Monday, April 20, 2009

A First Yizkor Service

On the last day of Pesach, I said the Yizkor prayer for the first time for my father.
Our rabbi says that in the first year of mourning, it is the mourner's choice whether or not they want to stay inside the sanctuary for the service. I've looked on different websites, and some say to stay in, but for the first year not recite it for the particular person whom you are mourning, and another website says that if one feels they will have their grief overpower them and will wail loudly and uncontrollably, they can leave the sanctuary.
I did neither. I stayed inside. I said Yizkor. I did not cry.
I could honor my father in this special way. I could remember the goodness that he embodied and not feel overwhelmed by grief.
I could also honor my grandparents and other family members who'd passed away and think of them as I prayed.
As I've said a number of times since my father passed away, I've not really been crying at all, but I feel his absence in my life/my family's life/my mother's life/my brothers' lives. I think about him, I talk about him, I refer to keep it all fresh for myself and others.
It's surprising to me how I have been sometimes feeling somewhat resentful of others and their over concern for me and the sympathetic faces they put on and the pacifying tones their voices take.
After the Yizkor service, one of the women I know leaned over, put on her now-familiar-to-me sympathetic face and whispered, "Hmm, your first Yizkor service. Hard, huh?" I told her it hadn't been too bad, but she sort of persisted in her comments and pacifying tone. I just retorted (to my surprise!) but in a nice but firm way, "I think the fact that I'm a mourner is harder on you than it is on me. I'm doing okay. REALLY." She then nodded and agreed. "Yes, you are. Yup, I can see that."
Perhaps I'm not as resentful at them as I am at myself simply because I am not behaving in the "expected" way of a child who has recently lost an exceptionally adored parent. I'm not taking it as hard as people believe I must be. I'm not wallowing in grief, unable to eat or talk or handle day-to-day activities. I certainly don't walk around with a long face or a continuous pensive look.
There are no giveaways hinting at the fact that I'm a mourner, except when I say Kaddish over on the women's side of the mechitzah.
I prepared for two seders in our home, aware of the absence of my father at second seder, but thankful my mother was there. I talked about things Zaidy said and did at our seders throughout the years, and told my children at the onset of the seders that Pesach seders are exactly that: a combination of traditions/customs, memory and storytelling, played out year after year. I picked up minhagim/customs from my parents, my husband picked up minhagim from his parents, we started some minhagim of our own as a married couple, and we blended them all. I told the kids that they'll walk away from our home with some of these blended minhagim too, as well as start some new ones of their own. And so the cycle continues...
And such is life.
And death.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

At Least Once a Year...'s nice to get published!

This week, the Canadian Jewish News came out with their Passover edition, and with this edition came their supplement that offers Passover greetings as well as literary pieces that deal with Jewish themes.

For the past number of years, I've submitted poetry to be considered for the literary supplement, and can thankfully say that something of mine is chosen to be used each year that I submit.

The newspaper has a wide readership: in Canada, the U.S., and points beyond, so it's always exciting for me as well as humbling to find my name and words in print.

This year I submitted four pieces -- two, fun limerick-type poems that deal with Passover, and two serious poems. I was hoping that if they chose any of my poems, it would be one of the serious ones. And yes, lucky for me, they published both!

If you can use the link that I provided above, you can search the section for my two poems on pages B14, and B36. If you have trouble with the link, I will recreate the poems here.


At sixty, one is not quite old, neither young...but somewhere in the middle.

With life lines to show,

fine wrinkles here and there,

graying hair or balding patches,

hinting age spots

and a book of photographs depicting a life.

At sixty, Israel is not quite old, neither young...but somewhere in the middle.

But in truth she is ancient -- Israel is a "she," you know -- and was reborn in May 1948.

Not everyone has the chance to be reborn. But Israel...she fought to be reborn.

She fought hard. Her supporters fought harder.

From desert sands and barren fields, she brought forth life.

From stark grayness, she brought forth greens and blues.

From a handful of devotees, she yielded multitudes of lovers.

Lovers of her country.

Lovers of her language.

Lovers of her culture.

Lovers of the blue and white of her draping flag.

Lovers of "Hatikvah."

Hope. Forever sustaining Israel.

Forever sustaining...



The walls of the ghetto encircled you.
The walls of the ghetto enclosed you.
The walls of the ghetto framed you.
Framed your life and the lives of your loved ones.
You, with your tattered yellow star marking you
Jew. Schweinhund. Part of a damned nation.
It is fear that fed you when the cupboards were bare.
It is bravery that sustained you when that fear was spent.

You fought to the bitter end --
The rat-tat-tat of machine gun artillery
echoing off the barren walls of that wasteland.
The raining of bombs all around you.
The smell of death hovering... Always hovering.

