Balancing Life and Death: Yom Kippur Morning, 5783


Let me take you back to a few short weeks ago, when I was sick with Covid. I was idly poking around Twitter. I was feeling lousy, couldn’t really focus on books or even TV. And then someone I don’t know well posted that she was in shock. 

twitter logo

A friend of hers, who’d had Covid a few months prior, had kept a lingering cough from the virus… and had just died of a pulmonary embolism. Out of the blue. She seemed fine, aside from the cough, for which doctors kept giving her cough syrup and sending her home. But we know that Covid is often associated with surprise blood clots. Boom: pulmonary embolism, and gone.

I responded with Jewish tradition’s usual words of comfort, on autopilot. What I couldn’t help thinking was: wow, Yom Kippur came early this year! I meant, the reminder to take stock of my life and confront mortality.

Yom Kippur is sometimes called a day of rehearsal for our death. We wear white, like our burial shrouds. Many fast from food and drink, like the dead who need nothing. We recite the vidui confessional prayer, as tradition teaches us to do on our deathbeds. And we do big cheshbon ha-nefesh work — taking an accounting of our souls. Who have I been? Where did I fall short? If I’m lucky enough to keep living, what do I need to change? If I died tomorrow, what words would I want to have said – what amends would I want to have made – in order to leave this life with a clean slate?

I don’t expect to die of a surprise pulmonary embolism. But none of us knows how much time we have, Covid or not.

Pirkei Avot (2:15) teaches us to “Make teshuvah the day before your death.” But who among us knows when the day of our death will be? Therefore Judaism calls us to make teshuvah everyday. To do the inner work of self-reflection, and the outer work of changing and making amends, all the time.

i am dust and ashes / for my sake was the world created

The cards we gave you on Rosh Hashanah read, “The world was made for me,” and “I am dust and ashes.” Holding both of those truths at once is the quality we call Tiferet, our holy “and” of heart-centered balance. (And the theme of this year's Days of Awe.)

These awesome days themselves recapitulate and balance those truths

“The world was made for me” – that’s Rosh Hashanah. Hayom harat olam, “Today is the birthday of the world!” On Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the renewal of all creation.

“I am dust and ashes” – that’s today. I am dust and ashes means we are mortal. So what do we want to do with what Mary Oliver calls our “one wild and precious life”?

a heart in the middle of Texas

At the end of February, my son and I flew to Texas to say goodbye to my dad. He was eighty-seven and already pretty frail, and Covid hit him hard. By the time we flew down, we knew the end was near.

I remember at first being shocked at how much he’d changed. He floated around in time. Words weren’t always available, or they came out scrambled. He was often confused. He opened his mouth to be fed, like a baby bird.

And then I started to notice where my dad’s soul was shining through the fog. He couldn’t always come up with words, but he would look at my son and smile with a glint in his eye, and then tilt his head to the right until my son did the same, and then tilt his head the other way until my son mirrored him, and repeat until they were both laughing. It was like the physical comedy in old silent films. In those moments he couldn’t talk, but he could still tell his grandson a joke.

He had a favorite caregiver, a Black woman named Eddie. Sometimes he was lucid enough to tell me that she had reared ten children and had been through a lot. Other times he said she was his best friend and he’d known her for years. (He hadn’t.)

“This here’s my daughter,” he rasped to her one day, gesturing at me. “You know what she does?”

Eddie smiled at him fondly. “No, what?” she asked.

There was a momentary pause as he reached for words. Finally he blustered, “Well, ask her!”

He couldn’t remember what I do for a living. The word “rabbi” was missing from his brain. But he remembered that I do something that matters, something worth kvelling about.

“If I weren’t in jail, none of you would be here,” he said to me one morning. I asked him if he felt like he was in jail, and he shrugged.

At first I thought he meant the assisted living facility, but then I realized: he could have meant his failing body. His body that was giving out on him in so many ways had become his soul’s prison, and he was getting ready to go free.

waves on the shore

As they were dying, each of my parents showed something about who they most fundamentally were, deep down, when everything else is stripped away.

With Mom, it was her joie de vivre and her motto, “make hay while the sun shines.” With Dad, it was a deep care and sweetness, coupled with that confident glint in his eye. What do we hope will persist in us to the end? What qualities do we hope will shine through?

In the book of Exodus, Moshe asks Pharaoh to let his people go, and Pharaoh repeatedly hardens his heart and says no. At a certain point, the text shifts, and says that God hardens his heart. Which at first blush might seem sort of unfair: why would God do that? Our sages teach: when Pharaoh hardened his heart, over and over, he created that pathway in himself. He carved it deep with his own actions. All God had to do was let Pharaoh be who he already had chosen to be.

With every action, with every choice, we’re making internal pathways. And those paths inform who we are and how we are. If I walk an inner path of trying to cultivate balance, that path becomes well-worn and clear and easier to follow. If I walk an inner path of resentment, that too becomes self-perpetuating after a while.

It’s the spiritual equivalent of the old saying, “If you keep making that face, you’re going to get stuck that way.” If we keep making that face, we’re going to get stuck that way. So what face do we want to make in 5783? Okay, I’ve pushed the metaphor too far. But the truth within it stands: who we say we are is irrelevant. What matters is who our actions show us to be.

Dying tends to distill us to our essence, and we don’t get to choose what that essence is – except we actually do. We don’t get to pick something that looks nice, like choosing a sweater out of a catalogue – “You know, I’d like my inner essence this year to be pink and happy in the spring, and amber-colored and contemplative in the fall.” But we do get to make choices, and our regular daily choices will inform who we are and how we respond when push comes to shove.

Teshuvah

None of us can control when we die, but we do have some control over who we are in this life. The idea of teshuvah – that we can repent, can make amends, can do the work of change – means that who we’ve been doesn’t have to be who we’ll become. Balancing who we’ve been and who we’re becoming – there’s Tiferet again.

