Today Papa did not turn 73

Today is Papa’s birthday.

In Jewish tradition, we tend to commemorate the dates (on the Hebrew calendar) of our loved ones’ deaths, rather than their birthdays. Same goes for historic figures like our Jewish sages of the many centuries.

Generally, as somebody who deeply appreciates and respects his people’s traditions, I tend to think of them as frameworks for expression of human experiences. I don’t believe that they were designed by or mandated by God, but I do believe that they reflect and are the culmination of many, many centuries of Jewish wisdom.

That’s how I approached my year of mourning, following Papa’s death.

But the truth is that I often find our traditions to be… lacking? No, not quite lacking… insufficient? At least – insufficient for me. The practice of reciting the mourner’s kaddish on a daily basis during the first year of mourning for a parent was – not enough for me. It was not enough to get me through that year.

To be sure, there are other traditions associated with that year of mourning. There’s the common tradition of giving charity in memory of the deceased, and of studying Torah in their honor; but as much as I think of my traditions as my framework, it remains for me to fill in the frame. I found myself regularly confronted by the same niggling challenge that year, over, and over, and over again: where am I in this process? Where is Papa?

That, in large part, is why I started reflecting upon it and writing about it. I wanted to own it – to make that year a truly personal one.

Similarly, albeit in much less intensive way, I took to lighting a 24-hour memorial candle every Friday evening, just before Shabbat comes over us. The Jewish tradition is to light such a candle once a year on the anniversary of a loved one’s death and perhaps to light one on special festivals… but I find some small comfort in those flickering flames… in the physical reminder of Papa’s presence. Spontaneously, instinctively, I took this particular Jewish tradition and changed it up a bit.

And -so- I feel I must mark Papa’s birthday somehow, even though that’s not the Jewish tradition. Mama does so by sharing tender memories and Papa’s beautiful photography, as well as by eating some of his favorite foods; but I am found here, in written words. In fact, this morning, as I was contemplating what to write, I realized that it would be unnatural for me not to write something about Papa. After all, I write almost every single day – how could I let January 4th go by as just another day for prose and poetry?


It seems not a day goes by that I don’t think about Papa.

When my Dedushka (mother’s father) died, I remember my mother and her sisters weeping and eulogizing him. I remember one of my aunts crying, “I wish I could be like you.”

With a sloth in Costa Rica (2017)

At the time, I remember being taken aback by this sentiment. Mama and her sisters are all unique individuals, each with her unique strengths and flaws; and all are quite different than Dedushka was. Why should any of them want to be more like him? He was no more special than any of his daughters, and he was no less flawed than any of them either.

As much as I think about Papa every day, I recall his flaws no less than his strengths; and he was no less flawed than any of us. I have countless warm and loving memories, and I also have memories that leave me with frustrated pulses of energy shooting throughout my torso from somewhere between my lungs. I was never like him, and I could never be like him; and, just like him, I have my own human strengths and weaknesses.

But the funny thing is that I have been catching myself on that very same thought often enough recently: “I wish I could be like you, Papa.”

There were so many wonderful things about Papa. I loved his humility, his integrity, his brilliance, his wonderment, his unselfishness, his honor, his self-confidence, his capability, his worldliness, his innate moral compass… and… so… so… so… many… things…

He was a truly beautiful soul, was my Papa, and I know that I say so objectively because I could also, if I wanted to, list all of the things about him that disappointed or even angered me. He was far from perfect; and I know so as well as anyone else possibly could… but… still… I find myself wishing that I could be like him.

And obviously, I don’t wish to be like him because of his flaws, but rather despite them, for Papa was an absolutely extraordinary human being of the highest quality, and I continue to love him so incredibly dearly.

I was never like Papa, and I could never be like Papa; but, unlike him, I can paint this lovely birthday portrait… because I feel that I love him more than he loved himself.

My most disturbing dream

I’ve had a recurring dream, in which Papa somehow comes back to life some months after dying, only to die again permanently several months later. For some unclear reason, his temporary resurrection is not made public to everyone; and we are all aware and certain that it is, indeed, temporary. The details are very hazy to me, but my dream-self experiences this scenario as having been true. In other words, my dream-self perceives this as an actual memory, rather than as a fantasy.

In this dream, I try to explain to Papa and to myself why I am continuing to mourn him during that interim period between his two deaths. In other words, why did I continue reciting kaddish during the traditional Jewish year of mourning that began with his original death, and why did I continue writing every week about my mourning, while knowing that he wasn’t really dead, even though his reprieve from death was temporary?

