Both of my parents died in their early 60s. My father died at 61, just the age that I am now.
His yahrzeit, the 16th of Sivan, is this coming evening through tomorrow. It is his 30th yahrzeit, a fact that I can only describe as surprising. How is it possible that my dad has been dead for so long?
Today, my dad would have been a nonagenarian.
If that word does not sound familiar to you, it is because we did not used to have so many of them in our lives, even just a decade ago. According to the Census Bureau, people 90 and older now comprise 4.7 percent of the older population (age 65 and older), as compared with only 2.8 percent in 1980. Driven by improvements in health care and medical breakthroughs, by 2050, this share is likely to reach 10 percent. Today, people in their 90s, if blessed with health and intellectual faculties, are among the most wise, vibrant, and inspiring people I know. By the time I get there in 2050, I’m going to be surrounded by my peers!
I love to spend time with nonagenarians. I seem to seek them out. Until I received the reminder for my father’s thirtieth yahrzeit, it did not occur to me that he would have been one of them.
I wonder quite often about who my father would have become through these many years of change. Who would he have been for his grandchildren? I know that he would have continued to be my sounding board, confidant and cheerleader.
In all of these 30 years, I have consistently sought out people who were the age he would have been. In my monthly call list, so many of my treasured congregants are well into their 90s, filled with wisdom, humor, and plans. This year of the pandemic has taken a toll on many of them, yet there is always an ability to have perspective and to adjust expectations. These calls often feel that they are much more about my needs than theirs.
Four particular nonagenarians are my teachers and parent-replacements. (The surprising realization that we never outgrow the need for parents is an idea for another blog post altogether.) Phil, Arthur, Reggie and Joseph give me optimism about my next 30 years, and teach me a lot about who I am today.
My father-in-law, Phil, is a whirlwind of energy who still works full-time in his third-generation commercial construction company, takes Pilate classes twice a week, walks his dog and rides his bike. Yes, when he turned ninety three years ago, his kids asked him what he wanted for his birthday. He told us he’d like a new bike! When Phil stops by for lunch with Jonathan, he always leaves with words that go something like, “I have to get going; I have too much to do.”
My mother-in-law’s partner, Arthur, not only survived her death in November, but also survived Covid-19 that sent him to the hospital the day after her funeral. I worried that, having lost his best friend, he would not find the will to go on. But here he is, gathering his vast library of artistic photographs into self-published books, learning new skills in watercolor and moving last week into an independent living apartment… a decision he made and carried out independently! When I visited him to see the new place, he was busy watching a YouTube about different types of clay that are useful for sculpture.
My daughter-in law’s grandmother, Reggie, is that person who gets adopted by every person who meets her. I could not love my daughter-in-law more than I do, but it sure does add something fantastic that her grandmother came along with the package. I look forward to my long phone conversations with Reggie, whom we all call Grandmommy. She is always interested and interesting. When I speak with her, it is as if I am speaking with a sister, not a woman who is the age my mother would have been.
My dear friend Susan’s father, Joseph (who for reasons that I can no longer remember we often call George) has been a friend of mine since Susan and I became friends 30 years ago. Joseph attends minyan daily here in Caldwell and for years, has taught the nursery school children how to keep a garden. And he shares with me his memories and stories of survival through the years of the Holocaust. When we used to attend services regularly here in Caldwell, Joseph always saved the seat next to him for me. Susan was on one side and I was on the other. He was the dad I had lost. He even has a little white goatee just like my dad.
These nonagenarians offer wisdom, experience, and perspective. When they reminisce with me about their lives, I feel immense gratitude, as if I am recovering something I lost 30 years ago. When they share with me their solid perspective on today, I am able to breathe easier and gain perspective. When I think of my own life, I see that I still have so much time to grow and learn just as they have. Thanks to inspiring nonagenarians, I look forward to 2051!
Two candles burn side by side in my dining room as I prepare for another pandemic Shabbat. First is a tall seven-day shiva candle, blackened around the top after burning for six days. Jon is coming to the conclusion of shiva for his mother, Ruth Finkelstein Ignatoff, z”l. The second was lit last night for the 11th of Kislev, a yahrzeit candle for my mother, Frances Weisberg Mack, z”l, who died just before Thanksgiving twenty-four years ago. Every year at the end of November from now on, we will remember two mothers whose most sacred holiday was Thanksgiving.