And, there’s no magic short cut. No game hack that gets us a high score we didn’t earn. Anyone can make teshuvah – and anyone who wants to make teshuvah has to do the work. And there’s no time like the present. Indeed, some say there’s no time other than the present. Now is all we have.

What changes would we need to make in order to be remembered the way we want to be remembered?

I’m not talking about the kind of new year’s resolutions some of us make on January first – “I want to be bikini-ready by summertime!” I’m talking about how we treat each other. What character qualities we bring to the fore. How we treat “the widow, the orphan, and the stranger” – the people most at-risk and vulnerable. (Maybe today it’s the trans kid, the disabled person, and the refugee.) Whether or not we’re doing something to make the world a better place. How we treat the barista or the Stop and Shop employee – or that person we don’t like who really gets on our nerves.

Because those are the face we show to the world. No matter what our self-image might be, everyone else experiences us through our actions and choices. And those actions and choices are how we’ll be remembered, when we’re gone.

pamphlet about the soul in Judaism; a yahrzeit candle

Earlier this summer a congregant came into my office, and we chatted about one thing and another. And just as she was about to leave, she held up one of the little Life Lights pamphlets from the rack in the back of the room, and she asked me, “Does Judaism believe in a soul?”

The one-word answer is yes. Yes, Judaism teaches that we have souls, and that while our bodies are temporary, our souls endure.

“No one ever told me that when I was growing up,” she said. “Honestly it would’ve sounded goyische.” As though Christians had a monopoly on spiritual discourse. Y’know what, they’re so focused on “saving our souls,” we’ll downplay souls altogether. And in some ways the early Reform movement did that, stripping out a lot of the mystical and supernatural language because it felt outdated, “Old Country,” not rational and modern – and yeah, maybe too evocative of our proselytizing neighbors.

But Jewish liturgy is full of references to the soul. The choir this morning sang a beautiful setting of אֱלֹהַי נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּתַֽתָּ בִּי טְהוֹרָה הִיא. – “My God, the soul that You have placed within me is pure!” Usually the soul is described as something that God gives to us, or guards for us overnight while we are sleeping and returns to us when we wake. Notably, our liturgy insists that our souls are fundamentally pure: no matter how we’ve screwed up, the light of the soul never dims. It just gets a little schmutzed-up by our mistakes, and teshuvah is how we clarify the soul so its light can shine.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that every Jew necessarily believes in an eternal soul or any kind of afterlife to which that soul might journey. “Two Jews, three opinions,” as the saying goes. If you’ve never heard this before, or if you don’t believe any of this, that’s okay, you still belong here. Even if you don’t believe in God, you still belong here! (Though remind me to send you R. Brent Spodek’s beautiful I (don’t) believe in God.)

As far as what happens to that soul once the body dies…? I can tell you that I have a book called Jewish Views of the Afterlife, and it’s several inches thick. Over the last 3000 years Judaism has offered many different visions of what might come after this life, ranging from blissful Torah study in the Garden of Eden, to reincarnation when a soul still has work to do or things to learn.

I find all of this endlessly fascinating. And in some ways it’s all beside the point. The question beneath her question was something like: is my beloved still here? I believe the answer is yes.

Many Jews believe that our dead remain accessible to us. Some say we can speak to them as we speak to God. Some say we can ask them for help, or to intercede with heaven on our behalf. Some say we may receive their answers in dreams, or in the world around us. Some say we may feel their presence in the wildlife that graces our path. (Rabbi Pam Wax has an extraordinary poem about that in her book Walking the Labyrinth.) And, of course, the silent Yizkor prayers we’ll say in a moment are a time when many of us go beneath our tallitot and connect with those who are gone.

“I am dust and ashes” doesn’t mean we’re trash. It means our time is fleeting. So what will we do with it? What do we hope will shine through us to the end? If we knew we were going to die tomorrow, what amends would we rush to make, and what words would we need to say… and how about doing those things today, every day, so we’re always ready to return to the Source from whence we came?

 

This is the sermon that I offered on Yom Kippur morning at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)


Abandon

 

כִּֽי־אָבִ֣י וְאִמִּ֣י עֲזָב֑וּנִי וַֽיהֹוָ֣''ה יַאַסְפֵֽנִי׃

"Though my father and mother abandon me, God will take me in.” (Psalm 27:10)



It’s the start of Elul 
and these words
stick in my throat.

They’d grown so tired.
I told them it was okay,
they could go. But right now

it isn’t okay. They won’t
ever sit at my table again.
Their voices are silent.

All the high holidays
I haven’t lived yet
stretch ahead of me

without parents,
just still photos
behind the lit candle.

It’s a scant six months
since we buried him
on his side of the bed. 

Having no parents
is so much more (or less)
than having only one.




Phone call


Your number is still in my favorites.
(So is Mom's.) This morning
I touched the screen by accident
and for an instant I dialed you.

I hung up quick as I could, before
the recorded voice could tell me
this number is no longer in service.
(As though I could forget.)

Opened my email instead, and
there in my inbox: a photo of you
and me, and my son (maybe five?)
at the zoo. To see you again

happy with your grandson...!
Maybe the tap of my iphone screen
came from the other side. It's been
three months, you're learning how

to place a call from there.
Good morning, Dad. I'm doing okay.
So good to hear your voice.
I had a heart attack just like you.

(I've been saying I wanted to be
more like you were in later life.
This wasn't what I had in mind.)
But I'm going to be fine. Last time

you were here we talked about
someday expanding my tiny mirpesset:
I did that this year. I like to think
you sit with me out there sometimes,

when you're not playing backgammon
with Phillip again, or taking Mom
to parties overflowing with champagne
where the band never stops.

 


 

If this speaks to you, you might also find resonance in Crossing the Sea, the book of poems that arose out of my first year of mourning my mom.

