Blemished mourning

Through the cracks

After Papa died in the summer of 2018, I was intent on chronicling my year of mourning as thoroughly as possible; but, unavoidably, many of my kaddish experiences fell through the cracks between my blog posts… I had neither the bandwidth nor the time necessary to cover every significant moment.

Each kaddish blog post of mine took on a life of its own. I would begin by recording some preliminary thoughts and then allow my reflections on the Jewish texts I’d been exploring to guide my hands across the keyboard. Usually, I would reach “the end” of every blog post upon realizing that it was complete… but there was always, always more to be written.

That’s part of why I’m blogging to this day.

Week after week I remember telling myself that I would include those inevitably omitted moments in future blog posts… but I could never quite keep up with life, and my project was, naturally, limited to my one year of mourning.

Admittedly, there were certain things that I was uncomfortable sharing publicly during that painful period, such as my decision not to recite kaddish for Babushka, my mother’s mother, who died several months after my Papa did… And some of those reflections, perhaps, I will never share.

There was one particular incident, however, that I very much did want to reflect upon in my Skeptic’s Kaddish series, which I never got around to because of timing.


Jewish tradition

The traditional Jewish mourning period for a parent is twelve Hebrew months, unlike the mourning period for other immediate family members, which lasts for only thirty days.

The first seven days after the funeral are known as the shiva, and these are the most restrictive days. Mourners stay at home during that period, seated on low stools and accepting visitors who come to comfort them. Following is the remainder of the first 30 days, called shloshim (literally: thirty), during which many restrictions remain, including not shaving and not getting a haircut.

After the shloshim, those mourning a parent continue reciting the mourner’s kaddish daily in a prayer quorum, usually for a total of eleven months, and several restrictions remain. These include not purchasing new clothing; not attending celebratory events; and not listening to live music.


The blemish

I had no difficulty in avoiding the purchase of new clothing, and I was mindful to avoid attending celebratory events. For example, my friend Arielle’s son Lavie was born during my kaddish year, and while I was excited to attend his ritual circumcision, I dutifully departed before the celebratory meal that followed.

Throughout the course of that year, I thought through potential challenges to my mourning practices in advance, and I conscientiously avoided missteps. The family outing that led to my mistake had been entirely unplanned.

Israel Independence Day, a Spring holiday, was several days before my flight to America for the unveiling of Papa’s tombstone in May 2019. We’d had no particular plans to celebrate, beyond watching the fireworks from afar and enjoying a family dinner at home, but my wife spontaneously suggested that we take our then 4¼-year-old daughter to watch the fireworks up close.

We were concerned because of the late hour but somehow managed to coax her into taking an afternoon nap so that she wouldn’t be overtired at night; then we were off, with her perched upon my shoulders.

My Jerusalem stone

At the time, I was also very preoccupied with the upcoming unveiling. In fact, when we arrived at Papa’s beloved Promenade for the fireworks, I took that opportunity to search for a Jerusalem stone, thinking about how I might place it atop his tombstone in a few days time.

This took place during my eleventh and final month of daily kaddish recitations, and I was emotionally and physically worn out. When the renowned Shalva Band, a group of disabled musicians, started playing beneath the fireworks, I was pleased to see them live, for I’d read so much about them in the press; and when the lead singer, a blind woman, joked that we would have to describe the fireworks display to her, I recall being very amused.


My realization

Days later, at home with my brother and my mother in New Jersey, it hit me. I had accidentally listened to live music during my year of mourning.

My brother and I were downstairs in the basement, discussing Jewish mourning traditions, when it dawned on me; I actually needed a minute to process this realization. “Oh…. shit.” In truth, I didn’t have any feelings of guilt because my error had been inadvertent; and I knew that I had been trying my best. Still, I did experience a pang of regret over having blemished my year of mourning… after having invested so much of myself in prayer, study, and tradition.


Today

Today, I find myself thankful for this memory… It has become one of many that I continue to reflect upon; and in retrospect, I’m actually pleased that my year of mourning for Papa was imperfect – because that is a reflection of myself.

27 thoughts on “Blemished mourning”

  1. It’s great to read how despite all your self-proclaimed flawed actions, you’ve still managed to achieve true appreciation of your imperfections. Great and thought provoking post to share, Ben.

  2. It is moving to read how devoted you are to your Father, to keeping his memory alive, and to your family. This alone makes you a special human being. Thank you, Ben.

    Joanna

  3. I hadn’t realized these restrictions were aspects of the mourning period. I really hate it when people tell me to cheer up when I’m grieving but I think I would equally hate it if they told me not to celebrate too. I’m glad you went to the fireworks and listened to live music. I think your father would have been glad too. It would be awful if we let the sadness of death steal the wonder of life. I do sometimes feel guilty laughing under my current circumstances.