My dream-self offers several related answers.

  1. First of all, my dream-self explains, Papa was in the USA, and I was in Israel so even though Papa magically came back to life, I never actually saw him in the flesh after his resurrection so he was still dead from my dream perspective.
  2. Secondly, since I knew that Papa’s days were numbered anyway, and since I’d already commenced with my traditional year of mourning, I had to continue going through the motions because his resurrection was supernatural anyway, and our tradition doesn’t account for such surreal circumstances.
  3. Thirdly, Papa really was dead, sort of. In my dream-memory he was somewhat ghostlike, hanging out at home all day and avoiding the outside world.
  4. Fourthly, the situation was too strange to explain to everybody who was reading about my mourning experience on a weekly basis. My dream-self reasons that it wouldn’t have made sense to my readership that Papa wasn’t dead during my year of mourning for him. My dream-self further reasons that I will tie up the loose ends later by writing an additional blog post at some point after my year of mourning has ended to explain the unusual circumstances of Papa’s supernatural resurrection and second death.
  5. Fifthly, what my dream-self doesn’t want to admit to my resurrected Papa is that my identity has become too wrapped up in my response to his death. I’d invested so much mental and emotional energy and time in writing my Skeptic’s Kaddish series that I had become the “Skeptic’s Kaddish”, and if I had publicly revealed to the world that Papa had been resurrected, it would have unraveled my entire sense of self.
  6. Lastly, my dream-self doesn’t even want to tell Papa about my Skeptic’s Kaddish series because he fears Papa’s disapproval. Papa was a very private person and probably wouldn’t have liked me writing about him, and what if he would have felt that I was just using his death to gain attention?

Whenever I wake up after having this dream, I feel that I need to write something about Papa to further expound upon my experience of losing him.

In the real world, I know that this dream is imagined, supernatural, impossible nonsense; I know that it’s nothing more than the concoction of my subconscious mind; but I’m constantly left wondering who David ben Alexander would be if Alexander had not died that day.

America, or: Jerusalem

‘Endings / beginnings’, a d’Verse prompt

More than anything else, I simply wanted her to be okay after Papa died
Though it seems rather unpoetic and prosaic to me looking back at it
Of course that is what I would have wanted for Mama; and for all of us
Losing one parent so tragically would have been impossible enough for me

Though it seems rather unpoetic and prosaic to me looking back at it
I wanted to swallow the depths of the Atlantic Ocean after Papa died
Losing one parent so tragically would have been impossible enough for me
Even if my mother hadn't been living so far, far, far away, somewhere

I wanted to swallow the depths of the Atlantic Ocean after Papa died
Anything to cry together with one's mother and baby brother, I felt
Even if my mother hadn't been living so far, far, far away, somewhere
Somewhere I had once called home, but which now smelled of foreign air

Anything to cry together with one's mother and baby brother, I felt
I felt utterly helpless and useless and disconnected from my Mama
Somewhere I had once called home, but which now smelled of foreign air
She was still stuck inside that house, living with the scents of him

I felt utterly helpless and useless and disconnected from my Mama
Writing myself out because I didn't believe prayer could reach America
She was still stuck inside that house, living with the scents of him
I was raising their grandchild in their Jerusalem, where his soul lived

Writing myself out because I didn't believe prayer could reach America
Actually, no human expression could hold a loved one across the world
I was raising their grandchild in their Jerusalem, where his soul lived
Mama and Papa had always, always, always wanted to return to Jerusalem

Actually, no human expression could hold a loved one across the world
I simply could think of nothing else to do with my useless, distant self
Mama and Papa had always, always, always wanted to return to Jerusalem
Mama was now alone, widowed in her America, with me in her Jerusalem

I simply could think of nothing else to do with my useless, distant self
So I wrote and wrote and wrote and when I tried to stop I was miserable
Mama was now alone, widowed in her America, with me in her Jerusalem
More than anything else, I simply wanted her to be okay after Papa died

The above poem is my take on d’Verse’s ‘endings / beginnings’ prompt.

We were offered five alternative ways to play with endings in poetry:

  1. how and where to end that line 
  2. endings as quotations like The Golden Shovel form – where one poem quotes another 
  3. endings and beginnings – verse forms that loop and repeat
  4. underlining your endings, and
  5. surprise endings.

