Category Archives: Musings

just that — musings on the world around me

David Bergman, of blessed memory,

When I met David Bergman, before I even began to interview him to include his story in This Jewish Life, he said me, “Never refer to me or anyone else who was in a concentration camp as a “prisoner.”  A prisoner has been incarcerated for breaking the law. We were not prisoners; we had done nothing wrong.  We were captives. We were held captive.”

Mr. Bergman survived what he called a “Ring of Fire” and for as long as I knew him, he was eternally on a quest, as you will read in his story, to understand why he survived.  Why had he lived, time and again, when others had not?

I do not know that Mr. Bergman ever found the answer that stilled his inner quest. For me, because he survived, I have been able to study and learn from  his son, Rabbi Aaron Bergman. So have my children and my husband. Martin and I took classes with Rabbi Bergman’s wife, Ruth, who in her own right is a superb teacher. Ruth and Aaron have four beautiful daughters whom I can only assume have brought joy and naches (Yiddish for the kind of pride that makes you burst with delight from the inside out) to everyone who knows them.  May his memory be for a blessing

It is in Mr. Bergman’s memory that I post his story here.

 

RING OF FIRE                                                                                                                                                   the story of David Bergman

When I was about eight years old I asked my rabbi, “What does God look like?” Sixty years later I still remember his answer.

“I cannot tell you what God  looks like,” the rabbi said, “but when you take your last breath, you will see God.  You will  see a ring of fire and there you will see God in the middle of it.”  As a child, I visualized God’s ring of fire being about as big around as the wooden rain barrel we kept outside the doorway between the garden and the back entry to our home in Bockow, where I lived with my parents, grandparents, sister and brother, in the Carpathian mountains of Czechoslovakia .

I never questioned whether God really existed in a ring of fire.  I visualized the ring of fire even though I couldn’t visualize what God looked like within it.  When you’re that young, you obey your parents; you trust what they tell you.  What they say is emes, the truth, and that’s it.

Five years after that conversation with my rabbi, I was thrown into a ring of fire much larger than our rain barrel.  The ring of fire encircled concentration camps and extermination camps.  The ring of fire encompassed unspeakable cruelty, humiliation, the darkest and most brutal side of humanity imaginable.  It was a ring of death.  And just like my rabbi told me, God was right there in the middle of it.  I am here to tell of it and because I am, I cannot but think that God was there, too.

I have not been so much concerned with the question, “Why did God allow the Holocaust to happen?”  From what I have seen and experienced, I have to say that the urge to kill and the urge to be compassionate are a combination of inborn traits and external environments.  God planted within us the capacity to be cruel or compassionate and  the ability to choose the path we want to take.

The question I have wrestled with all these years is, “Why me? Why did I survive?”  After years of pondering this I have concluded that God doesn’t give us the privilege to know why.  All we are allowed to see are the results.  If you try to answer “Why?” all you can come up with is speculation, a belief, and a guess.  God only allows us to see the results.  Those results can be survival, Israel, or our grandchildren; it’s up to us to see God’s results.  What I am aware of is that the answer to the question, “Why did I survive?” is a series of extended events, one result after another that kept me alive.  “Why did I survive?” is the relationship I forged with God within the Holocaust’s ring of fire.

When the doors to the freight train opened in Auschwitz, my eyes were filled with scenes of beatings.  Of shootings.  Women, children, and old men cut down by bullets and clubs.  It seemed no one was to be spared. In a single moment, everything

I had read and learned in cheder:  following God’s commandments, praying twice a day — all of it went blank, as if it never happened. In its place  a new force of survival took control of my life.  I wasn’t even aware of it.  I had no time to think.  Survival was everything.  I went from having a family to suddenly being thrown into hell; from somewhere deep within me there came a strong desire to live.

In the midst of all the chaos I heard a voice telling me to get out of the children’s line.  It was a silent voice; the words were in my head like when you are hungry and you hear an internal voice saying, “It’s time to eat.” You don’t hear it but it’s a silent signal.  Well, this was the same type of voice signaling me that I was in danger.  “Get out of the children’s line,” it said.  And there in the line I had a conversation with this voice.

