Tall and unflinching, my mother’s tombstone has assiduously guarded the entrance of the gated community for permanent residents of the Burshivker society in Mount Lebanon Cemetery in Queens for over four decades. My grandfather, who served as rabbi of that speck of a village in Ukraine, corralled his people in a hasty departure not unlike Moses and the Israelites fleeing the tyrannical Pharaoh. With little more than my grandmother’s Shabbat candlesticks, feather quilts, and some clothing, my grandparents and maternal great grandmother fled, but not, according to family lore, before a bullet blew my grandmother’s infant and only child from her arms. “Kidnapped, brutalized, released” are the tabloid headlines emblazoned on my maternal great- grandmother’s tombstone. “She came to America and died. A righteous woman.” Otherwise, the dead speak not of history.
When my grandfather arrived in New York, he and his community bought a house to resurrect his synagogue and home, along with a substantial cemetery plot. He recorded the names of his community’s members in a black leather-bound pocket-size notepad. The elegant curves and swirls of his Yiddish handwriting belie the harsh, abrupt trauma that marked his departure. My uncle, born in Italy en route from Ukraine to New York, became the keeper of the community’s log after my grandfather died. The unassuming address book of the Burshivker society served as the repository of the community’s family histories. Contact information for the “sons of—” or “daughters of—” recorded the first generations born in America until thirty or forty years had passed. By then, English had overtaken Yiddish and white wine trumped schnapps. One by one the old men died and one by one a deliberately drawn straight black line struck their names from the list of the living. Eventually, they too moved from Brooklyn to the gated community in Queens.
But for my mother, uncle, grandparents and great grandmother, whose tombstones mark a clearly delineated area, the other graves are as askew and disordered as a board full of overturned chess pieces.
My grandfather’s tombstone lies prostrate over his grave as if there is a prone figure in eternal grief over his death. Young when he died of cancer, he did not live to see the State of Israel being created or my mother enter into a bad marriage. Barely in her twenties at his death, she no longer had anyone with whom to share her Shabbat walks and dreams for the future. No one to grant her permission to bend the rules of mixing milk and meat and allow her to drink a glass of milk only a few hours after eating meat, rather than our family custom of a full six hours. A weak girl, she needed her strength and for my grandfather nothing was gained by strict interpretation of the law. Despite never having learned English, my grandfather understood the cultural challenges of being in America and encouraged my mother to go to college.
Inconsolable after his death, shortly after she graduated college, she enrolled in modelling school in Manhattan. For the Brooklyn girl who spoke only Yiddish at home, and for whom clothing was hand made by her mother, crossing that bridge was her journey to the new world.
My father, who spent World War II playing the trumpet in the army’s entertainment corps, charmed her at a fashion show in New York and brought her back to Brooklyn, where they married and lived. I was the baby who, unbeknownst to me, would save their marriage for the moment. But, at three years old, I failed.
So forty-three years after cancer devoured her body and soul, when I too was barely out of college, I stroke her tombstone as if I were stroking her cheek. Neither my husband who never knew her, nor my daughter for whom she is named, know what to do or say. They fidget, avert their eyes as if there were a person with whom they are unable to make eye contact. The living are not adept at cemetery comportment.
“Hi Mommy. I miss you,” I blurt out. . ‘It’s David and Noa and we came from Philadelphia. It’s almost Rosh Hashana and we wanted to see you.”
I can’t let go of either the tombstone or the monologue. “Noa is in Jewish school. You told me to always be Jewish. And I am. We are. You know I became a rabbi so your father would not be the last. ‘ I keep stroking the stone mesmerized, waiting to crack it open, to hear my mother’s voice emerge from this stone that stands nearly as tall as she was. I want her to tell me that she likes my skirt, that I look nice, that I should buy clothes in Loehmans, or Bonwits where she shopped, even if they both closed years ago. I want her to tell me she likes me, forgives me for not saving her marriage. I cannot let go, cannot abandon any of it. Riveted on this patch of weary, drab browning grass and uneven earth, I keep stroking, over and back, making imperfect circles. . . After forty three years I want her approval.
The monument is as cold and hard as it was before I came. My mother is just as silent as she has been for my entire adult life.
My family and I look for stones, . . the calling card of the living left to the dead. . . . . We begin to leave.
‘Mommy we are going. I am sorry’. I am not sure why and I don’t know how to go. I want to say goodbye on my terms, not with those she forced me to accept. I want her to see, to know who I am. Perhaps then I can return, just look at her stone, say the mourner’s prayer, and leave.
“I love you mommy. See you soon,” I say automatically as if I just finished coffee with her or ice cream at Shraffts or the automat in 1968.
When my mother died, my uncle instructed me not to ask why. He forced me into a future I was not ready for, could not navigate, and did not want. Decades later I understood. ‘Why’ changes nothing. There are only the choices made and their impact.
Still, I cannot simply turn and leave her grave. It feels rude. I turn and walk backwards, as if departing from royalty.
Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei rabba.
B’alma di v’ra chirutei,
Uv’chayei d’chol beit Yisrael,
Baagala uviz’man kariv. V’im’ru Amen.
Exalted and hallowed by God’s great name
in the world which God created, according to plan.
May God’s majesty be revealed in the days of our lifetime
and the life of all Israel – speedily, imminently, to which we say Amen.
Blessed be God’s name great name to all eternity.
Her date of death, parents’ names, lineage are engraved on her tombstone. The final line reads: ‘her brother and daughter weep for her.’
Reba Carmel is a Reconstructionist rabbi and contributing writer to Jewish Currents magazine and has written creative non-fiction for a number of publications including the Philadelphia Jewish Voice, Sh’ma and the Jerusalem Report. She lived in Israel for over 10 years and currently lives in the Philadelphia area with her family.