Tag Archives: death

Condolences

by Rita Plush (New York, NY)

People have surprised me since my son died—and not always in a good way. Some of those I thought would be there with a note, a call, a “How’re you doing?” have fallen by the wayside. Yet others I hardly knew have reached out in a most caring way. One such person called out, “Rita?” as I was leaving the synagogue one Saturday. 

Never having spoken, I knew this man only by sight. And name, if I could ever recall it.

He told me he had read an article I wrote about my son’s death (such a terrible and final word) when I had volunteered as a phone friend to an elderly shut-in as a way of reaching out to someone instead of wallowing in my sorrow. The man offered his condolences. But I sensed in his manner, in his almost hesitant way of speaking, that there might be more on his mind. I waited a beat and he asked if I had a minute, or did I have to get going? I said I had time.  

He shared that his father had died when he was five and a half, and his mother when he was 21. 

“Everyone has their own grief,” I said. “That must have been very difficult for you.” 

I wondered if this was going to be one of those conversations—if you can call it that—where people insist their grief is just like yours, or tell you about someone who has it worse than you (no one has it worse when you lose a child!). Or what you should be doing to get out of your funk.

But then, as if not to take anything away from my suffering, he said, “Losing a child is the greatest loss of all.” He was glad I had come to services and not stayed home brooding, grieving alone. It was important to get out, he said. To be with others, to socialize. “It’s key in the healing process.”

It’s also key in Jewish tradition to perform acts of kindness. The 12th-century sage Moses Maimonides wrote that by comforting mourners you fulfill the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. My neighbor was doing just that. 

“I hope you don’t think I’m preaching or telling you what to do,” he said. “I’m just passing on what worked for me.” 

“Not at all,” I said, taken with his compassion.  

There had been mentors, he said: a neighbor, an uncle, later on teachers, role models who shaped him and became important in his life. A job well done, I thought, considering how he had sought me out, a stranger, to comfort. 

We stood there talking by the exit door but I don’t recall seeing anyone come or go, so absorbed I was in our exchange. And though he spoke more than I, it wasn’t a me, me, me assault. An us talk is what it was. One sufferer (he) trying to make another (me), feel better in the most sincere way. 

How kind. How lovely. How a five-minute conversation, if it was that long, cut to the heart of things. 

“You’re Sam, right?” 

He nodded.  

“Thank you, Sam.” 

He reached out his hand to me. I could feel the slight damp. This had not been an easy talk for him. Then gently, almost shyly, as if the gesture might be too familiar, he drew me in. It did not occur to me then how much I disliked being touched by strange men. Perhaps because it was I who was the stranger, and he had welcomed me, as the Torah says one should. So that when he brought me closer and his cheek tapped mine, it seemed the most natural thing in the world. A complete understanding of what had passed between us.

Rita Plush is the author of the novels Lily Steps Out and Feminine Products, and the short story collection Alterations. She is the book reviewer for Fire Island News and teaches memoir at Queensborough Community College and the Fire Island School, Continuing Ed. Her stories and essays have been published in The Alaska Quarterly Review, MacGuffin, The Iconoclast, Art Times, The Sun, The Jewish Writing Project, The Jewish Literary Journal, Down in the Dirt, Potato Soup Journal, Flash Fiction Magazine, Backchannels, LochRaven, Kveller, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Broadkill Review, Avalon Literary Review, Jewish Week, and The Best of Potato Soup 2020. 

If you’d like to read more about Rita and her work, visit her website: https://ritaplush.com

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Funerary Blues

by Simon Constam (Toronto, Canada)

As idly as she possibly can, she asks

where we’ll be buried. She says we ought to,

as a couple, even past the end, stay married.

But her long-dead first husband she already has

placed in primary honour in the family plot.

His name is raised on the gravestone.

What place might I take there and which one not?

Perhaps I ought to be in a nearby grave alone.

Or should I think about Jewish burial somewhere else?

She could remain with her once and greater love as

I am not jealous of a presumed hereafter. 