“How do I get out of the line?” I asked it.

“The guards are watching you now.  But see how they are beating the children? See the adults trying to go to the children?  When the guards are occupied with them quickly run to the adult side.”

I have no proof that there was a voice.   At the momentI wasn’t even thinking that I was communicating with God.  All I have are the results.  I am here.  Within two hours, those in the children’s line were all dead.

And so I followed the voice’s command, waiting for the guards to be distracted and then making my move to the adult line.  When I did, I found my father.  But don’t think that being in the adult line meant I was safe.  In the adult line it was look and point, look and point.  The Nazi officer quickly appraised us and pointed us to life or death.  With a flick of his hand he wielded a malevolent inversion of God’s power.  When it came to my turn the officer stopped.  “What are you doing in this line?” He growled.  “How old are you?”  As I was about to admit my age, the force inside me suppressed my voice and prevented me from speaking up.

Standing beside me my father sensed something was wrong and told the guard I was fourteen.  I wanted to shout the truth; my father had never lied in his life and there he was lying to a Nazi officer!  I didn’t know then that I was standing between life and death.  The Nazi officer ordered my father and me into the work line.  Shortly afterward, my voice returned.

We were seven days in Auschwitz when an officer entered our barracks and ordered me, my father and fifteen others onto a freight train that would take us to a work camp.  When the door was bolted shut and the train began to move, my father announced to everyone present, “Today my son is bar mitzvah.” I had completely forgotten about it, but my becoming bar mitzvah meant so much to my father that he risked his life, hiding a small bottle of wine in his clothes.  He passed around the bottle of wine.  They all took a sip and made a toast to me in honor of my bar mitzvah.

Three hours later we arrived in the work camp of Plaszov.  We heard that only those who have a trade will survive.  When they asked for tailors my father stepped out of the line.  When they asked for bricklayers the voice returned to me once again, telling me to raise my hand.  And so I did and was put to work as a bricklayer.  I followed what the others did — mixing cement and placing the stones to build walls. Five, ten times a day we walked from where they mined the stones to where we built the walls.  After three months my father and I were separated.  I never saw him again.

By May of 1944 the Russians were getting closer and the Nazis sent me from

Plaszov to Gross Rosen, another extermination camp.  By this time I knew my life depended on convincing the Nazis I was old enough to work. The voice returned to me.  “Tell them you are sixteen.  Look them straight in the eye; tell them you are sixteen and do not break your focus for a moment.”  When you look someone in the eye they have to look back.  I must have convinced him that I was sixteen because he  let me go to the work line.

Was the voice of God helping me to survive?  I know I didn’t do it all on my own.  I have the results.  There I was, thirteen years old, not knowing why I was there, why I was being exposed to such horrible things.  But I didn’t have the luxury to dwell on such thoughts.  There was not time even to give thanks when each time my life was spared.  This was survival.  Do you want to live or do you want to die?  If you want to live, focus on survival.  I wanted to live and that phrase “I want” became the hallmark of my survival, the connection to the voice that kept me out of death’s grasp.

In Gross Rosen and then again in Reichenbach I had close call after close call.  One day I was standing in roll call waiting to be sent to work.  We had strict orders not to move, not to look in any direction.  But when I heard a noise in the sky, I couldn’t hold back.  I looked up to see American bombers streaking through the sky.  I gazed at the sky with envy, just wishing I was in one of those planes.

Suddenly the Nazi officer saw that I have disobeyed a rule.  “Schweinhund!” he bellowed.  “Pigdog!  Why are you disobeying me?”  Club in his hand, ready to beat me to death, he waited for me to answer.  And the voice that had guided me every step of this nightmare said, “Focus on his eyes and stay silent.”  You can imagine the restraint it took not to stammer some excuse, not to plead for mercy.  The entire camp was looking in our direction.