When I realized that today is Black Friday, an intensive retail engrossment that I have never fully understood, I said jokingly to a friend, “Black Friday has a brand-new meaning for me this year.” He agreed and added, “I guess Thanksgiving ever after is ruined for you.”
That could be one way of looking at it. But that is not the way I look at it.
It is true that Thanksgiving is now attached to two significant deaths. But Thanksgiving is also the holiday when our first born, Noah, arrived in the world. And Thanksgiving is also the holiday when Ben and Lindsay were engaged to be married last year.
There is enormous power in the stories that we tell ourselves, in the way that we tell our stories and the perspective we take as narrators. We can shape our stories so that they are useful and comforting, or we can take on a viewpoint that creates a story with us as suffering protagonists at the center of depressing events beyond our control. So often we seem to forget that WE are the authors of our own stories. So this is how I will tell my family Thanksgiving story:
Thanksgiving has been sacred in Jonathan‘s family from a time long before he can remember. His Grandma Sadye’s large, extended family would gather in the Woonsocket, Rhode Island house for an entire weekend which included a Thanksgiving dinner for sixty family members in two seatings. Jon’s siblings and cousins share happy memories of candlepin bowling, Uncle Rick’s drooling St. Bernard, annual trips to Grandpa Noah‘s coat factory for new jackets, and Friday lunch at Howard Johnson’s.
Thanksgiving shifted and changed over the years, but it always remained Jon’s mother’s holiday. Elements of the invitation list and menu have stayed in place; and the weekend long celebration and treasured traditions continue with new participants and locations. My house filled up every year with my in-laws and my nieces and nephews; everyone magically finding someplace to put down a pillow. My sister-in-law Maggie and Jon’s brother Dave found a way to fit all the tables in their house and welcomed us in for a day of eating, board games and poker. And my mother-in-law always reigned over the day. Maggie has copious notes in Ruth’s handwriting to prove it!
If we held the perspective that those good old days will never return again, we would be missing the new experiences there to be enjoyed over the years. If we held the perspective that this season is now one of loss, we would negate the special joys that continue at Thanksgiving time.
Just two of us sat down to dinner last night with a 20-pound turkey and only one meat eater. But after zoom calls to express gratitude, we were perfectly content with our Thanksgiving experience. The main point is the gratitude, and that is the story Jon and I told each other as we shared a meal of plenty.
Last night after minyan, Rabbi Scheff shared a playlist of five Israeli songs about gratitude to enhance our Thanksgivings. My favorite, by the late, great Uzi Hitman, is called “Todah” (Thanks).
Thanks for all that You’ve created, thanks for what You’ve given me. For our eyesight, a friend or two,
for what I have in the world.
For the song which flows,
and a forgiving heart
– because of all this – I exist.
Several congregants have mentioned to me that in the past couple of weeks, it feels like the clouds are starting to part and the sun will break through to shine again. I think, however, that we still have months to go in this pandemic. I am not expecting complete sunshine quite yet. But I am grateful that I have arms that can reach up to the sky and help push those clouds out of the way.
Because of all this, I exist.
Shabbat shalom, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Our grandfather, Israel Neiman, died the week the Ten Commandments were read in synagogue. Upon reflection and discussion as we find ourselves amidst the family’s observance of shiva, we realized that these mitzvot can offer important insights into the Jewish customs and traditions of mourning. As regular bloggers, and as brother and sister, we united our thoughts to co-author this week’s blog.
In the wake of loss, despite best intentions, many say and do the wrong things. This is true for those who want to comfort the mourners, as well as for mourners who receive the community that comes to pay its respects. Left to our own devices, we flounder in uncertainty and faux pas, the results of which cause anxiety and discomfort for all parties. During times of loss and grief, levels of anxiety and emotion are elevated; not a good time to “wing it” or propose constructive suggestions in the moment.
Time-tested traditions and mourning rituals are well-established to offer comfort and assurances to those who have suffered loss and are observing shiva. They also prescribe ways to receive expressions of sympathy and communal support without being overwhelmed, exhausted, resentful or burdened by the need to serve as host. These rules also benefit the community by enabling visitors to feel they truly bring comfort to the bereaved, even as they receive an opportunity for reflection and inspiration in turn.
