To Remember

Hebrew is a very logical, systematic language.  Once you know a root, you have a whole vocabulary arena open to you.  This week’s root is זכר (z.k.r), which is the root for “to remember.”

The Yiddish word for the annual remembrance of the death of a loved one is called a yahrzeit, the time of the year. In Hebrew it is more often called an azkara, a memorial. I like that one better.  I want to remember my dad, not just mark time. The prayer that is said is called yizkor.

This week completed the year of firsts without my dad.  Living so far away from him, our relationship was built on phone calls, so even though he wasn’t actually here, he was as close as a phone call.  Now if I want to share something with him, I have to remind myself that he’s in a place without cell service.

Dad loved to eat at diners, so my brothers in the US took time off and went to a diner.  I was so glad that they called me so I could join them virtually.  It was good for us to share memories and tell funny stories about Dad.

Now we begin the year of seconds without Dad.  But no matter how many years pass, we have our memories, we remember, and usually we laugh.  May his memory always be a blessing to us.

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Those were the days!

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David J. Brown z”l
Aug. 15, 1941 – Mar. 1, 2016

Leonard, my Dad, and the Darkness Leading to the Light

Leonard Cohen died last week at the age of 82.  He had a lot of Israeli fans and so it’s been big news around here.  (Yes, there is news about the other guy, but it seems to be a “wait and see” situation.)  Leonard Cohen gave a concert in Israel in 2009 and my colleagues at the office talked about it like it was yesterday.  Another colleague let me listen to his newly purchased Leonard Cohen CD, his very last studio album, released on Cohen’s birthday September 22, 2016.

Israelis like Leonard Cohen because he speaks their language.  I don’t mean Hebrew exactly.  I mean a cultural language that may not speak to other audiences the same way.  One of his most famous songs, “Hallelujah,” can be admired by anyone.  But the stories within it of David and Bathsheba and Samson and Delilah and their tortured love stories speak to those who know the stories and who are philosophers and questioners deep in their hearts.  Like Leonard Cohen.  And like my dad.

Leonard Cohen may have dabbled in Zen Buddhism, but he was a Jew through and through, and I think that’s what Israelis like the most about him.  No matter his journey, he’s still one of us.

The first song on the new album is called “You Want it Darker.”  Everyone is talking about it now because in it he essentially tells God that he is ready to die using the biblical phrase “heneni” – here I am (here’s a great article about it from September).  I happened upon an 11-minute video published this week by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (former chief rabbi in the UK) linking Leonard Cohen’s song to the Torah portion this week.  It’s excellent and worth your time.

Rabbi Sacks explores the fact that Leonard Cohen uses the chorus “heneni” in the same way that Abraham does in the Torah.  This week’s portion is the story of Abraham taking Isaac to be sacrificed.  When God calls to Abraham, Abraham answers “heneni.”  He also points out that the lyrics echo the prayer for the deceased that mourners say (called Kaddish) and that Cohen is saying Kaddish for himself. Cohen noted in his last interview that he was ready to go.  He had his house in order and said: “Spiritual things, baruch Hashem”—thank God—“have fallen into place, for which I am deeply grateful.”  (Audio here.)

I mentioned last week that Dad regretted not being able to be here to see the results of the election.  Now I wonder what he would have made of Leonard Cohen’s last song.  Dad was angry at God at the end – it’s still a little unclear to me exactly why, but he said it a lot.  I don’t think he meant it in a personal way.  I don’t think he was angry at God for giving him cancer, but he was angry in a larger sense.  The world is pretty crazy right now and I think Dad blamed God for making people this way (it’s also possible that he blamed people for making God this way, but that would be at least a two-hour tangent in a conversation with Dad).

And here we have Leonard Cohen saying, yes, the world is pretty crummy and I’m ready to check out of the Chelsea Hotel permanently.  Here I am, Lord.  I wonder if that thought would have given Dad some peace.  The first verse would have spoken directly to Dad, I think, and he might have felt that the rest of the song was worth listening to and thinking about.