    1. My father would definitely have been glad. I’m the one in the family that has an especially strong affinity for tradition.

      You’re allowed to laugh during the Jewish year of mourning, BTW 😉

      1. .” I’m the one in the family that has an especially strong affinity for tradition.” and yet you are a skeptic of that tradition – a skeptical affinity. Sounds like the title of a very conflicted poem :).

  4. Sometimes imperfection helps you make perfect reflections. David, I like your genuineness. Incidentally, I would like to share that in our culture too, the man who performs last rites is kept in isolation for ten days, and is supposed to sleep on the floor; though gradually, these norms are getting relaxed with time.

  5. Walk ahead of Me and be perfect
    Genesis 17.1, from the Bible.
    I think we are reading the same book, your accounts of you imperfections and inadvertent wrongs are so heart warming.

    1. That is so clever! Well done! I love it! (and thank you!)

      א וַיְהִי אַבְרָם, בֶּן-תִּשְׁעִים שָׁנָה וְתֵשַׁע שָׁנִים; וַיֵּרָא יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי-אֵל שַׁדַּי–הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי, וֶהְיֵה תָמִים.

      1 And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said unto him: ‘I am God Almighty; walk before Me, and be thou TAMIM.

      The word “tamim” in the original Hebrew can mean one of several things:

      It can mean unblemished in the context of an offering to God, and it can also mean upright or God-fearing

      Those are the common uses in Biblical Hebrew (which is relevant for this discussion), but in more modern Hebrew, it can also mean one of the following:

      honest, simple, innocent, naive; complete, full, entire (period of time)

  6. You are a gem of a son, Ben, and an remarkable human being. I really have great respect for those who treat their parents as a treasure, it’s hard to come by these days. Stay blessed ❤️💐

  7. Firstly, dear sir, I wish to thank you for being the first person to view my first publication, and be the first person to like it. I have posted my next piece of “whatever”, but have dedicated it to you, as you will see under the heading.

    Secondly, I would like to thank HaShem for you being the first person to view my first publication, and the first person to like it; I do believe you are a fellow member of the tribe, and I do not believe in co-incidences! I believe people come into our lives for a reason, a season or a lifetime. I may not be a devout Jew, and I completely admit my ignorance to my own religion but, being brought up in a secular society with very few Jews (and being brought up away from that small community), but I fully comprehend – and am highly empathetic – with losing one’s parent.

    I lost both my parents in 2008. I did not sit shiva, but I maintained other observances. I mean, how can someone who is grieving so badly even contemplate the idea of “fun”, or even just “getting on with life”?

    I chastise myself for still grieving their loss. I wasn’t the worst kid ever, but I was neither the best one. However, having one’s own children shifts one’s perspective and I tried hard to make amends for being such a turd during my teenage years. This included being with them both when their essence exited their bodies for places/spaces unknown; it was I who called my darling Mother’s time of death, as it was I who was manually monitoring her heart rate and breathing (no electronic devices to do that in a nursing home).

    I made the appropriate arrangements with the funeral director and the chevra kadisha (my parents at least made sure I knew how to get the ball rolling in the right manner, when the time came… and my two elder siblings did their part in pulling things all together). And I let my grief be well known at their services and burials. And why not? They were truly such wonderful people.

    Here we are. Twelve years on and I still grieve… sometimes as though it all happened just yesterday. I beat myself up because I have been criticised for still having such a profound sense of loss that will not heal. But I’ve decided to try and stop beating myself up after hearing a saying that resonates with me to my core. I may have put it in my “About” thingie – which may have been part of what prompted your reading of my trial-by-fire inauguration – but just in case I have not written it somewhere, yet, the saying is this:

    “Grief is love with nowhere to go.”

    I still beat myself up for having moved a considerable way from where my dear parents are buried and have not been to the cemetery for some three years. But the Rabbi who conducted my Mother’s service spoke of having moved to the other side of the country from where his parents are interred, and the internal struggle he felt… and how he has reconciled that issue with himself.

    The physical remains of our departed parents will always remain at a distance from us, even when we are at the graveside… but that essence, the one that left their human shell, is still with you… quantum entanglement, and all other manner of inconceivable notions that may actually be true (and these notions also help me release a little guilt over not being a more knowledgeable and observant Jew… we may all be living under false pretences, after all).

    But, what hurts more than grieving the loss of a parent is grieving the loss of a child… who is still alive but has decided that you are not – nor never were – worthy of being associated with, so it seems. I do not believe that this is his doing, but that of his wife; the result is the same, though… and it’s not a good one.

    Regardless, loss and grief can be something we never recover from, but are forced to learn to live with. May it spur us on to do better and be better (in the most ethereal sense) while we can.

