The Person Behind The Posts

Sunday, February 27, 2022

An Art Story That Is Also A Jewish Story

Walking in the shuk in Jerusalem today, DH stops me at a vegetable stand. We have been to the shuk hundreds of times and I have never noticed this vegetable stand. Its walls are covered with photos of holy people.

All of them are men.

Then DH points something out to me. Could it be that there is actually one picture of a holy woman among the dozens of men?

When we lived in Baltimore, I had a small art collection. It was my personal rebellion against the overwhelmingly masculine images in the world of Jewish art. This was way before erasing women from magazines and advertising and vandalizing billboards with women's faces was commonplace. I was tired of seeing Jews represented as if we all looked like this:

Making aliyah required us to downsize significantly. We had to reduce our possessions from those that filled a normal American house to what would fit in a small Israeli apartment. Many of the art pieces in my carefully curated collection of Jewish women doing Jewish things had to go. I sold them for very little during one of our uncluttering sales.

I kept only my favorites, like this one:

This is who I hope to become some day - a God-fearing old woman who sits and recites Tehillim (Psalms) by candlelight.

I also kept this one. It's a Michoel Muchnik image called "Challah Ladies". It features the backs of two women baking challah.

And, of course, I kept these two needlepoint works that were done by my mother A"H.

All the rest, and there were at least a dozen more, I sold for next to nothing or gave away.

Until today, when two of the pieces I parted with almost 12 years ago were restored to me by a kind and generous friend in Jerusalem, to whom I had sold them back in 2010.

This image was done in 1966 by Ida Libby Dengrove. Can you imagine an image like this being created today, with a young girl reciting havdalah while her brother holds the kiddush cup and her mother holds the candle?! What connects me to this work even more is that Dengrove passed away from complications of Alzheimer’s at the age of 86, exactly my mother's A"H age and cause of death. 

Also restored to me today was this grand (36"x24") work. It's a numbered lithograph, also by Michoel Muchnik. It's called "Elisha's Blessing" and is based on the story in Melachim Bet (II Kings) 4:1-7. It's the only Tanach-based work I ever owned.

The backstory is that there was a young and destitute widow who Rashi identifies as the wife of the prophet Ovadiah (Obadiah). A creditor threatens to take her two sons into slavery if she does not pay her debt, but all she has in the house is a small jug of oil. The prophet Elisha instructs her to gather vessels from all her neighbors and start pouring from the small jug of oil she has. Miraculously, the oil continues to pour out and fill every vessel she borrowed. The miraculous abundance ceases only when she runs out of vessels in which to pour it. Elisha then advises her, "Go sell the oil and pay your debt; and you and your sons will live with the remainder."

I close with
words I never expected I would write someday - a quote about art credited to 19th c. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche:

Tuesday, February 01, 2022

Death Comes. The End. (Part II)

January 27, 2022

My sister does not eat blue M&Ms, so I go through her ziplock bag of M&Ms and pull out all the blue ones. I tell her I am performing a bluectomy.

This is the most successful thing I do for anyone today. 

When we arrive at Mom’s, she’s asleep. We fail to rouse her. After 15 minutes of trying, I sit down to say some Tehillim by her bedside. Every day, I drop a coin or two in a tzedaka (charity) box in the merit of her soul. There isn’t much I can do for her anymore. 

The CNA comes in while we’re there and she brings a bowl of what we think is puréed hamburger for Mom’s lunch. I think about how the pleasures of this world are over for Mom. She’s already left all that behind.

It makes me want to appreciate this world more while I’m still here, even though I believe the pleasures of the next world far exceed anything available to me here. I’m not ready to prove myself right just yet.  

I publish Part I of this journaling exercise and I am blown away by the number of people who tell me they have lived this exact experience. I tell L we have just been admitted to a club we didn’t know existed - the “Waiting For A Parent To Die” club.

L and I have been doing the daily Wordle so I tell her about the Mom/Wordle dream I have.

In my dream, you start with five green squares and have to work your way down to five grey squares.

Because dying is the mirror image of being born.


Feeling All The Things

January 28, 2022 

Last night I tell E I don’t see myself getting on that plane Sunday night and we discuss whether he should go home without me.

While she’s out grocery shopping this morning, L texts and asks me to call her. The hospice nurse has been in touch with her twice already this morning. Mom is showing signs of a dramatic decline. 

We unload the perishable groceries and rush to Mom’s bedside. Feeling all the things.

We see some of the signs. The blood is leaving her extremities. Her skin feels clammy and her limbs are cold. She hasn’t spoken a word since yesterday. She stopped eating. 

E says viduy (an end-of-life Jewish confessional prayer) and the hospice nurse tells us at this stage she isn’t expected to make it through the weekend. 

She opens her eyes and looks straight at me but doesn’t say a thing. She lifts her right hand in a wave and I so want to believe she is waving at the souls waiting to receive her. Later, she lifts her left hand in the same brief wave motion. 

It’s erev Shabbat. We can’t stay by her bedside indefinitely. She’s sleeping now, but was agitated enough, trying to climb out of bed. We get her something to calm her down.

