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Musings: Cocoon of Comfort

Miriam Klein Adelman

When my sisters and I begin with the stories, we’re performers on the stage of shivah stools. The audience’s faces alternate between awe and sorrow

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

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SPECIAL EFFORT I can’t hurt her feelings. She made a special effort to come; there’s no way I’m going to tell her to leave. I feel that way with everybody. They take time out of their busy schedules to be menachem avel. I refuse to intimate in any way that I am tired or that I have just repeated the same story 25 times

N oiselessly they enter and remove their coats. Tucking them over their arms, they sit on folding chairs placed around the room, around the mourners. From my low perch on my stool, their faces loom above me.

“How old was he?” a neighbor ventures.

“Ninety,” I answer.

Faces relax.

Oh, he was old. It’s not that sad, their faces are saying.

Others, like my old school friend, Sasha, takes my hand in hers, “I’m sorry,” she says simply.

A family friend walks in and I want to beg her, Please stop looking like you’ve just gone to your own father’s funeral. Her expression of overwhelming sorrow as she sits down, never taking her eyes off mine unnerves me. Uh-oh, I’m not feeling overwhelming despair, I think, why is she looking at me like that? If I don’t mirror her feelings, she’ll think I’m a terribly unfeeling daughter. I mean, maybe the loss will hit harder after shivah, maybe it won’t. But I’m okay now, stop looking at me like that! I shout in my head.

Some invite conversation. They want to hear all about him, all about his long, amazing life. They know he was in both the American and Israeli army when he was younger. They want to hear the stories.

I look over near the lamp table. My sister Frieda is holding court, entertaining neighbors and business associates. “After my father came back from fighting in the Philippines in World War II,” I hear her say, “he wanted to fight for Israeli independence. So he joined the Irgun, an underground group committed to rousting the last of the British from the land. He called his mother as the boat was leaving for Israel to say goodbye, but she refused to come to the phone. She was so upset he was once again leaving for war.”

When my sisters and I begin with the stories, we’re performers on the stage of shivah stools. The audience sits with faces alternating between awe and, when they think of it, sorrow. I usually begin with my American-born father’s burning desire to fight for the Jews being exterminated in Europe. Sometimes, I start with his early life growing up in prewar Williamsburg and the romantic story of his parents’ marriage.

“My grandmother’s older sister in Dej, Transylvania, wasn’t getting married and that meant that according to their custom, my grandmother couldn’t get married, either,” I explain to the comforters. “So she decided the only way was to come to America, which she did by herself. Well, not really by herself,” I continue, “my grandfather, who was her cousin, followed her with the plan to eventually marry her, and within a few months of arriving on the lower East Side, they got married.”

At this point my throat is running dry, and I stretch out my arm toward my sister as if to say, “Take it away, your turn.” (I think I actually say it).

 

Sima picks up the thread and talks about my grandfather starting off with a new job each week, and getting fired after not showing up on Saturday. Eventually, he got a job with a shomer Shabbos matzah factory, Horowitz Margareten, and after that, opened a butter and egg business, and so became his own boss.

I realize this is a piece of history. Not of a tzaddik’s holy life, but of a simple Jew in the early 20th century, fighting to keep his family religious. “People don’t realize today the courage it took to keep Shabbos and risk their livelihood,” some of the older visitors say. “They look at the knitted kippah and don’t give the respect these people deserve. Our children wouldn’t be here today if not for our grandparents’ mesirus nefesh for Shabbos.”

It’s time for lunch. We move to the kitchen. Nieces, nephews, and my children take shifts. They’re here to serve us. How radical. How comforting. (excerpted)

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