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

 


Dislocation

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I haven't been to Texas since the unveiling of mom's headstone. The backpack I use when traveling has been in the closet a long time. In its pockets I find paper remnants from the Cuba trip in 2019.

I also unearth my pocket Koren siddur which I had given up for lost, and a wooden coin that reads (after Simcha Bunim) on one side "for my sake was the world created" and on the other "I am dust and ashes."

Flying for the first time in almost two years was always going to be strange. Flying for the first time during a global pandemic, even more so. Thankfully no one is belligerent about wearing a mask.

To make the day even more surreal, it turns out my local airport has been redone. New parking garage, new traffic flow, new everything. Delta still flies out of the B gates; at least that hasn't changed.

On the first plane I watch Roadrunner, the Tony Bourdain film. I loved his writing, and the way he brought the world into our living rooms. I loved how much he seemed to love the wide world.

There's a sense of dislocation in the film. The dislocation of travel, especially the kind of travel he did 250 days a year. The dislocation of a world where his light shines now only in memory.

My mother was still alive when he killed himself, because I remember talking with her about it a little bit. She was shocked. He seemed to have it all, she said more than once. She admired his work too.

Of course, Tony's suicide shapes the story. Not only his absence, but how much the people who knew him best miss him. I ached to see their anger and grief at his inability to stay in the world with them.

Then again, his loved ones didn't have to see him live to lose his words and his machete-sharp wit and his prodigious memory. Maybe he thought he was doing them a kindness, making his own exit.

Still, I'll bet his daughter would've chosen to get more time with him, even if that meant that she would one day endure the heartbreak of watching his mind and his memory and his awareness disappear.

Loss of memory is the most profound dislocation I can think of. It's often old memories that linger like cigar smoke. The hardest thing is making space to grieve what's been lost -- what's being lost. 

Or maybe the hardest thing is grieving the losses without perseveration, without getting stuck in them. Feeling them, and then letting them go -- like the words and memories that recede into mist.


Destination

This time in the black Suburban
leading the hearse

and the parade of blinking cars
I remember the drive

to the cemetery in San Antonio
the day we buried Mom.

I don't think I'd ever been
on those roads before, or

if I had, they were different
from this new vantage.

So many switchbacks and turns
past small houses, yards dotted

with pecan and crepe myrtle trees
though nothing was blooming.

After today's burial
my friend the undertaker

asks about the meditation labyrinth
behind the synagogue.

It's a contemplative practice,
I explain. It's not a maze

where it's easy to get lost.
There's only one path.

Take your time, notice
where your footsteps land.

We don't know how or when,
but we all know the destination.

 

 

If this poem speaks to you, you might enjoy Crossing the Sea, published by Phoenicia. It's my collection that moves through the first year of mourning my mom. 

I should also mention Walking the Labyrinth by my friend and colleague R. Pamela Wax, a new collection of beautiful poems of grief and transformation.


Local Call

 


I talk to you all the time --
there's a portal in my bedroom,
that glassy silvered frame:
us on a boat in the harbor
on the Fourth of July. Plus
another one upstairs (you
and dad beside an autumnal tree)
and the one from your eightieth,
where you're wearing off-white
and we're all arrayed around you
like lilies in a bouquet.
But walking into a cemetery
feels like plugging in, the
internet of souls humming
all around me. And this
exposed rectangle of earth
is just like the one where
two thousand miles away we buried
you. While I sang El Maleh today
one of my hands was twined
in this scarf you gave me,
its silky burgundy tassels
tucked tastefully into the neck
of my sober black suit. I hear
your voice every morning
when I enter my son's room.
As I murmur to him and flip on
the light, you're belting
"Good Morning To You" with
young Debbie Reynolds flair.
Today in this gold autumn sun
you're almost here, singing to me.

 

 

If this poem speaks to you, you might enjoy Crossing the Sea, published by Phoenicia. It's my collection that moves through the first year of mourning my mom. 


Rainy day

Last night the rain woke me. I spared a moment to feel grateful for the roof, then went back to sleep. When my alarm sounded the world was swaddled in cloud. I won't relish the time change -- the "fall back" side of the coin -- though I'll be grateful to have more light in the mornings, at least for a while.

I read in Milk Street that in Korea it's traditional to eat pajeon (scallion pancakes) on rainy days. The sound of the batter sizzling in the pan is said to evoke the patter of rainfall. I've never been to Korea, and the prospect of traveling feels implausible now, but look: here's a recipe. Almost like travel.

Two funerals to prepare for, this week. I say this out loud to one of the photos of Mom that I brought back from her house after her funeral. The photo doesn't answer, of course, but thinking of Mom makes me think of clothing, which reminds me that I need to go to the dry cleaner's before Thursday.

You can't go wrong with a black suit, Mom would say. She'd travel with black clothes because they are versatile. One day she'd add her garnet beads, another day a bright scarf. She'd be drinking tea, if she were here. For Mom, cold rainy days were for making soup. Minestrone, maybe, or tortilla soup.

I like to leaf through her recipes, though I don't cook most of them. I brought two tins of Spanish paprika back with me after her funeral, though, and I like cooking with that. It's faded; I should use more of it than recipes call for. But I don't want to use it up. Another tether that I don't want to cut.

Flavors


Paying respects

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Synagogue cemetery.

