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October 29, 2018 by

To My Friend, Whose Celebration Was the Day of a Massacre

We were at the mikveh on Friday, nine of us, seven celebrants and two attendants who witnessed our joy as you marked your birthday and a moment of pause in your high profile, high impact job. It was a soul-filled morning, saturated with reflections on some relationships that spanned decades, and some that were bright and new but still profound. 

You had never been to the mikveh, the ritual bath that cleanses and prepares Jews for many roles – that of sexual preparedness and procreation, that of convert, that of celebrant. Preparing for immersion strips you down to your barest place, with not a spot that can come between you and the waters. The waters which are rain waters, waters that have been a part of this earth for millennia, touching your skin, soothing your heart, marking your passage.

We brought poems to read, gifts for your body, our whole selves to your immersion. And when you walked down the seven steps, seven being a holy number, the perfect number, representing wholeness, and touched the walls of white and sandy Jerusalem stone, and turned to us, completely bared, cancer having made its presence known on your breast, crying, smiling, laughing, floating, telling stories of how you knew and loved each one of us, we cried with you, whole and holy. It was as if we were all in the mikveh with you, the waters binding us to you and to our futures.

And we left, feeling nourished. We hugged and promised to see each other the next evening at your party, continuing the celebration. We moved into Shabbat, each of us with a different plan for the day. My Shabbat morning was spent at synagogue, and having a conversation with a friend and colleague about how our work might intersect. The morning gave me the boost I always feel when the words are coming out right and my thoughts connect to someone else’s, and we are thinking together.

And then the news came. A shooter. Mass murder. Eleven dead. In a synagogue in Pittsburgh. It could have been anywhere. Our typical post-service luncheon was eerily quiet, all of us moving in slow motion, unable yet to fully process this newest tragedy. 

I had been looking forward to being at your party that evening, to celebrate your life, your friendship, your heroic work that is a lodestar for so many in these loaded times. But I needed to be in vigil with others who felt as I did, Jews and our sisters and brothers and allies from all faiths, who denounce the crime, who hate the hatred, whose rage at the machine is spiraling out of control. 

So we told you we needed to leave. We needed to be outside, in prayer and mourning. And you told us to go, to represent. Your heart was big enough to let us go.

And so we went. With hundreds of others, we gathered. With candles. With lights. With prayer and resilience and song and love and kaddish. We stood in front of the great white house on our city’s front lawn and bore witness to the deaths of 11 people whose crime it was to be in their house of worship that morning.

I don’t know if I’ve told you about my relatives who were burned to death in their synagogue in Riga by the Latvians, their evil unleashed by the Nazis. I don’t know if I’ve told you about my own journey to live and love my Jewish blood. The insecurity I’ve felt, having not grown up with the stories, with the pushke, with the seder, with the understanding of what it means to be the other. But I was the other in other ways. So I know. And I belong.

I don’t know if I’ve told you what it has meant to me to bring a love for Israel into my life. The pride I feel that my children know who they are. The fear I feel that they are targets of history 

I don’t know if I’ve told you what it has been like for me to have a friend who showed up in my life when I most needed that friendship, and whose own journey allows me to be your guide. 

Your generous soul gave us permission to be with our people last night, to leave your celebration and instead to mourn in public, which is what Judaism prescribes us to do. Minyan. Ten people. Hundreds of minyanim, all over the country, standing in faith and strength.

The wax from the candle dripped on my sweater. Some of it melted so deeply into the fibers that it can’t be removed. It will remain as a symbol and a reminder of your birthday, and of our love and our work together.


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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.