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.