The Process of Memory

My husband and I attended, via Zoom, the funeral of his beloved cousin Murray Darvick.  Murray was cut from a cloth of which fewer and fewer remnants remain. Murray loved life. He was filled with joy. He was a painter, an oenophile, a bon vivant. He loved people. He was charming and he charmed from a place that took delight in whomever he was charming at the moment.  Murray had that rare gift of making you feel that when he talked with you, you were all that mattered to him. Murray designed my mother-in-law’s engagement ring and was the best man my husband’s parents’ wedding. He designed my engagement ring.  Twenty-two years later, our son flew to New York to meet with Murray in the diamond district. The wheel turned through a third generation when Murray designed the ring Elliot would give to his soon-to-be fiancee.  At the end of the funeral, as the mourners present made their way to the limousine that would take them and their beloved husband, father, grandfather and cousin to the cemetery, the rabbi said, “And now we begin the process of memory.”

Jewish mourning rites and rituals are structured to comfort and order to our feelings and memories at a time when when death has upended life. The initial seven days of what is known as sitting shiva (shiva is the Hebrew word for seven) are a time of intense mourning. Mirrors in the house are covered to protect mourners from seeing their face at this time of intense grief. Mourners sit on low chairs. They do not wear shoes. They do not leave the house that first week unless it is to go to services. The community steps up to provide meals, and to organize the evening prayer service in the mourner’s home so the mourner can recite the Kaddish. The Kaddish, recited in Aramaic, does not mention death but instead praises God and asks God to bring peace upon the world.

Seven days give way to shloshim, a period of thirty days that include the initial seven days of mourning plus twenty-three additional days. Life is somewhat proscribed as the mourner continues to say Kaddish for their loved one. Those mourning a parent end the shloshim period and continue to recite Kaddish daily for an additional ten months. Each year, on the anniversary of a loved one’s death, we again join in community to recite Kaddish; in our homes we light a yahrzeit candle in memory of the deceased. And thus, the process of memory begins and is sustained. Not all Jews observe as I have described and I have not included all the halachic (legal) requirements. Read on for a fuller description.

Tomorrow marks the English date of my mother’s death. I observed it two or so weeks ago on the Hebrew date. But living within two calendars affords me the opportunity to follow Judaism’s rites and rituals and then give myself over to a private observance if I choose. My mother always found God in nature’s beauty and mystery. I do too. I am so grateful for this enduring gift.

Meditations on a Prayer

The reading below is from the daily afternoon service (mincha). It snags my attention each time we reach the page.

“You graciously endow mortals with intelligence, teaching us wisdom and understanding. Grant us knowledge, discernment and wisdom. Praised are You, Lord who graciously grants intelligence.”

What differentiates intelligence from discernment from wisdom? How does understanding fit in?  Here’s how I sometimes puzzle it out: God pre-programs us with the capacity to learn skills and information (that’s the endowing us with intelligence.) Next, life serves up experiences of pain and joy, triumphs and travails, teaching us lessons that ultimately (and hopefully) lead us into wisdom and understanding.

Then we come to a plea to be granted three seemingly similar traits that might even build upon one another. We achieve knowledge through experiences. The more experiences, the more knowledge which enables us to discern — right from wrong, when to speak and when to listen, when to work and when to rest. From this discernment we begin to lead lives imbued with wisdom, surely slipping and messing up but learning from those experiences as well.

Finally we return to intelligence, but this time by thanking God for “graciously granting” it to us. This turn of phrase is a bit different than being endowed with it.  The latter has a cut and dry sense of being provided with something. To my ear, the “graciously granting” carries the subtle possibility that God could just as well not grant us intelligence. It is by God’s grace that we are granted the gift of intelligence. What we do with this capacity will lead to a life of wisdom, understanding and discernment. Or not. It’s up to us.

photo courtesy of Martin Darvick

L’Dor VaDor — From Generation to Generation

My son was sweet enough to place one of my grandmother’s needlepoint pillows on our bed when we visited recently.  My grandmother was a swift and precise knitter. She could, and did, sew anything she had a pattern for and many things she didn’t. Then she discovered needlepointing. She caught the “bug” big time and was utterly captivated by the possibilities.

Our first morning in town, my son brought eleven-month-old Leah in to snuggle with us. Leah sat beside me and began patting the pillow my grandmother Estelle made decades before her Dada was born. Gently, I scratched it so Leah could hear the contact sound and then I turned the pillow over so she could stroke its smooth green velvet back.  Leah smiled and patted the velvet before turning the pillow over again. Scritch, scratch, scritch scratch. 

I watched Leah trace her tiny fingers over the pillow’s nubby surface. Across time and space my granddaughter was connecting hand to hand, generation to generation with her great-great grandmother. Amen.


Havdallah — Separating from the Sabbath


Some weeks ago I wrote about the Jewish Sabbath being a “palace in time,” a 25-hour period when we have the opportunity to cease doing and instead devote ourselves simply to being: with loved ones, in prayer and/or worship. contemplating, resting. Judaism’s rituals for welcoming the Sabbath have their counterpart in Havdallah at its end. The Havdallah ritual takes but a few minutes, yet it is rich in spirtual meaning and physical experience, calling all five senses into play. 

