Tag : death

April 20, 2020 by

A Journey of Mourning, and Exploration

All My Mother’s Lovers (Dutton, $27), the debut novel from Ilana Masad comes with a disclaimer in the dedication: “To Ima/Andi, who is not the mother in this book,” as well as a dedication to her father, in Hebrew.

The book opens with Maggie, having sex with her girlfriend, getting the call that her mother  Iris has died.

After Iris dies, Maggie returns to her parents’ house, where her brother still lives. Cleaning out her mother’s documents, she finds five sealed envelopes, addressed to men Maggie has never heard of. In her will, Iris directs that the letters be sent out in the event of her untimely death. Maggie decides to deliver the envelopes herself.

Maggie feels Iris never really understood her or approved of her sexuality, and had a very specific picture of who her mother was: dedicated to work and family, straitlaced, faithful. But during shiva, Maggie finds out that Iris was previously married to a man who abused her; only part of what Maggie doesn’t know about her mother.

Delivering the letters and talking with the men receiving them, Maggie begins
to get a bigger, more layered picture of Iris. What appears, shockingly, as a series
of extramarital affairs and relationships slowly unfolds into a more nuanced explanation of Iris and her choices. “Maggie can half recognize her, but not fully.”

How often do children, even grown children, really know their parents? This is a book that takes an unflinching look at sexuality and its role in our lives: how it builds bridges, burns them, and changes how others view us and how we relate to others. For some, it even changes the trajectory of their lives.

Jaime Herndon is a writer and editor, and is working on an essay collection.

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November 4, 2019 by

Mourning in Public •

Shuly Rubin Schwartz, provost and dean of graduate and undergraduate studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary, some years ago experienced the death of a young adult son, and a few months later the death of her rabbi husband. In the hope that her words might help others who live each day with the heartache of grief, she agreed to speak about her grieving, including some of the creative ways she and her family learned to keep the memories of their loved ones alive. Sara Beth Berman of the Jewish Theological Seminary interviewed her for podcast series “What Now?” 

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April 2, 2019 by

On the Coattails of Other People’s Grief

Courtesy Susan Kennedy

Courtesy Susan Kennedy

The first of February 2018 was unseasonably warm. A crowd of people had gathered outside the Jerusalem Theatre where Haim Gouri’s coffin was lying in state. White plastic chairs set out in rows on the sun-bleached plaza were filling up quickly, leaving a few hundred guests standing on the sidelines. A handful of Filipino care-givers maneuvered wheelchairs down the rows, pressed bottles of water into their charges’ hands, fanned them with rolled up newspapers. The mood was upbeat and nostalgic, the sense of camaraderie palpable. No-one complained about the heat. The crowd on the plaza was the liberal Ashkenazi elite who had built the country, designed its institutions and fought its wars. They had come to pay homage to a national hero.

I watched the event from the back of the plaza, close to where the TV cameras were located, with tears rolling down my cheeks. A man recording the event put his arm around my shoulder and asked about my connection to Gouri. I admitted there was none. Not for the first time in my life, I felt like an imposter. I was in fact an imposter, riding on the coattails of other people’s grief, making it my own as I’d been unable to make my own grief my own. When we mourn we mourn for ourselves, for our own lives and our own losses.

Haim Gouri’s obituary was in the paper that morning. The same morning I’d received the eulogy my sister had read at our father’s funeral earlier in the week. Gouri and my father were a year apart in age and died within days of one another. They belonged to the same generation, the generation that witnessed the Holocaust first hand, celebrated the birth of Israel, and gathered up orphans after World War II and sent them to Palestine. Wasn’t it because of my father that I made my first trip to Israel, inspired by his emotion whenever the country was mentioned or its national anthem played? Israel was about the only thing that moved him and which meant something to him. I was scared to look at him when news about Israel was broadcast on TV, because I feared he’d be crying. When photographs, documentaries or clips about the Holocaust were shown, I knew without a doubt he would be.

I might not have known who Haim Gouri was had I not given him a ride home from Jericho almost three decades ago, when he flagged my car down on a dusty road not far from the Jerusalem-Dead Sea highway. He was standing in front of a small car that had smoke wafting out of its engine. His companion was still inside the car, a knee and an elbow jutting out from the open door of the driver’s seat. The two men, both in off-white trousers and loose shirts, climbed into the back of my hire car and introduced themselves. “Do you know who he is?” Gouri asked me, nodding towards his companion. This was my first visit to the country and I had no idea.