Fewer people come to the cemetery service each year. When I began serving this community, ten years ago, we would have at least a dozen. We'd set up a circle of folding chair and pray the afternoon service. And then people would take pebbles and quietly walk through the cemetery, leaving stones to mark their visits to parents or grandparents or great-grandparents. Some members of my shul are fourth or fifth generation; they have ancestors to visit here. 

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Older stones.

These days only a few people come. Many of those who used to attend the cemetery service each year are now buried in that same cemetery. I like to think that I am still davening with them each year when we convene on a Sunday before Rosh Hashanah.  There was one gentleman who always used to come to the cemetery service and then quip, "Rabbi, don't forget, you're doing my funeral!" And I'd always say, "No time soon, please." 

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Mom's grave. San Antonio.

The custom of visiting our ancestors at the cemetery before the new year feels old-fashioned. It comes from a time when people didn't migrate much. Today most of the members of my small shul are not fourth- or fifth-generation members. They're transplants, like me. I've been here now for almost thirty years (and have served as the rabbi here for a decade.) This is my home, and my son's home. But our beloved dead aren't here.

My mother's parents; my father's parents. San Antonio. 

My mother and my grandparents are buried in San Antonio. For great-grandparents, I'd have to cross an ocean. In 1993, we visited Prague (my grandmother's and my mother's birthplace) and we went to see my great-grandparents in the "new" Jewish cemetery from the 1800s. I remember my grandmother's satisfaction at being able to visit her parents' graves again. She told us how they used to picnic there with the ancestors on Sundays.

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My grandmother and aunt at my great-grandparents' graves. "New" Jewish cemetery, Prague, 1993.

It feels right to pay our respects to the dead before beginning the new year. To remember that one day we too will return to our Source. This afternoon I will hold a smooth pebble in my hand and I will think of my beloved dead. I'll think of them too when I make challah before the new year: round, like the year, and studded with raisins for sweetness. Their headstones are far away, but their presence is as near as memory. 

 

 


Anniversaries

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Two years ago this weekend, I was writing about experiencing shiva from the inside. My mother had just died and the world had turned upside-down. I felt tender, thin-skinned, permeated with grief. How could the world keep turning with her gone?

One year ago this weekend, I took my son to Boston to see his cousin in the national touring production of Fiddler on the Roof. (She played Chava. She was dazzling.) We had Shabbat dinner with family, then all trooped into the Emerson Theater.

I remember consulting with friends beforehand about whether it was safe to go. Surely we were safe from the virus here? I decided to bring Clorox wipes in my purse, to use on the gas pump handle on the Mass Pike on the way home, just in case.

That was the end of the old normal. I look now at the selfie of my kid, my friend, and me in the theater and I shudder: we were surrounded by so many people! And no one was masked, of course. None of us knew anything about masks, then. Not here.

If someone had told me that half a million people would die in the USA alone, I'm not sure I would have believed them. If someone had told me that there would be three working vaccines within a year, I'm not sure I would have believed them.

Sometimes I can't believe Mom's only been gone for two years. It feels longer. I think because this last year has been interminable, and grief-soaked, and horrifying, and it's almost unthinkable that she never knew anything about any of this. 

Sometimes I can't believe that Mom's been gone for two whole years already. The first year was a fog of grief. The second year was... well, a fog of grief, again: not intimate and personal, but global. Time takes on a strange quality, when there is grief.

This morning I spotted a first brave spring shoot beginning to push up through the frozen soil in my front yard. It was 22 and windy here today: nothing else is beginning to green yet, but this one hyacinth is eager for the growing light. I am, too.

I'm eager for the day when we can shed our winter garb again. When we can greet one another outdoors -- even if it's still masked and at a safe social distance, again. And oh, to think of the day when we will be able to embrace again...! 

Something I used to take so for granted. A simple hug. The clasp of a hand. A tight embrace from a friend. I miss it more than I can say. I miss it the way I miss Mom. I won't see Mom again in this life. But someday, the rest of us will hug again.


A fog, a weight, a program running in the background

"I don't know why everything is so hard," you say to me. Everyone's hitting the wall, I point out. We're reaching one year of global pandemic. Even if we're okay, it's okay with an asterisk. Okay within global pandemic parameters. Not the same.

You protest: "but I'm fine. I'm not sick. My family isn't sick. I don't know why I'm struggling so much. I'm healthy, I have a job, I have electricity and internet, I'm as lucky as anyone can be. And yet life still feels like slogging through cold molasses."

I can't tell you how many people have said those things to me. (So if you're reading this and thinking, "Is she blogging about our conversation?" the answer is, I've had this conversation lately more times than I can count.) Almost everyone is struggling.

As longtime readers know, I've lived with grief (the end of my marriage, mourning my mother's death) and I've lived with depression. As we reach the end of the first year of COVID-19, I think a global pandemic is a little bit like both of those. 

The pandemic is a fog: we can't see the future clearly, or plan, or dream, or anticipate. The pandemic is a weight pressing us down, always there. It's a program running in the background, draining resources and slowing processor speed. 

*

Half a million people have died in our nation alone. Five hundred thousand human beings. Remember the horror of learning that 100,000 had died? Now it's 5x that. And then there's "long covid" -- people who survive, but don't get well. 