“I’ve got news for you,” he barked.  “You’ll never make it out of this camp alive!”  Still I didn’t answer and the voice inside my head said,  “You will be free again and you will see their mighty country destroyed.”  And all of a sudden the commandant turned around and walked away from me!   No one had ever defied a Nazi officer and lived.  But I had.  I listened to the voice and I survived.  But I knew I was living on borrowed time.

I was not Reichenbach’s only only underage captive.  In an effort to flush out those of us who were under sixteen, the Nazi camp commandant  promised extra food rations to any captive who turned us in.   In this way, I and about fifteen others were  pulled from the work group to be shipped to an extermination camp.  Facing death, I focused as hard as I could on the desire to live and be returned to a work group.  “I want to live.”  “I want to live!” I repeated again and again to myself.  All of a sudden I began feeling pulsations, similar to electrical shocks emanating through my mind like mysterious Morse code messages.

Then someone in a work detail suddenly fainted.  Instead of choosing a captive from the line of replacements, the Nazi camp commandant went from one end of the camp  to the other and stopped right in front of me and ordered, “Heraus!”   “Out!”  He could have taken any of the captives standing nearby.  He could have chosen any one of the youths  from the group I was standing in.  But he didn’t. He came at me with an angry voice.  He seemed to be moving against his will, like someone was forcing him.  And he ordered me back into the work group.

I have wrestled with this issue for decades.  What made the Nazi commandant walk across the entire camp, stop right in front of me and send me in as a replacement for the man who fainted?  Those youth I had been standing with were all gassed.  I got back to work exhilarated, if exhilaration is possible in such a circumstance.  My elation lasted only moments.  I knew this Nazi camp commandant was obsessed with not allowing children my age to survive and I wondered each morning if it would be my last.

From Reichenbach, I and a hundred and fifty others were sent to Dachau.  I escaped the crematoria by yet another miracle.  During that seven-day journey, we received no food.  Why feed those who can no longer work?  I had passed out  and, being taken for dead, was placed on a wooden stretcher bound for the crematoria.  A worker saw my hand move and smuggled me into a barracks where he and other heroic captives shared their meager rations with me so that I could survive.

Two months later I was liberated.  I came to America and during the Korean War was drafted into the Air Force.  I was sent to Germany and just like the voice predicted, I saw with my own eyes the destruction of that once mighty and forever horrible country.

Some people are given the gift of creating art or music.  I was given the gift of survival, the ability to visualize what I wanted.  When my feet were cut and bleeding I saw them whole and healing.  Never once did they become infected. Never once in fourteen months of captivity did I have a cold or develop any of the diseases raging through the camps.  Never once did I have a nosebleed, something that plagued me before the war and after.

In captivity I had the choice of striving for survival or giving up.  God didn’t come and tell me, “Give up or not.”  He left it up to me; he built into me a striving for survival.  The voice is with me to this day.  In the morning I am in pain from arthritis, but I want to walk.  I want to be with my beautiful granddaughters.  And so I walk despite the pain and boom! the pain is gone.  I chose to marry.  I choose to enjoy my grandchildren.  I choose to balance my terrible memories with things that give me pleasure.

After all these years I have concluded that the “I want” element that sustained me is actually the soul and the spirit of our being.  It is the pipeline connecting us to God.  When I was in captivity and said to myself, “I want,” I was actually reaching out to God, asking God to give me whatever it would take to survive.  And sure enough God was always there for me when I reached out to Him.  Within the ring of fire I drew not my last breath, but my next.  Again and again and again.

 

This Jewish Life, Stories of Discovery Connection and Joy contains 54 stories of transforming Jewish experiences.  Learn more here.

My Friends Were Right

“There’s nothing like it,” my friends began saying. “Nothing in the world!” They weren’t talking kale or cilantro. Or the season’s best read. They were talking grandchildren.  Yes, grandchildren.  “Just wait,” they’d say, smug with a knowledge that admittedly I didn’t possess.