I selected the 3rd option, after reading Australian poet Tess Pearson’s pantoum on housework called ‘Household Ripening’, which really moved me in both form and substance.

My thoughts have been with my mother as of late.

The heartwarming house sale

Home alone

For Mama, everything changed dramatically [following Papa’s death]. Where would she live? What would she do with the rest of her life? Whom would she do it with? Clearly, she still had to sell her too large house, but then– what?

-Me, ‘When the rabbi’s wife died’, Nov. 27th, 2020

Following my Papa’s death ~2.5 years ago, Mama went through a long process of selling the house. She put it on the market; took it off the market; put it on; took it off… Finally, as of this week, the house has acquired new ownership.

Now, this would have been a relief under any circumstances for all of us. The house, after twenty-one years, had to go. It was entirely too big for one woman, and nearly every corner of it reminded her of Papa. From my perspective, it had become for her an enormous prison cell. The phrase that would constantly come to my mind was: Mom is rattling around inside that big house all by herself.

I remember Babushka (my mother’s mother) also worrying regularly about this after my Papa died. How can she live alone in that huge house? She would say. She simply cannot stay there by herself. Poor Svetachka. She tells me she’s okay… but I know my daughters.

Anyway, we all knew the house had to be sold, and we were all worried for Mama.


The lovely, lovely family

The new owners are a family of church-going, Zionistic Christians, originally from India, and they have simply exuded kindness towards Mama.

In one of their exchanges, they wrote to her the following [edited for grammar]:

… Yes, definitely, your beautiful home will be in good hands… [We’re from] a Christian home with values and ethics… from India… Almost everyone… [has] visited Israel from [our] family… so we do have tons of respect for Jewish families; and we are so glad that we are buying from you…

For Mama, who had found herself and her family free from the USSR in the mid-70’s to begin life anew in their Jewish State of Israel, this was profoundly moving. She mentioned that she would love to some day give this delightful Indian Christian family a personal tour of Jerusalem, where I live now.

And:

Whenever you miss your home, please stop by. [We] completely understand it’s very emotional; plus you stayed for 21 years, so you are part of the house.

All of this was obviously far above and beyond what one might expect from the people who purchase one’s house, but what made us cry was the following: The new owners purchased Papa’s book and vowed to keep it forever in his office where he had written it.

Wow, right?


Moving [on]

Mama is now living in a lovely apartment in Princeton, NJ, which both of my parents had always loved visiting for its museums, theaters, parks, etc.

Of course, unpacking all of the many boxes is a tremendous project for her, but things are gradually coming together, and she seems to me genuinely happy in her new space.

When we ordered a bouquet of flowers for her, we did so, in part, as a gesture of support to help her through a challenging transitionary period, but it actually seems that she’s doing quite well, thank goodness!

From my perspective as a son, the sale of my younger brother’s childhood home could not possibly have gone any better. My mother and father had lived in that house for longer than they had ever lived anywhere else, but the time had definitely come to move on…

And my Mama is doing well, which was my only real concern.


P.S. America, or: Jerusalem

I wrote a poem shortly after completing this post. Click here to read it.

A fool’s wrong tools

This week, I replaced our shower head.

In principle, this should be a simple procedure, but it took me more effort than necessary.

After purchasing the shower head itself, I came home to realize that my one wrench was insufficiently large enough. Upon my second return from the hardware store, gripping my new wrench’s padded handle, I spent entirely too much time turning it in the wrong direction and broke off part of the old shower head. Not a big deal, technically, because the old head was destined for the garbage heap anyway; but this was after much frustratingly cumbersome twisting, as my wrench handle had continuously been bumping against the faucet at every single turn. I can’t recall how many times I’d had to loosen and retighten the wrench for another twist.

This shower head replacement operation was only the most recent in a series of fix-it adventures that went somewhat awry. Let’s not speak of the door handle that needed to be replaced and the hole in the door that unexpectedly needed to be widened so that the lock would fit. Let’s not speak of the lights above the bathroom mirror that required me to go back and forth to the hardware store until I finally figured out which bulbs, boxes, and wires I actually needed. Let’s not speak of the curtain rod that broke and my poor attempt at screwing a new one to the bathroom wall. Let’s not speak of the various other home improvement adventures that I’ve been avoiding because I hate doing them. Because I’m bad at repairing things. Because I hate doing things poorly.


Papa’s tools

I am so unlike my father.