But oh, what will my children, learning this, be thinking of? 

And, alas, she and I, on another matter, we’re also in disarray

as she favours cremation and I favour decay. 

Simon Constam is a Toronto poet and aphorist. Since late 2018, he has published and continues to publish, under the moniker Daily Ferocity, on Instagram, a new, original aphorism every day. He also sends them out to an email subscriber list. His first book of poetry, Brought Down, a book of Jewish poetry, was just published by Wipf and Stock Publishers. He can be reached at simon.constam@gmail.com

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Shevat—the month that makes my soul ache

by Carol J. Wechsler Blatter (Tucson AZ)

Shevat, it’s the month that makes my soul ache, my heart hurt. It’s a cruel month, usually cold and bleak, sometimes damp and dark. Rarely do the rays of sun seep through my windows and lift my spirits. It’s during this month that I light three yahrzeit candles–one candle on 2 Shevat for my mother, one on 9 Shevat for my sister, and one on 13 Shevat for my father.

***
It was on January 16, 1965 that my mother, sister, aunt, uncle, and I were present at the burial of my father, Albert, in the oldest Jewish cemetery in Middlesex County, NJ, Mount Lebanon. It was a frigid, snow-covered Sunday morning in central New Jersey. Rabbi Yakov Hilsenrath (of blessed memory) gave a very brief eulogy. Over my down winter coat he pinned a black ribbon cut to simulate the physical act of death ripping me apart from my father who, from that time forward, would only be in my memory.

I remember how bleak and alone I felt losing my father. I was only twenty-two years of age. I was angry. I felt cheated at not having a father. Even when my father was alive, he worked so much to provide for us that I had very little time with him. He had grown up with minimal emotional support, love, and self-esteem, and as a result he was unable to be supportive and complimentary. He was an expert in delivering put-downs. Yet once he was gone, I imagined that if he had lived longer, things would have been different between us. How could I have fooled myself into believing he would have changed his ways and been more fatherly to me? Yet, despite his flaws, I still miss him. After all, he fathered me and, in his own way, he loved me.

***
It was on January 2, 1986, twenty-one years later, that my husband, my sister, my brother-in-law, my brother-in-law’s mother, and I were present at the burial of my mother, Bertha, in Indianapolis. Rabbi Dennis Sasso spoke about my mother and described her as a powerful, intense, and passionate woman filled with love for her family and her heritage. “You could agree or disagree with Bertha,” said Rabbi Sasso, “but you could never be indifferent to her.” I was forty-three.

Unlike my father, my mother supported, nurtured, and loved me. She was always my cheerleader and made certain that I had every possible opportunity to be successful. It was a shock when she died to find that she was no longer at my side. It was very hard to let her go.  

***

And it was on January 14, 2019 that I lost my sister, my life-long friend, who died unexpectedly of a catastrophic brain hemorrhage. Although we had a minyan prayer service in her memory in our home in Tucson with our rabbi and many congregants, we were unable to attend the service and burial in New York. I never had the opportunity to say goodbye to my sister. I never had the opportunity to put shovelfuls of dirt over her coffin. I never had the opportunity to sit shiva with other family members. This has left an emotional gap in my life and an unfillable hole. There is one thing I do, though. I keep on my bed a tiny green velvet embroidered pillow which she gave me which says, Sisters Are Special.

***
As long as I can remember I have sensed God’s presence, as a supreme being who governs my life in unexplainable and unknowable ways. It’s as if God beams a light leading me to insight so I can glean what had been until that moment unseeable and unforeseeable. I feel that God is — and will always be — my protector.

But is this the same God who allows death? How can I praise God, I ask myself as I recite the mourner’s Kaddish prayer with a broken heart? And I tell myself it’s because I also believe that God is not all-powerful. God cannot prevent death. This is not God’s job. Death is not about blame. Death is what death is. It is my job to accept death.

***
The Kaddish prayer is always said in the presence of ten adults, a minyan, and a community of worshipers. As part of a minyan for eleven months after the death of each of my parents and my sister, I reaffirmed and praised God’s presence in unison with other mourners.

