The Ring

I wear two rings. Between them, they remind me of who I am, and who stands behind me.  They represent two people, larger than life, who are with me now only in spirit.

On my right hand, a ring that belonged to my Bubi.  When she offered me a piece of her jewellery, many years ago, I chose this ring because I remember her always wearing it, and when I see it, I see her.  I have worn it ever since, a tangible reminder of a remarkable woman who loved me unconditionally, and taught me so much.

On my left hand, a simple moonstone solitaire.  Close to forty years ago, teenaged me went to a charity fundraiser with my parents.  Various artisans displayed their work, and this understated piece caught my eye.  I was enchanted by its dreamy translucence, and returned again and again throughout the evening to gaze at it.  Eventually I asked my parents to come and see.  My mother was ambivalent, but my father was ready to buy it for me.  I balked at the decadent $40 price tag.  Dad looked at me, and asked if I felt it was worth that value — to me.   “If so, go and buy it”, and he pulled two twenties from his wallet.  I remember thanking him profusely, and my sheer delight all the way home.  I have worn it every day since, and I have never forgotten his lesson:  If something truly has value to you (not at all the same thing as objective value, or value to others), then go for it.   (Only years later did I understand what it must have meant to my one-time penniless immigrant father, to be able to indulge his child this way.)

And last week, the ring was gone.

Saturday morning, it was not in its place with the other, and not on the floor, and not anywhere.  Hurrying off to shul, I pushed it from my mind, trying to convince myself that it must be in the house, it was just a matter of searching until I find it.  But it gnawed at me.  And I knew if I hadn’t seen it in the first ten minutes of searching, there were no guarantees I’d ever find it.  That night, I spent two hours looking, in vain.  Not only could I have left it someplace illogical, ‘just for a moment’, but it could have fallen somewhere obscure, from just such an illogical spot.  Amid vows to declutter, I realized the possibilities were infinite, and even if it was in the house, it could be years before it revealed itself.  And then, with a sickening feeling, I remembered vacuuming my room earlier in the week, and hearing the ‘clunkety-clunk’ of something solid being devoured.  Lesson learned; I will never assume ‘paper clip’ again – but that clunking sound mocked me as I rummaged through the vacuum canister, praying.  I went outside to the garbage bin, only to find that it was empty, having been picked up that week.  Dusty, sweating, defeated, I admitted at that point I’d have to give up on ever seeing it again.  My single, perfect, tangible ‘Dad’ moment.

I was desolate, and so alone.  I couldn’t tell my mother, as it would upset her, and she couldn’t help no matter how much she would wish to.

Wretched, I did not sleep that night.  The enormity of that lost talisman just overwhelmed me, and I could not forgive myself.  Why hadn’t I taken better care?  Why had I been so casually negligent?  Tossing, turning, flailing, I switched direction, wondering if I at least had any photos of the ring, which led to thinking that if I did, I could recreate it.  Here was my Dad’s positive, pragmatic thinking.  I began to move forward.  A replica would not be The Ring, but at the end of the day, I understood that its value was its story, not the actual jewellery.  Once I had found a solution, the nightmare was over, and I fell asleep.

The following day, I told my Mom what had happened, now that I could do so with a sense of purpose.  Expecting her to point out that things are merely things, I should never get upset over them, she offered instead to cover the cost of the new ring.  Hugging over the phone, I realized it would now be testament to both my parents.

*    *    *

That night, I found the ring.  Indeed, in an obscure corner on the other side of the room.  Clutching it to my heart, crying like a baby, I went straight to take its picture.

It is back on my finger now, renewed with its added layers, and lessons learned.

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Answers, Questions….

In theory, all questions have answers, and like proverbial pots and lids, they ought to eventually match up.  But somehow, at the end of the day, while I do manage to synchronize a few answers to my questions…… I suddenly discover new questions.

It seems every ‘Neatly Tied Up’ begets ‘New Loose Ends’.