New and deadlier variants are sprouting. Asymptomatic spread means we never know whether we are carrying a deadly pathogen that might kill the next person we breathe near. That's background noise in our hearts and minds, now, always.

Last spring most of us believed that if we sheltered in place for a few weeks, we could stop the spread and that would be the end of it. And then two weeks of staying apart turned into two months turned into a year and we're still nowhere near done.

Sure, we've grown accustomed to wearing masks, social distancing, not embracing, not shaking hands, not being indoors with other human beings who aren't in our quarantine pods. But it's still impacting us in countless subconscious ways.

Purim is in a few days. Last year, Purim was the last holiday we celebrated with others before lockdown began. Traumaversaries are real. And it's February, which doesn't help anything, at least here where I am. So if you're not okay? You're not alone.

*

There is light at the end of the tunnel. We've made it through the darkest part of the winter. Warmth will come. The ability to see each other outdoors will come, and that will relieve some of our isolation, and some of the feelings of being stuck in place.

Vaccines will come. The rollout has been slower than we might have hoped, and we all know people who are trying to get appointments only to learn that supply has run out again. But vaccines exist, and they work, and they will reach everyone.

We will make it to the other side of this sea. For now, what I can offer is this: it's okay to feel the way you feel. (I mean. It's not okay. It's miserable. But it's normal and human and you are truly not alone in it, even if you feel isolated in every way.)

Be gentle with yourself, and with each other. If you can, seek out little ways to be kind to yourself. For me that means hand lotion as a treat for winter-dry skin, coffee, a bouquet of bright flowers, cooking good food. You'll know how best to take care of you.

Be gentle with yourself. If you're finding that it takes longer to get tasks done, or if you can't get them done at all. If you're forgetting things, or struggling. If you feel hopeless or low. Be gentle with yourself. I promise, life will not always be this.


Crossing the Sea

My mother and I had a complicated relationship. Over the first 43 years of my life we adored each other; we argued with each other; we delighted each other; we disappointed each other. Just now I had to look at a calendar to remind myself how old I was when Mom died: sometimes it feels like she's been gone for a long time, and sometimes it feels like she's still here. 

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time at all, you know that I'm an external processor. I "write my way through the hurricane." (Thanks, Lin-Manuel.) In rabbinical school I wrote Torah poems week after week. When I miscarried, I wrote poems as I sought healing. During my son's first year of life I wrote weekly poems chronicling his changes... and mine.

How else could I possibly respond to my mother's death? I keened and grieved and wept -- and wrote. When I was in my MFA program in my early 20s, she didn't like some of my poems; they felt too revelatory. Would she find these poems too intimate to be shared? I shared early drafts here anyway, because I needed to send the words out: into the world, if not to her.

Many of you wrote to me saying that the poems spoke to you and mirrored your experiences of loss. Over the course of the eleven months between her death and her unveiling, I wrote my way through how grief was changing me, and changing in me, until I reached the far shore of that particular sea. I will never cross it in that same way again, because one's mother only dies once.

And then, after the year was over, I sat down with a trusted friend and editor and asked: are these poems worth publishing in a less ephemeral form? Beth helped me see how the poems could be improved, and what was missing from the collection, and how to make the book more than the sum of its parts. This book is far better for her editorial hand, and I am grateful.

I am fiercely proud of this book of poems. It is a tribute to Mom, and a testament to how much she shaped me (and continues to shape me). It's a reminder that relationships can continue after death, and that time's alchemy brings subtle shifts. It's personal, because our relationship was only ours... and I think it's universal, too, because we all have mothers, and we all know loss.

If you knew Liana Barenblat, I hope you'll find her here. And if you didn't know my mom, I hope you'll find in these poems echoes of your own relationships, and maybe a roadmap for the mourner's path, that complex journey of grief and love, loss and healing. I'm so thankful to Beth Adams at Phoenicia for bringing this book to press, and for her cover art, which I love.

Introducing...

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Crossing the Sea - Phoenicia Publishing 2020

Special pre-order price $14.50 (US)
Regular price after Nov 30, $15.95

 

Heart-full, love-rich, rapt with intricate attention and memory, but never shirking the hard parts, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat shares a sequence of stunning poems  for her late mother. Her voice is honest as a tree.  This is an extremely moving book for anyone who has known grief,  and feels captivated by how the conversation goes on. 

–Naomi Shihab Nye, author of The Tiny Journalist and Transfer, among others

I knew Rachel’s mother. We came from the same small Texas town, ate the same mango mousse served in a fluted ring mold. Rachel captures the complexity of their relationship through similar telling descriptions and snippets of dialogue, then a miracle happens. My mother is there, too. Crossing the Sea moves past the personal as women readers identify and remember, laying these pebble poems on their own mothers’ stones.

— Nan Cuba, author of Body and Bread, winner of the PEN Southwest Award in Fiction

Rachel Barenblat’s poems open us to the heart of mourning: grappling with the loss of a parent, with whom our relationship was so close yet so complicated. She captures the tension between love and discord, the thrust and tug of distancing and reconciliation. She takes us with her on a winding path of grieving over the seasons of a year. Through that prism she refracts two lifetimes and three generations, rendering them with emotional honesty and insight. I was moved, I was brought back to my own loss, and I was brought a little closer to healing.