 


Interpretation

Forgetting where the car is parked
means something important left undone.

The structure deflated like punched dough
means vulnerability and self-blame.

The taxi that makes stop after stop for hours
is the same as the airport with no signs:

what made you think you had any control
over where you're going or when you arrive?

The suitcase that won't hold everything
means the same as the one left behind.

The empty hot tub at the top of the house
is ambiguous, but skylights mean hope.

 


 

None of these statements accord with any school of dream (or poem) interpretation I know. I'm also not sure how I feel about placing any single interpretation on a dream or poem. But both are worth holding up to the kaleidoscope, turning them to see what we learn from how the shapes (re)align.


Fine Dining

11390276_458225991007946_7098403927297921481_n

The Italian place I remember
had dark walls, and candles
in cut-glass red votive bowls.
I thought the owner was Polish.

He and my dad were buddies,
talked business, smoked cigars.
I wore black-patent Mary Janes,
drank Shirley Temples, feasted

on baskets of crusty bolillos:
French bread reimagined
into perfect torpedoes
by Mexican hands.

That's where Dad taught me
how to relish soft-shell crab,
and the names of big wine bottles
like Jeroboam and Methuselah.

All I knew about Methuselah
was that he lived a long time,
maybe forever. I thought
Dad would too.

 


 

The restaurant that inspired this poem was the original Paesano's. Here's a reflection on the place written at its 50th anniversary, and here's an oral history from Joe Cosniak. I went to junior high and high school with the daughter of co-owner and chef Nick Pacelli, of blessed memory. 

The photograph above came from Vintage San Antonio - A Photo History (FB). Meanwhile, bolillos are a Mexican roll which some trace to the period of French colonization in Mexico. I baked some today. Mine aren't as beautiful as the ones from Paesano's, but they're still pretty good.

Obviously my household of origin didn't keep kosher. I don't eat soft-shell crab anymore, but I remember loving them when I was a kid. Shrimp Paesano, too. Maybe it's just as well: let them be a memory, along with Dad's cigar smoke and the way he laughed with his friends.


After (the) Death - Yizkor

Screen Shot 2022-04-23 at 11.08.11 AM

We're in a slightly strange position today, spiritually speaking. We are a Reform congregation, and in the Reform world, Pesach is a seven-day festival -- as it is in Israel for Jews of all denominations. Today is no longer Pesach; it's "just" Shabbat, like any other Shabbat.

And yet we're saying the Yizkor memorial prayers today, which is a thing we do at the end of Pesach. We could have held a special service for the seventh day of Pesach and recited Yizkor yesterday, but most of us don't have the practice of taking off work for 7th day chag.

So here we are, preparing for Yizkor even though it isn't Pesach for us. This year, maybe because I am myself a mourner, I noticed something about the confluence of Yizkor and the Torah portion we read today, the first part of Acharei Mot, "After the Death."

The death in question is that of Aaron's two sons, who died after bringing "strange fire" before God. At the moment of their death, Torah tells us, Aaron was silent. Sometimes, loss can steal our ability even to speak. We have no words, because in that moment there are no words to have.

After the death of Aaron's sons, God tells Moses to tell Aaron not to come "at will" into the Holy of Holies, because God's presence there is so powerful that Aaron might die. Instead, Torah outlines a set of practices: here are the garments to wear, the offerings to bring, in order to be safe.

In Torah's paradigm, direct unmediated experience of God is dangerous. (That's why when Moshe asks to see God's glory, God covers him in the cleft of a rock face and passes by, and Moshe only gets to witness the divine Afterimage.) The rituals of sacrifice made contact with God safe.

Grief and loss can overwhelm us, even blow out our regular spiritual circuits. And they're meant to. This is what it means to be human: to love, and to lose. Our tradition's mourning rituals provide structure, telling us when to stay home and when to emerge, and when to give ourselves space to remember.

Reciting the Yizkor prayers four times a year gives a predictable rhythm to the ebb and flow of mourning. The prayers are the same, whether at Yom Kippur or Shemini Atzeret or Pesach or Shavuot, but the way we feel saying them might change over the course of the year -- or from year to year.

A loss that's brand-new can be raw and overwhelming, can steal our words and our breath. A loss that's decades old might feel familiar, more like a broken bone long-ago healed than like a stab wound. Yizkor carries us through from new sharp loss to old familiar recollection.

That shift might take years, and there's no way to rush it. Grief takes the time it takes, and we feel what we feel, and eventually the sharp edges become gentler. Saying Yizkor four times a year is our spiritual technology for plugging in to our losses in community in a way that's safe.

Suddenly it feels exactly right to me that this year's end-of-Pesach Yizkor coincides with reading this first part of Acharei Mot. Like Aaron, we are faced with the question of how to make meaning after loss... and how to feel everything we need to feel while also functioning in the world.

Aaron relied on ritual to safely enter behind the curtain into the place where God's presence was most palpable. And we rely on ritual in our practice of Yizkor, the words we pray as we remember our dead. This too is a kind of going-behind-the-curtain into direct personal encounter.

Even if you don't typically wear a tallit for prayer, I invite you to pick one up as we begin Yizkor. Wrap yourself in it; maybe it feels like an embrace. And when we enter into silence, go behind the curtain of your tallit and take some time to connect with memory and with those whom you've lost.

May our prayers and our song and our silence be a safe container for whatever each of us needs to feel. May this ancient practice hold us up and help us through. And may we emerge from today's encounter with loss and memory feeling present and whole, and sanctified, and not alone.

 

This is my d'varling from Shabbat morning services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Four Children

 


Grief, sometimes
you're the wise child reminding me

you wouldn't even be
at my table if I didn't love.

Sometimes you're the unruly one
insisting life is nothing

but an invitation to loss,
over and over. You sneer

care isn't infinite, only
this sea of salt tears.