Healing took place slowly.

Day by day.

***

Now I’m seventy-nine years of age. I am acutely aware that my time on earth is limited. I am here only for an extended visit. Some day I know I will die. So I am trying to make each day count. I am trying to be fully present, especially when I arise at all services, on Shabbat, and on holidays, and say my prayer:

I give thanks before you, O God living and eternal, for You have returned within me my soul with compassion; abundant is your faithfulness!

_____

Carol J. Wechsler Blatter is a recently retired psychotherapist in private practice. She has contributed writings to Chaleur Press, Story Circle Network Journal, and One Woman’s Day; stories in Writing it Real anthologies, Mishearing: Miseries, Mysteries, and Misbehaviors, Pleasure Taken In Our Dreams, Small Things, & Conversations,The Jewish Writing Project, and in 101words.org; and poems in Story Circle Network’s Real Women Write, Growing/ Older, and Covenant of the Generations by Women of Reform Judaism She is a wife, mother, and grandmother of her very special granddaughter who already writes her own stories. 

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Elegy for a Man I Hardly Knew

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

I had met him just once

a week before his sudden death.

I hardly knew him at all,

an afternoon’s conversation, 

no more.

We had spoken for hours,

and I felt there was a connection,

saw him as a possible new friend.

(You know now difficult it is for older

men like me to make new friends.)

So, even though I barely knew him,

his sudden death shocked me, and

I felt compelled to attend his funeral

where I heard the usual — the 23rd Psalm, 

“turn, turn, turn,” and a few desultory speeches

—ending with the Mourner’s Kaddish.

His life was described in twenty minutes.

Surely, a human being rates more time.

Surely, there is more to be said about a life.

Was his soul in a hurry to get to heaven?

Did the rabbi want to prevent excessive 

crying over the casket?

If the soul hovers at the grave site, as rabbis 

say, waiting to hear words of praise, words of 

sorrow, before making its journey to higher realms,

then perhaps I could see the need for such urgency.

But maybe I was being momentarily insensitive

taking notes in effect for my own demise, not

understanding why the funeral was so truncated,

or why my friend’s soul wasn’t allowed a final communion

with all the mourners at the place of his eternal rest.

Shouldn’t all souls be granted this indulgence?

Mel Glenn, the author of twelve books for young adults, is working on a poetry book about the pandemic tentatively titled Pandemic, Poetry, and People. He has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. You can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss. If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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Every day a little death

by Karen Webber (Baltimore, MD)

I rehearse my own death each Yom Kippur.

Pearls nap in the jewelry box, shiny Mary Jane’s poke from

the rack and sackcloth stands in for silk.

I prefer not to sleep in a coffin, as I plan my funeral with

Sharon Olds reading her latest and the Emerson string

quartet playing Bartok.

Elul’s moon is weighted down by custard and should haves. 

The corner of a shroud lifted by the wind whispers, “keep what

is precious and forget the rest.”

I beg you to do the same.

Speak with me, to me, thru me of forgiveness and of regret.

All I can leave you is this perfectly fragranced afternoon,

because my father sold all the good jewelry when my mother

died. I do have her half moon Seiko whose battery hasn’t

been changed in 20 years. Time stops. 

But now, it is time to preheat the oven. To shape the

Portuguese sweet bread round as the moon and pull it fresh

from the oven steaming.  It is time to invite my mother and

my father to sit down and break bread with me.

Death is my teacher and every fall I rehearse, as mine

marches closer. But for now, life.

