Short story: Shadows (I)

The heat was blistering, but the backs of his ankles felt particularly blistered. Sweat seemed to be beading up beneath his sandal straps, rubbing the skin raw beneath; and the sun’s rays were roasting relentlessly. When was the last time he’d gone for a walk like this?

Also, his clothes were drenched. Later, he’d probably be struggling them off into the laundry machine, hoping that a quick cycle would get the stench out. Maybe he should pick up some white vinegar at the grocery store.

He was going shopping for the first time in… forever. At Sha’are Zedek Medical Center, Doc Negev had been very stern with him about not wandering too far from his apartment. “Your body is still weak. You must recuperate. So, don’t go too far from home for two weeks, at least, and schedule a checkup with Tzipporah.” Finally, after his third checkup, Doc was satisfied, and he was given shopping privileges. Still, that piercing sunlit afternoon, Osnat had attempted to discourage him.

But he was long past stir-crazy.

Of course, in his eagerness to go out and be useful, he’d forgotten his sunglasses. Figured. He was always leaving his personal effects behind. “Son, you’d forget your shadow if only that were possible,” his father used to tell him. Abba hard to believe that almost four years had gone by. “I miss you so much, Abba… but, B’ezrat HaShem, I’m well enough to go to shul next week for Kaddish. I’ll bring a good scotch in your honor.”

Squinting through the sun and sweat, he could hardly make out the faces of other pedestrians as he made his way down the sidewalk. Their bodies blurred in the light waves, and he decided to pretend that he was passing by the souls of his loves ones. “Hi, Saba… Nana… Bubbe… I wish you were still around… next week I’ll be marking Abba’s fourth yahrzeit. Can you believe it? Sometimes I imagine that he’s still here in Jerusalem. God knows he loved this city.”

Finally, Yosef had to cast his eyes down to the pavement under the weight of the sun’s blaze. At least the air-conditioned store was only one more block ahead.

And then- SuperDeal!

The store was bigger than the average local minimarket, but more manageable than certain enormous supermarkets in Jerusalem, and the customer service was notably better- practically American. Breathing heavily, Yosef entered the comfortably cool store and pulled out a shopping cart from next to the doorway, resting his forearms on the bar. Apparently, even now, weeks after his release, he was weaker than he’d expected.

He slowly pushed the cart towards the dairy aisle on the left, past the cashiers, and noted their new, crisp blue uniforms. “Very nice, guys, very professional,” he thought. The air conditioning was refreshing, but his legs felt unsteady. Best to finish up here as soon as possible. Hmn… maybe he should call Osnat to pick him up with the car.

Yosef put several strawberry yogurts, cottage cheese, and a carton of goat milk into his cart. Next, frozen salmon and imitation crab meat. Osnat’s salmon patties and seafood salad were to die for. Mayonnaise, canned corn, sweet pickles, red onion… what else had she needed?

As he swiveled his cart, he nearly bumped into a plumpish, gray-haired elderly gentleman with a beige, flat golf cap… Abba! “Hey! Watch it!” Stunned, Yosef turned to look at the fleshy, wrinkled face staring back in consternation. The portly customer was about the right age and build, but otherwise bore little resemblance to Abba. Just his imagination, again. “I’m so sorry, Sir!”

Lately, he’d been talking to Abba in his mind, visualizing him, and hearing his throaty voice around every corner. A tremble went through him, and his skin suddenly felt cold and clammy. The air conditioning was too strong. Realization dawned, and Yosef reached into his pocket to call Osnat, but he’d forgotten his cellphone on the table next to the sunglasses, which used to belong to Abba. Damn. This was bad.

“I need to go home.”

Yosef wheeled his groceries towards the checkout, his attention drawn to the rhythmic beep, beep, beeping of the scanners. His body was shivering and the cashiers looked at him under the white ceiling lamps. Light was filling his vision, as the blue uniforms began to blur. Beep, beep… beep… …. …. beep… … beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee…

From somewhere in the distance, he heard Doctor Negev’s voice. “Yosef! Can you hear me? Stay with us! Yosef! Can you…”

In the spreading chill, he understood- numbly.

There weren’t any shadows.

Hosting kiddush for Papa’s 2nd yahrzeit

I can use big words and use them well, but I’m also a childish creature and feel that the quality of my writing often conceals my smallness.

* * *

Papa’s 2nd yahrzeit (anniversary of death) is just around the corner. The official Hebrew date falls out on July 16th – next Thursday. This coming Shabbat morning (July 11th), I plan to host a small kiddush after Saturday morning services in the park.