In the spirit of the Ten Commandments, we offer these interpretations in the context of mourning:
1. “I am the Lord your God.” There is a God that created us with a breath. The death of our Zaydie is the return of that breath to God. We stand in awe of the notion that our grandfather’s soul has been returned to its source.
2. “You shall not create false images to bow down to them.” In the shiva home, mirrors are covered so we are not distracted from the deeper significance of the life that was lived. We are not meant to live in the physical world during the week of shiva. We tear our clothing to strip away the external; to live in limbo between the torn and the whole. Physical trappings—clothing, makeup and displays of materialism—are false images of existence that further separate us from the life of the soul we remember.
3. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” In remembering loved ones, the stories we share should not demean the memory of the person or disrespect the mourner. At times we feel the need to bring levity, but humorous stories at the expense of the deceased may be degrading and hurtful to a mourner.
4. “Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy.” The public observance of shiva is suspended on Shabbat, though private mourning continues. Even mourners need to breathe in the sanctity of the day. Shiva is exhausting; physically and emotionally draining. Mourners need to “re-soul” themselves just like everyone else.
5. “Honor your father and mother.” Parents anticipate the needs of their children. It is a rare opportunity to show honor by anticipating the physical and emotional needs of one’s parent during in mourning period.
6. “Don’t murder.” Families have complex dynamics. The intensity of emotions at a time of loss can give way to conflict. The week of shiva is not the time to act on impulses or unpack baggage.
7. “Don’t commit adultery.” Mourn the relationship you had with the person you lost. Do not “reinvent” it. Treat the relationship with honesty and integrity, even if it was not ideal. If the relationship was lacking, honor that story too; recognize the pain that accompanies lost time and lost opportunity.
8. “Don’t steal.” Grief in a shiva house belongs to the mourner. A visit is not the time to share your own stories or express your personal sense of loss; unless you are invited to do so.
9. “Don’t bear false witness.” Offering that you feel very blessed to have known the deceased is very different than telling the mourners how blessed or lucky they were. Don’t offer that you know how a mourner feels because of your own experiences. This is plain false.
10. “Don’t covet.” Saying Kaddish, as an example, belongs to the mourners. The loss is theirs, as is their obligation to mourn. While the community may stand with mourners as a sign of support, Kaddish is not to be recited with them. Only “Amen” is said to answer and affirm their prayers. Sadly and inevitably, we all will have our own times to mourn.
That being said, our modern sensibilities—often characterized by a sense of entitlement and a lack of empathy—require a redefined set of rules to correspond with a new reality. To this end, we offer ten helpful guidelines for the modern shiva house:
1. You shall designate a non-mourner family member or friend as your Shiva Coordinator. You need someone to take charge of the details and schedule from meals to minyan.
2. You shall set defined visitation hours. So that people won’t come too early or stay too late, consider two hours in the afternoon and two hours in the evening; leaving time for a nap. Carve out personal mealtime – for you and your family – and stick to it. That’s it. (And don’t forget to put out the chicken that needs reheating, at least forty-five minutes before you want to eat.)
3. You shall plan your own menus. Too much food causes too much stress. Notify friends of the schedule for meals. Specify that the food is for the number of mourners, plus four. If there are special food considerations (Kosher, gluten-free, nut-free, etc.), be specific and clear.
4. You shall affix a sign to the front door. It should read: “Please don’t knock or ring; come right in – but only between 2pm and 4pm or 6:30pm and 8:30pm. Otherwise, please wait outside or in your car. Or use your GPS to find the nearest coffee shop.”
5. You shall place a guest book by the entryway for visitors to sign in. This will remind you after shiva who came. But also, by the book, leave a sign that says: “Please find a seat facing the mourner. Limit your time to 15 minutes maximum. However, if others are waiting without seats, please limit your visit to 10 minutes.”
6. You shall sit on a chair and stay put. Sit in a spot that provides access to visitors and offers limited seating around you. Do not get up except to go to bathroom, bedroom or to stretch (all of which are important). Visitors will get the message and limit their time with you when others are standing by waiting for a seat. If you are hungry or thirsty, ask anyone to get you what you need.