Mostly you're the one
who doesn't know how to ask --

or how to answer
when you will depart.

 


 

This poem arises out of the haggadah's four paradigmatic children. Shared with gratitude to my fellow Bayit board member and dear friend R. Pamela Gottfried, who remarked to me earlier this week that "Grief is a wayward and rebellious child" -- which sparked this poem.


Four weeks

I'm fine
except when I'm not.
Four weeks since
the big green tent.
I can't bear to listen
to the saved voicemail.

Most days
I make coffee, pack
my son's lunch for school,
dodge the cold spring raindrops.
Then I remember seder is coming
and you're gone

not here
not anywhere, not even
in that plain wooden casket
that we lowered into the ground.
Minutes go by, sometimes hours
before I shake it off.

How do I get
this postcard to you?
If I light a cigar, will the smoke
reach where you are? Should I
burn this with the hametz
my son will find by candlelight?

Grief rises up,
becomes my spiritual practice.
Like a meditation retreat
it makes my skin thin,
opens my bruised heart.
My mikvah is tears.

 

If this speaks to you, you might also find comfort in Crossing the Sea and/or in Beside Still Waters.


Unmoored

51971262293_0ba80e4cdb_c

My parents in Moscow, late 80s or early 90s. 


Everything feels unfinished. Every thought that comes to mind is a sentence half-spoken. I jot down one clause -- "the death of a parent casts a long shadow" -- and then I don't know where to go from there. 

Pesach is coming sooner than I think. I start a seder menu, then my efforts trail off. I'll have one vegetarian, one picky eater, and one diabetic. I can't think of a good main course to suit all of us.

I open a book I've read before, Black Sea, by Caroline Eden. It's a travelogue with recipes. She writes about how surprisingly Jewish the food of Odessa is. Tsimmes and forshmak are Ukrainian foods.

She describes sunny afternoons, the still air of quiet museums, pastel-colored architecture slowly decaying, literary stories of ice cream. Today the streets are filled with sandbags and barricades

At the end of the Odessa chapter she offers a recipe for black radishes and carrots with caraway and cider vinegar and honey. I have those things! But what to eat them with? I run out of steam again.

Why am I struggling to concentrate enough to get even the simplest things done? Why does everything feel dulled? My friend's reply is gentle: "Do I need to remind you, you're still in shloshim?" Oh.

This feels different from grieving my mother. When Mom died, the sorrow was sharp and intense, the emotional equivalent of a gaping chest wound. Dad's death lands differently, but it still lands.

I keep returning to the mental image of a door closing. I feel like a game piece that has been invisibly advanced on the board. As though my parents, when living, had stood between me and mortality.

In some ways, they're always with me. I greet Mom when I pass by her photo, or her honeymoon purse from 1954, or the ceramic mezuzah in my hallway that came from her desk. I talk to her all the time.

I will learn to talk to Dad, too. And yet I can't call them on the phone or hug them. Their siblings are still here, and of course my own siblings are still here, but my world feels qualitatively different. 

Yes, this twitchy sense of distraction and incompleteness is grief. My world has shifted on its axis and I haven't altogether regained my footing yet. I feel unmoored and drifting in my little boat.

I'm not lost; I can see the shore. But I don't have a paddle, and I don't think trying would get me there anyway. I have to trust the tides and the simple passage of time to bring me home.


Graveside


Rectangular hole.
Pile of earth
draped in astroturf:

like a challah
shyly enfolded
while we bless

candles and wine,
like a Torah
covered for modesty.

This pine box
is a cradle
for an empty shell.

What's left after
what made him
my father,

big
and alive,
is gone.

 


The scene was exactly as I expected: a dark green tent above an array of folding chairs, a large rectangular hole in the ground next to a pile of earth discreetly draped in astroturf. I braced myself.

And then I noticed. The hole is over here, and the tent, and the astroturf. And their shared headstone, with Mom's name and dates engraved on it, is over there -- some twenty feet away.

"They dug the hole in the wrong place," I said, out loud. Disbelief gave way to laughter, edging up to hysteria. One of the undertakers had a phone to his ear, pacing and gesturing as he spoke.

As each of my siblings arrived, and my father's siblings, I watched as they went through the same mental process. Here's the hole... but wait, there's the headstone. Something's wrong. They're not together.

I decided that my parents were relaxing on lounge chairs in olam ha-ba, cocktails in hand, laughing. "Never mind the weather, long as we're together," I sang, imagining Mom singing it to Dad. 

It took a while to disentangle, but it turns out that my father's grave was dug in the correct place. The grave where we buried my mother three years ago...? That plot turns out to belong to someone else.

Two days later, a few of us reconvened at the cemetery to consecrate Mom's new grave. The headstone was moved too; now it sits like the headboard of a bed. They're each buried on the correct side.

I sang El Maleh Rachamim over my mother's new grave, planting my feet to draw strength from the earth. Two parallel mounds of earth, as though we had just tucked them both in together to sleep.

 

51936537189_15f965ff96_o


Perpetual fire

Screen Shot 2022-03-18 at 8.28.02 PM

 

"A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out." (Lev.6:6)

 

Kindling is easy.
I nudge a lighter
with my thumb:

instant flame for
the shiva candle
on my counter.

After seven days
that flame dies.
Does my father

recede further? No --
his eyes are gone
but not the spark

that lit them.
The altar is gone;
the fire's not.

The Temple's gone
like dad's body,
returned to earth.

The Shabbes table
is an altar now,
complete with salt.

There are candles,
but they aren't
fire forever burning.

The fire forever burning
is the fact of Shabbes,
the act of Shabbes.

And my father?
Cigar smoke lingers
like priestly incense.

If I can
hear his voice,
remember his laugh

he's still here
though I can't clasp
his hand anymore.