With hands up in the air, with this gesture of surrender,
of final supplication
You the boy, already a man, left your legacy.

And we remember. We always remember...

Sunday, April 05, 2009


Today will mark the shloshim (30 days since death) for my father.

Where did the month go? It goes so quickly, yet crawls so we try to pick up the pieces.

Of course, the first seven days went by in the act of sitting shiva. And then there was the getting-back-to-daily-life routine, which has included the activity of writing thank-you notes for shiva meals, sympathy cards and donations made in my father's memory.

And there has been the activity of metaphorically patting people on the hand in a "There, there, it's okay" fashion when several have called or approached me to say, "I'm sorry I couldn't make it to the funeral....I 'm sorry, I just heard about your loss....I'm sorry, I couldn't make it to the shiva. I really wanted to, but it just didn't work out."

I've repeated myself over and over to these people, "It's okay. No, it's REALLY okay." People feel the need to explain themselves (I know, I suffer from that too.), but there's truly no need to do so. They have just taken a moment to express their condolences to me verbally, even after the fact, and that is as nice a gesture.

As for sitting shiva: it's an eye opener, and for me proved to be almost a beautiful type of experience. No, I didn't hear countless nostalgic stories about my dad, which is often the case, but I saw people whom I haven't seen in YEARS.

And the phone calls that were received...? From all over the world: Israel, California, Mexico, Israel, Florida, Switzerland, New York, Vancouver. Multiple calls from many of these places -- every family member of certain families calling independent of one another, once they heard about my father's death. It was truly overwhelming (yes, I know I use that words many times in this post, but there's no other word to describe the feelings) and heartwarming.

My father has lived in Canada for 60 years, my mother for 53 years. They had friends and family visit, friends from the early years with whom their lives had drifted apart, family we rarely see. We are three kids, with two of us married locally, so we had friends, family and co-workers come out from our shuls, from our former day schools, from our universities, from our kids' schools, from our social networks, from our present jobs, from our past jobs. And people came there who had connections to our spouses too. When handfuls of people traipsed into the house from these offices together at one time, I asked if they'd closed the offices for the day? My parents' pharmacist for the past three years, who had lots of business given his way (unfortunately) at the expense of my father's medical issues, did close his shop one afternoon and came to pay a shiva call. He is not a Jewish man, but respected my father and held him in high esteem to visit. Non-Jewish neighbors came by when they saw a lull in traffic to the house, and sat there with us, wearing their Sunday best and crying tears of sadness for their good neighbor and friend, Jack.

My father treated all people equally; he showed respect to all people. They in turn respected him.

A few people I'd gone to school with, and had not even been friends with-- just classmates -- came by for morning or evening davening, or came in the middle of the day, and sat with me not just for a few minutes, but for 30 minutes or longer, where we caught up on our lives and the twisting turns they'd taken over the years. These people's appearances and words touched me in such a beautiful way.

One of the girls said, "Out of sadness can often come good things." And she was so right.

I saw a handful of people walk in at different times and there would be "six degrees of separation" going on, mini-reunions being had between people visiting for me and visiting for one of my brothers. There was so much of this going on all week, and I was so pleased.

We had such a cross section of people come through, from non-Jews, to assimilated Jews, to very Yeshivish, black hatters. One evening, a very frum couple came into the crowded room, and they didn't look familiar to me. I assumed these people were for my Toronto brother, perhaps from his shul, so I looked over to my Boston-based brother and said, "I wonder if they're here for Jerry....? Or maybe they're at the wrong shiva house! " I suggested. Turns out they were at the right house, and my mother had a Swiss connection with them, but it just goes to show that I may not have known everyone walking through that door, but they knew us, and they knew my father and wanted to honor him.

On the Wednesday and Thursday nights, the living room, hallways and family room were PACKED for evening davening, so much so that it was rather overwhelming to me and I suggested that it was time to do another house expansion!

My father would have been overwhelmed and certainly humbled. Tefilla was so important to him, and for all these men to gather together, davening in his home in the morning and in the evening would have pleased him so.

He was a quiet, refined gentleman, regarded this way by many. He didn't want to draw attention to himself in any way, but no doubt because he was so special in being his charming self, he DID draw attention to himself and in a very positive fashion.

Life works rather mysteriously too. And the six degrees of separation I mentioned above also held true on the day of my father's funeral.

I knew on the previous Thursday evening that a
classmate of mine had died and that the funeral would be on Sunday, but because my dad was so gravely ill at the time, I told the person who told me about the funeral that I might not be able to be there and the reason why.

When my father died on Sunday morning and we made plans to get him buried that same day, the funeral chapel we'd chosen told us how busy they were and it might not happen that day. But with rabbinic help, we arranged the funeral for several hours later, at 3 p.m.