He had a room full of tools, and he knew how to use all of them. When he hammered nails into the walls, they never got bent sideways the way mine do every single time.

Years and years ago, when I was a teenager, my father was repairing our deck in the backyard while my aunt and uncle happened to be visiting us from Israel. My uncle offered to help him, and together the two of them got the job done. I saw them working on the deck, but it did not occur to me to help them… I didn’t know how to do such things well, and it seemed to me that they had everything under control. I seem to recall going upstairs to read a book in the meantime. Later, to my surprise at the time, Papa expressed his deep disappointment in me for not offering to help to them.

Next week, Mama will be permanently moving out of the house that she has lived in since 2000. My parents lived longer in that house than any other home they’d ever had, and Papa amassed a trove of tools and machines over those years, on top of the ones he’d already had, which are now being left behind for the new owners who are probably more than happy to inherit them.

Living as I do, across the ocean, in a small, rented apartment, I couldn’t take Papa’s tools even if I wanted them… but what would I do with them, even if I could keep them?

I’m pretty much only good for handling a keyboard.

Moth, or: Wick

‘Stepping Off the Sidewalk’ – a d’Verse poetics prompt

Epigraph:

Ask no questions of the moth in the candle flame…

Attar (c. 1145 – c. 1221)
fans flames of sheer with gossamer notes
burn dark bright through seared clear words crisp
lick searching for hell's deep heights of
verse parches air thin burning with
a yearning melody leaves shivering all
it warms sighs crying elegies fierce
flashing flaring fiery forms
doomed desperate winged pleadings pierce

At d’Verse, we were asked to write a spiritual-mystical poem using a line from a list of several. We were allowed to use the line as an epigraph at the beginning of the poem. I chose the line written by Attar as my epigraph.

Ethical will: Patience

What do we remember of our departed loved ones?

In speaking to other mourners, I have noticed that people’s recollections of their deceased loved ones differ widely. Some people seem to remember only the most loving and tender of moments, whereas others recall a wider range of experiences. (I’ve also met widows who only spoke of dark and painful memories after their husbands passed away, even after decades of living peacefully with their spouses’ shortcomings.)

I miss Papa more than my words can express, but not all of my memories of him are positive. On one hand, I don’t want to besmirch Papa’s good name; on the other hand, I don’t think that focusing exclusively on my good memories does him any real honor.

If we’re being honest, I think all of us inevitably learn two ways from our parents – 1) we observe certain choices and ways of theirs that we hope to emulate, and 2) there are others that we consider less than ideal, which we deliberately attempt to approach differently than they did.

We empower ourselves and our children to best learn and improve ourselves by honestly reflecting upon our collective pasts.


A particular memory

After graduating from college, I lived at home for several years while my brother Eli was yet a child. One memory that has stayed with me to this day is that of babysitting him on a particular afternoon while our parents were away. The details are hazy in my mind, but I remember losing my patience with him, and I remember him bursting into tears (he was only four or five at the time).

I also remember myself immediately feeling terribly guilty and attempting to comfort the little boy, apologizing to him for my unreasonably irritable outburst. A thought followed, soon after I had calmed him down: “Oh, God. That’s the way Papa acts.”

Papa, you see, tended to be irritable and impatient with me, leading me to often approach him with hesitancy. It was a trait of his that I had never fully developed the tools to content with, other than to avoid him.


Just to be clear!

What I’ve written above bears clarification.

My Babushka (Mama’s mother), who very much adored my father (as did all of my mother’s family), no less than she might have adored her own son, put this to me in a way that rang deeply true. My Papa, as Babushka explained to me on more than one occasion, could be irascible (вспыльчивы), but he never stayed angry for long and never bore any grudges. He was irritable, yes, true, but he was also incredibly forgiving, and one of the kindest men to have ever lived.

Human beings are all so complicated, aren’t we?


Me, myself, and I

The memory I shared with you above is one of my own impatience, and it’s one which I have been trying to grow from in all the years since.

Nevertheless, the reality is that despite my best efforts to subdue this particular character trait of mine, my irritability still manages to occasionally find its way to the fore. I have been impatient at times with both my wife and my daughter, and that is not something to be proud of in the slightest. Such episodes have always left me feeling ashamed. Thus, it is my own limitations, rather than Papa’s, which have led me to write this blog post.

Reflecting upon this, I have decided to explore some traditional Jewish texts and lessons on patience and attempt to create something positive: another article for my ‘ethical will’.


