This entry is in honor and memory of my grandmother Maria bat Shmuel and Sima, who passed away a few days ago, at Shabbat’s twilight.
Babushka’s determination to live was tremendous, particularly given her frailty and failing constitution. Last summer, after being intubated in the hospital and suffering from a calcified heart valve (among other health complications), my grandmother mustered the will to breathe independently. The hospital staff were utterly flabbergasted when she walked out of the hospital.
During my father’s last visit to Israel in the summer of 2017, he drove my wife, my daughter, and me to visit Babushka some time after she had been released from the hospital. Back then, she already seemed to be fading from this world, and I noted this to my father. “It will probably be a matter of weeks,” he concurred; but ultimately she lived for one year more, long enough to mourn his unexpected death.
After my father passed away, Babushka told me one day that she had spoken to him all night in her dreams, but she couldn’t recall their conversation.
* * *
1974 – the year after the Yom Kippur War. My father arrives in Israel with nothing, after being strip searched by Soviet officials and required to leave behind his only suitcase. He has no way of contacting his family in the USSR; he may never see them again. He is shocked by the first newspaper he reads in Hebrew; corruption, crime, and politics are reported on and rigorously debated in public. He is unnerved at first and then excited. He feels that his soul is grounded here, in the Land of his ancestors.
2009 – 35 years later. Having been born in Israel and having visited regularly throughout my childhood, I am at ease here. Still, this visit stands apart; I will be in Israel for an entire year to study Torah, to explore my religious heritage through the ancient texts and inherited Land of my ancestors. Towards the end of Sukkot that year, the skies open up above me. At first I am startled and then deeply moved that our traditional prayers for rain, recited by Jews the world over, are in alignment with the seasons here, in the Land of my ancestors.
My father’s stories of adversity and self-discovery continue to compel my love for the Jewish people and for our Land. (In his mid-twenties, he learned to read Hebrew upside down in Soviet Russia, as the members of his underground learning circle had to arrange themselves around their only textbook.)
For lack of a compelling narrative, I chose tradition.
* * *
My father began building a sukkah some years after I graduated from the university, mostly for my younger brother’s benefit. Over the decades he’d spent away from Israel, my father had come to feel that Diaspora life demanded a special effort to preserve the Jewish heritage. He remained uncomfortable with unfamiliar traditions, but found beauty in many others. Even after my brother left home, my father continued to erect his sukkah on the balcony – he had grown to love it.
Sukkot is the holiday that most refreshes Jewish tradition for me; it’s the sukkah that does it. “The anomaly of the setting,” writes Leon Wieseltier in Kaddish, “has a quickening effect” (p. 319).
For my father, the sukkah was beautiful. For me, the sukkah is necessary.
* * *
My three-and-a-half year old daughter has come to enjoy attending shul since my return to Jerusalem. She is particularly and increasingly enthusiastic about Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday evening, but that’s not entirely because of her shul experience.
By coincidence, she began attending preschool just a month and a half after I rose from sitting shiva with my mother and brother in America. On Fridays, her preschool has a Kabbalat Shabbat program, which includes the singing of various Shabbat prayers, including the iconic Lecha Dodi liturgical song.
In addition to drawing, doing puzzles, reading, writing with letter magnets, building rocket ships on the bed out of pillows and blankets, and sundry other amusements, my daughter has decided upon a new activity: singing Shabbat songs and other prayers from the siddur with me during play time. The mourner’s kaddish is one she knows quite well.
If my family hadn’t left Israel when I was not yet two-years-old, I would have grown up singing Lecha Dodi in preschool; [and/but] my father might never have come to build his beloved sukkah.
* * *
Curiously, the sukkah is an intrinsically space-oriented religious tradition in Judaism, which itself is a “religion of time,” as described by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his seminal work – The Sabbath. He writes (p.8):
Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to… learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals… Jewish ritual may be characterized as the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time.
Whereas the sukkah symbolizes the insecure and the temporary, as much as we invest ourselves in constructing and bedecking it, Shabbat is eternal. Writes Heschel (p.21):
The seventh day is like a palace in time… The primary awareness is one of our being within the Sabbath rather than of the Sabbath being within us…
‘How precious is the Feast of Booths [Sukkot]! Dwelling in the Booth [sukkah], even our body is surrounded by the sanctity of the mitzvah,’ said once a rabbi to his friend. Whereupon the latter remarked: ‘The Sabbath Day is even more than that. On the Feast you may leave the Booth for a while, whereas the Sabbath surrounds you wherever you go.’
In my mind, the majestic halls and spires of the palace rise from one Sabbath to the next, Shabbat an infinite, glorious edifice spanning all of our generations through time. My papa and my babushka both spent their final moments within its walls, although neither of them would have been inclined to think so.
* * *
Time is passing. Shabbats have come and gone.
July has 31 days, as does August, but September has only 30. In my childhood, my father taught me the “knuckle mnemonic,” which is a device for remembering the number of days in the months of the Gregorian calendar.
During the shiva in July, I took a watch from my father’s desk, which is powered by light and never needs a battery. Fitting, I thought, because it will remind me of him forever; the only thing I have to do is adjust the date every month.
My daughter is learning how to read a calendar, and she jubilantly informed me this week that October 1st is after September 30th.
For the first time since my father died, I adjusted his watch accordingly.