I did have 63 combined years of parenting my now-adult children. That’s more than a fleeting familiarity with being utterly smitten-drunk in love with my babies. I know the elation of that slew of firsts — smiles, hugs, laughs, raspberries, teeth, steps.  I can revisit the highs of hearing my kids’ first words because I still have the journals recording their mamas, dadas, I wuv ooos, and nos! How much more love could my heart generate? Or need to?

And then Olivia was born. My friends were right. Each and every one. There is nothing like it. Nothing in the world. Olivia disappears time. I am with her and the world drops away.  I watch her, love her, play with her fully in the now.  Forget meditation. Forget  mindfulness practice and yin yoga.  When I am with Olivia, I am alive within every moment as if as newly-arrived as she is. Whether we’re rolling a ball down an improvised slide, or clapping hands, or trying to catch a ribbon of water as it falls from the spout at bath time, that’s all that exists. In tandem we discover the world — a magical universe of unfurling surprises.

My heart has no assignment but to love. It isn’t obsessed with schedules or deadlines. It doesn’t future-fret about college or carpools. It neither second guesses me nor sinks in the face of newbie insecurities.  There’s no obsession over milestones. Olivia’s teeth will come in when they are ready to emerge. She will crawl when she’s ready to locomote. She will speak when speech clicks for her. She will walk when crawling no longer serves her. While those milestones wait in the wings, all I am called upon to do is love this delicious sweet bundle of squeals and grins, luscious wrinkles and dreamy softness.

As a new parent, I glommed onto something Mr. Rogers said about becoming a parent giving you a second crack at your own childhood.  I well nigh engraved that one upon my heart.  My kids and I delighted in bugs and bunnies. We read endlessly. We danced in the rain and played dress up. With the help of wise therapists, I healed childhood traumas striving to become the kind of parent my children deserved to have.  Rain puddles aside, my reality never wavered —   I was first and foremost a parent.  My job was to guide and discipline, to role model the kind of people I hoped my children would become.  I traveled a road much taken yet one not infrequently marked by uncertainty, fear, delight, passion, confidence and self-doubt.  Somehow we all made it through.

In those early years, I wrote in my journal, “Oh, I just wish I could have perspective.  I just want to know it will all be OK!”  Such innocent and impossible yearnings.  For perspective belongs to the time-weathered. Perspective now lies gently in my hand, the same hand that once gripped a pen as if it were a magic wand, as if inking a mere word on a page could manifest it into my life.

I have joined that club my friends so lovingly and smugly knew would change my life and     I have no idea if it will all be OK.  We have escaped many sorrows; others rained down upon us and upon our children. Today, we prevail. Tomorrow, who knows?  But in this moment, everything is OK. Unfettered by the worries that forest the landscape of parenthood, I simply witness and cherish each of Olivia’s moments.

Mr. Rogers was right. Becoming a parent gives you a second crack at childhood.  What he didn’t say was that becoming a grandparent gives you a second crack at parenthood. Becoming a grandparent allows you to walk beside the young mother still within you, healing her and praising her, comforting her and celebrating her and sometimes, when the moment is right, gently and respectfully sharing her hard-fought wisdom with the generation now coming up. Nothing beats that. Not even kale.

It’s Not Yet Time to Cross the Street

I‘ve sometimes shared posts by my friend Dr. Kelly Flanagan, on my FB page. I admire his take on life, child-rearing, and relationships.  This week I couldn’t agree with him as he wrote about ISIS  and their most recent attacks. Though we’ve never met, and have only corresponded via email over the past couple of years, we share a deep mutual respect. Which gave me the courage to write the following.

A long time ago I attended a pro-Israel rally. It was at the time of one of the incessant uprisings against Israel. When it was over,  a group of Palestinian supporters stood on the street opposite the synagogue holding up Israel’s state flag with a nazi swastika on it.  On the synagogue side of the street a friend of mine who had fought in Desert Storm 1 held up the Stars and the Stripes.  My kids and i went to stand silently beside him while those on the other side of the street continued their shouting.  What a metaphor.