Still waiting for the Messiah

The first thing that immediately strikes me regarding Jewish theology is that we Jews are still waiting for the Messiah’s arrival. Obviously, that’s not to say that all Jews believe in the Messiah, but, still, that’s the official party line: we have been praying for Redemption for thousands of years; and, even today, even with the establishment of the modern Jewish State of Israel (from which we were exiled for nearly two millennia), we continue to pray for the eventual coming of the Messianic Age.

Famously, the 12th of Maimonides’ (Spain, Egypt, 1135-1204) ‘Thirteen Principles of Faith’ is:

I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and even though he may tarry, nonetheless, I wait every day for his coming.


The most classic example of Jewish impatience

My second thought relates to the classic Biblical case of the Jewish people’s impatience. Stories of our collective impatience abound in our TaNaKh (Jewish Bible), but most people would agree that the story of the Golden Calf represented our greatest failure.

As the story goes, the Israelites were impatient for the return of their leader Moses from Mount Sinai after he ascended to receive the Torah from God. They felt he was tarrying too long. The Torah describes this impatience as the cause of the Israelites’ unrest, which ultimately resulted in their demand for a Golden Calf.

Descending from Mount Sinai, Moses witnessed the Israelites worshipping their Golden Calf. He became enraged and hurled the Ten Commandments, which he had just received from God, down to the ground. The stone tablets shattered into fragments. God then told Moses that he intended to destroy all of the Israelites (Exodus 32):

ט וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה: רָאִיתִי אֶת-הָעָם הַזֶּה, וְהִנֵּה עַם-קְשֵׁה-עֹרֶף הוּא. 9 And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people.
י וְעַתָּה הַנִּיחָה לִּי, וְיִחַר-אַפִּי בָהֶם וַאֲכַלֵּם; וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אוֹתְךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל. 10 Now therefore let Me alone, that My wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them; and I will make of thee a great nation.’

It was only upon Moses pleading with Him that God finally relented:

יד וַיִּנָּחֶם, יְהוָה, עַל-הָרָעָה, אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לַעֲשׂוֹת לְעַמּוֹ. 14 And the LORD relented on the evil which He said He would do unto His people.

In fact, the Torah does not even suggest that God forgave the people for their impatience and lack of faith. Rather, it was Moses’ beseechment that moved Him, and the prophet’s plea to the Master of the Universe appealed only to A) God’s concern with His own reputation, and B) The promises He’d made to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (Jacob).

One can only imagine how differently the Jewish story might have unfolded if the Israelite people had exhibited faith in God and His chosen messenger.


Verses on wisdom

Beyond the above “big picture” examples, the TaNaKh, as one would expect, is very direct about the virtue of patience. Such verses include the following:

Ecclesiastes 7

ח טוֹב אַחֲרִית דָּבָר, מֵרֵאשִׁיתוֹ; טוֹב אֶרֶךְ-רוּחַ, מִגְּבַהּ-רוּחַ. 8 Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof; and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.

Proverbs 14

כט אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, רַב-תְּבוּנָה; וּקְצַר-רוּחַ, מֵרִים אִוֶּלֶת. 29 [He who has] long patience is of great understanding; but [he that is] hasty of spirit exalteth folly.

Proverbs 16

לב טוֹב אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, מִגִּבּוֹר; וּמֹשֵׁל בְּרוּחוֹ, מִלֹּכֵד עִיר. 32 [He who has] long patience is better than a hero; and [better] he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.

These three verses speak to my point so I won’t belabor it any further, but a cursory review of Jewish source texts reveals others as well.


Patience… with myself

If I were to list my most self-destructive traits, impatience would rank in my Top 5. As much as I am drafting this ethical will of mine piece by piece for my daughter and future children, I find that it is also helpful to me to collect my thoughts and do some much needed introspection and self-work.

Coming from a traditional Jewish context, writing about patience is almost too easy because it stands out as a primary theme that is splattered all over the scored and stitched leather sheets of our Torah scrolls.

In this vein, I’ve been encountering a personal conflict in compiling my ethical will… some principles and values are so self-evident to me that I hesitate to write about them at all. Do I really need, I have asked myself, to write posts about being kind, being appreciative, being generous, etc.? Shouldn’t we naturally appreciate the truth and fundamentality of these values?

It seems to me that I must work on being more patient with myself.