Now she is sleeping. And when I walk out to get ready for Shabbat, I understand that it may well be the final goodbye. 



January 29, 2022

Shabbat passes on edge, waiting for the call that doesn’t come. After Shabbat, we learn that hospice has reclassified her from being in transition to actively dying.  

After havdalah (the ritual that marks the end of Shabbat), we drive to Mom and walk through the quiet and empty halls to her room, already feeling the heaviness of death.

She’s mostly still, with the endless chee-pop sound of the oxygen tank in the background. The TV from next door can be heard from the doorway. 

Mom starts making a gurgling sound and it’s scary not knowing what to do. I step outside because my fingers are itchy to write. When I step back in, L has done research and tells me it’s the death rattle. The website assures us that it isn’t painful for the dying person and sounds worse than it is. 

Emily and Betsy, residents of the memory care unit, hover near Mom’s door. I ask them to please not go in. They introduce themselves, shake my hand and say, “I’m sure we’ll meet again.” Then they quietly walk away. I am not at all sure we will meet again.

Right now, listening to the chee-pop and the intermittent death rattle, the dying seems about a million times worse than the death. 

We go to her side one at a time. I wish her a peaceful transition, as sweet as possible on all levels, with nechama (comfort) all around and, in so doing, I repeat wishes that have been shared with me. 

I gently kiss her forehead and somehow, I manage to walk myself out of the room. 

I do not expect to see her alive again. 


First, I Curse

January 30, 2022 

It’s 6:51 AM. I can’t fall back to sleep. My eyes are closed and I see a white light opening. The opening is not big and it does not last for long, but I want to believe it’s an echo of what Mom is seeing now. 

I fall asleep on the couch where I go to say Tehillim after falling back to sleep in bed proves unattainable. I hear my sister on the phone and I wake up to an update.  

Twelve to 24 hours they say. Come now if you want to see her before she goes, if you want to say goodbye, if you want to call a rabbi to pray. We agree among ourselves that we’ve already done all those things. 

Barely an hour later, it’s over. 

I call H, who is at work. Then I tell the kids. 

E has agreed to act as her shomer (guardian) until the funeral home arrives to take her body into their care. 

Moments before the call comes in, I make a bracha (blessing) after my breakfast. That will be my last bracha until after the burial. Now I am an onenet (a mourner between death and burial).

Very quickly, we discover that the Jewish funeral home is not prepared to honor their commitment for a fully Orthodox funeral. Their excuses are lame. I am livid beyond measure.

First, I curse.

I curse a lot.

Then we activate our network. We contact every Jew we think can help.

We do our best to get our mother's body transported from the non-Jewish funeral home's holding warehouse where she has been taken and get her where she belongs, with a shomer to stay with her through the night.

It takes hours. Dozens of calls and texts all over South Florida, Baltimore and Israel. Many curse words spill from my mouth into the air of my sister's kitchen. I can't cope with this level of indifference.

Finally, with the help of Chabad (God should bless the Chabad network all over the world), transport is arranged and the indignity is beginning to be ameliorated. I weep with relief when the local Chabad rabbi tells me that, by midnight, my mother will be where she is supposed to be and a shomer has been arranged.

I think the worst is behind us.

I am so wrong.

So Cold
January 31, 2022

I wake early so we can call and arrange for the burial today. Before 9 AM, our hopes are dashed. We are fed a litany of obstacles.

I know this isn't Israel, or even Baltimore, where such things would never happen, but I refuse to accept that nothing can be done today. I make some more calls. A family friend of a friend is sympathetic. In 45 minutes, he has solved the problems the official funeral director could not.

We are scheduled for a burial at 2:45 PM. We arrive at the cemetery and realize that the funeral home's general manager is aware of our case. He tells me he saw my Facebook plea for help. He shows us more compassion in one minute than we received from our assigned funeral director in the past 24 hours.

We are asked to identify the body. Originally, L and I decide that E will do that for us, but somehow, the three of us spontaneously walk, three abreast, to the open casket, holding hands for strength. I have tried to avoid looking at dead bodies my entire life. Today, I look at my dead mother's face. I see clay fragments over her eyes and mouth,
a symbolic reminder of the end of desire.

I touch her cheek.

She is so cold.

There are just four of us graveside and another 12 on Zoom. Just family. The funeral home sends every available Jewish man to the grave site to help make a minyan (prayer quorum). I note this gesture with appreciation.

E officiates at our tiny graveside service as if there are dozens of people present instead of just the four of us. He delivers a eulogy that is often funny and also deft in its avoidance of a sensitive family hot spot.

These words, the memories I share here, are my eulogy.

There is no ordinary shiva. Nearly everyone who knew Mom is already in the World of Truth. E and I are going home. Between Shabbat and bidud (quarantine), there will be no formal shiva.

Last night, while speaking with an old friend, I decide that the turmoil of the past 36 hours has been a way for me to earn a measure of spiritual merit. Hashem Himself caused the hardships thrown at us. Please God, my fight to preserve my mother's dignity restored something missing on my spiritual scorecard.

Rest in peace Ma.

Your work here is done.