We remember Shabbat.
We remember our dead.
The fire does not go out.

 

This poem serves as my commentary on this week's Torah portion, Tzav, offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel and cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog there.

Written in memory of my dad Marvin Barenblat z"l, for whom I've been sitting shiva all week.

I'm particularly fond of the Torah poem for this parsha that appears in 70 faces, too: Tzav: Command


Marvin Wolfe Barenblat z"l

Collage

Top row: wedding and honeymoon in 1954, and in the middle, a party at my grandparents' house in 1956. Middle row: Dad and me, circa 1976, 1984, and 1980. Bottom row: with my kid in 2014, with Mom and kid in 2015, with kid and me two weeks ago, not long before the end.

 

1. 

We buried my father, Marvin Wolfe Barenblat z"l, on Friday. He was eighty-seven years old. He was generous and funny and opinionated. It will be a while before I really understand the spiritual impacts of the fact that that both of my parents are now gone.

There are so many stories. How he grew up in San Antonio with immigrant parents. How he met my mother. Work and travel and parties. (Everyone agrees that my parents knew how to have a good time!) The places he went, the stories he told, the bargains he struck. His gregariousness. His smile.

Mine are small stories, the stories of a youngest daughter. Just as the photos above are photos that are not necessarily representative of the whole: these photos show my parents as newlyweds, then my father and me, then my father and my child. These vignettes are the picture of his life that I can most easily paint. 

2. 

One of my earliest memories is waking up in the morning and taking my clothes into my dad's walk-in closet to get dressed there. I remember Dad splashing water at the fogged-up glass doors of his shower, and making faces at me, and making me laugh.

When I was five, my parents built a lakehouse on the Guadalupe where it feeds into Lake McQueeney, and we went there often. I used to feel sorry for our cat Leland who would yowl in the car, so I'd let him out of his carrier and he'd walk across the dashboard and Dad would yell. (Dad complained about the cat, but in early mornings he'd beckon, "c'mere, Lele," offering a ramekin of milk.) On the way to the lake we'd stop at a convenience store to get ovals of hard spicy cured sausage hanging on strings.

I remember Dad driving the boat in the evening, maybe with scotch and soda in a Texas-sized styrofoam cup that said Dad's Roadie. (Mom had those cups printed for him, back when it was legal to take "one for the road.") I remember him perched sideways on the side of the boat, his hair windblown, pushing up the throttle to pull whoever was about to ski next. I also remember that he would get frustrated if someone was struggling to get up on skis, and I never wanted him to be frustrated with me.

3. 

Dad encouraged me to try new foods. As a child I craved his attention, so I became an adventurous eater. I especially enjoyed escargots (and the joke he would tell, the one with the punchline "look at that S-car go!") He always let me taste his wine. As a little girl I remember chirping, "My favorite wine is Chassagnet Montrachet!" to the amusement of his friends. Relatedly, he taught me the names of big wine bottles -- magnum, Jeroboam, Methuselah. 

The year I was ten we lived in Manhattan. Dad spent part of that year in traction with a ruptured disc, but most of my memories of him from that year are of Dad enjoying city life: smoking his cigar on the tiny balcony of our 37th floor apartment, or taking Mom and me to the theater and to as many restaurants as we could visit. There was a Chinese place he really liked called Pig Heaven. For a treat, he would take me to Serendipity for frozen hot chocolate.

Once when I was a teenager my mother was away and Dad took me out for dinner. I dressed up, in a denim miniskirt and big flashy earrings and lots of eye makeup. We overheard a scandalized fellow customer -- "Look at that man, isn't he embarrassed to be out with a girl that young, she could be his granddaughter!" He thought that was hilarious. When I was 14 and we visited Egypt, Dad joked with merchants in the Cairo souq about whether he would sell me if they offered enough camels. 

4. 

Dad had a notorious temper. (When he pitched a fit, Mom called it "having a piñata.") Relatedly, he disowned me on my 18th birthday because he was mad at me. A week later he took me out for enchiladas at Brown's on south Hackberry, where his father used to take him, and he told me, "I wouldn't sell you for $100, kid." That was his way of apologizing.

A number of years later he also took me for enchiladas at Casbeers, which sparked a poem. Both of those establishments are long gone now. Dad knew San Antonio inside and out; aside from one year in Manhattan, it was his forever home. He'd worked in construction with his father as a newlywed, and he remembered before all the elevated highways changed the shape of the city. He used to drive around and reminisce -- that's where we used to live, my mother had a chicken coop in the back yard...

When my parents were young they traveled to Acapulco with friends at least once a year, and to Las Vegas ditto. Later in life they traveled the world. They went to Kenya with two couples in 1982 -- their friend Sy was a hematologist studying blood-borne diseases in primates -- and they stayed at the Treetops lodge. They went to China with friends around then too, and when they came home they showed slides on the dining room wall.

During the years when he owned a crystal import business, they traveled in Eastern Europe several times a year for work. Once I was with them on a business trip there, and Dad took me to a place in Frankfurt that served the very best schweinshaxe -- pig's knuckles -- so I could try them too.

5. 

So many of my memories of Dad involve food. He snacked on spicy pickled okra, and on Ba-tampte pickled tomatoes that he cut into quarters and ate with a fork. He never cooked, but was a master at the grill. At the Barn Door, he used to eat steak basted in butter alongside twice-baked jalapeño potatoes stuffed with cheese. He'd grown up kosher, but my parents never kept a kosher kitchen. (Though when some of their kids became kosher, they made sure that family meals were kosher so we could all eat.)

In my childhood home he always kept a box of See's toffee that came with a tiny golden hammer. He pretended it was our secret and Mom didn't know it was there. That felt conspiratorial and sweet. When I was in college he sent me boxes of that candy, much to the delight of my friends. Later in life he ordered Enstrom's toffee to arrive at my door and my sister's door every December like clockwork. He loved being able to give people food or wine that he knew they would enjoy.

