Who by fire? Thoughts on mortality during the Jewish New Year Festival

It’s been a sad few weeks. On October 25, 2017, my family’s long time friend Jeff Weiss died after a very brave and very public struggle with a rare form of brain cancer known as glioblastoma. He wrote regularly about facing what he called “the egress.” His egress—his exit—is now complete, and we are all left to wonder what it all means.

I was left in a similar state of wonder a few weeks ago just before Kol Nidre, a time during the Jewish New Year Festival when my community comes together to take stock, remember and grieve our dead, and set intentions for the year to come.  Another grand figure had died that week: pioneer woman klezmer percussionist Elaine Hoffman Watts, whose press rolls and cymbal crashes I’d had the pleasure to know at many a KlezKamp concert.  Her death, unlike Jeff’s, was sudden to me – we were not close, and the Facebook posting of her death by her daughter, klezmer trumpeter Susan Watts, shocked my system. As I did my reps in Pilates class that morning, tears streamed down my face for reasons I could not fathom, and I began to compose this essay in my mind.

At the Sholem Community’s annual Kol Nidre observance, held later that week, it has become customary for me to perform two songs dealing with the evanescence and fragility of our human lives.  The first—”Who By Fire?”—is Leonard Cohen’s poetic reworking of the “Unetaneh Tokef,” a traditional Jewish New Year refrain pondering the many dark turns life can take, wondering who will die—and by what means—in the year to come.

Who by fire? Who by water?
Who in the sunshine? Who in the nighttime?
Who by high ordeal? Who by common trial?
Who in your merry merry month of May? Who by very slow decay?
And who shall I say is calling?

These words seem especially fitting given the recent ravages of the natural world—fire storms in Santa Rosa, Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and beyond—to say nothing of the social and political devastation that flood past our news feeds each day. Who, indeed, is calling? Who is calling for all of us?

I ponder these questions as I ascend the stage for the second song I perform, “Keep Me in Your Heart.” This anthem offers Warren Zevon’s final message to his loved ones, the last song on the last album he released before his untimely death. He tells his listeners,

Shadows are falling and I’m running out of breath,
Keep me in your heart for awhile.
If I leave you, it doesn’t mean I love you any less,
Keep me in your heart for awhile.

My parents have been flying out to Los Angeles hear me perform at Kol Nidre for more years than I can count now. Members of the community come up to me afterwards with tears in their eyes, gripping my hands tightly and telling me that each year this song gives them a few moments to be, once again, in the presence of their loved one: a sister, a father, a dear friend. Sometimes they simply offer thanks, but I see the grief in their eyes. And I have graciously accepted their thanks. But I have not felt that grief in return. Not until this year.

Something was different about this year’s Kol Nidre observance. This year, we switched venues from a large, brightly lit hall to a small theater in the half-round, with dimmed house lights and a sound system that made each note, each word, envelop every member of the audience.  This year, my parents chose their own seats as I was busy preparing for the observance; instead of sitting in the row I had reserved up front by the stage, they joined some friends at center stage with a better sightline. So my husband and I sat alone, joined by my dear friend Hal, with whom I have performed both songs on and off for nearly a decade.

About halfway through “Keep Me in Your Heart,” sung immediately after the reading of the yizker names, the names of all the loved ones who have died in the last year, I stopped singing the words. I didn’t forget, and I didn’t do it on purpose. I just didn’t sing them. The beautiful choir soared behind me, singing,

Keep me in your heart for a while.

The audience saw and heard it. They saw me wipe away a tear. And when I sat back down next to my husband, to the strains of Phil Ochs’s “When I’m Gone,” sung by my dear song partner Hal, I broke down. Holding my head in my hands, with my husband’s arms around me, I cried as I have not cried in a long time. The darkness of the dimmed house lights concealed my grief. Was it exacerbated by not feeling my parents sitting beside me, foreshadowing the time when they would no longer be there to sit at all? Was it permitted by their not sitting beside me, giving me the private, unseen space to shed the tears I cannot let them see? Probably both.

It was the tears for a broken world. For the losses I have faced and that we all have faced.  For the losses that I know are coming: that everyone I know some day will die, whether or not in my lifetime. That, if all goes well, my beautiful, sweet child will have to face my death. And the death of my husband.  These are the tears that I cannot allow myself to cry every damn day because there would be no end to it. They are the tears I once never thought I would stop crying.

But I did stop. And I have stopped. And they will come again, and go again.

The loss of Elaine and Jeff is poignant and painful. They were not daily figures in my life, but I knew and respected them, and their work made a difference in my life and the world around them. Their art was beautiful and glorious.  And then, suddenly, their stories were done.

As a therapist, at the very core of all of the work I do is the eternal struggle between life and death. It’s really the only struggle there is, when you get right down to it.

And I suppose it’s a fitting time to be thinking of death, if there can be said to be more and less appropriate times to be contemplating mortality.  Our ancestors recognized the turning of the seasons from late summer into the crispness of fall as a sensitive time for matters of the spirit. It was self-evident that the world itself was dying, and it was thus equally apparent that the “veil” between the worlds of the living and the dead was thinning, if only temporarily. It’s no wonder, then, that so many human cultures devised their own ways of acknowledging, connecting with, and fending off the denizens of the world beyond:

  • The pagan custom of Halowe’en, all hallows eve, when costuming ourselves as ghouls was hoped to prevent our being lifted away to the netherworld.
  • Dia de los Muertos, a time to make offerings to and visit the final resting place of our deceased loved ones.
  • Yizker, literally “you shall remember,” a memorial component of Jewish New Year observances held on Yom Kippur (the day of purgation and atonement) and Shemini Atzeret (the seventh day of the harvest festival of Sukkot/Sukis).

On a recent radio segment with Gold Star father Khizr Khan, interviewer Steve Inskeep and Mr. Khan concurred that our relationship with the deceased seems to expand once they have died.  Inskeep recalled an interviewee saying that he thinks of his father more now that he is dead. I wept behind the wheel as Mr. Khan agreed:

I see him every day. I hear him every day. He is here. Because of our handicap, because of our limitation, we may not be able to communicate directly with them, see them physically. But they are with us.

Last week, the Santa Ana winds brought 100+ degree temperatures to the entire region, but the veil, as we know, is thinning, and the air is indeed crisp in Los Angeles this morning. The spirits press against the partition, their palms leaving a trace of fog.

Perhaps if I listen hard enough, I will hear a snappy press roll or some words of wisdom. Perhaps if I look hard enough I will imagine a knowing smile. If, or rather, when, they leave us, it doesn’t mean they love us any less. And perhaps it means we come to love them even more.

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