't really explain why they were taking up the space that had been designated for women. Also, they were smelly.

In the end, the trash bags were pushed to one side and a mechitza was set up within the women's section, to separate us from the smelly trash bags. So, the women's section, which was already less than a quarter the size of the men's section, was suddenly about a third as big as it had been before, which is to say, very small.

When a person dies, we often say of them, "may their memory be for a blessing," or, "of blessed memory." This is the first time that I feel like my mother's memory has really been besmirched. This is the kind of thing that would make her turn over in her grave (so to speak). My mother was a person of utmost tolerance and respect. She was passionate about egalitarianism, but she wouldn't dream of intentionally offending any religious person, and was accommodating to a fault. And here I am, trying to honor her, trying to say Kaddish, and I am grouped with trash bags.

I know that there's a significant difference between bags of trash, and bags of clothing that are going to tzedakah. I appreciate that so many people donated items to go to families in need, but I am frankly irate that the attitude of whoever is in charge of this shul was apparently that the women's section can be used as a storage facility, that it doesn't matter if women have to daven next to huge piles of trash bags, and it doesn't matter if women are davening next to something that smells.

I think observant women need to be making more of a showing at shul, and I think that's the quickest and most effective way of changing the way Orthodoxy views women and feminism, but after my experience on Sunday I can fully understand why women might stay away.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Progress and Stasis in Mourning

I was overjoyed about the inauguration of our 44th President on Tuesday, but couldn't help feeling a little sad, too. People like to say that time heals all wounds. I don't believe that, not least because one of the things that is hardest for me is seeing how time is moving me away from my mother. Every day she is farther from me, and while it's nice to not have the grief be so raw, it's more than a little horrifying to think that we're almost five months away from her death now.eema_fountain.jpg

Yesterday on the way to work I was reading Pablo Neruda's Captain's Verses on the subway (note: reading Neruda on the subway is a great way to get picked up by emo Hispanic guys, in case you were wondering) and came across a poem that I'd read many times before, and never liked. The poem is called The Dead Woman (La Muerta) and is basically a promise from a man that he will go on living when his lover dies, even though he will be in deepest despair.

In the past, when I read it, it felt distinctly unsexy. I usually pick up Neruda because I want to read something sensual and stark, and this poem never felt that way to me. It was kind of depressing. A downer. Not what I look for in Neruda.

And then yesterday I read the poem differently for the first time. It wasn't about a lover dying so much as a mission towards good that continues despite generations of despair. In the middle of the poem, Neruda writes:
I do not dare,
I do not dare to write it,
if you die.
I shall live on.

For where a man has no voice,
there, my voice.

Where blacks are beaten,
I cannot be dead.
When my brothers go to prison
I shall go with them.
When victory,
not my victory,
but the great victory comes,
even though I am mute I must speak;
I shall see it come even
though I am blind.

It's a poem about civil rights. I don't think I ever saw that before, though I knew Neruda was an activist, in my mind he was all passion and tenderness. But here he is in a poem saying that even when he is grieving for someone he loves he feels obligated to continue the journey towards justice.

My mother was many things, but to say she was a civil rights activist would be overstating things to a considerable decree. She never charged me with making sure equal rights are finally achieved in this country, but she did believe, passionately, in helping those who need help, and many many times she encouraged me and all kinds of people in her life to work for the things we believe in. While listening to the inaugural address I thought a lot about how much she would have been nodding (and let's face it, weeping) had she been listening. It made her seem both very far away, and very close.

There's a lot written about why the Kaddish doesn't actually mention the dead at all, but it struck me today that perhaps Neruda nailed it in the final stanza of his poem:

No, forgive me.
If you no longer live,
if you, beloved, my love,
if you have died,
all the leaves will fall in my breast,
it will rain on my soul night and day,
the snow will burn my heart,
I shall walk with frost and fire and death and snow,
my feet will want to walk to where you are sleeping, but
I shall stay alive,
because above all things
you wanted me indomitable,
and, my love, because you know that I am not only a man
but all mankind.