When I was in my twenties, my mom encouraged him to come north and visit sometimes without her. Once he and I walked from my office to Jack's Hot Dog Stand a couple of blocks away. It was a beautiful but frigid January day, with a crystal-clear blue sky and a wind chill around -20 degrees. For years he marveled about it, retelling the story again and again: "That sky was Texas blue, but the air was so cold it was like being smacked in the face with a frozen porcupine!" What a turn of phrase. 

6. 

In the last 20 years or so, Dad came often to seders at my sister's house. He used to comment on how different our seders had become -- his childhood seders were speed-sung in Yiddish! He spoke some Spanish and some Yiddish because those were languages his parents spoke. I'm told he gave his bar mitzvah speech twice, once in English and once in Yiddish.

His parents died on the same day in 1971. He told me that though he said daily kaddish for eleven months when his parents died (because he knew it mattered to Nana and Papa) he didn't care if his children did the same -- unless we would get something out of it, in which case he wouldn't stop us.

Dad used to tell me that being a Reform Jew was the best thing in the world because as long as you paid your temple dues, no one would tell you what you could or couldn't do! That made me laugh at the time, though in retrospect I hear something deep in it: for him, what mattered was supporting Jewish community and taking care of that community, not whether or not you kept Shabbes or kept kosher.

I remember sitting with him on a patio in Hot Springs, Arkansas, when I was in my early 30s (so he was in his early 70s.) We were there for the wedding of a cousin who, like me, bears his mother's name. He was wearing a warm brown blazer, smoking a cigar, and enjoying the crisp cool air. He told me he'd had a great run, and wouldn't mind dying whenever the time came. I've thought of that often lately.

7. 

Dad hated that Mom got sick at the end of her life and that no amount of medical intervention could save her. He would sit on his smoking porch with a cigar and shake his head and mournfully say, "I just don't understand how something like that could happen to someone as good as her." After she died, he visited her grave every day except for Saturdays when the cemetery was closed. 

When we visited him last, about ten days before the end, Dad was frail and confused and skipping around in time, asking where Mom was or speaking earnest paragraphs of word salad. But he managed to ask me if I needed anything -- trying to take care of me to the very end. He was charming and flirty with his caregivers.

He told his favorite caregiver that I was his youngest daughter. "Yeah? What's her name," Eddie prompted. "You ask her!" he retorted without missing a beat -- he couldn't remember my name, but he knew I was his kid. He also said to her, "You know what my daughter does?" (No, what, she asked.) "Ask her!" He couldn't remember the word rabbi, but he wanted Eddie to know that what I did, mattered.

The last day I saw him, I sang a line of "Hey, good-looking, what'cha got cookin,'" -- released in 1953, when he and my mom were courting -- and he sang the next line back -- "How's about cookin' something up with me?"

That morning he said something like, "If I weren't here, none of you would be in jail," gesturing around the room. I asked him if he felt like he was in jail and he shrugged. I told him that we were all there to be with him, and he smiled. But looking back, I think he knew that his life was ending -- I think "jail" was his body, after COVID and a heart attack and a stroke and everything else -- and he was ready to go.


Six million

Download

I've always felt the shadow presence of the six million. I grew up steeped in stories of villages, communities, lineages destroyed. My grandfather made it, but his family didn't. Six million Jewish lives ended by Nazis -- their absence was palpable. Silence where there should have been song. 

This morning the Washington Post reports that the global death toll from COVID-19 has reached that same awful number. How will the world be shaped by these six million deaths and the absences they leave behind? How can we begin to grapple with this staggering amount of global grief?

My father is slowly dying. Over the winter he survived COVID, and both of the hospitalizations that ensued. But the virus and its complications changed the amount and quality of time he has left. Surely countless others are in that same position: death hastened by COVID, even if not caused by it.

No one wants to sit with this grief. We want to celebrate things reopening. Return to restaurants! Shed those masks! Don't we want to be together? I feel it too -- the bone-deep yearning for a post-pandemic world. I am not an expert, but I'm pretty sure we are nowhere near a safe post-pandemic yet.

Many of us are anxiously watching Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the concomitant misinformation war. And the normalization of white supremacy and calls for political violence here, which tend to go hand-in-hand with antisemitism. (If your anxiety levels are skyrocketing, you are not alone.)

And yet I wonder whether the relentless headlines are keeping us from the grief work this moment asks of us. It's March again. Two years since this pandemic began turning the world upside-down. How can we sit shiva for six million? If we don't find space to grieve, how can we ever hope to heal?


Trail

On your third yahrzeit
I said kaddish
riding on a speckled roan
surrounded by live oak
and prickly pear.

My horse was first in line.
I wanted to watch my son ride
but maybe this was right --
aren't I still
following you?

That morning
Dad asked where you are
three times.
Each time I answered
I watched him lose you again.

Magnified and sanctified,
I whispered in Aramaic.
My horse's ears twitched.
The mourning doves
murmured amen.

 


On my mother's third death-anniversary (on the Jewish calendar) I was in Texas with my son, visiting my father who is receiving hospice care. I wanted my son to have some sweet memories of this trip alongside the hard ones, so I looked for a place where we could go on a trail ride, somewhere not too far from town. I commend West Creek Trail Rides to you; all of their horses are rescues, and they're lovely. 

While the mishna teaches that one should dismount from a donkey before praying, the sages of the Talmud do permit praying while riding so long as one can pray with kavanah, intention and attention. (Brakhot 30a.) They were talking about the Amidah, but I think the teaching applies. And I know my mother would have been tickled by my unusual location for saying kaddish and remembering her.

 

If this poem speaks to you, you might find meaning in Crossing the Sea, published by Phoenicia -- poems chronicling my mother's death and my first eleven months of mourning.