— Mark Nazimova, Jewish liturgist, New York City

Pre-order Crossing the Sea for $14.50 US now.

 


Remembering on two calendars

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My mother died during a leap year. I don't mean a Gregorian leap year, where we get one extra day in February. Jewishly speaking, a leap year happens seven years out of every nineteen. When it's a Jewish leap year, we get an extra month. The month of Adar happens twice.

Because Mom died during a leap year, the disjoint between her secular death-anniversary and her Jewish death-anniversary this year is profound. Maybe the disjoint is always profound, but this first anniversary feels especially so. I live by two calendars. I have two death-anniversaries to feel.

I knew that on February 26, Facebook would remind me of the photo montage I posted last year when she died. (I had been selecting favorite photos during the days of her dying, reliving memories of when she was vibrant and alive.) I've been bracing myself for that cheery FB reminder.

Honestly, even if FB didn't remind me, I would remember anyway. Significant dates stay in my memory -- a first kiss, a last Shabbat together -- and when they roll around again, I feel their echoes. Their imprints. They are stones cast into the heart's pond, and these are their slow ripples.

As Mom's yahrzeit begins on 21st Adar / March 16 I'll light a 24-hour candle. I'll say kaddish in community. I will learn and teach and dedicate my study that day to her soul's ascent. But what might I do to mark February 26, the secular anniversary of her departure from this life?

I put the question to Twitter, and was moved by the responses I received. Some mark a secular death-anniversary with a visit to running water -- or go out for a special meal -- or give tzedakah in their names -- or do something creative -- or keep the day open so there is space to feel...

Before today arrived, I thought about how I might mark the day. I wondered whether I would be brave enough to watch a clip of her playing the piano, or listen to a recording of her voice. I hadn't tried either since she died, knowing that hearing her voice or her music would sharpen the ache of missing her.

I also know that it is an ache I am fortunate to feel. Because it means she is a person worth mourning, and this is a relationship worth mourning. There is a bittersweetness there. And the ache has shifted over this first year. It has a different quality now than it did when her death was new.

The days leading up to the anniversary felt poignant too. During last year's February break from school, my son and I went to Texas to tell Mom goodbye. (She died three days after we returned home.) This year at that time I spent a few days in New York with a friend and our sons.

I brought one of my mother's jackets to the city with me. It is plush, deep red, and adorned with lines and colorful squares. Mom loved Manhattan. I remember her wearing that jacket in the city when I was a kid. So I wore it there in her memory. A way of bringing her with me.

I remember her especially on this day that marks one year since she died. But there is an intimacy now that wasn't present when she lived. I carry her with me wherever I go, in a way I didn't need to do (and maybe couldn't do) while she lived.  That's what I hope she knows, wherever she is. 

 


Bodies and stones

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It's been a while since the last time I helped with taharah, the washing, dressing, and blessing of the body of someone who has died. Once I became single, the dynamics of finding childcare for my son on a moment's notice shifted. Also as The Rabbi, when someone dies I'm usually occupied with funeral preparations. I haven't been able to say yes to helping with taharah in a while.

In this case (and this is not usual), I'm not presiding over the funeral -- and the person who died wasn't a member of my synagogue community, either. Before she died, her family reached out to ask whether we would care for her body before the casket is taken to the place where the funeral will be. I'm glad that after considering the ask, my congregants said yes.

There is something poignant about being asked to step in and help with this mitzvah during the days immediately preceding my mother's unveiling (the dedication of her gravestone) over which I will soon preside. I remember a conversation I had at her burial: a man I did not know, telling me that he had sat with the casket overnight so that her neshamah wouldn't feel alone.

This is how the fabric of community is woven. We step up and we do these things for each other, mitzvot that cannot possibly be repaid. We tenderly pray over and wash and dress each body before burial. We sit with each casket so that the soul of the deceased does not feel fear during the tender transition out of this life. We shovel graveside earth with our own hands.

The pebble I will place on my mother's grave is smooth and grey. I carried it in my pocket as I did taharah, linking this mitzvah done for a woman I did not know with the same mitzvah that strangers performed for my mother. Tomorrow I'll fly with this pebble to Texas. Sunday I'll place it on Mom's stone, a reminder that she is remembered, a marker of my passage through.

 


Dear Mom (as Chanukah approaches)

Mom, you're on my mind as the the shortest day approaches. A few years ago you commented to me that it was almost the solstice and that you couldn't wait for the day when the balance would shift and we'd be moving into longer days. I was surprised and moved to hear you say that. It's something I never realized we had in common: a visceral dread of the darkest days of each year, a feeling of inchoate relief when we could tell ourselves that the sun is slowly returning. Probably we both carry some version of seasonal affective disorder in our bones, though you would never have claimed that label. You never wanted to call yourself sad in any way. You didn't even want to call yourself sick, even when the disease that claimed you had fully settled in.

Mom, you're on my mind as Chanukah approaches. A kaleidoscope of memories: the giant plexiglass dreidel you one year asked me to decorate, and the cornucopia of gifts that spilled forth from it. The year I wanted to light the Chanukah candles myself for the first time but got scared by the match, and dropped it, and left a burnt spot on the dining room carpet. Singing Maoz Tzur beside the flickering candles.  Fast-forward: the year your father died during Chanukah, while I was in college. I had an a cappella concert that night, and the harmonies of "In Dulci Jubilo" brought me to tears. Fast-forward: the year my son was three and we first lit Chanukah candles together over Skype. Your visible sense of wonder at sharing that with him from afar. 