Karen Webber is a Reform cantor, artist, and poet, whose  poems and essays have been published in chapbooks, Lilith Magazine, and on-line at Voices of Eve. Her newest original program, “Keep on the Sunny Side,” is a musical conversation on positivity, loneliness, and relationships, which she created in partnership with the Mental Health Association of Maryland.  To read more of her work, visithttps://issuu.com/richardholleman/docs/voiceofeve_issue11 (Pgs. 122-127)

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As Our Father Neared Death

by Herbert J. Levine (Philadelphia, PA)

As our father neared death, his mind raced
between fantasies and the facts of his life,
his speech like the black box of an airplane that had crashed,
the record of its journey jumbled beyond reconstruction.
My brother and I cared for him, sometimes
feeding, sometimes reading to him
from the Book of Psalms. I led him
beside green pastures and still waters
when he, in a soft voice, as if from far away, blessed me:
May God bless you and keep you. May God shine His Face upon you
until its end. Am I not the brother who wrapped himself in a tallit,
who stood before the congregation on Shabbat and holidays
to lead it in prayer to an improbable God? But all that ritual
razzmatazz fooled my fond old man and me.

After his death, my brother came every Shabbat and holiday
to say Kaddish with our mother.
She said to me every Sunday when I visited her,
“Your father would be so happy
that your brother is saying Kaddish for him.”
Thus my brother received her blessing for the great kindness
he did her, a kindness that only the living can receive.

Herbert J. Levine published his first book of poetry, Words for Blessing the World, at the age of 67. His previous books were scholarly treatments of Yeats and Psalms. To learn more about Herb and his work, visit: https://benyehudapress.com/books/words-blessing-world/

Note: “As Our Father Neared Death” was first published in slightly different form in Words for Blessing the World  (Ben Yehuda Press, 2017). The poem is reprinted here with permission of the author.

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Water and Stone

by Aslan Cohen (Chicago, IL)

I never knew there was a real connection between laughter and death. To me, death was the solemnity of the shiva: covered mirrors, torn shirts, itchy beards. When I first visited my grandfather’s grave, I silently placed a small, unpolished stone above the black rectangle of his marble tombstone. Only rocks, in their mineral mutism, can adequately represent the congenital silence of our ancestors. I took that as a general truth. After all, only rocks remain.

Which is why I thought the goyim were so mistaken in using flowers. Most of the flower market in Av. Revolución, far from where the Jews live on the Western edge of Mexico City, consists of oversized funerary arrangements. People have them custom-made for their lost ones. And I just couldn’t understand how those kitschy amalgamations of colorful impermanence could be used to coronate the most serious thing in life.

Little did I know. Because many years later I went with some ‘goyim‘ friends of mine to the graveyard that is in Santa María del Tule, in the outskirts of the city of Oaxaca, on the Day of the Dead. It was an extremely humble place, about a five minutes walk from the Tree of Tule, a cypress of a species we call ahuehuete (which means “old man of the water” in Nahuatl), and which is said to be one of the oldest trees alive. If you go there you’ll find small children that, in exchange for a coin, will give you a tour of the shapes around its wide, wide trunk, and which included, when I was there, the ass of Shakira and the nose of Celia Cruz.

The path to the cemetery was adorned with long strings of petals, which, as I later found out, connect the individual graves with the particular house where the dead person used to live. Through this endless network of smells, life branches in and out of the cemetery, reminding us that our vane pursuits are nothing but a meaningless dance we perform during the short trajectory that goes from our doorposts to our graves.

I mention dance because there was music inside the cemetery. People danced to it in pairs. I remember there was a huge trombone playing with the band. The tunes were not particularly sad, but neither were they frivolous. Something in them captured the sweet-and-sour irony of the encounter of absence with life. This is the irony on which the Mexican Day of the Dead is predicated.

But the exact feeling it gave me is very hard to convey, especially because it was accompanied by the sight of whole families sitting in a circle around the place where their loved one had been buried, drinking and talking with the dead. They tell them about last year: a grandchild’s birthday, the departure of such-and-such who went looking for a job to the United States. They bring the dead their favorite meal. I saw apples and bottles of Coca-Cola over the tombstones. They placed them at the very same spot where I had once burdened my grandpa with a stone. I even saw a bottle of Corona in one of them.

And further down I saw a widow, a very old lady filled with wrinkles, who had brought nothing more than a single glass of water to share with her late husband. She told me that. And I remember being very moved. I am moved to this day. The images of that graveyard have been mostly blurred out from my mind, but I can still see the brown jícara (calabash) with still, transparent water enclosed in it. And I realize it is the very opposite of my grandpa’s stone. But, when all is said and done, they are really the same thing.