In Israel, we may now be at the cusp of a 2nd lockdown due to COVID-19. Certainly, we’re in the midst of a 2nd wave, and the government has already implemented new restrictions, including further limits upon indoor and outdoor gatherings. Therefore, the morning prayer service this weekend has been limited to twenty people.

Now, technically, one need not attend the shacharit service in order to attend the kiddush afterwards; and I would be more than happy if friends were to stop by for kiddush, even if they were unable to attend the prayer service beforehand.

However, our community has rightfully compensated for the newly reimposed restrictions by holding multiple prayer services, beginning at staggered times. Therefore, some of my friends will be in the midst of their morning prayers during my little kiddush. Further (let’s be real), not many are likely to attend a Saturday morning kiddush at 8:30 in the morning if they haven’t already gotten up for services beforehand.

Beyond this, my little kiddush will not be announced by the community because official community kiddushes have been verboten since the pandemic broke out, back in March. There will certainly be some attendees at the prayer services who feel uncomfortable gathering for kiddush afterwards – even outside in the park.

I am fully expecting low attendance.

* * *

Given the circumstances, I should be thankful that a 2nd lockdown hasn’t been declared yet. I should be, and I am, thankful that I have this opportunity to host a kiddush in memory of Papa this year.

Also, I am doing my utmost to host a safe kiddush, taking the following precautions:

  • Kiddush will be held outside
  • All servings of food will be individually prepackaged
  • I will bring hand sanitizer to the kiddush

But… all of this amounts to a much more limited kiddush experience than I had last year, and I find myself feeling fairly deflated. I am truly sick and tired of the Coronavirus.

This is all so petty, and I so know it. While I kvetch here about not being able to host and enjoy a full-size kiddush with my prayer community, countless other people are worried for their very lives. Clearly, eloquent writing doesn’t make one an adult.

* * *

Well, I shall make the most if it.

There shall be whiskey, herring, cheese, and crackers; and I’ve made a preemptive attempt to maximize attendance by sending personal invitations to my friends.

As I said – I am thankful to have such an opportunity at all, given the ongoing pandemic…

I just wish this were under happier and healthier circumstances.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 47

Two weeks ago a middle-aged woman approached me at the back of the sanctuary, as I was readying to head home for havdalah.
I’ve been thinking about you recently. You must be nearly done by now… I’m almost at the end of my eleven months.
I recognized her immediately – the rabbi’s daughter (blog #3). She had lost her father not long after Papa died, just after I returned from shiva in New Jersey. I had been in the shloshim stage of mourning then.
Oh, hello! Yes, I completed my eleven months of kaddish just over a week ago, but the yahrzeit won’t be for another two months.
She nodded in understanding.
Yes, because of the Hebrew leap year – I also have an extra month. It’s good to see you again.
Thank you; it’s very nice to see you too.
The memories flooded back. Seemingly a lifetime ago, I had attended shiva at this woman’s home for four consecutive evenings to make minyan so that she could recite kaddish for her father.

A month later, in August, I wrote of that (blog #3):

The rabbi’s daughter was sitting shiva, and I was already past that stage, in the shloshim period of my mourning. According to Jewish tradition, her wound was fresher than mine, her mourning more acute, but this did not feel true to me. For four days I listened as strangers honored the memory of a rabbi that I’d never known, all the while grieving silently, alone by the wall, over the untimely death of my own father, but not saying a word because it wasn’t my shiva house.

* * *

Every ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ blog entry feels like it must be the very last. I post and think: That’s it. Done. I’ve wrung my heart out. The next post is always unfathomable to me until it is has become the last one.

In mid-December I found myself reflecting upon that shiva again in another blog post, shortly after I’d finished devouring a compilation of women’s kaddish stories. The months, it seemed, had done their work in grinding down the edges of my grief (blog #19):

Everything was about my pain then [i.e. in July, during the rabbi’s shiva], and I could hardly feel beyond myself. Since, the shock has faded; I am more conscious of death and less surprised by it. I have again become able to hear others’ stories.

* * *

Reading through my older blog posts, only snippets of observations and reflections feel authentically mine today, as if each of my entries had been authored by another member of a mourners’ support group, before passing my cracked, black laptop around the circle to the next.

My own words come back to me (blog #39):

By the time you’ve read this, it’s no longer about the character who wrote it. Who is David Bogomolny anyway?