The wilderness of not knowing: Ki Tisa 5782

In recent weeks we've been reading Torah's instructions for the mishkan, the sacred space that we build so God's presence may dwell in us. Soon we'll start reading about the actual building thereof. But in between the blueprints and the construction, in this week's Torah portion, there's another story.

"When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, 'Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that fellow Moses -- the man who brought us from the land of Egypt -- we do not know what has happened to him..." (Ex. 32:1)

Golden-calf_Time for the Golden Calf.

This year I'm noticing a new emotional valance. Moses went up the mountain, and they probably expected him to come right back down. But he didn't. And the path ahead began to seem uncertain. Maybe they felt like life was on pause, or felt uncertain when they would start moving again.

Instead of that nebulous uncertainty, they wanted something tangible. Don't tell us you don't know how long it will be: we want to get back to normal now. Just make something up so we can feel normal now, because the not-knowing and the waiting are psychologically and spiritually uncomfortable!

I think we know that feeling. And if that's sometimes true for us, how much more true it must have been for our spiritual ancestors emerging from slavery? Not knowing can be terrifying, especially for someone unaccustomed to freedom. They were like children: seeking easy answers, resisting growing up.

The thing is, there's holiness in the not-knowing. There's holiness in opening ourselves to the uncertainties of wilderness. It's no coincidence that our ancestors hear God's voice most clearly in the wilderness. The midbar (wilderness) is where God m'daber (speaks) -- or at least, where we hear.

Right now I'm in a different kind of midbar, a different kind of wilderness waiting. Some of you know that my father, who is eighty-seven, has been in and out of the hospital this winter with COVID and then post-COVID complications. He's now receiving hospice care. The end of his journey is beginning.

And we don't know when the end will be. The weight of that not-knowing is tremendous sometimes. There's a temptation to lurch toward certainties, to clutch at "answers" that aren't really answers. To think: what can we throw at this to yield a nice, satisfying answer that will get us back to normal?

But there is no "back to normal" when someone is dying. I can't go back to the years when he was vital and vibrant, because this is a new part of his journey now -- and mine. So I'm in the wilderness. It's not comfortable, sitting with mortality. I empathize with the Children of Israel making that calf.

And I know that this wilderness has something to teach me, if I can quiet my racing thoughts and anxious heart in order to learn. This is my own wilderness -- mine, and my family's. And... soon we will reach one million COVID deaths in the United States. There are a lot of us in this wilderness.

This week's Torah portion reminds me that it's tempting to clutch at whatever we think will make us feel better. Anything to push away this not-knowing, whether the uncertainty is personal (like my father's trajectory) or communal (like COVID). Not knowing what comes next (or when) is uncomfortable.

Today's golden calves are a bit subtler than the literal statue in Torah. Maybe we focus on denial of death, or on our outrage about the latest horrific headlines. Either way, we become like the guy in the Zen parable about the teacup: keeping our cup so artificially full that no wisdom can pour in.

This Shabbes, let's take time to be with the not-knowing. We don't know when death will come: that's not just true for my dad in hospice. We don't know when the pandemic will recede. We don't know when Moses will come back down the mountain. Let's open our hearts, and let the not-knowing in.

 

This is my d'varling from Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires. (Cross-posted to my new From the Rabbi blog at CBI's new website.)


Through

 


"You're home from the hospital," we prompt
our father, back in assisted living.
"No I'm not," he insists. "This isn't home."
I wonder which house he's remembering.
He thinks he's somewhere temporary.
In the end, does the body feel
as extraneous as the oxygen tank
he keeps forgetting he's tethered to?
But there's country music at happy hour
and he tells himself stories
that turn his nurses into old friends.
He knows he's somewhere temporary.
A mezuzah gleams on the final door.
We don't know when he'll go through.

 


Making it new

"Make it new!" It's been over 20 years since I got my MFA, but that command still resounds. I remember learning it from Liam Rector, of blessed memory, then the director of the Bennington Writing Seminars. Liam was big and brash and often urged us to "make it new," though the thing he said most often was "Always Be Closing" -- words that took on new resonance after his suicide.

"Make it new" comes from Ezra Pound, or so I learned at the time. It turns out those words are quite a bit older, and I'm glad to know they originate with Ch'eng T'ang, since Pound turns out to be a fascist and an antisemite.  The poets to whom I most frequently turn are masters of taking the familiar and making it new. Naomi Nye, Jane Kenyon, Mary Oliver: they make it look easy. 

This requires both noticing (like Moses at the burning bush) and craft. I want to do what they do. I want to weave something luminous and lasting out of the threads of daily life, like the cloak of mitzvot the Zohar says the righteous will wear in the world to come. But sometimes I sit down at my loom, as it were, and the threads break in my hands. This week is one of those times.

My father's been in the hospital with COVID. I've been bracing for a death that has miraculously not come. (The miracle is the vaccines; his doctors said so repeatedly, as though we needed convincing.) It's not clear what "recovery" will mean, but I'm not racing to Texas for a funeral. A week ago, I was sure I would be. Finally I can exhale. But I don't seem to have poems in me now about that.

I don't have poems in me now about the terrorist attack at the synagogue outside of Fort Worth, or about how it's rippling into Jewish community life. I don't have poems in me about what it feels like to sit with my community and talk about what we would do if. Someone can probably make great poems out of balancing spiritual vulnerability with a panic button, but not me, not now.

I don't have poems in me about the spike of adrenaline every time my child has a symptom, or I have a symptom, or a loved one has a symptom, after two years of pandemic. I don't have poems in me about the constant sense of living in Schrödinger's box: is that an ordinary virus or is it COVID? Should I use one of our few at-home tests to find out? If I use a test, can I trust the results? 

