Last Yom Kippur, my next-door neighbor in Richmond, Virginia fell while bringing in her groceries. At 83, Barbara’s fall was serious enough that she couldn’t get up. She tried but failed to crawl to within reach of food, water, or a phone.
I was in Jerusalem that Wednesday. I began the Jewish Day of Atonement meditating on a hill overlooking the Old City and the Mount of Olives. During my meditation I remembered that I’d neglected to send Barbara a copy of Love Is Stronger Than Death — a memoir by an Episcopalian priest about a connection that extends beyond death. I knew that Barbara was grieving over the loss of a beloved; I thought this book might bring her some solace and I’d been meaning to send it to her for weeks. I promised myself to order the book after breaking my fast.
That afternoon I returned to synagogue in time for the tail end of the Book of Jonah. I’d missed the parts about the prophet being trapped in the belly of a whale for three days and three nights, but the story was on my heart throughout the day.
I found Love Is Stronger Than Death online that evening, but I couldn’t figure out Barbara’s house number, so I emailed her. I didn’t hear back. By Friday, I was concerned enough to contact a couple of other neighbors. One of them knocked on Barbara’s door, but heard nothing. She tried again on Saturday and heard Barbara’s faint cry: “I need help.”
Barbara was rushed to the hospital. Her organs had started to fail, and her knees were badly bruised from her attempts to crawl to safety. It took months before she was mobile again, but she survived to shower me with gratitude.
In the year that has passed, I’ve tried but have been unable to explain how grateful I am to her.
* * *
I moved into my pine-shaded house next door to Barbara in the winter of 2015, 10 years after joining the faculty at the University of Richmond. At the time, my house was nestled between the homes of two beloveds. To my east — the side closer to the river — lived Barbara; to my west lived Alan. Both were in their 80s. Alan was bedridden. He left the house rarely, and then going no farther than to drive his old two-seater from his place, past mine, to Barbara’s. More often it was Barbara who made the effort — progressing slowly with her walker, waving to me across the lawn if she spotted me watching her from my home office above my driveway. Then Alan died. From another neighbor I learned he died in Barbara’s arms.
Both before and after Alan’s death, Barbara was a private person. Always gentle, always gracious, but sharing little. Even when I knew she was in grief and struggling with back pains, she held up a stoic face. She never even let me help her take her groceries to the door. She had a system for hanging the bags on her walker. She was what you would call fiercely independent.
Barbara was discreet, but occasionally we would meet by her mailbox and something magical would pour out of her. About opera. About the Tanglewood festival. About the Celtic service at Richmond’s St. Stephen’s Church. About her childhood home in Yonkers, New York. About her family — including the plane crash that killed her only son and his wife as they were beginning life as young parents. Eventually, rarely, minimally, Barbara said something about Alan, whose car now collected magnolia leaves in her front yard.
I left Richmond shortly after the Alt-Right’s takeover of Charlottesville in August 2017 on a pre-planned trip to Jerusalem for the High Holidays, and to Switzerland to teach cross-cultural communication at an international law program. I had planned to return to Richmond after that to spend a year of academic leave writing and researching from home. After Charlottesville, I decided to spend my leave in Jerusalem. I stayed away from Virginia for 10 months.
When I returned to Piney Branch Road in the summer of 2018, my chats with Barbara by her mailbox deepened. During one of these chats, I discovered that unbeknownst to me, Barbara had been listening from her screened porch to the Shabbat and holiday services I used to tune in to by livestream. Occasionally, I invited local friends to share Romemu’s services with me, but most Shabbats I was alone. Assuming no one was within earshot, I used to chant along to the lilting Ashkenazi melodies without inhibition. It wasn’t until I was preparing to leave Richmond that I understood that I had had company all along.
“Oh my Word, your voice is of another world,” Barbara said by the mailbox. Her own voice echoed a tenderness I used to hear in my grandmother’s Polish-accented English.
As the anniversary of Charlottesville neared, Barbara was the first to respond to a Facebook post I wrote in memory of Heather Heyer — the paralegal who was killed by one of the neo-Nazis on that dark day.
Barbara responded immediately:
“I remember well watching on TV that morning the crescendo of conflict in Charlottesville and was horrified that guards watched and did nothing to diffuse the emerging powers of rage and hatred. … I was literally trying to yell through the TV to the guards, ‘Watch out! Something huge is going to happen.’ I could feel it building. … The reality crashed through my psyche and prior naïve peace. It was a giant step in awareness that changed everything as I previously perceived it. … Shock waves still emanate from that day.”
* * *
My main task over that summer, 2018, was to empty my house of the personal belongings I cared most about. I was going to spend the High Holidays in Jerusalem again, and this time I had no return ticket to the States. (My dean had granted my unusual request for a personal leave following my research leave; I would have four months to decide whether I’d be coming back in 2019.) Since shipping to Israel is prohibitively expensive, since I don’t have much space in my Jerusalem studio, and since I wasn’t about to ship objects that had come to me from the Holy Land back across the ocean — I gave away most of the things I loved to friends in Richmond and across the United States. Many of the cards I sent with my gifts read: “A piece of my American home, for a piece of my American family.”
Early in the process, I was sure I had hit on the perfect gift for Barbara.
At 83, Barbara had acquired more things than she could manage, including sentimental objects left behind by loved ones she’d lost. Receiving another thing, however nice, would be just a burden to her. But as I went through my wardrobe I found something I thought she might like — an ivory silk blouse that had belonged to my grandmother Ola Schary. I had been holding onto the blouse because it had my grandmother in it, but it was never my style. It was an elegant older lady blouse with a sash I could never figure out how to tie. It was the kind of garment I imagined might be perfect for church.