New questions are proof that one is truly living; they both feed and are fed from the gift of curiosity.  One person’s obvious solution is someone else’s conundrum.  What brings comfort to one leaves another bewildered, or worse, resentful.   Of course, the reverse is also true, and one person’s vexation may be another’s elegant solution.   Truth is, while an infinite number of souls have walked this path before, nobody else, ever, was me.  And even I am not the same me as I was last week.  “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”,  said Greek philosopher Heraclitus — and he had that figured out some 2500 years ago.

Birkat Hamazon.  Grace after meals includes not only  gratitude for our nourishment, but an abundant blessing for the home that welcomed us, and indeed for the very table upon which we’ve eaten.  At that point in the prayer, we choose the appropriate words with which to thank our specific hosts.  So what do I do at family Shabbat dinner, when I get to the blessing ‘for children at their parents’ table’?  We are granted the privilege of asking The Compassionate One to bless “my father, my teacher… and my mother, my teacher… them…and all that is theirs”.  Must my father be left out?  He may have stepped away from the table, but is definitely still my father and my teacher. Asking for a blessing for him is my purest intention; whether that means in his place in the Garden of Eden, or here in our memories, where his presence is felt.  But could it imply disrespect?  One is said to be beyond needing blessings in the World of Souls.  Yet it is excluding him that feels disrespectful.  I have very deliberately not asked for rabbinic opinion on this.  I don’t want an answer.  I will defend my insistence on inclusion to the Highest Court.

Saying kaddish at someone else’s shiva.  Several times over the course of the year, I have attended others’ shivas.  Since I now was saying kaddish, I made a point of being in time to participate in prayers.  My thinking was that I was comforting the bereaved in a uniquely direct way;  walking the walk together with them.  Spending my kaddish moment with an authentic minyan of peers.  Until one day when someone questioned me on this.  Maybe, opposite to my intentions, it was in fact a terrible thing to be doing; drawing attention away from where it should be — on the mourners — and co-opting their shiva.   I was taken aback, mortified that my actions should ever be interpreted this way.   I looked for guidelines, using Talmudic logic.  On one hand, a prevalent custom in most shuls I’ve ever attended is for the entire congregation to rise when mourners say kaddish.  Standing together in palpable support.  On the other hand, every Friday night when we say kiddush over the wine before hamotzi over the challah, we cover the challah out of deference.  Everyone deserves their own moment.   This time I did ask a rabbi, who saw no problem with my reasoning, and in fact considered it a worthy gesture.  Soon after that discussion, I attended the shiva of a beloved shul member, a Holocaust survivor like my Dad, who had been part of my shul experience from Day One.  Just before the call to prayers, I offered my condolences to the bereaved sons.  We spoke of our fathers with a smile, and concluded that they would take such pride in knowing that their first-generation New World children were honouring their memories, traditionally.  Together.

 

Belonging

Saying kaddish gains one entry into a club one never wanted to join.  Even if we opt out, we’re members.  The big revelation is that we have — always had —  a reserved place here, alongside the entirety of the Jewish People.   This place, reached only through devastation, provides a thoroughly new perspective, a prism through which we see added new dimensions.   Every day, a new  truth.  And mostly, the value lies not in what was revealed, but rather in one’s privilege to bear witness, or even, remarkably, to take part.

My year of kaddish began in summer.  At a time when we enjoy a loosening of rules and strictures,  I was in the odd position of needing, depending on, rigid traditions.  I felt lost, as I never had before.  Only my unshakable belief in my place overcame my lack of surefootedness as each day I took a deep breath, and walked into a new unknown.   More than anything I needed to feel grounded, to belong.  And each day a community encouraged and welcomed me.   Wherever I found myself, I noted variations, but even moreso the similarities.  Eventually the ‘known’ outweighed the ‘unknown’, and I took strength in my  constant position amongst the richly varied minyanim.   Every single day contributed its own unique thread to what became a beautiful living tapestry of perspective and support.  I belonged.

Among my most uplifting memories are those of the Baseball Diamond Minyan.  Once or twice a week our shul baseball team played in a nearby park, and timing was such that mincha and maariv took place around game time.  The boys, who included my two sons, established a tradition of convening a minyan so I could say kaddish within walking distance of my spot in the bleachers.  The respect and reverence shown by those young men reflect the very best of our community, and instill faith in our future.   I couldn’t have been prouder.