I wanted to cross the street.  Wanted to go up to the man and say, I can see that you are a human being.  Can you not see that in me?  In my children? But I didn’t.  I was too afraid.

These terrorists are out of control children with weapons.  They are two-year olds, all ego, with murderous intentions. I do not hate them.  I do think they should be eliminated because they are a danger to all that is civilized in this world. And sometimes humans with that dark and destructive power have to be eliminated even if innocents will go down with them.

There is a story from Exodus.  When the Israelites had crossed the sea, Miriam and the women took up timbrels and began dancing, celebrating the fact that they were alive and that Pharaoh’s horsemen were drowned. God calls down to them and says, “Why are you rejoicing when some of My children have died?”  What we are taught to take from this is that number 1 this was part of the plan and yet God was still in mourning for His Children.  Two, we are not to exult at the tragedies that befall others. This is why at the Passover Seder each year, we remove ten drops of wine from our cups when reciting the Ten Plagues. This removal of the joy, which wine symbolizes in Jewish tradition, echoes back to God’s conversation with Miriam. It is our yearly reminder that all are God’s children, even those whose plans are destructive, and we are not to take joy in another’s suffering, no matter how they have harmed us.

I don’t have time to hate.  But I do wish we had leaders who understood what is at stake and would quit equivocating. Decades ago Arafat’s henchman threw an 80-year-old-man in a wheelchair off a cruise ship. The world did a few air strikes and tsk tsk’s at the “crazies.”  That is what has never been understood.  We look at the situation through our lens and say, OH they are crazy they will go away.  We’ve been doing that for decades b/c who but the crazy can be so uncivilized?  I won’t even write some of their acts here.

They are not crazy.  They are stone cold deliberate; they are absolutely logical and have followed through on every intention they have stated (no matter how insane it sounds to us.) This is why the Islamists are so dangerous.  Peace, as it is understood as the absence of strife war, and conflict, is not the answer.  Love of humanity’s survival is more important than love of these humans who have voided their place in civilized society with their blood lust and their intentions to conquer the world and create a Caliphate.

We have evolved from such an understanding of the world.  Cancer cells are nothing but unchecked cells. They have run amok, feeding upon the atmosphere of their  host.   Cancer has to be excised in whatever way possible to save the being within which it grows. The Islamists, Muslim extremists, whatever anyone wants to call them, they are destroyers. We have ignored them at our own peril. They too must be exorcised, by any means possible, no matter how many healthy “cells” go down with them.

And then, should we find ourselves on the far side of the Sea of Reeds, perhaps we will not take up timbrels and rejoice. Instead, and hopefully, we will extend our hands to those yearning to breathe free and walk forward together in peace and unafraid.

Time to Fill Those Holes!

51RoDqmE+oL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_I love Ruth Kraus’ book A Hole is to Dig. It was one of the early ones I read to Elliot and Emma when they were little. In this sweet and simply illustrated book, holes are for digging, looking through, stepping into and hiding things in. Between the covers of A Hole is to Dig, life is complete and everything fits: doors are for shutting and opening, the world is so you have something to stand on.

I thought of this book recently after a conversation with an elderly woman who has a hole in her life that has yet to be filled. We were talking birthdays and bonded over the fact that we were both  April babies. If you’re a Jewish baby boomer, born on the cusp, belly or tail of spring, you got cheated every few birthdays. Instead of a nicely leavened high rising layer cake, swirled with mounds of frosting, you got a kosher for Passover sponge cake, dry as desert sand.

We chuckled over this additional deprivation, but then the conversation took a turn into a different corner of the past. “My mother never made me a good birthday party,” the woman said. “Even when it wasn’t Passover, there was never soda, never candy, never the right kind of cake.” I made some sort of clucking noises of sympathy and we turned to other things.