When people we love die we want to lie down and never go on. But there is still so much work to do. Just as in the Kaddish we say of God, "YeYamlich Malchutei b'cheychon u'veyomechon" 'his sovereignty should be accepted soon and in our days,' well that has to be followed up with actions. We have to do something to make that happen. In the face of loss, we need to progress.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Kaddish: It's Different for a Girl

I haven't written much about actually saying Kaddish in the past few months, partially because it has become so much a part of my routine that it already feels unremarkable, and partially because the few notable moments of saying Kaddish have been almost completely negative.

There are a few famous books about saying Kaddish, including of course Kaddish by Leon Wieseltier and Living a Year of Kaddish by Ari Goldman. But there are no books about saying Kaddish as a woman (that I know of), and I think this has a lot to do with the extremely different experience a woman has at almost any daily minyan.

Simply put, there are thousands of minyanim where a man can go to say Kaddish when he is mourning a parent, and there are websites designed to help one find the closest and most convenient service. In big cities it's not uncommon for a mincha minyan to meet in a conference room, a stairwell, or a large office. But the vast majority of these minyanim are Orthodox, which means that they require some form of physical separation between men and women during davening. This is called a mechitza, and most often appears in the form of a sheet, a curtain or a balcony. In many of these places, women simply wouldn't be allowed to join the minyan because it wouldn't be possibly to put up a mechitza.

Even at synagogues that have women's sections (sometimes called Ezrat Nashim) it is so uncommon to see women at minyan that men have appropriated the space for themselves. At one synagogue in Manhattan's midtown the women's section on the floor of the sanctuary has signs all over that say it is for women only, and that men should not sit there, but the signs are ignored by the dozens of men who show up for mincha and pace up and down the area. At that same synagogue, when the sanctuary was unavailable one day I was asked to stand behind a door. Once, a man stood on the staircase leading to the women's balcony, effectively blocking women from davening. Shuckeling with his eyes closed it was clear to me that he had no idea I was trying to get around him, or that his particular spot might be a tad inconvenient for others. At Chabad of Midtown I stood on the women's side of the mechitza, surrounded by men who seemed to either not notice or not understand that I was a woman, and they were not supposed to be hanging out with me while praying. At a mincha minyan in DC that meets in a conference room my sister stands outside the door in a vestibule. A friend who's saying Kaddish this year as well tells me that she often finds that men just on the other side of the mechitza from her will talk all the way through the kaddish, though she's clearly saying it inches from where they stand.

I don't want to be a big whiny-pot. And I know that this kind of thing only matters to a small minority of people, but I happen to be one of those people, and I'm tired of being shoved behind a door and tired of standing awkwardly on the staircase. EemaTorah.jpg

The only way I can see to make this situation improve is for women to show up at shuls and minyanim more often. There are a combination of factors that have led to women often staying away, including child-rearing, and being told that women are not obligated to pray, but this has to stop. If women in the Orthodox community want to be taken seriously and treated like full members of the community, and not just vestibules for incoming Jews then we need to be present more often.

The year my mother was saying Kaddish I was only 14 but I remember her telling me how frustrated she was when she went to minyan. The shul she went to most often was "traditional," a denomination that seems to only exist in Chicago and England, wherein the service is Orthodox and only men are counted in the minyan, but seating is mixed. One day there were nine men and three women present. The men called a local Jewish janitor, who sat listlessly in his chair while the rest of the men davened.

I didn't really understand at the time, but now I get it. There is something incredibly frustrating and sad about trying to fulfill a mitzvah that honors a dead parent and feeling like you're being discouraged or dishonored in the process. It feels like an insult directed at both the parent and the child saying Kaddish.

I don't mind that I'm not counted towards the minyan when I go to an Orthodox shul, but I do mind that many of these places seem mystified by the concept of women even showing up for services. Women need to start making their presence known more at synagogues, and synagogues, in turn, need to make sure they have acceptable spaces and facilities for women.

Photo: My mother and a girl she taught to read Torah about 15 years ago.