One winter’s day it was in a shul I dropped into because it was geographically convenient.  I listened as the leader repeated the Amidah in a strong voice with a clear Russian accent.  And when he got to m’kabetz nidchei amo Israel (Blessed is He who gathers  the dispersed of His nation, Israel), I smiled as it all fell into place before my eyes.

Perhaps the least inspired of the three hundred or so kaddishes I recited occurred on a hectic Sunday afternoon.    I got stuck in traffic, clearly losing at Beat the Clock.  At  the posted mincha time, I was still at least five full minutes away from my destination.  Suddenly spotting an unfamiliar synagogue,  I swerved off the road.  Running in, I asked where services were being held.  A wedding was taking place, and the building was buzzing with happy guests.  Completely  out of place, I bolted upstairs in search of the rabbi.  I found him, with a small group of black-hatted gentlemen.   “Just finished”, he said.  “Sorry”.  ‘But I’m saying kaddish.  I have nowhere else to  go at this point.  Please.’   “Well”, he said dubiously, “there are ten here…. I guess if someone were willing to say kaddish, you could follow along.”  I looked around at the faces observing me with a mixture of curiousity and pity.  No-one moved.  Until one did, saying ‘Sure, I can do that’.  We each grabbed a siddur, the rabbi helpfully gave me the page number as I scrambled to keep up as my day’s hero zipped through kaddish.  It wasn’t pretty, but it was.

The logistics of getting to prayers on time each day determined  what an evening out would look like.  One of the few times I went to a public event was to hear Natan Sharansky, a hero of mine, in conversation with the Honourable Irwin Cotler, former Justice Minister and a driving force behind Mr. Sharansky’s freedom.  The evening took place in the grand sanctuary of Beth Tzedec, and I was so happy that I’d be able to attend prayers on-site beforehand, seamlessly.  I got there early, and found my way down the hallway to a classroom.  Eventually the room filled with men and women, including a very familiar-looking gentleman that I just couldn’t place.  He, too, was saying kaddish.  Afterward, we all wished each other well, and I made my way to my seat in the auditorium.  Only as he took his seat onstage did I realize the familiar face belonged to Mr. Cotler.  As he paid tribute to his late father, whose yahrzeit he was observing that night, I again felt that unbelievable sense of connectedness, of belonging, to something awesome.

Another moment of clarity:  In November 2014, a massacre took place in Har Nof, Jerusalem.  A morning minyan was shattered; four decent, innocent men and a heroic policeman murdered.  A sixth victim was left comatose, his murder completed eleven months later.  That man was originally from Toronto, a schoolmate of mine so many years ago.  After he died, someone published a poignant essay noting that he had been cut down in the middle of the Amidah — he had taken the three steps back that open the prayer (“Lord, open my lips, that my mouth may declare Your praise”), but never got to take the three steps to mark its completion.  And so for six months, every day, I brought him with me when I took those forward steps.

Oseh shalom bimromav.….may He make peace upon us and upon all Israel.  Amen.

Ancient Words, New Meanings

More than anything else I’ve come to understand in life, I’ve learned that it’s not only about being in the right place at the right time.  There’s a third angle.  You must be the right person.

My journey into the daily prayers became a relationship, I’m not sure at what point. What started out feeling forced, unnatural, became a fluent part of me as I evolved from feeling like a poseur to owning my spot.

In life, my heart pounds whenever I show up someplace for the first time.  Here,  though I had a good general idea of what to do and how to fit in, there was often some new detail that poked at my confidence.   Some more glaring than others.  The first time I turned up at the shul closest to me, I noticed they pray nusach sepharad, according to the Sephardi tradition.  The siddur they used is from the same modern publisher I’m used toand whereas the service is by and large the same, there are some devils in the details.  That first time I found myself zipping along, getting to the end of the prayers pretty darn quickly.  A little too quickly, even taking into account my growing familiarity with the liturgy.  And then it dawned on me that this siddur is in Hebrew only, unlike my usual one that has both Hebrew and English.  Meaning one needs to read every page, not just the right-hand ones……

Once my self-consciousness gave way to comfort, and I moved inside to a place of belonging, I began to explore.  Dad would sometimes mention the beauty in the liturgy.  For years, I’d roll my eyes; I couldn’t imagine anything more boring.  Now, communing daily with it, I found the poetry, the lofty yearnings, the oh-so-human turns of phrase.  And I found the words that found me.