“Uzi Narkiss,” he said. It meant nothing to me. “And do you know who he is?” the man who was Uzi Narkiss asked in turn. “Haim Gouri,” he said with a flourish. I was none the wiser. The two men talked all the way to Jerusalem. I didn’t understand a word, but they left a memorable impression on me. Affable, jovial, worldly. Later that evening I discovered that my two illustrious passengers were the commander of the Six Day war and the country’s national war poet.

On that first trip to Israel I saw my father in every Israeli statesman, general, politician and actor of a certain age and background. In my daydreams, he was always heroic, beloved, successful, and charming. He was Ariel Sharon and Yehuda Amichai, he was Topol from Fiddler on the Roof and of course Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek; more modestly, he was the pastry-maker on Kibbutz Hazorea, where I picked melons and worked in the kitchen that first summer, a diver I met on the beach at Atlit, and the non-kosher butcher on Frishman Street in Tel Aviv. After my chance encounter with Gouri, my father was also the national war poet of Israel.

The reality was far from the dream. I conflated the two because I wanted my father to be a hero, wanted to believe he was, or could have been, as great as the man for whom all these people were gathered. 

England, I always told myself, had been my dad’s undoing. All that formality, bad coffee, small talk and milk. Or the Kindertransport. Or the Holocaust. Marriage to my mother. A fear of the quotidian. None of the excuses I made for him really explained why he led the life he did, but they were necessary to protect myself from believing anything bad about him. Those excuses, so worn as to be threadbare by the time I was an adult, were trotted out on each occasion I felt let down and hurt by him. They were already too numerous to count when he was sent to jail when I was seven. My eulogy for him, read in my absence by a friend because of a final betrayal on his deathbed, persists with the excuse-making, the hero worship, the cover up. As I write this, approaching a year since his death, I can hardly bring myself to admit that the image so carefully constructed over the course of my lifetime bears little relation to the truth.

Ten years after giving Gouri a ride home, I was commissioned by a British publisher to write a book about Israel, and flew out from London for a second time. It was an exciting period. The Oslo Accords had just been signed, Israelis were travelling to Jordan for the first time in decades and the Sinai was once again a safe destination. My book, a walking guide to the region, was literally going to be a trailblazer. In fact, it turned out to be a flop, because by the time it was published, in 1996, Baruch Goldstein had slaughtered 29 Muslim worshippers in Hebron, Rabin had been murdered and the Oslo peace process was dead. Tourists were avoiding the country and even locals weren’t hiking in remote areas alone. Still, the experience changed my life. It gave me an intimate connection to the land and its people and made me feel optimistic about what life had to offer. After the publication of my book I came back to Israel for a third time, this time permanently, got a job with the Jerusalem Post and started working as an editor.

For decades Gouri lived in a modest flat a stone’s throw from the Jerusalem Theatre. The building has multiple entrances, a dark stairwell and a well-tended utilitarian communal garden. Whenever I passed I’d look up, hoping to spot Gouri. I never did. From the voluptuous plants on his terrace I imagined what the flat looked like inside. I’ve done that since I was a child. Made up stories about people’s lives from the faintest of clues, because a life without fantasy, my own life, was so grim. A painting glimpsed from behind curtained windows could set my imagination off. A fat cat on a windowsill, a man’s shadow, a coat on a hook, a cracked window, a potted plant. I imagined Gouri rheumy-eyed in an armchair near the window, smoking a pipe beneath a portrait of one of his children while his wife baked in a kitchen lined with cupboards of peeling wood. She was always baking. She made the scene feel cozy and intimate which was why it held such appeal for me. In my fantasy, homes smelled of baking and there was always food in the fridge. Some of what I imagined, like the rheumy eyes, I knew to be true, because Gouri and his wife weren’t complete strangers to me. The notion that all homes have food in the fridge I knew from experience to be untrue.

Over the past decade I had seen the Gouris from time to time in a cafe where they and I often ate lunch. They always sat at the same round table, opposite the entrance, and from what I could see, always ordered the business lunch, and still gazed affectionately at one another after close to 70 years of marriage. No one paid them much attention. That’s how it is in Israel. They ate slowly, with easy silences and just as easy conversation. They dressed in the way Israelis dressed seventy years ago, not formally but carefully. By Gouri’s tenth decade his jackets hung off his pared-down form, and the chair he had once inhabited fully had begun, like his clothes, to look too big for him. Towards the end of his life, the table reached the height of his chest, and when he ate his elbows pointed upwards rather than downwards. When I last saw him, only months before his death, there was more Haim Gouri under the table than above it.