I haven’t been able to shake the sense of this woman’s loss, her palpable disappointment, a hole from childhood that has yet to be filled.  It occurred to me that she needs to throw herself a big birthday party replete with a gooey cake, candles, soda, candy and whatever else her inner child pines for. She should invite her best friends and play games and celebrate having lived as long as she has.

When we’re children, if we’re fortunate children, holes are to dig, look through, step in and hide things in. Only as we age do the holes of our childhood experiences leave voids that pockmark our inner terrain like a slice of Swiss cheese. No one can fill these holes but us. And we must. Or we should. Whether it’s throwing a birthday party for yourself or taking that art class your mom couldn’t afford or learning to sing despite your second grade choir teacher’s pronouncement that you sing off key, when you get to a certain age, holes are no longer to dig.  Holes are to fill.

Happy-Birthday-Cake-111

Continuing Passover’s Thread

i-hM8DHW4-X3Passover Seder ranks as every Jew’s number one most favorite, most highly attended, most fondly remembered, most eagerly anticipated of any holiday dinner of the year.  OK, you’ll hear good-natured kvetching from the women who spend the weeks cleaning the house for Passover, days to weeks preparing the food, a day or two setting the table(s). But all of that fades away the minute the friends and family arrive, with more food, with other friends, sometimes with a newborn or two about to celebrate their first Seder. It is the most joyously AdobeOLS-X3celebrated Jewish ritual of the calendar, the most open to creativity, the one with the huge mix of pathos, humor, memory, innovation, tradition and more. If Pesach were a magnet, Jews would be the iron filings.

Two years ago I described a special Seder we hosted out here in Sedona. Our kids came in from both coasts. My sister-in-law and her partner joined us. Martin and I created a biblio-drama that included a walk through an actual dry bed replete with horses (living, not drowned) standing at the shoreline, and meaningful and memorable discussions the whole night through. But this year, this year can be summed up with Passover’s defining question: Why is this night different from all other nights?

AdobeOLSBecause this year we will be with neither beloved friends nor family. This year we will celebrate with fellow Jews most of whom we know only by name and nod; a handful of whom we can call friends, newly minted. This year, at Sedona’s wonderful synagogue in the desert, we will retell Passover’s epic story of liberation with people we will have just met and sing Dayenu by joining our voices to voices we’ve never heard. And we will be and feel perfectly at home. This is the magic of Passover, the magic of Judaism. This is the true staying power of Judaism. We Jews are turtles, carrying our religion, our learning, our memories and our connections on our backs. All we have to do is connect with even one fellow Jew and we are home.

There is a lot to be said for being home for the holidays, for having one’s children fly in, drive in, come and add another thread to the cloth of family traditions. Schedules didn’t permit our kids to be with us for Passover this year. They left yesterday after a wonderful week’s visit. This Friday and Saturday they will be celebrating in their own homes, leading their own Seders, and joining other families at theirs. Will we miss them? Absolutely. But not to distraction.

I want my children to create their own traditions. I want them to weave their own threads into their own fabric of Jewish life. I want them to take the Seder experience into their hearts by making it theirs, coming to know the satisfaction of innovating, of sharing their knowledge with others and putting their own twist on what they loved best from home. I want them to retell the story of liberation with a Hagaddah of their choosing (there are literally hundreds to choose from!) and lead their own discussions on the four children wise, wicked, simple, and the one who didn’t know enough to ask. Through liberation comes return.

And so my children — Elliot, Emma, and now Elizabeth — I bless you in Passover’s spirit. May you come through the high waters of fear and uncertainty unto the shores of safety and triumph. May you come to know your heritage in a new and joyous way. May you make new friends and deepen bonds to old. May you carry your shell wherever you go, find fellow Jews, and be home.

i-wrhxDwk-X3

‘Stay on the Trail’: Words of courage from Chicken Point

don't bust the crustOften when you hike in the state and national parks out west, signs are posted at the trailheads cautioning hikers not to “bust the crust.” The crust, called cryptobiotic soil,  consists of soil cyanobacteria, lichens and mosses. The microscopic filaments of the cyanobacteria  help stabilize the soil’s surface, creating a scaffolding from which other plants can take root and grow. These bacteria are determined little things, yet  the life-sustaining crust they form is so fragile. One careless footstep can crush decades, if not centuries, of growth.

