By Cindy Tobin
Although we have only just begun the month of Elul, today my mind and heart are focused ahead on the High Holidays.
September 5, 2013 was the first day of Rosh Hashanah. It was also the day my husband died.
Of course this was a time of immeasurable sadness. My grief swallowed me like quicksand. But there was a lifeline that kept me from falling in, and that lifeline was the Jewish community.
The funeral would be in Israel, and arrangements needed to be made. But Shabbat began as Rosh Hashanah ended, so nothing could be done until Saturday night. As disconcerting as the delay was, I was lucky to be surrounded be my very large family. All told, there are over 50 of us who gather for the holidays. And this year, they were there for me.
The business of the funeral worried me. It shouldn’t have. All I remember is compassion and kindness. I dealt with funeral directors, an agency that arranges urgent transportation to Israel, El Al Airlines that makes sure there is room on the next flight, and the Chevra Kadisha (the Jewish burial society) that provides the Shomrim (people who watch over the casket) that are there 24 hours a day. When I saw them walk across the tarmac, accompanying the casket to the airplane, I knew they were there for me.
Upon arriving in Israel, the funeral proceeded almost immediately. But they do things differently there. The procession starts outside the family home. The mourners line up behind the hearse. And behind the mourners are everyone else. And I do mean everyone. Anyone in the street who saw the procession stopped whatever they were doing, lined up behind us, and walked with us for a short distance. The loss of one of us was a loss to all of us. They were there for me.
My memories of the cemetery are blurry. But I do remember the sister-in-law who never left my side. And there was the nephew’s mother-in-law who performed the rite of k’riah (tearing of the mourner’s clothing ) for me, using a blade to cut my shirt. I will never forget these women, and the others who stood by. They were there for me.
Shiva began with the meal of condolence. A niece handed me a plate: a hard-boiled egg, a cracker, a black olive. All round foods, just like the bagels at home, symbolizing the cycle of life. I learned their custom is to eat no meat during shiva, eschewing that luxury the way we refrain from wearing leather shoes. But I was well nourished. They took good care of me. Yes, they were there for me.
During the days that followed, we were never left alone. Visitors began to arrive soon after breakfast. Soon every chair was filled. There was little conversation. And they didn’t just come at mealtime. Each new arrival was offered juice and cookies, but they weren’t there to eat. They were there just to be there, and nobody left until there was someone to fill the empty chair. Until bedtime, the community made sure the house of mourning was full. They were there for me.
Shiva ended before Yom Kippur started. A neighbor took us out into the yard, to do the ritual of washing our hands. And then, after the holiday ended, I was back home. Now I was really alone. But I didn’t feel that way. There were cards, voicemails, e-mails awaiting me. And more kept coming. Each one of them meant so much to me. I felt connected. All these people were there for me.
On Rosh Hashanah, I will commemorate my husband’s Yahrzeit by standing up to say mourner’s Kaddish during services. As I stand there, honoring his memory, I will also remember everyone who was there for me during my time of loss. I am proud to be a member of a community that stands by each other. And I hope to be able to continue this tradition, and support others the way they supported me.