Haim Gouri and my dad were born a year apart in different countries and in radically different circumstances. Both were sent to Europe after the war to locate orphaned Jewish children and prepare them for a new life in Palestine. Unlike Gouri, my father himself was an orphan at the time, having just discovered that his family had perished in Auschwitz. An orphan collecting up orphans. An orphan who wanted to start his own life anew in Palestine. Gouri lived in the country my father silently, passionately, yearned for. My father joined the Jewish Brigade when he was 17, fought at the side of officers from Palestine whom he admired and emulated, but he never became one himself. He was  for a short while an undercover agent for British Intelligence, hunting down and soliciting confessions from Nazis hiding in Germany after the war ended, but that was the extent of his military career. A handful of people showed up on a rainy day in late January for my father’s funeral and fought at the graveside. There was so much shouting that my eulogy could not be heard. My sister chose to return to the graveside to read hers after the others had gone home, fearful of being interrupted and disgraced. No gravestone will be erected for him because the few people who care, his three daughters, have been cut out of the story.

In his long and sad life, my father visited Israel only once, disastrously. He still has a bank account in my local bank. He opened it in my name and his, telling the bank manager he was coming out to live here and was about to send over a few million, but of course I knew, and maybe even he knew, that he wasn’t. He dragged me to estate agents in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, asking them to show him the most luxurious properties on their lists because he would soon be retiring here. He took me to the best restaurants and to the King David pool and then asked to borrow some money so he could pay the bill. He wandered around Jaffa and impressed art gallery staff by admiring all the finest works and discussing whether to buy them or not. Margaret Tayar fell in love with him when we ate at her restaurant and he kissed her hand and told her he’d never eaten better anywhere. And left me to pay the bill. He exchanged our simple hire car for an Audi and ordered new furniture for my flat. He moved to the Hilton because my flat was depressing and he preferred Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and flew home without telling me, leaving me to pick up the pieces and the tab. And now the bank manager won’t let me close the account because he doesn’t believe my father is dead.

Haim Gouri was the person I would have liked my father to have been. If only things had been a little different, I told myself, Henry Kennedy, aka Harry Finger, aka Heinz Kuhe, would have been an Israeli national poet. Or if not a poet, then a general, or if not a general then a mayor, or if not a mayor then an actor, diver, chef or butcher. And in my wildest dreams, a father. Instead he was a tailor who turned to a life of increasingly audacious crime, spending more of his life behind bars than in them. He never ordered the business lunch anywhere, never gazed lovingly at his wife and penned little more than the occasional letter home from jail. He was of course charming, because conmen are, and he was funny and generous, at other people’s expense. He was a terrible father and husband. He betrayed those he purported to love and stuck by those he said he despised. He didn’t tell anyone he was dying because he didn’t think he was worth mourning, and, I suspect, because he knew that if we visited him in his final weeks, he would no longer have the strength to keep things moving along and the chasms in the facade would become too obvious. The consequences of a lifetime’s bad choices and cowardice would be, and in the event were, all too manifest.

Prevented from attending my father’s funeral, I attended Gouri’s instead. There I said goodbye to my fantasy father, the hero and poet, the man loved by family and friends, surrounded by children and grandchildren, and to my real father, the man who was incapable of speaking up for those he loved and who died alone, haunted and lost, an orphan who didn’t trust a soul and was careless with his own. I cried for who I thought he could have been, for who he was, and for who I am now. It was good to have so many mourners at his final farewell, to hear such heartfelt speeches, to feel the love. For those short moments, I was surrounded by family and found myself wondering once again how things might have turned out differently had my father moved here and become Haim Gouri.

Susan Kennedy is a freelance writer and editor based in Jerusalem, currently working on a memoir.


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The Lilith Blog

January 31, 2019 by

My Tía Adelaide at the End of Life

“The end of life has its own nature, also worth our attention. I don’t say this without reckoning in the sorrow, the worry, the many diminishments. But surely it is then that a person’s character shines or glooms.”  Mary Oliver in “Our World.”

My tía Adelaide, 102, was holding herself with such poise that I almost didn’t notice the clear, oxygen tubes draped around her ears and into her nostrils. Her voice was faint, but she looked resplendent in a turquoise Mumu with coral flowers that reminded me of the watercolors she painted not so long ago.