If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame

Listen here:

As far as I know, Dad was not a fan of Leonard Cohen, but Dad was a questioner and a philosopher at heart.  He was curious and from time to time deeply spiritual.  I hope that Dad and Leonard will get a chance to meet wherever they are and talk about these big ideas.  I imagine that they’re probably smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, and talking late into the night.  I’m sure there will be plenty of circular tangents and maybe even a few answers to their long-held questions.

Cover of the album

img_20161117_111431Dad and Leonard Cohen didn’t look alike, but the echoes are there.

Mourning in the Morning

Mourning in the Morning

Yes.  That’s a play on words. Is it appropriate? Well, in my family it kind of is. We deflect with humor.  That’s not to say that the jokes always work.

At the same time, the statement is also true.  During the day, and even late into the evening, I can distract myself and I don’t have to face the reality that Dad is gone.  But in the morning, in those moments when I’m coming out of a strange dream and I don’t know what’s real and what isn’t, I notice a hollow feeling just under my sternum.  And then I remember that Dad is gone.

Death is easy, mourning is hard

At the risk of sounding too glib, I feel like death is easy, but it’s mourning that’s hard.  We don’t understand death and we don’t know what happens, but it seems like once we’ve wrapped our minds around death, then mourning is swept under the rug.  You know, life goes on and you just have to pull yourself together.  Do what you gotta do and move on.  If you don’t move on, well, there’s something wrong and you should get some professional help.  After the trauma of death, moving on with life should be easy, shouldn’t it?

I don’t know about other religions, but the Jews have an app for that (I know, terrible).  There are a lot of traditions and rituals for all sorts of things, but the general principles of the one for mourning make a lot of sense.  The relationships that call for these mourning rituals are: mother, father, spouse, brother, sister, son, daughter.  Once the burial occurs, the family goes home and “sits shiva” for 7 days (shiva is based on the root for the word 7).  Everything stops for them – no work, no taking part in their normal lives.  The next milestone is the “shloshim” (30 days after the death).  The family goes to the cemetery for the unveiling of the headstone and has a special ceremony.  Every day for 11 months, the mourners say Kaddish (a prayer said when someone dies, which is not about death at all, but praises God).  And then on the anniversary of the death and every year after, the mourner remembers their loved one and lights a candle that lasts 24 hours.  (There are many, many other rituals and traditions, but this is not meant to be a primer on Jewish mourning.)

The basic principle here is that you are able to mourn and take note of every “first” without the person in your life – the first week, the first month, the first birthday, the first holiday, the first year.  I like the principle, but I have to admit the format doesn’t quite work for me.  Living in Israel and being 10 time zones away from my dad created a distance that is also felt in the mourning process.  I didn’t see dad every day.  I didn’t even talk to him every day or even every week.  We just talked whenever.  So the first 7 days was important to allow myself to wrap my brain around the fact that dad is gone, but I didn’t “sit shiva” in the traditional sense.  My firsts will be the first time I want to call dad and tell him about something that happened, the first Father’s Day that I have no one to call, the first time I can’t call Dad on his birthday, the first time Dad doesn’t call me on mine, the first New Year’s.  These will be the days that I feel the loss more acutely.  As for my everyday life, Dad was distant before, and now he’s just a little bit further away – without any cell service.

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This is a memorial candle that burns for 7 days – more on this in another post.  This picture was taken on Day 5.  I haven’t let the flame go out (even at night).

Jews also have some guidelines for those who visit the mourners.  It’s common sense, for the most part.  Be quiet.  Let the mourner start the conversation.  Listen.  Share memories of the loved one.  So while I didn’t shut down my life for a week and sit shiva in a traditional sense, I had what might be called a virtual shiva.  My friends called and let me talk about Dad and they took the time to listen.   Some shared their thoughts about how they dealt with death of their own fathers.  Facebook allowed my friends from around the world to share their condolences.  My close family in Israel came over and we shared memories about Dad.  The whole process felt much more genuine to me than having a lot of people stopping by.