It's so strange to me now: for all those years when I could have spoken to you any time I wanted, I so often didn't feel the need. And now that you're gone, the fact of your absence is a constant presence in my life. The fact that I can't tell you things -- or I can, but you can't answer. Maybe I'll be blessed with a dream. But it's not the same as the immediacy of being able to pick up a phone and tell you a story and hear your response. Every day when I go to send a photo of my son to his grandparents, my fingers want to type your email address first, even though you've been dead for nine months. We hadn't celebrated Chanukah together in ages. But the fact that you're not in this world anymore makes the approach of Chanukah feel different, this year. 

What would you say if you could hear me? You'd tell me not to be maudlin. You'd point out that you're not suffering anymore. You'd remind me to enjoy what I have. You'd urge me to make hay while the sun shines, and to light candles against the season's darkness. To pour a glass of something tasty, and toast whatever sources of joy I can find. To set a pretty table at Chanukah, and gather friends for celebration. To enjoy my child's glee at opening gifts, winning at dreidel, unwrapping (and eating) chocolate gelt coin by coin. Mom, in your honor and in your memory I'm going to bring out the giant wooden chanukiyah that my brother made years ago. Its big bold tapers will blaze, just like they did in your house, and every night we will welcome more light. 


Yom Kippur: Come... and Prepare to Go

YK-header-2

A few days before my mother died, I sat by her bedside with my phone in my hand. It had been a tough morning. Even with the oxygen cannula in her nose she had struggled to breathe. She was anxious and she was clearly suffering, and she kept asking, "when will the pain stop?" We gave her morphine, and we gave her morphine again, and eventually she drifted into sleep.

For about two years I'd been working on editing a volume for mourners called Beside Still Waters. We were almost ready to go to press. I had the manuscript on my phone, and while my mother slept I pulled up the section of viduim, confessional prayers to recite before death. I whispered, in Hebrew and in English, words of deathbed confession on her behalf:

"Grant me and the beloveds of my heart, whose souls are bound with mine, the grace to accept this turning of the wheel of life. Before You, God of Mercy and Grace who pardons iniquity and does not destroy, I forgive all who harmed me in my life. May their hearts be at ease, as I release all anger and pain from them into the dust of the earth. As I have forgiven, so may You forgive me all my shortcomings. By this merit, preserve my soul in peace..."1

And when I was finished with the words on my screen, I sat there for a while just praying the same thing over and over: please God let it be gentle.

Yom Kippur is a day of rehearsal for our death. Some of us wear white, symbol of purity, like the white shrouds in which all Jewish dead are buried. Some of us fast from food and drink and sex, life's temporary pleasures that the dead no longer enjoy. Some of us eschew leather shoes -- a custom also practiced during shiva -- because stiff leather shoes represent what protects our tender hearts from the world, and at Yom Kippur and during shiva alike, our hearts are meant to be soft and open.

On Yom Kippur we all recite a vidui prayer. We recite it evening and morning and afternoon and again before nightfall, affirming together that we know we have fallen short, alphabetizing a list of our missings-of-the-mark. On Yom Kippur we recite the vidui in the plural: we have sinned, we seek forgiveness. Before death, the vidui is recited in the singular.  I have fallen short... And from the awareness that I have missed the mark comes the next step, so necessary before leaving this life: I forgive. I ask forgiveness.

Yom Kippur is a day of rehearsal for our death. It's also a day of recognizing our losses: today is one of the four times of the year when we say Yizkor, the memorial prayers, reconnecting with the memory of those who have died. It's a day of facing mortality, not only our own but everyone's. And despite all of these, it's meant to be a day of profound joy. Because this day is the culmination of the season's journey of inner work, and by the close of this day we're supposed to know ourselves to be forgiven.

How do we square that circle? How can today be a day of preparing for death, bracing for loss, and also a day of exultation and joy?

My answer to that question this year comes from my mother, of blessed memory, and what she taught me in her final days of life.

A few days before my mother died, I was sitting with her in her room and I seized the moment. We were alone together, and I didn't know if I would get another chance to speak with her without my dad or my child or another family member in the room. So I knelt next to her wheelchair and I said something like: Mom, I'm so glad that you were my mother. And if you're tired and you're ready to go, it's okay -- we'll be okay.

She got weepy for a minute. (We both did.) She said "I should be thanking you!" And then she straightened in her chair and said, "Let's go downstairs, it's cocktail hour."

That was my mom. She texted her children when she entered hospice, reminding us not to be maudlin. She didn't want us to be sad; she wanted us to celebrate.

I can laugh about it now, "it's cocktail hour," "don't be maudlin," but my mom was teaching me something. On that last Friday of her life, the day that began with her struggling to breathe and needing morphine again and again -- the day when I whispered the deathbed vidui on her behalf, afraid she might not be verbal again -- she rallied in the early evening.

To everyone's surprise, she came downstairs, where all five of her children and one of her grandchildren were gathered for Shabbat dinner. With the oxygen cannula in her nose she drank wine, and she ate steak, and she visibly enjoyed being with us.