Turned out that at 1:00 there was a funeral for another member of my parents' shul, someone who was my father's friend. At 2:00 was the funeral for my classmate. At 3:00 was my father's funeral.

Because it all happened so quickly and my parents' shul doesn't have a phone chain going 'cause most of the members are elderly, word didn't get out to the members about my dad's funeral. But the people from their shul who came for the 1:00 service, saw my father's name listed for the 3:00 service and came back for it. And some former classmates who came for the 2:00 service, and saw my father's name stayed for the 3:00 funeral. These three services all were perpetually linked.

We didn't know how many people would go from the chapel to the cemetery, as the cemetery is rather far out of our suburban area. But we knew that because it's so far out and confusing to get to (it's an older cemetery and many people haven't heard of it, because it's so far off the beaten path), we had to hire police escorts. Again, we were told by the chapel we weren't sure we could get any, but yes, we got confirmation there would be three. And as we rode out to the cemetery, we could see just how many people followed us, and people did take the time and make the effort to go to the cemetery. One of the nicest things is that the police escorts stop at the foot of the cemtery gates to stop traffic, and as the hearse and procession drive by, the policeman stand at attention and salute. What an honorable and respectful gesture!

And sadly, yet interestingly enough, when we got to my parents' cemetery shul section, where a grave had already been prepared for my dad's coffin, it was beside his friend, whose funeral had been two hours earlier, and on the other side of my father's gravesite was my
mother's first cousin's wife, who died two years ago from pancreatic cancer.

All such last minute notice about everything, but the chapel (I was told, didn't really see for myself) was packed. As I stood on the podium reading my eulogy, I looked out at the faces, and yes, there were many of them and I was able to single out a few, but they sort of blur into one mass -- made up of our past, our present and our future.

But that is truly what life is about, and we come full circle...

My children lost my husband's mother in June, and although she wasn't visibly conscious, we had them come to her apartment to say goodbye to their savta. She died two hours later.

Although my father lay in a hospital bed for a week, in a non-responsive state, also not visibly conscious, we had the children come after Shabbos to say goodbye to their zaidy. He died about seven hours later.

Two beloved grandparents died within nine months of each other, and the children were bereft. But I continually make reference to these grandparents so that the children will see that they can too, and I encourage them to do so if they so wish. I still talk about Savta's apartment and Bubby and Zaidy's house. When my youngest started to correct himself one day and say "Bubby and -- BUBBY'S HOUSE," I told him it's still called Bubby and Zaidy's house, even if Zaidy's physical being is no longer here.

I miss my father. I miss his smile. I miss his concern for everyone and his lovingkindness for everything. It's many years already that I knew not to take him for granted, and more than anything I'm thankful for the years we did have with him, because so many times it could've turned out differently, uglier, so much earlier in my life.

It is interesting to note that for so many years, I was continually asked, "How's your father?" Even in the past few years, it was always "How's your father?" and I'd sometimes throw in "And maybe you should ask 'How's your mother?' " because she was my father's right-hand gal, his helpmate, his eshet chayil.

These days -- finally -- people are asking "How's your mother?"

Such sad irony...

I could go on and on with these afterthoughts. The truth is that I wrote and saved a blog post earlier in the week, but didn't post it. That post was descriptive details of my father's last days, of my thoughts and feelings. Do people really want to read so much about someone's loved one? I wondered. Are my details off-putting? I wondered. But they help me to remember, and re-create the moments that flew so swiftly past. But I opted for this post instead, for some of these disjointed thoughts that delve into much of what I thought/felt shiva week.

Like any good Jew, I feel guilty. Guilty for not crying uncontrollably; in fact, for barely shedding a tear. "I can't believe how composed you were," I was told by many people who'd heard me speak at the funeral. My brothers, strong, virile men, cried, and their little sister, who can cry at a TV show's music soundtrack, didn't cry at the chapel, at the cemetery, at the shiva, in the privacy of my home. I always wondered if I'd start shrieking hysterically when my beloved father passed away, but no. I was composed. I was relieved that he was at peace, that we were with him, and that he'd had a seemingly peaceful final minutes, with our hands on his chest, over his heart, letting our finger pulses beat in time with his heartbeat.

Yes, I've had my few moments when something triggered my eyes to well up, but it didn't go beyond that. Writing helps, and the fact that for me all the goodness about my father, all the positive feelings overshadow the sadness. It's truly better this way, I believe, and hopefully this emotional strength will sustain me.

One more thought (for now): it's interesting how one day, one person can only be saying the common, congregational refrain when Kaddish is recited in shul, and the next day you know how to recite the entire Kaddish!

Thank you for listening (reading)....