Rabbi Elizabeth S. Wood

Rabbi Elizabeth S. Wood
Celebrating Havdallah

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Butterscotch candies and sacred memories

All day, yesterday, I felt as though my grandfather was with me. I woke up yesterday morning and realized that it has been 20 years since he died. 20 years...and I still remember it as though it were yesterday. We were living in France at the time, but were fortunate enough to fly back to New York, as a family, for his final few days and to be present for his funeral and for the period of shiva that followed. It was the first Jewish encounter that I ever, personally, had with death and dying. Even though I was just a little girl at the time, I remember so much of that week vividly.

As I was going through a pair of pants, later on, I found a $20 bill tucked away, as if it were waiting for me to find it. I wrote it off as coincidence - a lucky start to my day, I guess. Then, later, I had a cousin on my grandfather's side call me, and we shared some great news together - I would be renting an apartment in Queens from these cousins. It seemed b'sheyrt (fate) that these cousins who were close to my grandfather would be sharing in this with me on the day of his yarzheit when we mark the anniversary of his death. Even though my day was going well, I had to admit that I wasn't feeling well at all. But I needed to help lead services last night, so I mustered up all my energy and did what rabbis do - lead services even when we're sick. At one point during the concluding prayers my throat was beginning to hurt and I reached down to find a throat lozenge, but instead ended up with a butterscoth candy in my hand. I smiled. These were the exact candies that my grandfather used to give to me and my brother when we were little, any time we visited him in his office. I opened it up, put it in my mouth, and memories of my very young years, with him, flooded back to me as we read the Mourner's Kaddish. I realized, in that moment, what a great gift memory can really be.

In Judaism, we value collective memories and individual memories as though they were sacred. And they are sacred. Jewish perspectives on death and dying are, to me, some of the most humane and compassionate practices that we have. The liturgy of a funeral service is meant to provide two essential functions: to celebrate and commemorate the passing of a life (and remember everything that life encompassed) and to help those who are grieving say goodbye to their loved one. Within traditional Jewish practice, those who are grieving are forbidden to do most normal activities during the period of learning of the death until burial, and then are given seven days (shiva) to really grieve the loss of their loved one. Thirty days mark another significant period of mourning, followed by 11 more months of grieving until finally, after a year, one is realeased from all Jewish mourning obligations for their loved one. However, year after year, we mark the anniversary of that loved one's death by saying Kaddish for them. To me, this understanding of human nature is what makes Judaism so beautiful. Jewish customs of mourning recognize that when a loved one dies, it takes time, different amounts of time to really deal with that grief. The most significant grief happens immediately, and it eases as time goes on - but it never goes away. And the rituals within Jewish mourning recognize that every year, we bring ourselves back to those memories - of the lives of our loved ones, of their passing, of our own grief. Judaism is truly remarkable, like that.

On my grandfather's yarzheit, I always think of two things: 1) How much I wish I had known him better or had more time with him 2) How grateful I am that I've had a lifetime of such wonderful memories with my grandmother. Through all of my interactions with her throughout the years, she has helped me to understand their lives, the collective memories of our family, and who he was - this grandfather who left me when I was just a little girl.

Perhaps my grandfather was not WITH me yesterday, but his memories certainly were. And they will always continue to be with me.

Zichron Livracha - May his memory ALWAYS be for a blessing.

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