“I’m on my seventh Jeffrey Archer book,” she had said on that rainy day. We sat at her balcony overlooking a sea of buildings in Panama City, where I was born. The attendant had placed my tía’s wheelchair next to the caged periquitos; and, as we talked, tía Adelaide’s freckled fingers would reach into the wire cage for one seed and then another that she placed expertly into the birds’ tiny beaks. I noticed a large, mean-looking bruise on her calf from a recent fall.

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December 9, 2010 by

Balm in Gilead

Lynne Feldman, www.lynnefeldman.com

I feared it would be awkward to talk by telephone, she so many thousands of miles away, barely able to respond. But the words pour out of me — a groundswell, a flood. I talk and talk, trying to tell her what her life has meant to mine these 47 years, from the summer we met, two New York girls, not quite 17, in (of all places) northern Wisconsin, until this September when, 10 days apart, we turned 64. When I pause for a breath, she says, in a low voice but distinctly, todah — thank you. Twice more I pause; twice more she says todah.

I don’t want to tire her, but I can’t stop holding on. Finally her daughter comes back on the line. She tells me that Beth hasn’t spoken more than a few words in the last two days, and they aren’t sure what she comprehends. But I believe Beth has heard me, just as I have heard her. This isn’t the first time I’ve felt her presence from afar; ours has been a friendship that has survived more than one kind of distance.

We met in 1963, in a Hebrew-speaking summer camp where our daily schedule included an eclectic array of classes: we read the Babylonian creation myth alongside Genesis, studied Maslow’s post-Freudian theory of “self-actualization,” learned modern Hebrew poetry from an Israeli woman with an enchantingly musical voice, and were instructed by Shaul, an Israeli ex-scout, how not to chop wood: Af pa’am lo al haritzpah — never on the ground! (Hardly a life-changing experience, but in its anomalous quirkiness, it lodged itself in my memory.) My seventeenth summer was a magical time, filled with new discoveries and temptations (my first real kiss, my first taste of marijuana) and peopled with unforgettable characters. But Beth — soft-voiced, gentle-mannered, with a smile that revealed a radiant inner joy — was the jewel in the crown. Every day, between classes, we’d sit on the sun-warmed grass and do what teenage girls do best: talk, and talk some more.

We had much in common, not just in background but in interests, among them, a love of literature that would stay with each of us our whole lives. But our personalities were strikingly different — opposites attracting. Although neither of us was lacking in adolescent joie de vivre, Beth’s was a quiet enthusiasm, coupled with an easy and natural optimism. If I had to choose a single word to describe her, then and now, it would be “grace” — in Hebrew, hen. My own demeanor (as I’d been told more than once) was “intense,” my moods changeable. I threw myself into life and had joy in many things, but I was also susceptible to bouts of fretfulness. If I was sorrowing or brooding, Beth’s words filled me with comfort and light.

At summer’s end, Beth invited me to visit with her family in Gilead, their 200-acre tree farm in the Catskill mountains. I had heard much about Gilead from Beth, but there was no way I could have imagined its beauty. When I stepped out of the car and inhaled the crisp blue air, its stillness lightly punctuated by the calls of late summer’s birds, and took in the harmony of meadow, woods, and pond, vistas all around, it was love at first sight and scent and sound. Did I sense, at that moment, that Gilead would become my life-long sanctuary and that its devoted stewards — Beth’s parents, Lillian and Paul — would become family to me? How could I have known that my vision of marrying under a huppah on Gilead’s lawn would be fulfilled a quarter-century later? Glorious Gilead was where our friendship unfolded and blossomed, and where it continued to be nurtured over the years to come. In our walks together along the stone walls bordering the woods, we were cocooned in intimacy, sharing the stories and confidences that best friends share.

For five years following that first summer, throughout our senior year of high school in different cities and four years of college in separate states, Beth and I remained close, maintaining our connection through Gilead excursions and correspondence. But after college our lives branched in opposite directions, and not just geographically. Beth stayed in New York for a while, then headed east to Jerusalem — while I went west, to California. It was the late sixties, a time of enormous changes in the American social and political landscape, and California was at the epicenter. The new wave of feminism engaged both my intellect and my passion, and I soon became disenchanted with the patriarchal order and many of its engraved traditions, such as the “nuclear family.” With the ardency of a new convert, I tried to impress upon my best friend the benefits of raised consciousness. But the women’s movement had yet to reach Israel and wouldn’t get there for another decade; Beth must have been, at the least, bewildered by my letters. So far away from each other, in such different environs, with no opportunity for face-to-face conversation, we fell prey to mutual misunderstanding. One example: Although we were each of us single and living with female housemates, we looked upon our situations rather differently. When, in one of her letters, Beth made the comment — innocent enough, from her perspective — that she was tired of living alone, she meant that she wanted a male life-partner. But I was dismayed by what I took to be the implication that women friends didn’t count, and I retorted that living with other women was not living “alone.” I didn’t receive a reply to that letter. Had I, in my advocacy of the ideal of Sisterhood, ruptured the bond with the closest real sister I had?