7. You shall wear an amulet around your neck. It should say: “Please don’t hug or kiss me. I am immunosuppressed. And no one wants to see your behind or your cleavage as you bend over to comfort me.”
8. You shall shut off all ringers and ask others to do the same. People should not call a shiva house (except family). If you wish to reach a mourner and can’t make an in-person visit, send an email or a text to someone else in the household. The incessant noise is unnerving!
9. You shall not network. As a visitor, do not cultivate business opportunities or play Jewish geography upon visiting a house of mourning. The mourners wear a torn ribbon or article of clothing and sit on low benches (hopefully), so they can be identified easily. When visiting, make a bee-line for them, pay your respects, avoid side conversations, and depart.
10. You shall celebrate the life of your loved one as you choose…even if that means ignoring rules 1 through 9. But don’t forget, it is a long week and you can’t party like you used to. So pace yourself!
Mom, thanks for allowing us to take this opportunity to teach with a little humor. And we pray that you find comfort in celebrating Zaydie’s 100 years of life, 79 years of marriage, 9 grandchildren, 26 great-grandchildren and 4 great-great-grandchildren.
We love you very much,
Craig and Cheri
“The lifetime of Sarah came to be one hundred years and twenty years and seven years, the years of the life of Sarah” (Genesis 23:1).
I offer what follows in tribute to the life of Sarah our matriarch, Sarah my grandmother on her 98th birthday, and the occasion of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass.
They were nights of broken lives and broken dreams, days of broken hearts and broken families. Six years worth of brokenness. Sarah learned to cheat death and to gamble with life, to speak in half-truths to her loved ones and to lie to herself every morning just to get through the day.
The year 1941 was the worst of them all, as she now recalls. With her one-year-old daughter Hannah in her arms, she would leave Siberia and her husband behind with the intention of starting a new life back in Berdichev, where her mother and father (and his 12 siblings and their families) remained. Her husband Izzy would leave his work in Siberia once she was settled with the family. Sarah sensed, however, that Jewish life in Berdichev was coming to an end. She cried to her father endlessly, pleading with him to return to Siberia with her. She ultimately prevailed, but just in the nick of time. She can still recall looking back from afar at the city engulfed in Nazi flames, the agonizing screams of her dying aunts, uncles and cousins being drowned out by the exploding bombs.
The lives of Sarah are 20 years and 6 years and 72 years, 98 years in all.
For twenty years before those six terrible years (1939-1945) of trading tomorrow’s ration slips for today’s bread, Sarah was a mischievous, happy girl. A talented seamstress, she was the choice of the wealthy shop- and factory-owners to make lingerie for their wives (bras, to be exact!). It was a talent that would ultimately keep her growing family fed. She found love; she had dreams.
For the past 72 years, Sarah has known love, and she has known loss. She has derived pride from the four generations that she has birthed, but her arthritic fingers are evidence that she’s worked hard for every morsel of satisfaction she enjoys. Her compromised sight and hearing may frustrate communication, but her mind still knows humor, sarcasm and wit; her heart still knows love, joy, disappointment and worry. And she can still dish out the guilt with the best of them.
Today, she feels her way around her daughter’s kitchen, finding a yogurt and two pieces of bread just where she left them. She carefully washes her plate and the serrated knife in the sink. I️ hold my breath, debating whether I️ should jump in or give her the control she desires.
Let her be, I️ decide. After 98 years, she’s earned the right to control her own destiny, if only until my mother emerges from the bedroom.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s an F-35! No, it’s OJC on United 84, leaving Newark and headed for Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. OJC?! Yes, OJC, where just one month after sending 24 people on a week-long volunteer mitzvah mission, the congregation is sending a delegation of 39 for the 5777 OJC Israel Experience.
Last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu called Israel’s “long arm” longer and mightier with the arrival of two F-35 fighter jets. There is no debating the qualitative advantage these machines provide to Israel for the protection of the Jewish homeland. I like to think of our frequent Israel trips as the long arm of OJC, made longer and mightier with each trip, providing a qualitative advantage to the Jewish identities of those participating in our trips.