Havdallah means separation and the ceremony marks our leavetaking of Shabbat and entering the new week. As Shabbat begins with the lighting of candles, so too does Havdallah. Havdallah candles must have at least two wicks, reminding us of the duality of our lives—material and spirtual. Once the Havdallah candle is lit a blessing is recited over wine reminding us, as on Shabbat, of life’s joys and sweetness. Next is the blessing over spices (often cloves) one last sensation of Shabbat’s sweetness before we move into the new week. As the blessing is recited over the flame of the Havdallah candle, it is tradition to hold one’s hands toward the flame.  I was taught this links an action to the blessing. Recently I came upon a beautiful interpretation from Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser of Temple Sinai in Cranston, Rhode Island.

The reflected light off of the fingernails has further symbolism.  According to the Zohar*, when God created the first human beings, they were clothed in bodies of pure light. The soul of the human being [shone] visibly within this translucent body. It was only after they ate from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, that Adam and Eve were given material bodies made of flesh. However, as a reminder of our original form, God allowed us to retain a single vestige of those original bodies. Our translucent fingernails are a reminder that, in our origin, we are beings of light. As Shabbat departs, we gaze at the light of the candle reflected in our fingernails to remember this truth about ourselves.” Isn’t that lovely!

At the end of the ceremony, the candle is extinguished in a few drops of wine. The hiss of sound as fire meets wine is becomes an indelible signal of letting go of Shabbat and moving into the physical world once again.


* The Zohar is the foundational book of Jewish mystical thought known as Kabbalah.


Teach Us to Measure (and Treasure ) Each Day

Last week, our group’s rebbe and meditation teacher played this melody for us written by Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield. He set to music Psalms, 90:12 — Teach us to treasure each day that we may open our hearts to Your wisdom.”  This is a looser translation than the traditional one, “Teach us to count our days rightly, that we may obtain a wise heart.” Reb Sally mentioned a linguistic connection between the Hebrew verb limnot (to count or measure) and the word manna in the Hebrew Bible. When the manna fell, it was apportioned to each freed Israelite in the exact quantity needed to sustain that individual for the day.  Not too little nor so much that it would go to waste, but a portion that was just right. 

As the pandemic continues, I find myself measuring my days in a variety of ways. I am stunned to realize we are closing in on 365 days of Covid and are on the cusp of a second year. Hundreds of thousands of loved ones did not even have 365. My husband has measured the days until we will both have our vaccines. One evening last week       I couldn’t enter a Zoom meeting. Frantically, I emailed the host. Turns out the meeting was scheduled for the next day. I know I’m not the only one for whom a week is often made up of seven Blursdays.

The days we’ve been given remain mysterious, yet this year each one is ever more precious, ever more vulnerable. I treasure the small gifts of walks in the neighborhood with my husband and the recent large gift of 7 days with our son, daughter-in-law and two granddaughters. Relationship struggles are pandemic-immune, alas. Those days are harder to treasure, yet they offer opportunities to take measure of my responses and reactions.

A year has flown; yet curiously the days have been slow and full. Something within each day sustains me. Before opening my eyes for the day and upon closing them before sleep, I offer up a prayer of gratitude.  Pandemic or no, there are still days I do not use as wisely as I might. Each day has been given to me as if my name, and my name alone, has been written upon it. I strive to treasure it because like manna, it comes to me in the exact measure of my need.

(Clock designed and made  by Elliot Darvick.)

Jews Enter a Palace in Time


Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907—1972) gave us the metaphor of  the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat) as a “palace in time.” Shabbat offers the  opportunity to withdraw from our daily blur of achievement and acquisition. In a Jewish home, Shabbat dinner becomes the culinary and social vestibule of Heschel’s palace in time.

Not all Jews have Shabbat dinner and for those who do, each weekly celebration reflects the values and priorities of those around the table.  Every Shabbat dinner, however, has these three hallmark blessings: over candles, over wine, and over two braided loaves of bread (challah.)

When I light the Shabbat candles, it is a powerful connection to Jewish women across time and space who have done and continue to do the same, bringing spiritual and loving light into our homes each week.  The blessing over the wine declares the sanctity of the Sabbath, acknowledges the Divine’s ceasing from Creation on the seventh day, and offers gratitude for this weekly opportunity to withdraw into this palace of time. Motzi — the blessing over the challot (plural of challah) — praises God who brings forth bread from the earth. There is much rabbinic discussion about this reference since it is grain, not bread, that is harvested from the earth. In addition to being a blessing of gratitude, the Motzi refers to the messianic age when bread will be plentiful to all and none will go hungry.

When our children were little, we shared Shabbat dinner with other families. These round robin potluck gatherings became part of the rhythm of our days. Each week there was conversation and ritual, great food, laughter, occasional sleepovers for the kids. Week after week we built a community that is now extending into the third generation as our children (geography permitting) share an occasional Shabbat dinner and their children have begun to form friendships.

For now, it’s just my husband and me for Shabbat dinner. Sometimes we share blessings with our kids and grandkids via Zoom; eventually we will be able to gather with our friends once again. Until then, this weekly tradition sustains us as it has sustained Jews for centuries. Amen.

artwork, 1997, courtesy of Emma Darvick