This morning we hiked the Little Horse Trail, which leads to the Chicken Point overlook. Over the centuries, the wind has scoured the surface of the formations into undulating waves of red rock.  Posted by the crest of the trail was this sign that read “Healing in Progress. IMG_1848Please stay on trail. Thank you.” If you’re a regular reader of this column, you know I’m always looking for metaphors in Nature, delicious bits of guidance that might be found in a heart- shaped cactus  or a forest reflected in a river.

When I read the words Healing in Progress, Please stay on Trail my mind immediately went to the realization that we are all specimens of healing in progress, whether physically, spiritually or emotionally. One of us is recovering from surgery, while another is still processing the death of a loved one, and another is struggling to surface from being unemployed. Many someones struggle maintain a connection with G’d and their faith.

It takes so little to “bust the crust” of our existence.  A crass comment by a teacher can silence a student for years.  We wake up feeling fine until the lab calls with the latest test results, blasting us into realms we never imagined. Our spiritual needs changes. Or we change and are at a loss for the peace and community that might have sustained us our entire lives.

So we have to stay on the trail, mindful that others are healing whether we see their bandages or not. We have to walk gently in one another’s lives, offering help, minding our mouths, bringing fun and joy, giving space when solitude is the only balm.  And what of ourselves? How do we keep ourselves on the trail so we do not undermine our own healing in progress? We know what to do, but how many times to we regress, slipping back into unhealthy habits? If it’s addiction we face, keeping ourselves on the trail is a day by day, moment by moment act of recovery. If we are pursuing a goal whether it’s running a marathon, pursuing a degree or career advancement, staying on the trail will get us there sooner and successfully. Staying on the trail means learning the signs of our own self-sabotage and placing our feet ever more consciously.

It takes decades for cryptobiotic soil to grow to a stage where it becomes hospitable for seeds and grasses. Centuries can pass before the grasses give way to small shrubs, cacti and even a tree or two. We humans operate on a different scale of time. We do not have centuries. Some of us no longer have decades. But like the plants that take root in this beautiful soil, we have no idea what tomorrow will bring.

Today is the only day we can grow. This can be a good thing.

Healing in Progress. Please Stay on the Trail. Thank you.


Chicken Point

 

A Year of Kaddish Draws to a Close

Mom playing Broadway tunes.

Mom playing Broadway tunes.

Today is the last day of my year of saying Kaddish for my mother.

In Jewish tradition, Kaddish, a prayer whose Aramaic text mentions nothing of death but instead offers words of praise to God, is recited for eleven months by the adult child who has lost a parent or other close relative. One of the purposes of reciting Kaddish is to elevate to God’s side the soul of the deceased.  A Kaddish year actually only lasts eleven months, the philosophy being no one is so lacking that his or her soul needs intervention for a full year.

Viewed from the outside, reciting Kaddish can seem like an enormous burden. The mourner is commanded to attend synagogue twice daily, morning and evening. In the course of these two daily services (three actually, unless the afternoon and evening services are folded into one another as is done in my community), the mourner rises to recite the Kaddish prayer. Those present echo their responses and amens at the proper time. The presence of ten Jewish adults is a requirement for the Mourner’s Kaddish to be said. No ten, no Kaddish.

When my rabbi asked me, before my mother died, if I planned on reciting Kaddish for her, I recoiled. Mine had been a Jekyll-Hyde mother for so much of my life, the last four years being especially searing. Was she entitled to another year of my life and my psyche? Why not just cut my losses and move on? Did I really need to hang on?