Within three years, Beth was married, but by then our correspondence had tapered off, and I found out about the wedding after the fact, from her parents. I was saddened to have missed such an important event in my friend’s life, and I regretted my part in creating the distance that had arisen between us. But I had no idea what to do about it. Beth and I had lost much of our safah m’shutefet — our common language — and I didn’t know where to find it again. So I did the only thing I knew to do: I tucked the friendship into a corner of my heart, and held it there, for safekeeping.

A decade and more passed, during which Beth and I saw each other only sporadically, even during the two year-long periods when I was living in Jerusalem, not far from her doorstep. Beth’s husband and I had not yet — how shall I put it? — learned to love each other across our differences, and this created a dilemma for Beth. (Ezri wasn’t exactly a fan of my feminist beliefs, nor, probably, of the ardor with which I advocated them. Happily, though, he and I bridged the distance between us at a later stage, when I turned to him to be a Hebraic consultant for a book I was writing. How ironic — or was it poetic justice? — that The Book of Blessings was a feminist re-creation of prayer!) And, too, Beth was raising children (ultimately, she was the mother of four) and I wasn’t sure where — or even whether — there was room for me in her world. Had she forgotten me? I kept hoping we might find a way to be more present in each other’s lives, but our orbits didn’t intersect, and it was not to be.

And yet, Beth remained, for me, still, the friend dearest to my heart. I knew I could never lose her. And I didn’t.

How to explain this? Is it enough to say that, like most young loves, friendships that burst forth intensely in adolescence have a way of embedding themselves in the neural pathways? Or is it that Beth and I were born soul-mates, our friendship as bashert as any marriage made in heaven; that we were, simply, meant to be in each other’s lives?

Part of the explanation is surely the magic of Gilead, a place that welcomed and embraced me continuously over the course of almost five decades. Gilead was not just the site of my wedding; it provided the m’saderet k’dushin — the officiator — in the person of Beth’s mother. I gave my son the middle name “Gilead” and brought him to his namesake often as he was growing up, so that he too became part of the intergenerational circle.

Beth had given me Gilead, and Gilead gave me back Beth, over and over again: each hike on its trails, each swim in its pond, each session of blueberry-picking brought me close to her, whether she was present in person or not. If, for periods of time, the friendship seemed suspended, Gilead reminded me that the connection was still there. And, in truth, Beth and I always found our way back to each other with remarkable ease. There was never a conversation that didn’t seem to pick up right where we had left off.

The geographical distance is hardest now, at this time of perhaps our greatest closeness. This far away from her, I can’t know, at any given moment, if Beth is still among the living. I find myself wondering what I’ll feel when the news finally arrives. Will the moment stun? Will it be numbing? Or will it come as a relief, putting an end to the waiting, allowing the full grieving to begin? I’ve already faced the hard facts: we won’t be taking any more walks together, or writing impassioned letters, or even talking long-distance on the phone. The last conversation I had with Beth will, it seems, be the last conversation we’ll ever have. And it will have to be enough. Now, in this window of not-knowing, is my time to practice not needing more.

One of Beth’s sons has told me that, even after she was admitted to the hospital, too weak to stand, Beth never lost faith that she would get up and stand again on her own two legs. This doesn’t surprise me. Just three months ago, unable to contain my yearning for things to be different from the way they were, I blurted out to Beth, “I want you one-hundred-per-cent well” — to which she replied calmly, confidently, “I will be. I know it’s not rational, but I believe it.” One could call this denial, one might opine that she deprived herself of the chance to say good-bye.

But Beth doesn’t need good-bye—and I no longer need to say it either. Her last words to me speak for both of us: todah, three times todah

27 September 2010 / Khol Hamo’ed Sukkot 5771
Berkeley, California


Postscript:  5 October 2010 / 28 Tishrei 5771
The moment has come. It is neither numbing nor a relief, but more stunning than I could have imagined. An ocean of grief, and no more words.

Marcia Falk is the author of The Book of Blessings; The Song of Songs: Love Lyrics from the Bible; and other books of poetry and translations. She is working on a book for the High Holiday season and has returned to painting, her first love. www.marciafalk.com. 

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