That night, as she lay back on her pillows, she murmured, "It's been too short, but it's been sweet." My son and I were leaving early the next morning, and I thought: maybe she means our visit... and maybe she means the last 83 years. I didn't ask. I told her I loved her one more time, I kissed her goodnight, and I went downstairs. We left Texas at the blessed crack of dawn. Four days later, we returned for her funeral.

I learned from my mother in her last days to "make hay while the sun shines." To enjoy what life gives me to enjoy while I am here to enjoy it. To be grateful for what's good, and to let go of what's not. Because no matter how long we live, life is too short to do otherwise.

Ten years ago when my son was an infant, my mother came with me to a rabbinic school residency to take care of the baby while I was in class. She befriended some people, because that was Mom: always interested in, and curious about, those around her. And one evening she said to me, with an air of amazement, "Rachel, I think everyone here is a spiritual seeker!"

I said, "Of course they are, Mom. They're in rabbinical school."

And she said, "I don't think I've ever searched for anything my whole life!"

I don't actually believe that, for the record. I think that for a variety of reasons she was invested in seeing herself as an ordinary person, not "spiritual" or "a seeker" or "on a journey." But I think she was all of those things. I think we all are.

Come, come, whoever you are; wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving...

We're all wanderers. Arami oved avi, "My father was a wandering Aramean" -- so says Torah, and the traditional haggadah begins our fundamental story of liberation there, with the wandering that led to our enslavement in Egypt. My mother was a literal wanderer, from her birth in Prague to a lifetime in the United States. But even those of us who never leave our hometowns are on a journey of growth and becoming and discovery. That's what spiritual life is. That's what life is, if we're paying attention. And oh, today is a day for paying attention.

We're all worshipers: in Hebrew, mitpallelim. The Hebrew l'hitpallel, "to pray," literally means "to discern oneself." We pray in order to discern who we most deeply are. Each day, or each week, or even if it's only once a year: we speak the words of our liturgy, words of awe and gratitude, words of supplication and hope, and we see how the words feel in our mouths and how the words feel in our hearts. Maybe we've changed since last time we spoke these words. And maybe in some ways we haven't changed at all.

And we're all lovers of leaving. Or, at least, we all leave -- like it or not, ready or not, we will all die, someday. We all enter this life, and we will all leave this life. In between... well, what we do in between birth and death is up to us, isn't it?

Jewish tradition instructs us to make teshuvah, to repent and return and turn ourselves around and do our inner work, the night before we die. Of course, none of us knows when we will die... so there's a custom of making teshuvah every night before bed. Pausing every night before bed to think back on the day, on who we've been and what we've done. Making amends for the places where we missed the mark. Forgiving those who harmed us, and asking for forgiveness from whose whom we've harmed. In this way, if we should die before we wake, we've done what we can do.

I learned that from studying texts of our tradition. And from studying the text of my mother's living and my mother's dying, I learned the wisdom of looking back on a life and choosing to see the good in it. She could have focused on life's disappointments and hurts -- I know for a fact that her life included them, as every life does. But she chose to uplift what had been good, and let go of the rest. From Mom's last days, I learned the wisdom of trusting that we're forgiven, and the wisdom of actively seeking joy and connection until the end.

Today, on this Yom Kippur, I invite all of us to practice what I learned from my mother's dying.

What would happen if we looked back on the last year and choose to see the good in what we've done and who we've become? What would happen if we allowed ourselves to trust that we can be forgiven -- indeed, that when it comes to God, we always already are forgiven, no matter what? What would happen if we approached this day with a sense of joy in our connections that can't be broken -- with those whom we've loved (even if they've left this life) -- with our own souls -- with our Source?

I think that's how we get from sorrow at our mortality, and our imperfections, and rehearsal for our death, to the joy that today is meant to hold. It's not an either/or: it's a both/and. Today we prepare to die, and we also rejoice that we've lived. Today we face our shortcomings, and we also affirm that we can be better. Today we hold on to what's important, and we let go of all the rest.

Today when we say the Yizkor prayers, I'll say the memorial prayer for a parent, which is still new on my tongue. And then I'll go under my tallit, and I'll talk to Mom, wherever she is now. I'll thank her for teaching me, both in how she lived and in how she died.

May this Yom Kippur journey of wandering, and worshipping, and preparing ourselves for leaving, bring us closer to our Source and closer to who we're meant to become.

 

 

Come, come, whoever you are

Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving

Come, come, whoever you are

Ours is not a caravan of despair.

 

It doesn't matter if you've broken your vows

A thousand times before: and yet again,

Come again, come, and yet again...

בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה:

נָע וָנָד, מִתְּפַּלֵל, אוֹהֵב לָצֵאת.

בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה:

אִין זוּ שַׁיָירַת יֵיאוּשָׁה.

 

מַה נִשְׁתַּנָה שֶׁנִשְׁבְּרוּ נְדָרִים

אֶלֶף פַּעֲמַיִם לִפְנֵי כֵן,

עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב - בּוֹא שׁוֻב, בּוֹא.

עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב ...

 


1. These words come from an interpretation of the deathbed vidui by R' David Markus, published in Beside Still Waters.


Fragments: digital ghosts, gratitude, and grief

Ripple

1. Digital ghosts

Modern life is full of digital ghosts. Like the google cal popup that appears on my laptop screen to helpfully remind me of "our anniversary!" My ex-husband or I must have input that into google, and for reasons I don't understand, I can't make it go away. As though I could ever forget the date, what it was, what it meant. I didn't need my calendar to poke me in that bruise.