Some years ago, Dad had some medical difficulties and had missed shul for a few weeks.  Upon his return to his makom kavua, his designated place, I looked over toward him at one point, and the feeling that all was right with the world enveloped me.   At that moment, we began the Amidah, the central prayer for which we stand still and silent.  And then it grabbed me:  The first of the 18 blessings is ‘magen Avraham’ – blessed be He who protects Avraham.  My father is Avraham.  Avraham Aharon, to be exact.   From that day forward, that was Dad’s special blessing, my pact with G-d.     Coincidentally,  the very next blessing is ‘mechaye hameitim’ – blessed be He who gives life to the dead.   For these many years, I had consciously looked away from Dad as soon as we said ‘amen’ to protecting Avraham.   Bli ayin ra.  Lest we tempt the evil eye.   There are many interpretations of ‘giving life to the dead’, none of which I had ever wanted to contemplate.   Now, those two blessings are linked for the rest of my life, and to my surprise and gratitude, bring me strength.

 

Kaddish d’Rabbanan

One brisk winter day, for the first (and only) time, there was no minyan at CHAT.  We got as far as 7 assembled, then the bell rang and three boys rather apologetically headed off to class.  I waited with four teachers, and it soon became clear that services would not take place today.  What to do?  Davka there had been an issue at my workplace the day before, so approaching my boss to ask for 15 minutes to run across the street for minyan would not only be unlikely to yield a positive response, but foolhardy as well.

Two teachers, rabbis both, had a look online to see where I might find a minyan.   Two possibilities emerged, both involving phone calls to see if there would indeed be services, and if so, would I be welcome.  Meanwhile, the bell rang and the classroom filled.  Coat on, I counted 5 boys and the two teachers.  Finding that brazen ‘kaddish voice’, I asked, “Any possibility of grabbing 3 more so I could just say kaddish?”  The teacher glanced at the clock with trepidation, but said nothing. One student jumped at the chance to recruit, then another.  I thanked them, and apologized for disrupting their Talmud class.  “Oh no, don’t apologize.  Thank you for affording me the mitzvah!” said one.  The other quietly went to round up some students.  She returned triumphant, with three boys in tow. 

The teacher, not missing a beat, detoured his class, teaching them a quick extra-curricular gemara tidbit, in order to trigger a ‘siyum’ – complete a lesson, and thereby necessitate Kaddish d’Rabbanan.   With a suddenly tightening throat, I stood and recited the ‘long’ Kaddish.  The one that not only honours departed souls, but celebrates those that teach, those that learn, and an enduring tradition that holds us all.

Postscript:  

I later emailed the teacher a heartfelt thank you:

I just wanted to thank you for allowing me to hijack your class this afternoon.  I was so touched, and was so aware of the role I play in the greater picture of Klal Yisrael.  Saying kaddish for my beloved Dad is not only about him, and I have come to see, not only about me, either. ……..  My Dad was an educator, of sorts; he spoke of his Auschwitz experiences to Canada’s young people, and was able to quote Torah and Talmud some 80 years after learning in his shtetl cheder.  Kaddish d’rabbanan brings that home, every time.

His gracious reply:

Of course, it was my pleasure. — not an inconvenience at all.  In fact,  it was an important teachable moment, all in the z’chut of your father.    Yehi Zichro Baruch.

 

Presence

And so, I warmed into my new routine:  Lunchtime minyan afforded me quiet, uninterrupted winter evenings.  For five months, Monday through Thursday, I made my way to CHAT at one o’clock; my ‘Visitor Pass’ stayed in my pocket as I greeted the receptionist, walked down the hall and to the left, and took my  set place — my Makom Kavua — among those who belonged.