Aslan Cohen was born in Mexico City, where he grew up in the Syrian Jewish Community. Today he lives in Chicago with his wife, where he pursues a PhD in Biblical Literature at the University of Chicago.

 

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Family Gathering

by Carol Westreich Solomon (Montgomery Village, MD)

Past Pennsylvania farms, harvest-bare,
I drive to the cemetery
Where my uncle waits for my aunt
Beneath a half-empty headstone.
Next to me, Aunt Dellie rambles
About Yiddish class
Until crackling gravel announces our arrival.

“Come, so many to visit,” she says,
Scooping stones into my cupped hands.
She dips beneath the gate chain
Protecting the dead.
By height, tilt, shade,
She navigates the headstones
To those she’s come to see.

Her aunts.
Her sister.
Her father.
Her mother.
Plop go the stones, our calling cards.

Tucked among thinning headstones
Her grandmother’s grave.
Faint numbers record the length of her years
But not her strength
When a husband wanders.

Near my uncle’s grave, an alabaster headstone
Straight and proud,
Not yet buffeted by winter winds
Or chipped by mower-churned stones.
Cousin Linda.
“So young.  See all the stones.  They all came for Linda.”

“Who will come for me?”
She brushes dead grass from her husband’s headstone,
The ground uneven,
The marker leaning in.
No family gathering in granite awaits the rest of us.
Planes, schools, jobs
Have scattered us all.

Her reunion done,
Aunt Dellie washes death from her hands,
Then dips beneath the chain
Separating her from her loved ones.
Still, she invites them into my car
And they travel with us
For the rest of the day.

Carol Westreich Solomon has returned to her first love–creative writing–after exploring literature and writing with high school students in Maryland.  As the lead consultant of Carol Solomon and Associates, she previously taught writing to adults in corporations and government agencies.  Her YA novel Imagining Katherin was designated a 2016 Notable Book by the Association of Jewish Libraries.  Her work has also appeared in Lilith,  JewishFiction.net, Persimmon Tree, Poetica, Little Patuxent Review, Pen and Ink, The English Journal, and The Washington Post.

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My Brother’s Death

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

He was my younger brother,
perhaps older in wisdom than I.
He had a gentle heart and caring nature,
never forgetting a birthday or anniversary in our family.
He loved nature and history, and a good joke,
and loved being outside making sure the birds were fed.
In his younger days he loved riding his bicycle
through the streets of Brooklyn.
He loved old movies and could tell you
every John Wayne movie ever made.
He loved comic books,
especially Superman and Supergirl.
He loved his mother with a bond
that was true and enduring.
His passions were simple, and anybody who met him
enjoyed his quick wit and genuine smile.
According to the rabbi at the grave site,
as the body is set to be lowered into the ground,
it is believed that the soul hovers
over the pine box and the deceased
can hear your final messages.
“Goodbye, Gabriel, my brother,
I wish I could have given you a happier life,
but failing that, I wish you a full afterlife,
of walking pain-free and strong,
wherever that may be.”

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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Of Death and Coffee

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

So, three older Jewish guys

are sitting around a table

at an older Jewish restaurant

talking about death.

It’s the subject of some worried inquiry

as all three approach the finish line.

“Jews don’t believe in heaven,” says the first man.

“Your soul lives on after you,” says the next.

“Perhaps,” says the third, “the big surprise

is there is absolutely nothing – gornisht.”

“You mean this is all there is?” the first one asks.

“Could be,” replies the second.

“Maybe it’s like this,” the third man says,

“just ten minutes before you die,

you get a message, like an e-mail, from God,

telling you exactly what’s gonna happen.”

“That would be nice,” the first man agrees.

The three men stare into their coffees,

each one contemplating his own mortality,

together as friends facing the dreadful uncertainty.

“Same time next week?”

“God willing.”

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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