Or the first time I shared a photo of my mother on Facebook after she died. The algorithm startled me by recognizing her face and tagging her in the post. "With Liana Barenblat," the post proclaimed, and the words took my breath away. Facebook thought I was "with" my mother. I will never be "with" my mother again -- not in body, not in life. That preposition made me cry.

 

2. With and without you

I try to experience these automated algorithmic responses as a gift from the universe, a reminder of connections that have shaped me, even when relationships or lives are over. Still, sometimes being surprised by these reminders feels like a gift, and sometimes it feels like a wound is re-opened. Grief is a scar that sometimes unexpectedly becomes an open wound again.

Our online spaces can connect us in profound ways, but they can also isolate us, or activate us, or evoke our grief. So often we perform happiness in digital / social media spaces: look how beautiful my life is! As a result, we're sharing a skewed vision of who we really are. We're erasing or eliding the people who are missing. The aches of divorces and deaths and endings.

 

3. Making waves

I understand the appeal of the carefully-curated digital footprint. It allows us to share the life we wish we had, a life of only sweetness. I try hard to cultivate gratitude, for this recipe or that sunset, that moment or this friend. I like sharing glimpses of those kinds of things, in part because doing so helps me cultivate mindfulness and a heightened capacity for gratitude.

But I also want to be real. I don't want to pretend that life is picture-perfect, and I don't want to use spiritual practices as a crutch to help me in that pretense (or any pretense). Life is beautiful, and life is painful -- both of those are always simultaneously true. And grief is not a linear journey. Sometimes a stone gets tossed into the heart's pond, and makes waves.

 

4. Its own reward

So how can I react to these digital ghosts and the griefs they awaken: online reminders of my wedding, or of my mother who has died, or of friendships that evaporated or hopes that didn't come to pass? The only answer I have is to feel whatever I feel -- the sorrow, the wistfulness, the regret -- and to thank my heart for its capacity to feel both the bitter and the sweet.

And I can choose to be real, even in digital spaces. Even when what's real is a hurt or an ache, a memory or a sorrow. Because I think being real with ourselves and one another is what we're here for in this life. Because I think spiritual life asks our authenticity. Because life is too short for pretense. Because being real comes with its own blessings, its own reward.


To the Management

I would like to register a complaint
about grief. Whose stupid idea was this?

Whichever angel was in charge
of giving human beings capacity

to move through sadness and then
feel better -- they screwed up.

Even after four weeks, grief is a wave
that hits sometimes at chest height

and sends salt water up my nose.
To make matters worse, it's

an ocean wave that swamps me
at the grocery store -- I'm not even

at the goddamn beach. Grief is
a pane of glass two feet thick

that crushes me like a pressed flower.
Grief is the same menu over and over.

Grief is banal as a crayon drawing
by someone else's kindergartener.

I would like to exchange this grief
for something that fits me better,

in a more flattering color.
I would like to set it afire, kindled

on a bed of crumpled tissues
and return it to Sender.

 


The details: Vayikra

GOD-IS-IN-THE-DETAILS-ARCHITECTURE-POSTER-CINQPOINTS-0-e1468415713734Little meditations on this week's Torah portion.

 

This week we're reading from Vayikra. The name means "And [God] Called" -- it's the first word of this week's Torah portion, and indeed, the first word of a whole new book of Torah, the book known in Hebrew as Vayikra, known in English as Leviticus.

My first Talmud teacher, Rabbi Judy Abrams z"l, used to say that she loved Leviticus most of all. When I was a new rabbinical student, I struggled with that. Why would one love Leviticus? So many details about offerings, ashes, kidneys -- holy barbecue!

But I've come to see Vayikra / Leviticus in a different light. Vayikra is all about details. Those offerings on the altar were how we used to say Thank You, and Please, and I'm Sorry. They're written down in detail because details are how we show what matters.

My mother, of blessed memory, used to say that we show respect for each other by dressing well. For her, that meant always having manicured nails, always choosing nice jewelry, always wearing lipstick, always a spritz of Bal á Versailles perfume.

For the priests, a few thousand years ago, dressing well meant linen garb embroidered with bells and pomegranates. For our Torah scrolls today, dressing well means a woven mantle depicting words from psalms, and our willow tree and our mountain.

Could we store a Torah scroll in a sack? Sure, if we had to. But we show respect for the scroll, and for its contents, and for God, by dressing the Torah in beautiful garb, down to the carved wooden or filligreed silver yad (hand) hanging from one handle.

We used to say Thank You, and Please, and I'm Sorry to God through offering pigeons, or meal offerings, or fat on the altar. Now we use the words of the siddur (prayerbook) and the words of our hearts. And maybe we also use music, or meditation, or tears. 

But the details matter. We show respect for the tradition, and for God, and for each other, with our attentiveness to detail. The details of how we pray, or how we dress the Torah, or how we make a practice of reaching out to each other in community.

After my shiva for my mom had concluded, someone asked me why we need ten for a minyan. Why can't we just say the prayers with however many people we have? And indeed, we do say Mourner's Kaddish at my small shul regardless of numbers.