My commitment was to say Kaddish once each day (more if the opportunity presented itself, but for sure at least once).  On Tu B’Shvat, , some three months in at CHAT, I contemplated not heading over.    The night before, a Sunday, I had attended both  mincha and ma’ariv services, thus ‘covering’ Monday.   I was feeling under the weather with a rotten cold, and having already fulfilled ‘today’, I was tempted to stay put.    But after a moment’s consideration, I went ahead with my usual routine.  If I skipped out, I would sincerely miss the positive and recharging moment in my day.   Also, I feel I may well be giving those kids as much as they’re giving me.  The sense of community purpose in those few minutes is made palpable by the presence of someone who actually needs those young people in order to fulfill a mitzvah.

I arrived to a dark and empty Bais Medrash.   Eventually, a couple of teachers wandered in, but in the absence of one particular teacher and his daily announced call to prayer, we had a crowd of four.  One teacher gathered up a half dozen somewhat reluctant participants from the hallway, and we commenced.  Kaddish is the very last part of the service, and there are always a few voices reciting it in comfortable unison.   I had become part of that rhythm.   As the leader reached the end of the prayers, there was silence where those voices should have been.  I hesitated, then tentatively began:   Yitgadal v’yitkadash shmei rabbah.   And there it was.  For the first time, I alone recited Kaddish.  It was daunting, but as I heard the group respond ‘Amen’, I gathered strength and continued.  And after concluding that G-d should grant peace to us and all Israel, and hearing the resounding ‘Amen’, I had the awesome privilege of thanking those kids directly, for being there for me.  More than anything, this was why I showed up today.

  

Indelible

Fast of the Firstborn, Erev Pesach.

This is the morning, that defined my Dad.  Of course he celebrated his birthday, his anniversary, yom tovim…..but this — this is who he was.  Avraham Aharon ben  Esther  v’Asher Zelig haLevi, of Chudliev, and Rakosin.  Always.

From the time I was little, and asked him where he was going so early in the morning, I knew that this was the most important day on my father’s calendar.

And this is the first Ta’anit Bechorim morning that Dad was not there to listen to the early-morning siyum, to have a l’chaim in that unique clubhouse.  In my Makom Kavua, my designated spot this year….. I went.  Armed with a bottle of scotch, and a place-holding l’chaim:

By the time he emerged from the ruins of Auschwitz, he was the sole survivor of his immediate family.  Anyone in the world that could verify his place as a firstborn son was gone.  His mother, his father, both brothers, both little sisters, grandparents.  At 16, he redefined himself as an adult, made his way out of smouldering Europe.  Avraham Aharon had become Ernu under the Hungarians, Arnost under the Czechs, Arnold  upon reaching Scotland and the New World.

But his identity never wavered.

And every year, he headed for shul this morning of Erev Pesach, to take his place among the firstborn sons of Israel, even though he no longer had siblings to be older than, nor parents for whom to be the firstborn.

I could not have been prouder when my ben b’chor, Benjamin, was deemed old enough to join Zaidy.   Age 5, if I remember correctly.  This may well be the greatest gift I was privileged to give my father.

So today we toast Avraham Aharon, and his precious legacy of identity.  Am Yisrael Chai.  L’chaim.

Falling Forward

I’ve been accused of hating change.  ‘Hate’ is a harsh word, but if you reduce it to ‘am uncomfortable with’, then I stand guilty as charged.   Not all change is negative, of course, but even positive changes can come in complicated packages.  Those ‘ill winds’ that also ‘bring some good’ still rattle our foundations.  Despite social criticisms like ‘set in her ways’, humans have come this far precisely because we’ve created routines upon which we can rely.  When we can depend on something, we can free ourselves to launch further.  And yes, one can dismiss ‘routine’ as lazy — or worse, boring — but being able to rely on a routine means not wasting precious personal energy on setup each time.  Our launch pad is in place.

My year of aveilut began in early summer, with long sunny days being closed each evening with kaddish.  That was my new normal, the way life would look for the foreseeable future; it was all I’d known.  As the days inched shorter, kaddish slid backward into dinnertime.  Suddenly (or so it seemed), after five months, we changed our clocks to revert to Standard Time.  And suddenly, evening services became late afternoon services, and moved out of reach.  With no way to get to minyan during my afternoon work shift, I had to scramble.  Suddenly, five months in, I was faced with The Day I Miss Kaddish.  I would be able to get to ma’ariv, the evening prayers that technically belong to tomorrow (just as Friday night begins Shabbat) —  but today would be empty.  Bereft.