Thank you to all of you who sent good wishes.
It made me feel truly loved and supported.
Big virtual hugs all around!

My own process of mourning brought into much clearer focus the aftermath of a terror attack – and we’ve had quite a few this week.  When it isn’t our loved one, we look at the political ramifications, figure out how to defend against it so it doesn’t happen again, celebrate the heroism of defenders, share briefly in the sorrow of the mourners.  After the funeral, the press moves on and so do we.  But someone actually died.  That person’s family is grieving.  They are going to go through all the firsts and that hole that was created in their lives will never be filled again.  It will heal, but there will always be a scar.

The blessing of memory

While baruch dayan emet (Blessed is the true judge) and the Kaddish help to ensure that you don’t lose faith when you’re going through such a hard time, yehi zichro baruch (May his memory be a blessing) helps you to heal the scars in your heart.  I find myself smiling at memories of my dad.  I’m happy to hear about the memories of my dad from others.  I’m slowly filling up that hollow feeling in my chest with good feelings and happy memories of my dad.  I don’t expect that the empty feeling will  go away entirely, but the memories will definitely be a blessing.

Death is a door

Nobody likes to talk about death.  There are so many euphemisms for death just so that we don’t have to say it.  Transitional: passed away, passed on, crossed over, went to the great beyond, no longer with us.  Scientific: expired (like milk?), deceased.  Fated: taken, number came up.  Weird: kicked the bucket, bought the farm.  Yesterday, my dad cashed in his chips.

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It might be a little scary to think of Death coming as a Grim Reaper to gather your soul.  So scary that maybe immortality is better (and so say many, many TV shows and movies, especially vampire ones).

 

In the Tarot deck, Death seems like it would be the scariest card.  It’s Death!  But it is actually the one with the most potential.  Death means change.  One thing passes on to make room for another.  The loss is sad, but there needs to be room for something new to come into your life.

 

The truth is that while I like all the euphemisms – mostly because I like to play with language – I don’t think that death has to be feared.  It will happen to all of us.

Here in Israel, there are also many euphemisms for death.  Niftar comes from the root meaning “to be released.”  Halach l’olamo means “went to his world,” which, all things considered, sounds very pleasant.  There is talk of an olam ha’bah, “the next world.”

When my grandmother “went to her world” I was 8 years old and didn’t quite understand why she left her cane.  Hysterical, I shrieked, “How is she going to walk around without it?!?!”  Dad told me that where she was she didn’t need it anymore.  She was young and healthy and having a picnic in the shade of a tree with Grampa Brown, who was also healthy and young.  The tree was by a small stream.  It was a sunny, warm, pleasant day and they were happy.

In order to get to this other world, you have to go through a door.  That door is death.  We don’t really know what is on the other side of the door.  We are asked to have faith that when our souls leave the body they’ve inhabited on this earth, our pure souls, the sparks of light that we are, will go on to something else, something better, something our material minds cannot even begin to comprehend.

Of the things you say to a mourner, my favorite is yehi zichro baruch, sometimes said as zichrono livracha, which means “may his memory be a blessing.”  To me it means that every time you remember the dearly departed, there is a blessing that comes with it.  I like less baruch dayan ha’emet, which means “blessed is the true judge.”  That more or less suggests that God works in mysterious ways and we praise God even in sorrow.

Dad wasn’t an Eric Clapton fan, but “Tears in Heaven” seems appropriate.

Beyond the door
There’s peace I’m sure
And I know there’ll be no more
Tears in Heaven.

Dad, your memory is a blessing to me and all who knew you.  Holding on to those memories keeps you close to my heart.  You’ve gone through the door and I hope whatever is over there is exactly as you described it.  You have been released from this world and the pain of illness, and I’d like to imagine you are with your mom and dad having a great picnic.  When the time comes (far in the future), please be there to greet me and show me around.

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Me and my dad, zichrono livracha