Sunday, March 25, 2018

A Year in Mourning - Planning the Headstone

The time has come to plan my father’s headstone. First, how is it no one told us a stone could take 3-4 months to get done? How is that possible? We assumed 1-2, but now entire schedules are thrown into a tizzy, and I have no idea what to do. This week, as we plan for Pesach, I will be calling monument companies to figure this out.

Also, why does no one put costs, even general costs, on their websites. They all seem to expect you to come into their “showroom.” Well, that showroom is a day’s drive. I imagine I’m not the only person to be buying from afar, so why are the websites so unhelpful? So far the best has been St Charles. (Clearly not Jewish) Their website made me feel like they cared. They have a buying guide with general prices (which none of the Jewish businesses have), materials, and explanations. They also seem to have a shorter wait time. I cannot understand this difference, and it frustrates me. Why are the Jewish business website harder to deal with? Do they think/know that many, if not most, will simply accept this rather than going to one of the clearly Christian companies? I am not that person. Of course this also just adds more work to my plate.

In Hebrew a headstone is a מצבה (matzevah). It is a pillar set as a monument. Somehow that seems like so much more than a spot merely to place information. Mom has nixed the phrase, “mostly tolerated and beloved.” I’m sure she was right. Daddy likely would have haunted us, and I’d never hear the end of it in the afterlife. It still gave us a lot of laughter. (Everyone, really everyone, agreed it fit.) Instead we settled on the phrase “accidental gardener.” Daddy was a gardener, but his habits often left him with unknown or accidental growing things. My favourite was the time we threw some decorative gourds onto the compost. (Daddy was composting and using drip irrigation long before it was at all common in North America.) That summer a vine grew. It took over much of the yard, but Daddy left it to see what it was. Ornamental gourds. There were dozens and dozens. We were giving away baskets of them. They were all over the house: on tables, in centerpieces. There were seed packets with labels torn off, missing markers, and more. But it was always wonderful. He was constantly moving plants around, planning and replanning. Seed catalogs came by the dozens. And he loved to be able to give away seeds, plants, or gardening tool, books, or other paraphernalia. When my parents sold their house he knew the gardens were going to be mostly ripped out. He invited friends (including Russell’s and mine) and family to come a dig up whatever they wanted so he knew his plants would go to good homes.

פ״נ is another interesting thing on headstones. It means פא נקבר, here lies. My mother’s reaction... “Who else do they think is there?” We’ll be leaving that off.

Should there be an illustration? Kohanim get hands. Levi’im water pitchers. The sites all show pages and pages of pictures, from flowers to stars, and more. There are at least 10 different stars. On the other stones in the family plot there is a wreath with a bow. Mom was strangely unhappy about the bow. “WHay is there a bow?! He wouldn’t want a bow?! I don’t want a bow!” Okay Mom - we get it; NO BOW. Instead a star of David will adorn the stone, along with a carving of eye glasses. Now Daddy will always know where they are. Sean suggested that to him when he was alive. That he thought was funny. We’re leaving out his middle name. Mom didn’t think we needed Clive. He didn’t like it anyway. What kid from the Bronx would. We’re adding dates. There missing from all the other stones. My grandmother didn’t want people doing the math, but we’ve decided they’re important to future generations.

Then there are the platitudes, sorry, epitaphs. Was Daddy beloved, adored, devoted, cherished, caring? The list just goes on. Beloved is most common. And he was, even when making us nuts. My aunt wants “adored grandfather.” Also true.

Though so much of this seems silly, a matzehvah is meant to last and what we put there matters. Though we may joke, it is a serious business, and we want to do it right.

Star of David & glasses

ישראל יעקב בן אריה דוב ויטא רבקה
Bruce Elkin
October 18, 1935
Accidental Gardener
Beloved Husband
Daddy Brother
Adored Papa
י״ כסלו תשס״ח


A Year of Mourning - Reflections On Minyan

As the only member of the mourners concerned with thrice daily, I’d assumed I’d attend the nearby shul for Shacharit, but what about Mincha? In my mother’s development, all seniors, the shiva minyan comes at 7:30 regardless of time of year. I couldn’t leave the shiva house, and more importantly my mother, brother, and aunt, in the middle of the afternoon. And so we gathered family and called in neighbours, struggling each afternoon to create a minyan, discussing and debating the merits of whom to call “just one more time,” relaxing a bit when cousins’ kids came in from NYC or Philadelphia. But minyan grounded us, punctuating our days, and so we struggled through. Each night I stood next to my aunt slowly, very slowly reciting the words of the Mourner’s Kaddish, no longer familiar to her as her involvement in a synagogue waned. 