* * *

One particular leg of my journey this year led me upon an intensive search for creative and modern expressions of kaddish. I found other kaddish bloggers (blog #29), as well as a musician who had put the mourner’s kaddish to song and an artist who had made paintings of every synagogue where he’d recited the kaddish in honor of his father (blog #31). At around that time I also came across another artist who had charted a unique, personalized kaddish journey, but this man’s story froze me. Steven Branfman had lost his son.

Here is the father’s kaddish story in his own words:

Some concepts are hard to wrap my mind around and harder still to put words to, but the story of Steven’s grief over Jared’s death brought up a dreadful question: what if it had been somebody other than Papa? Somebody other than a parent of mine?

For all the pain behind my writing this year, for all my shock and despair at losing my father, I had always “known” that he would die before me. Given, he should have lived another ten or twenty years, well into his eighties or his nineties. Given, I’d never imagined him leaving us so unexpectedly or so suddenly, in a matter of greedy, insatiable hours while I was putting his beloved granddaughter to bed far across the churning waters. Still, stories of grown adults mourning their departed parents do not usually shatter us.

I acknowledge to myself: My grief has been bearable enough for me to blog about.

* * *

I was surprised when I found out that the halachic, traditional Jewish period for mourning a child is only thirty days. But one of the mothers explained why: it’s because you grieve the rest of your life. You don’t need need the rituals to remind you to grieve. You will think of your child forever.

 Sherri Mandell, The Blessing of a Broken Heart (p. 82)

This folk wisdom from Sherri Mandell’s book of loss and mourning hasn’t come up in any Jewish sources that I’ve seen, but our ancient traditions are ever hungry for relevance, and these bereaved mothers’ words are of the sheerest sagacity. Thoughts such as these leave me flailing to keep my head above guilt, but I’ve already steeled myself once before to admit this:

If you know me only through my blog posts, you might conclude that I think about my father all the time; but I am writing, in part, to remind myself of him.

– Me, blog #27

* * *

There were too, too many minutes in the few hours before Papa’s death, my senses vibrating at a frequency that was out of step with the usual rhythm of things. Then my cellphone screen lit up with a time-bending message from my brother, just as my daughter was complaining that she wasn’t sleepy: “Dead”. Collected and reeling, I placed the phone face down by the bedside, coaxing and calming my little girl as she fell aslumber.

Disconcertingly out of sync, perceptions jumbled, receptors misfiring, I remain immediately near but never fully within the self I’d always known, receiving on an unfamiliar, piercing wavelength.

Slowly, slowly, I have come to understand
this: My pulse has been attuned to loss.

* * *

As I was perusing the bookshelves at my mother’s home in New Jersey last month, ‘The Blessing of a Broken Heart’ called to me. Mama, it turns out, had acquired the book some years ago because I’d shared the story of Koby Mandell with her – the boy who had once invited me to his bar mitzvah.

In the summer of 2000 I was in Jerusalem, studying at a yeshiva where Rabbi Seth Mandell was teaching. I was drawn to him because he dressed and spoke more like me than any of the other rabbis, and I always looked forward to seeing him on our weekly day trips.

It was on a walk along the ramparts of the Old City of Jerusalem that I met Koby, and we spent much of that tour chatting together. He was twelve years old and bursting with enthusiasm; and I felt drawn to that buoyant, American-mannered child who breathed in Israel so naturally. I still recall with amusement Rabbi Mandell’s teasing rebuke to his son: You can’t invite everyone you meet to your bar mitzvah, Koby. (I wouldn’t have been in Israel for the event anyway, and I’m pretty sure Koby knew that.)

At the end of the summer I returned to my university studies and the powder keg exploded. From the safety of America, I read about the devastating terrors of the Second Intifada.

I was shocked and shattered by Koby’s murder.

* * *

‘It’s hard for the one who dies, but it’s harder for those left behind,’ Koby said after two high school boys were killed by terrorists only two months before his own death.

 Sherri Mandell, The Blessing of a Broken Heart (p. 151)

Perhaps it’s trite to write, but there are different ways of knowing – different modes – different depths. This quote from Koby is intuitive, right? What could be more apparent?

Still, I somehow never used to think too much about “those left behind” before my Papa died. Sure, I felt bad for them; I knew that the living were left suffering, smoldering in pain; but my thoughts would inevitably alight upon those who had departed: so sad, so unfortunate, so terrible, so tragic; they had so much yet to live for… so… so… so…

Now that Koby’s insight has been absorbed into my depths
I’ll never again unknow it.