In my heart of hearts, I knew that the rabbis who created our Jewish mourning rituals were a hell of a lot wiser than I was. I would participate to the best of my ability, maybe not daily but surely several times a week. As I have done with other Jewish rituals that are now a part of my life, I gave myself over to reciting Kaddish and found comfort and wisdom in its practices. The Children of Israel accepted the Torah with the phrase We will do and [thus] we will hear [understand.] (Exodus 19:8) So, too with Kaddish.

Mom and me, Miami, 1957

Mom and me, Miami, 1957

There is no word in the English for what transpired between my mother and me the last years of her life. Illness, unemployment, poor decisions, age, lifelong mentally fragility, and more came together, unraveling her life as she had lived it. I found an independent-living apartment situation that was ideal. She was grateful for my research and moved in with the help of one of my sisters. She made a good life for herself there, more active and socially engaged than she had been for years.

But before she moved in, she turned on me. She had played this dynamic before, not infrequently, and for much less reason. Whether it was buyer’s remorse, the impending loss of certain freedoms, the inevitability of her illness, or maybe just the irrational need to blame someone for the upheaval, I became the target for her atomic fury. She would have nothing to do with me, threatened me with a restraining order if I called or wrote, and with one volley that I doubt even Faulkner could have penned, told me she couldn’t wait to die so she didn’t have to know I was on this earth. I ceased and desisted.

Abandoned. Exiled. Threw me out. None of those words described my mother’s refusal to acknowledge me during those final years. A friend suggested amputated. That fit perfectly, for amputation’s intimation of violence, for its truth of irrevocable loss, for its reality of phantom pain—feeling and mourning the severed limb of my mother’s love and delight, her presence and our deep connection despite all the rest.

No one gets out of life unscathed; this was simply my refining fire. We grow the most from the experiences that devastate us, that force us to go deep within to face our truths, challenging us to emerge stronger, wiser, more resilient. Teachers come in many guises. My mother was a magnificent teacher and I mean it when I say that I am grateful for the lessons learned. Ultimately we found our way back to one another. The anger never left her, but her volleys became less frequent and vicious. Better still, I ceased to allow them to land. When her final day came, my sister held the phone to her ear so I could say my goodbyes. I expressed my love for her and my gratitude. “Go, Mommy, be at peace with God.” My sister said a shadow of a smile crossed her lips when I began to speak.

I waver sharing even this much, lest I be judged as petulant, unforgiving, an unrepentant daughter determined to sully the memory of a loved one who can no longer defend herself. None of that is my truth. Those of us raised by Jekyll-Hyde parenting belong to a singular club. If you’re not a member, it’s hard to fathom. A fellow member told me that when someone would say to her I can’t believe this she would simply reply Be thankful you cannot.

*                  *                  *

Today is the last day of my year of saying Kaddish for my mother. In these last forty days, I have moved from several times a week to daily attendance. Like Noah I have ridden out this storm of grief and will soon walk upon new land. By nightfall my identity as a mourner will be nullified. When the minyan leader calls, “all those in mourning or observing a yahrzeit please rise” I will remain seated. My presence will now enable others to stand.

I am grateful for this wise and healing ritual. In Jewish tradition, another name for God is HaMakom, The Place. Minyan became where I placed my grief within God’s care. In place of the love and presence I so wanted give my mother during her final years, I have offered daily respect for her memory, reawakened appreciation for all she gave me, and attained a wiser love for her and the good times we shared. Rest well, Mom. Rest and be comforted that you are remembered.

 

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The text of the Kaddish prayer:

May the great Name of God be exalted and sanctified, throughout the world, which he has created according to his will. May his Kingship be established in your lifetime and in your days, and in the lifetime of the entire household of Israel, swiftly and in the near future; and say, Amen.

May his great name be blessed, forever and ever.

Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, honored elevated and lauded be the Name of the holy one, Blessed is he — above and beyond any blessings and hymns, Praises and consolations which are uttered in the world; and say Amen. May there be abundant peace from Heaven, and life, upon us and upon all Israel; and say, Amen.

He who makes peace in his high holy places, may he bring peace upon us, and upon all Israel; and say Amen.