Minyan continues to ground me. It’s not always a positive experience. I am frustrated when I walk into some minyanim as number 8, 9, or 10, and cannot be counted. I understand the looks of disappointment, but they stab at me, leaving behind small shards that cannot be shed. 

The other evening I walked into Pride for Mincha, went to my normal spot, and opened the space for the siddurim to discover my siddur... was not there! This siddur is different that the one used and says, “RAV JEN” and “GORMAN” on the sides of the pages. It’s impossible to miss. I eventually found it next to someone. He’d switched because he thought it was missing a page. (It’s not.) The siddur is a Birnbaum, the one I used for my first tefillah class in rabbinical school. I do not know if the person who had it was the person who took it. He was standing on the other side of the room. Regardless, I (1) do not understand why people do not use the books in the cubbies at the seats they choose. Why do they take siddurim from elsewhere, causing people to constantly look for siddurim in some areas and a surplus in others. And (2) how, when you open the cubby and my name is staring back at you, do you take that siddur, kol she’kein (all the more so) the rabbi’s siddur?! I was completely out of sorts all of mincha until I discovered it. I hate the idea of needing to lock the siddur up. It’s completely marked with my name, inside and out.

I have discovered that I am impatient. I can be finished with Maariv in the time it takes a minyan to get to the Shema. Tonight I gave up. I simply davenned at my own pace then read a book until we got to Mourner’s Kaddish. I’ll need to make this a regular practice. 

Thursday, March 8, 2018

A Year of Mourning - Tzedakah, Minhag HaMakom, & Makom Kavuah

Each minyan I attend has it’s own customs. When entering any minyan, my first concern is “Whose seat am I taking?” Synagogue regulars have their spots. They sit in the same place every day, every week, every holiday. This is your regular, fixed place or makom kavua. A makom kavua isn’t set in stone. But people are very attached to their spots. In a new minyan, I’m always worried I may accidentally take someone’s spot. Personally, I hate when b’nei mitzvah families take my space on Shabbat. I have a Shabbat morning space, a Shabbat evening space, and spaces for other days depending on where we’re davenning.  There’s a custom of changing your makom during the year of mourning. Without thinking, I have, at least in our chapel. My space moved from the front to the back. I stand, and I want space around me. The front just doesn’t feel right anymore.

Other customs are whether or not the minyan recites tachanun or certain other t’fillot and when or if tzedakah is collected. Every minyan I’ve ever attended has a tzedakah box (or pushke) for the minytan. In Toronto the pushke seems to be out only at Shacharit. At my childhood shul in Merrick and at the minyan here in Monroe, NJ the pushke is out at every (non-Shabbat or holiday) service. Some also have pushkes at breakfast. Others do not. Then there is whether the minyan actively asks or simply leaves it to peer pressure. Does someone take the pushke around to everyone there, shaking lightly to rattle the coins inside? Who takes the pushke? I’ve always wondered how it’s decided. And, when do you do this? Just before Barechu? After the repetition of the Amidah or after the Torah service? In places where the pushke is simply left on a table, is that table towards the front where everyone can see, or is it more private? When one person gives (there’s still the custom of when), others seem to follow. It’s like a choreographed dance, but I have no idea who is directing? Then of course, what to give? Is it one coin, multiple coins, or bills? Does a yahrtzeit warrant more? What about minyan regulars?

It’s all just one more part of the culture of the tribe.

Shabbat shalom.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

A Year of Mourning - Haunting Me

Those of you who knew my father, know he loved to give us stuff. Whenever we drove home I would make lists of the things that accompanied us so I could tell customs exactly what we had to declare. We brought home looseleaf page reinforcements, glue, alcohol wipes, vitamins, comics (weeks and weeks of comics), spices, juice, shampoo, anything he overbought or came across. 

When we were in NJ for Daddy’s funeral, Keren came home with a bag he’d put together of comics he’d been saving since July. (He also saved newspapers for me to read even though I read most of them online.) This week, while cleaning after a multi-bathroom renovation, I discovered the comics, still here over three months later, divided between Gavi’s and Keren’s rooms. As I unpacked the bag from Keren’s room, still filled with comics, I discovered more: A small stuffed pill (from his dialysis center) saying “Meds Matter,” A machzor from 1931 (Dad’s been trying to pass these old siddurim and machzorim on for many years), a bag of buttons (the pin kind) mostly from charities and companies, but also ones that say, “Shalom,” “Bald is Beautiful,” and “Moynihan *88 Rally,” and a canister of Diamond kosher salt. 

Thanks Daddy for saying goodbye. I love you.UIKeyInputUpArrow