I spent the morning working the phone, frantically looking for a lunchtime minyan that is both nearby, and welcoming to (or at least tolerant of) a woman.    Getting nowhere, I began to come to terms with the reality that I may break the chain today, and there would be no kaddish.  After over a dozen fruitless calls, trying to think of where like-minded men may be gathered, I suddenly thought of CHAT, my sons’ old high school.  At 12:49pm, I called.  The receptionist said yes, there is a midday minyan.  At 1:10.  Grabbing my things, I ran.  Heart in my throat as I pushed through my trepidation, I picked up my Visitor Pass from the same smiling lady, and made my way down the unfamiliar yet so familiar halls.  Self-contained, I was surrounded by exuberant young people, and was immediately uplifted.  I took my place in the beautifully appointed classroom that doubled as a chapel, as a mix of teachers and students trickled in. As the tenth entered, the door closed, the joyful noise in the hallway muffled somewhat, and I resumed my blessed routine.  Mourners’ Kaddish is the very last step in the service, and we concluded as the bell rang to end lunch period.  I received a couple of warm smiles as I returned the siddur to its shelf, and floated back along the halls, so thrilled to have found such a vibrant, comfortable spot.  I could not have chosen a more meaningful place to bring Dad’s presence, so dedicated was he to reaching young people with his gentle wisdom.  As I made my way to the front door, past decades of graduation photos, I suddenly caught sight of my own two sons, two frames apart, grinning in their caps and gowns.  Tears sprang to my eyes as I took in the moment.   Home.

A Journey Begins

Shiva.  I am at my parents’ home at 7am on a Sunday morning.  Bewildered.  Exhausted.  This is the first morning of services, as my Dad’s funeral was Friday, and we don’t sit shiva on Shabbat.  I watch as relatives, friends, acquaintances file in, silently counting men.  The room was filled with some two dozen participants.  Our dear Rabbi started the proceedings, led them, and made sure we three shell-shocked mourners were guided along.  Afterwards, a buffet breakfast, and the sombre atmosphere gave way to Sunday morning.   The house remained filled, ebbing and flowing all day, culminating in evening prayers and then, silence.

The following morning, I am watching the door well before 7 as again, subdued men trickle in and head downstairs to the family room ‘chapel’.   Today is our first weekday, and we’re struggling to get to our quorum of ten.  My younger son takes charge, making sure we who are new at this can stumble through Kaddish without feeling rushed or inadequate.  He is so capable, yet gentle, aware that not everyone in our sparse crowd is fluent.  As it is Monday, the Torah is taken out and this week’s chapter read.    Opening the small Ark is an honour, and my son spies an older gentleman I do not initially recognize.   “P’ticha“, he says directly to the seated fellow.  The man looks at him blankly, does not react.  “P’ticha“, he repeats, a little loude.   Too late, I realize who he is, and why he isn’t complying.  Getting no response, my son calls on another participant, by name this time.  This second man rises, does as asked, and the Torah is brought out.   For the first time in days, I am able to catch a wisp of the mischief of life that has always delighted both my Dad and me.   That man?  So respectful and so wanting to honour Dad’s memory, he showed up every single morning for prayers.  Not being Jewish didn’t stop him for a moment.  On that first weekday morning, the spirit of our minyan may have been stronger than the letter of the law………but I wouldn’t trade that sincerity for anything, and I know Dad would value it all the more.

And so it begins, this finding of our unique and precious and nuanced experience within our ancient tradition.

Purpose

Channeling my Dad’s rhythm of always showing, teaching, pointing out a new delight, I have become aware that maybe my purpose today was to give a high-school student a chance to be the tenth at minyan.  I’ll never know his name, and maybe he doesn’t give it another thought, but just maybe next year, or in ten years, he remembers he personally filled a crucial role for someone at services that day.  And stands a bit taller.