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Kaddish for the Matriarch

Photo by Dr. M. Richard Mendelson

In the cavernous drawing room of the matriarch's seaside mansion, her bereaved family gathered to honor the near century-old woman whom they had buried that morning. Car after car pulled into the driveway, depositing three generations of mourners. Sad, pale, and clad in black, each hurried up the walkway, passing beneath two stone lions that guarded the open door.

If the sculptor had intended to make his lions diligent at their watch, he had failed. They exuded only an Oriental stillness. The blank sockets of their eyes looked inward, if anywhere. They were a far cry from the Lions of Judea that the matriarch had directed be etched into the stone to rise in due time over her grave.

Jarred awake by late night telephone calls, family members were shaken to hear that the unimaginable was happening. The beloved matriarch of the family, a monument to robust health, was finally succumbing to her age. At the hospital she was told that every organ was failing except her mind.

She cut off the young doctor's perky recitation of torturous options to stave off the inevitable. "No heroics, please," she told him. "It's time." It was the last in a long life of rational and in many senses heroic choices.

Her children and grandchildren interrupted their busy lives and set out with their spouses and children to say goodbye to their beloved matriarch. She had loved them without condition. Defying the common tendency of the old, she grew with the times, absorbing modern trends quickly, frequently ahead of her own children, seeing always the best in the new.

She championed the ultimate primacy of the younger generations to pursue personal fulfillment and happiness wherever the search would lead them.

"The world is your oyster," she would tell them. "The most important thing is that you be happy."

It was not the way she had been raised. The golden rules of her time stressed duty and obligation. Happiness issued from accepting inherited responsibilities to family, to faith, to one's own. But that was nearly a century ago. America had long ago delivered on its promise to its Jewish immigrants.

"Times change," she often said. "You gotta change with the times or get left behind."

The matriarch was born in New York City in 1914. If she had shuddered to hear about the hard life for Jews in Russia, which had driven her parents to emigrate in 1904, she did so from the safety of the tight Jewish enclaves that spread across the lower East Side. She grew up in a vibrant Jewish family as it was expanding into a noisy ambitious clan that found work on bustling Jewish streets, lined with shops that closed for Shabbas.

She may have spoken English 'like a Yankee' as her parents had marveled, but her spoken and written Yiddish was flawless. Soaring through public school with high grades, she attained sufficient competence in Hebrew to sit in the women's section of the synagogue and follow the prayers that her father and brothers and uncles chanted in front of the bima.

The immigrant generation raised American children. These children as adults, like all Americans in the '30s, struggled through the Great Depression, which deepened their traditional respect for education and financial security. Intensely patriotic, when America went to war the matriarch's brothers went off to fight Hitler. And when they returned home, they married neighborhood sweethearts and followed the general trend into suburbia. Here the matriarch and her husband brought forth a more perfectly Americanized generation. If the matriarch's generation was reluctant to send its children to settle in the State of Israel, it gloried in its creation. From their suburban neighborhoods, where they lived amicably among their gentile neighbors, they rallied to Israel's support.

They integrated into the life of the neighborhood. They encouraged their children to excel in their studies, but also to broaden their outlook and cultivate wide interests. Outside activities proliferated. Sports, music, art, culture and all manner of youthful fun and entertainment left little time and even less enthusiasm for religious training. And for the most part, active interest ended with the barmitzvah party.

The matriarch's children, well-educated and confidently American, sped up the economic and social ladder. Barriers to Jews were in free-fall. Overt anti-Jewish sentiments, losing acceptability in the polite society of the 1960s, was becoming the fodder of boors and louts. Many of this generation reinvested in its religious heritage, sending their children to Hebrew school and supporting synagogues by dues, if not by regular attendance.

They flocked to country clubs, but also joined Jewish organizations. Like all Americans, they raced home to parents with their children to celebrate major religious holidays, where they soaked up the flavor of traditional meals and the veneer of times gone by. And for their children, all life's opportunities and choices were on the table, and they were eagerly pursued.

The matriarch had indeed lived in interesting times, as the Chinese benediction goes. The great wisdom of this wish is that the Chinese consider it both a blessing and a curse.

No doubt the ancients knew a thing or two about life's ironies.

I passed beneath the stone lions and entered the house of mourning. The stately drawing room was filling up. Adrift in my own thoughts, I stood apart from the sorrowing mourners and gazed out a window.

Above the grieving house the sun was setting. Panicked seagulls soared across the placid ocean. The shrieking birds, cursed never to remember their nightly blindness, spiraled lower and lower through the dusk, searching for each other and finding a common roost on branches, roofs and towers. Clinging to each other in the gathering darkness, the birds stopped fretting.

I turned back from the window and looked about. The matriarch's generation was long gone. All that remained now were her aging children, and their children, and their children. The matriarch's children stood together whispering about the mother they had lost. Their children spoke louder, lauding all they had gained from their grandmother's unfailing understanding and support. The youngest, the matriarch's six great-grandchildren, perched wherever a surface presented itself - a piano bench, an Ottoman, a cushion or on the soft Persian carpet. Too young to comprehend death, they cooed and giggled and played.

Here then was the progeny of the matriarch, the product of a century long striving to meld into America. Their names tell it all, Mary, Christopher, Patrick, Tristan, Luke and Patricia. Her heart had held each of them dear, and she could not gaze at them without smiling. But, I wondered, what other thoughts had accompanied the matriarch to the grave.

She had retained to the last a lucid mind. From a labored sleep in her last hours, she rose to give clear if startling directions. "I want a kosher Jewish funeral," she told her children. "Call Rabbi Goldman. His number you'll find in my directory. He knows what to do. It's all arranged." Her eyes closed and she faded away.

When the door bells chimed, all talk stopped. A child hurried to the door, nearly knocking over a small table on which lay, untouched, a few kippahs and pamphlets explaining the Jewish way of mourning.

The rabbi and five men who had presided at the funeral entered the drawing room. They carried more prayer books than the group would need. The children of the matriarch stepped forward to greet them. One son reached into his pocket for his father's kippah and put it on his head. Ten years earlier he had found it among his father's things when the old man died. He had worn that kippah to his father's funeral and had made it his own, never wearing another. At first the kippah eased his grief. But as the years passed, it came to embody a deeper loss, the one even he had been unable to stem.

In the crowded room of mourners, from among three generations of the matriarch, only four could read a little Hebrew. Were it not for the purchased services of six strangers – the matriarch had prepaid a handsome donation to the synagogue for providing them – there would have been no quorum to recite Kaddish.

Ten Jews chanted the traditional Hebrew prayers for the dead. The Kaddish for the matriarch flowed out through the windows of her seaside mansion. It drifted over the sleeping seagulls, lingering briefly on the mist churned up by the flapping waves, before fading away. And like the matriarch, it left no trace. 



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Saturday, 13 July 2024

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