Last Friday began at the Montefiore Cemetery in Queens where I helped bury a family friend who died after a long and fulfilling life. Under a warm, bright sky, with spring’s migrant birds singing songs of new life, one man’s soul was ascribed to Eternal Life. His children sang their own songs of his grit, grumpiness, and dogged determination to overcome a difficult childhood in the Bronx to a soaring, successful career in business. There was a broken first marriage, a much happier second chapter, and a later-in-life commitment to charitable work committed to alleviating homelessness and criminal justice reform to help New York’s most disadvantaged populations.
His life spanned the better part of the twentieth century, giving me pause, as is often the case at such funerals, to listen to one story as an exemplification of a now bygone age. Perhaps it was the training I received at UW-Madison’s Department of History, where we were encouraged to think broadly, contextualize, discern patterns, and find lessons in the stories of all people, not just “great men.” Or, maybe it was the training I received from my own father, who would schlep me with him to the family plots on Milwaukee’s south side a few times each year and tell me stories of our own family’s journey from Minsk to Wisconsin. Either way, I am always aware of time’s flight, or our own on its wings, as life gives way to death and then, to life again.
From the cemetery to the airport I went last Friday in order to be in Washington, DC for another event, this time the Bat Mitzvah of a family friend’s daughter. This was a gathering of an entirely different sort. One side of the family was of European descent, who like my own family, had immigrated to Milwaukee from the Pale of Settlement at the turn of the nineteenth century. The family rose to success and prominence in both business and civic life, counting a judge and United States Senator among its achievements. And the other side of the family escaped the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and came to America as refugee Jews with nothing other than “education and a devotion to family,” to quote the Persian Jewish father’s speech to his daughter. Medical careers, success in business, and walking through doors and corridors of power to make the world a better, more peaceful place, foremost in this family’s mission as well.
You’re not going to believe me when I tell you what happened next.
Another friend called on Sunday and asked if I could visit her father, in his nineties and in hospice, before I headed back to New York. So I drove down to Annapolis from Baltimore where I was visiting my in-laws for the day and spent some time with this man. He sat up in his chair when I came into the room; he recognized me and smiled. His daughter gently rubbed his arms and legs and affectionately recounted the touchstones of his life. Up from nothing; piece work shmattahs to an engineering degree courtesy of the GI Bill after the Second World War, an extensive career in the building trade and philanthropic work in the Washington area as well as all over the country, lovingly cared for by his daughters as he looked out the window of his home to the calm waters of the creeping creeks and rivers of the Chesapeake Bay.
We said Shma Yisrael together and then I held his head in my hands and gave him the Priestly Blessing. His daughters cried. And then he said that was enough. He wanted to sleep. Within thirty minutes he died. And today I am heading to a cemetery in Queens, where he will be laid to rest among his kin.
It surely is not lost on me that this week’s Torah portion is Naso, which comprises, rather drily, a number of duties apportioned to various priestly families with regard to the care of the Tabernacle, which housed the Tablets of the Ten Commandments. For those who appreciate the detailed minutiae of such chapters, there is plenty to keep you busy. Bars, posts, sockets, and planks abound. Clans and ancestral homes are carefully enumerated. There is grave concern with purification ritual, the threat of marital infidelity, and fear of contamination when coming into contact with a corpse.
I remember when my own mother died nine summers ago. She had wanted to be cremated, to “burn away,” as she put it, the cancer and the chemotherapy. But I was a relentless son and told her that I would insist on burial, especially since she would be in no position to argue back. And I promised her I would always visit her grave; and so would her grandchildren; and if I did my job right, her great-grandchildren one day, those who will never have met her.
The evening before her burial I went to the funeral home in Milwaukee where her body was resting. A small group of women from the local Jewish burial society — Chevre Kaddisha — attended to cleansing her and dressing her in a soft robe, like the kittel Jews wear on Yom Kippur. A pillow of straw was placed under her head and earth from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem was scattered inside her plain pine casket.
I sat outside the room for purposes of modesty and recited Psalms. And at one point held my hands toward the space where I knew my mother’s body lay and recited, “May God bless you and keep you; May God’s face shine upon and be gracious to you; May God’s favor be upon you and grant you peace.”
At the end of the Priestly Blessing in this week’s Torah portion, the text’s next line is, “Thus shall they link My name with the people of Israel and I will bless them.”
I love being a Jew. It makes me feel proud to be linked to such a powerful, beautiful, meaningful and peaceful people. We have been through several thousand years of history that has been glorious and calamitous. We have been driven from home and have returned again. And each family is like a microcosm of that history: birth, life, death and re-birth, generation after generation.
I have to run, dear reader. I’ve got a funeral to get to. And then there is Shabbat, a day of rest, a day of joy, a day of peace.