How can I make any of this new? This is everyone's constant companion. Maybe all I can do today is name it. It begins to seem likely that COVID-19, like antisemitism, will never go away. (As I read in Nature, "endemic" doesn't mean "over.")  Maybe we will adjust to seasons of relative safety and togetherness, and seasons of relative isolation: both as Jews, and as human beings.

Today the sky is blue. The squirrels have broken the bird feeder and climbed inside, scattering seeds for the mourning doves. Under the snow marked with animal tracks, I know that there is a garden in hibernation. I know that today's realities are not forever. The Jewish spiritual calendar, like the seasonal calendar, draws my eyes toward the horizon. Even now, I live in hope.


The well


It's not that the well's run dry.
The walk feels too far. It's uphill
in the snow both ways, and
who has the strength to carry
those dangling buckets balanced
on their shoulders now? I'll stay
on this secondhand chair, wrapped
in my mother's holey shawl.
Make another cup of tea, stay quiet.
Grief sits with me by the fire.
Out the window, tiny birds track
hieroglyphics across the icy ground.

 


 

Originally this poem had a couplet about the 5.49 million COVID deaths worldwide (so far.) I removed it; it feels too direct, it belongs in an essay and not a poem. But as a Jew I'm always mindful of the number 6,000,000, and it's horrifying that we're creeping up on that number of COVID deaths. All of which is to say: if grief is your companion by the fire these days, you are not alone. 


A poetry reading and conversation about grief - on Zoom - on January 9

PamAndMe
Love poetry? Experienced the loss of a loved one? Join a Zoom conversation (at 7:30pm ET on Sunday, January 9) with two poet-rabbis about how we used poetry to navigate the grief of a loved one.
 
The evening will feature Rabbi Pam Wax, author of Walking the Labyrinth, and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, author of Crossing the Sea, in a conversation about poetry and grief work moderated by Rabbi Nancy Flam, a pioneer in the field of Jewish healing and contemporary spirituality. Hear poems from both books, along with conversation about grief work, poetry, and prayer.
 
RSVP for Zoom link to cbinadams at gmail dot com.
 

The ones who come after: Vayechi

Vayechi

This week's parsha is Vayechi, "He lived." It opens, "Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt, so that the span of Jacob’s life came to one hundred and forty-seven years." (Genesis 47:28) As with Chayyei Sarah ("The Life of Sarah") earlier in Genesis, this parsha named after someone's life is actually about their death, because only at the end of a life can its wholeness be measured. 

Joseph brings his sons to their grandfather's bed, and Jacob asks, "Who are they?" Maybe he doesn't recognize them. Maybe he knows they're related to him, but just can't recall their names. Joseph says, "these are my sons, whom God has given me here." I like to imagine that his voice and demeanor are gentle. It's okay that you don't remember; I can tell you who they are. 

I learned the term "benign senescent forgetfulness" from John Jerome z"l in his book On Turning Sixty-Five: Notes from the Field. As a writer and a runner he was fascinated by the effects of aging on body and mind. Benign senescent forgetfulness is the natural tendency of the human brain to start losing track of things. It's normal. As we age, some of what's in our brain just... falls out.

Of course, memory loss can become disabling. I wonder how Jacob handled his inability to remember his grandsons. Did he get frustrated by the mental holes where knowledge used to be? More broadly: could he take comfort in memories of his wives and children, his travels and adventures -- or did disappointments and losses take center stage as other memories slipped away?

Sometimes memory loss sparks paranoia. Because the world doesn't feel right, and words and memories aren't within reach, elders with dementia often lash out at their children or caregivers. That came to mind this year when I read Jacob's parting words for each of his sons. Some of those words are loving and kind; I like reading those. But some of his words seem belligerent, even cruel. 

In Jacob's case, given what we know of his children's lives, some of his anger may be justified. For instance, he accuses Shimon and Levi of violence. I can understand where that's coming from, because they did make violent choices. He intimates that Reuben encroached on Jacob's marriage bed with Bilhah, which may be supported in Torah - though some commentators disagree.

What jumps out at me is how common that accusation is. My grandfather z"l levied a similar accusation  near the end of his life. (Women often accuse their children or caregivers of stealing their things.) We all knew it wasn't true; it was dementia clouding his mind. But it's still painful to hear words like those, especially from someone who had previously been generous of spirit. 

This year I wonder: how did Jacob's deathbed words land with his grown children? Did they find any comfort in the knowledge that some of these words might have been rooted in dementia? And is it fair to blame the curses on dementia while holding on to the blessings that accompanied them? Because some of what Jacob says at the end of his life is gentle and tender!

He compares Judah to a mighty lion; Naftali to a beautiful deer; Joseph to a colt strengthened by God. And to his grandsons Ephraim and Menashe he offers a poignant blessing, saying, "May the angel who keeps me from harm bless the ones who come after!" (That's R. Irwin Keller's singable translation.) And then Jacob pleads, "In their name, may my name be recalled." (Genesis 48:16)

You may recall that he had two names: Ya'akov, "the Heel," and Israel, "God-wrestler." Remembering his names means remembering the whole: the shrewd young trickster, and the patriarch changed by his wrestle with God, and all of his roles and identities in between. When we look at the whole of Jacob's life in this way, I think it's easier to have empathy for how his story ends.

I do think it's okay to blame the curses on dementia while holding on to the blessings. For me, the blessings come from a true place. They come from a heart flowing with love that wants to bestow that love on the generations. The bitter words or curses come from a false place, a mind clouded by confusion. I believe that the loving words are real, and the hurtful words aren't.

And what about us, "the ones who come after?" We're called to compassionate memory. When we remember all of who he was, his "name is recalled in us." Our task is to recall the choices and adventures and accomplishments of our patriarch's lifetime. To hold with compassion the whole of his story: the beginning and middle that came before this runway toward an end.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul at Kabbalat Shabbat services (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Art by Yoram Raanan