But the tradition says that ten constitutes a symbolic community. Ten is a community that can bear witness to someone's words, and to someone's grief. And in my time of mourning, it mattered to me to respect that tradition -- to honor that detail together.

Because God is in the details -- or can be, if we take the time to look. That's the message I find in Vayikra this year. God is in the details of how we come together, whether for shiva or for a simcha (joyous occasion). God is in the details of ensuring a minyan.

God is in the details of the casserole brought to a mourner's home so they don't have to worry about cooking. God is in the details of my mother's manicure and her jewelry. God is in the details of the offerings that once helped us draw near to the Holy.

May we seek God in the details, and may we find God there, now and always, every day of our lives.

 


By the numbers

Miles I moved
in order to define myself

not as anyone's daughter
but as the center

of my own story: two thousand,
more or less.

Years she lived
with a diagnosis: eight.

Weeks since she died: two.
Number of times

I've reached for my phone
to show her something

(look, Mom, I'm finishing
the needlepoint you started)

-- without limit.

 


Beside Still Waters: now in print

Bsw postcard v2 4.5x6.5 in_Page_1Now available!

 

Beside Still Waters: A Journey of Comfort and Renewal

New from Ben Yehuda Press and Bayit

$18 

 

Beside Still Waters: A Journey of Comfort and Renewal is a book for mourners, for those who will someday become mourners, and for those anticipating their own journey out of this life.  It offers liturgy both classical and contemporary for different stages along the mourner’s path, from prayers for healing (even when “cure” may be out of reach) and prayers to recite before dying, to prayers for every stage of mourning: from aninut (the time between death and burial), to shiva (the first week of mourning), to shloshim (the first month), the culmination of the first year, yahrzeit (death-anniversary) and yizkor (times of remembrance).

This volume features  traditional words alongside renewed and renewing interpretations and variations.  It contains complete liturgies for shiva accompanied by resonant new translations, evocative readings, and complete transliteration.  It also contains prayers for a variety of spiritually difficult circumstances (miscarriage, stillbirth, suicide, when there is no grave to visit, mourning an abusive relationship, and more.)

In the trans-denominational spirit of Jewish renewal, Beside Still Waters is for individuals and communities across the Jewish spiritual spectrum.

Beside Still Waters is a treasury of loving, comforting Jewish wisdom offered to support us in times of loss and grief. It is like having a wise, warm friend when you need that most. In my own time of loss, it became that for me. — Rabbi Marcia Prager, author of The Path of Blessing and dean of the ALEPH Ordination Programs

This is a wisely constructed and genuinely beautiful book. Beside Still Waters weaves ancient practice and new traditions into a totally approachable and readily usable companion that will help carry people through each phase of illness, death, mourning and healing, with honesty, compassion, wisdom and love. May those who turn to this book in time of need discover that they are not as alone as they likely feel, are more supported than they may know, and that a place of genuine comfort is there for them no matter what. — Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, Co-president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership

Beside Still Waters is a sensitive, beautiful and contemporary re-invention of Jewish liturgy, ritual, and wisdom surrounding the end of life.  Many talented poets and liturgists have contributed to this companion to those who are grieving, healing, and accepting. Their words offer a variety of practices and beliefs, addressing a multitude of human circumstances — some that are traditionally marked and others once overlooked.  Facing into the dilemmas and mysteries of our existence, Beside Still Waters is a friend to those who mourn, those who face their own death, and those who ask questions about the meaning of life and its end. Whether you are facing a dying, a funeral, a shiva, a yahrtzeit, or the lack of a mourning structure to hold your grief, there is something for you here.  — Rabbi Jill Hammer, Author of The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons and co-founder of Kohenet: The Hebrew Priestess Institute

It's been an honor and a privilege to midwife this book into being. My deepest gratitude to Rabbi Jonah Rank for his help with Hebrew proofreading and transliteration, to Larry Yudelson at Ben Yehuda Press for his enthusiasm for this project, and to the book's 40+ contributors:

Includes work by: Trisha Arlin, Helene Armet, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, Alla Renée Bozarth, Debra Cash, Rabbi Eli Cohen, Rabbi David J. Cooper, Cate Denial, Rabbi Lewis Eron, Shir Yaakov Feit, Lev Friedman, Rabbi Chaya Gusfield, Rabbi Jill Hammer, Rabbi Cynthia Hoffman, Rabbi Burt Jacobson, Alison Jordan, Rodger Kamenetz, Anna Belle Kaufman, Irwin Keller, Rabbi Evan Krame, Rabbi Janet Madden, Rabbi David Markus, Rabbi Jay Michaelson, Mark Nazimova, Amy Grossblatt Pessach, Faith Rogow, Rabbi Brant Rosen, Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Kohenet Taya Shere, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l, Soferet Julie Seltzer, Rabbi Jennifer Singer, Maxine Silverman, Devon Spier, Jacqui Shine, Elliott bat Tzedek, Rabbi Shohama Harris Wiener, Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank z”l.

Those who are interested can find the Table of Contents, the introduction, and assorted other excerpts via the Look Inside This Book feature on Amazon. I hope you'll take a look, and consider buying a copy (or several). Order Beside Still Waters at Ben Yehuda Press now. The book retails for $18.00.

May comfort come to all who mourn.