    Meanwhile, I wish you and yours much love, laughter, prosperity, peace and good health… and I wish you all a long life, at that! ❤️ xxxoooxxx ❤️

  8. Dear MCL,

    As you can tell, mourning is one of the major themes of my blog, and it’s also the catalyst for its creation. I deeply empathize with what you’ve written above, and I’m sorry for your losses and grief.

    I wish you too all the best, and I’m honored that you dedicated a blog post to me… I read it and enjoyed it – I assume that it’s based in truth?

    -David

  9. It is with much love, respect, appreciation, gratitude and thanks to HaShem and you, dear son of Alexander (and I only just noticed the 12th of November’s response by you as I type… but I figured if Ben was your first name it would have been capitalised), that I write this. You may not be an “angel” (whatever that stereotype of one demonstrates) but you have been sent to me by the powers that be. I believe that people come into our lives for a reason, a season or a lifetime. You have been sent to me for a reason, and maybe there is a reason for me being the person you were sent to seek out. It feels like a mutually beneficial arrangement is being born; we may both very well be in need, but we both may very well have something to offer each other, even if it is only long-distance contact – in writing – offering what little succour we may be able to offer. We – like everyone else roaming the face of the earth – have experienced trials and tribulations and are still suffering the effects of those trials and tribulations, all compounded by loss and grief (which some people seem to be almost immune to). We, like they, appreciate that “life goes on”, but it’s harder for us to do so without feeling so heavily burdened by things that happened to us in the past (maybe a bit of epigenetics thrown in there, too?).

    I won’t be as dramatic as to say that you may very well have saved my life, this morning, but you may very well have. I’ve not been at the top of my game at any time this century, and I struggle hard to keep putting one foot after the other. While I feel sorry for myself, I feel even more sorry for the only two people in the world who seem to (almost) always have time for my miserable self. It is for their sakes as much as my own that I drift off into suicidal ideation – not wanting to or meaning to, but feeling my own pain as well as that of the two people who have been trying to buoy my spirits so that I’ll hang around a bit longer. Whey they want me around still, considering the amount of pain that I inadvertently inflict on them, is something that only they can explain.

    But I’ve fallen into that deep, dark, dank place – totally devoid of light or hope – over the last week or so. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally started becoming at least partially functional again, but I have felt that slight sense of normalcy slipping away again. As is common with me when I am in such a horrible place, my day usually starts with me crying, within minutes of arising, as it did today.

    After emerging from the bedroom, my darling (and long-suffering) husband told me that there had been some kind of message on my iPad (he’s a technophobe… and he respects my privacy, not that I have anything other than my perpetual sorrow to hide from him). I saw it was a notification, announcing that I now have one follower of my WordPress account.

    Until then, all those thoughts of taking “the easy way out” (which, by the way, isn’t easy at all, or I would have done it long before now) had seeped up from whence they had been buried and started to taint the ground I stood on… turning the ground into quicksand, and I was starting to sink again. You found a branch to extend to me, offering to help me get back on dry, solid land; and the branch extended to me came from an olive tree.

    I cannot express my gratitude and thanks enough for what others may view as an inconsequential, off-handed token. In my opinion, what you did was a huge mitzvah; showing kindness and compassion when most people look at me in fear and/or loathing, and who cannot comprehend the mind and life of a highly empathetic person.

    However, I would like you to know that I am happy to be a shoulder to cry on, an ear to hear your voice and listen to your words, and a heart to offer you comfort as best as I know how. Since I cannot invite you over for a home-cooked meal, or do an act of service for you in order to show my appreciation I can – however – offer to you, your family, your friends and your followers messages of comfort and advice that I receive via tarot and astrology cards. I am not into trying to use these tools to predict the future – as our futures all depend on our decisions and actions, and the decisions and actions of others (not to mention free will) – but to try and make sense of who I am, why I feel the way I do, put things back into perspective and help me devise a better game-plan that will serve me better in working towards healing myself. All the answers we seek are said to be within us… but most of us have no idea of how to access them. The cards may – or may not – help us release that which no longer serves us and adopt attitudes and behaviours that will serve us well.

    You know where to find me should you feel the need for some kind of outlet, a little kindness, and maybe some unrealised insight, which you really already have but is overshadowed by modern social constructs; the dissonance between the old and the new can be heart-wrenching. I would dearly love to repay your kindness; the pain in my chest, that was there when I opened my eyes this morning, suddenly started to dissipate when I knew that there was at least one unknown, good soul out there who shows some sign of compassion and belief in me (that I, too, may be a good soul with something worthwhile to offer, after all).

    I’d write something profound in Hebrew, if I could, but of that language I am ignorant. So, I say to you in English, bless you, you beautiful person; draw on my love and strength whenever you need it… it is offered freely and I ask nothing in return… you have already made payment, in advance ❤️ xxxoooxxx ❤️

    1. First, I’m very glad I could buoy your spirits, even a bit. Second, please forgive me for the brevity of this comment… I sent you an e-mail.

      -David

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