It is remarkable to consider, in a community of 500 households, how many people will represent us in Israel in the year 5777. Between our synagogue trips, college students on Birthright, Conservative Yeshiva or semesters abroad, high schoolers on USY or Ramah summer programs, 8th and 12th graders participating in Schechter school trips, our children making aliyah, congregants visiting friends and families, and individual families taking a 2-week tour, I estimate that at least 120 individuals will touch down in Tel Aviv. It brings your rabbis tremendous naches (comfort/pride) to sense the strong connection that our OJC community shares with Eretz Yisrael. As a factor that heavily influences Jewish engagement and future identification, our Israel connection bodes well for the next generation, despite the widely reported trends to the contrary.
The OJC Israel experience is also one committed to appreciating the nuances of the relationship we share with Israel. Firmly committed to her security and longevity as the Jewish state, we also acknowledge the challenges–particularly the political, religious and social–that Israel faces in maintaining a democratic and pluralistic character and in living up to our Jewish ideals. Our journey will take us back in time to trace forward the progression of the Zionist dream: from the history of Jerusalem (the city of Zion) to the earliest Zionist dreamers, to the British Mandate, to the survival of Shoah, to the founding of a State, to the development of the Negev, to the birth of a start-up nation. We’ll celebrate a bat mitzvah and the holiday of Chanukah, experience a Jerusalem Shabbat, reunite with friends and family, and partner with communities. We’ll learn, feel, struggle and grow. We’ll fly, float, eat, climb, ride, eat, shepherd, plant, eat, sing, package, eat, pray and maybe even jog. I guarantee you, we’ll come back more tired than we left (and perhaps a couple pounds heavier!). We’ll strengthen our understanding, our commitment, our identities and our community.
This is the OJC Family Israel Experience 5777. And today is Day One. We depart from the synagogue lot today at 12:30pm, only hours from now. Follow us for the next 10 days with our daily blog and Facebook posts.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Despite hearing the call, not everyone up and left home. My grandparents were among the lucky ones. They heeded the call, though they did not know where their journey would take them. That decision would ultimately save family members and the generations that would follow. If Israel and Sonia had been told in that moment that they would one day number like the stars, they might not have believed you. Today, as my grandfather once again shared tidbits of his story with me, he recounted the many times he cried thinking that his world was coming to an end: a father losing his job; a young boy sent off to a distant city to attend yeshiva; a journey with wife and brother in tow out of Poland; life in the displaced persons camp; an arrival in the United States. There were no guarantees of a happy ending, no assurances of survival. Yet, in retrospect, my Zeidy believes that none of the blessings he now enjoys would have been possible without those moments over which he cried.
Faith is not synonymous with the belief in miracles. Just ask Abraham and Sarah! Their faith was not blind and without question. They did not rely on Divine Providence alone to make the future promised them come to fruition. So much of their fate was dictated by the choices they made and the actions they undertook, sometimes at great peril to themselves and their progeny.
My grandparents don’t assert that God chose to grace them above anyone else. They don’t believe that God interceded to save their family from the harm that befell so many others. But faith in the power of working hard, loving well, doing good and taking responsibility for one’s decisions–and consequences thereof–can certainly bring one closer to the belief in a Divine plan. At least it has for them.
The tension between our beliefs in Divine Providence and our own free will is constantly played out in the text of the Torah and in the narrative of our lives. Is God testing Abraham and us, leaving matters in human hands? Or is God the all-knowing One who is manipulating us as part of a grander scheme? I don’t have an answer to this question, but this much I know: If my grandparents’ lives were a matter of God’s intervention for some greater purpose, I have thanked God many times over. And if their journey has been one of their own making, with God kvelling all the while, I hope their legacy will be instructive for many generations to come.
As for my grandparents and me, every “hello” is more precious than the last, and every “goodbye” is more difficult. So I have chosen to resolve the tension between fate and free will, between Divine plan and human agency, as only a grandson of Yisrael ben Avraham v’Sarah can: May we extend every “hello” as an offer of peace, a moment of appreciation, and an opportunity to change someone’s world for the better; and may we express every “goodbye” as a prayer for peace, a moment of reflection, and an invocation of God’s greater plan in our lives.
Hello, goodbye and shalom,
Rabbi Craig Scheff