Barbara loved it, and during one of our chats by her mailbox she asked about Ola. As I told Barbara pieces of my grandmother’s story, I sensed more deeply than I had before the similarity between these two women. Both were artists. Both had an older sister close in age whom they adored. Both loved New York — Barbara being a New York native, my grandmother a World War II refugee for whom Central Park was as close as a person can come to a Promised Land.
The most striking similarity between them was energetic. Both women had an exquisitely gentle presence. They had survived trauma to live a devotional life — with the central pillar of their devotion being gratitude. My grandmother was something between an atheist and an agnostic. Barbara, I knew, attended church though she never shared explicitly about her faith. Regardless of the form their gratitude practice took, both women embodied, as no one else I have met, Rabbi Nachman’s call: Mitzvah gedolah lihiyot b’simcha tamid. Borrowing from Ram Dass, I’m going to translate that as “Be Joy Now.”
* * *
On the day a big DHL truck arrived on Piney Branch Road, Barbara painstakingly rolled her walker all the way to my front door for the first time ever, though I had invited her over for tea multiple times. She always said yes and never came. I understood, I thought, that perhaps an old-Northeast, Jane Jacobs-type sensibility was guiding this gentlewoman, a finely-tuned gauge of just the right amount of intimacy for a neighbor.
But when the truck that would pick up the nine boxes I’d packed to send from Richmond to Jerusalem parked in front of my house, Barbara rushed over.
“Are you leaving already?” she asked in a shaky voice.
“No,” I reassured her. It was just my stuff that was going. I’d still be around for another few days.
She had come with her own perfect gift. Knowing I could acquire nothing that took up space, she gave me a silver necklace with an amber stone (amber was also my grandmother’s favorite).
As the truck drove away, it hit me. I’d made a mistake. Ola’s blouse was the right gift, but there was also another item I should have given Barbara — a book titled Love Is Stronger Than Death. It recounts the story of a passionate love affair between an Episcopal priest (the book’s author, Cynthia Bourgeault) and a Trappist hermit monk, an erotic yet non-physical love that continues beyond the grave.
Standing on my porch as the truck drove away on that sunny Monday morning I knew that I needed to get that book to Barbara, and I made a mental note to order a fresh copy online. I remembered Barbara a few times in the weeks that followed, but I did nothing. My boxes arrived in Jerusalem on Erev Rosh Hashanah. Finding my copy of Love Is Stronger Than Death reminded me again that I needed to order the book for Barbara, but I delayed again, responding minimally to Barbara’s reports about a hurricane that rolled through our adjacent properties.
Yom Kippur was one week later.
* * *
On Erev Yom Kippur, I davvened a tender Kol Nidre with my new community, Kehilat Zion. Arriving late to the service, I’d made my way to a seat in the back of the sanctuary, nodding toward friends in the inner circle. Many of the same people had been there the previous year, and had witnessed my journey in the interim. Some motioned for me to join them. I shook my head, trying to make myself invisible. Come, my childhood friend Jean Marc’s hand insisted. He had saved me a seat. So I did, making my way slowly through a sea of smiles and a few hugs.
The next morning, I woke up with a yearning to go inward. I walked slowly through streets turned into quiet streams of people (there are no cars on the road on Yom Kippur). Secular and religious, Palestinian and Jew, all ages, some on foot, some on bicycles and skateboards. Time, like the warm air, felt slow.
I made it, I thought. Baruch Hashem I am here.
Here, at that moment, was the Rakevet Park, with my feet leading me east, to Bible Hill — a rare patch of undeveloped land dotted with lichen and wild flowers just west of the invisible line that runs between Jewish and Palestinian parts of the city. Facing east from my usual spot on the hill, I look over Ben Hinnom Valley at the Old City, the Mount of Olives, Silwa’an, and Abu Tor. In the distance, I see a segment of the slabs of concrete that make up the wall that goes by many names, including “Security Barrier” and “Apartheid Wall.” On the horizon, I see a mountain range in Jordan, including, I presume, Madaba — a town I visited when I lived in Amman in 1997 and from which they say Moses looked over into the Promised Land before he died.
My usual spot along the east-facing slope of the hill was too hot on the morning of Yom Kippur, so I wandered toward a patch of shade beside a bougainvillea hedge surrounding St. Andrew’s Scottish Church. I rolled out my yoga mat, and lay back staring up at the sky through the canopy of a pine tree. Except for a raven or two, I was alone. It was good to be outside, to breathe in the dry dusty air. Even the faint nag of my empty stomach was vaguely pleasurable.
I lay, I stretched, I sang.
Meditating on forgiveness on Yom Kippur morning on Bible Hill led my associative mind to Richmond — to my regret over failing to contribute more to the conversation about diversity and inclusivity at my school, to my abiding love for friends I left behind, to my favorite spot on the James River, to my warm, wood-floored house on Piney Branch Road. I felt safe inside its walls. Just beyond them, to the east and to the west, were two people who loved each other. One had died the other’s arms.
And now I was in Jerusalem, and I still hadn’t sent Barbara that book.
I had to do it. I would. That very night.
* * *
By her own description, Barbara was almost dead when she was rescued. Her muscle tissue had broken down, her kidneys had started to fail, her knees, elbows, and toes had become necrotic, and she was having hallucinations. It took a week before she was well enough to take my call, and several weeks before she was ready to read Love Is Stronger Than Death — which I asked a friend to deliver to Barbara in the hospital.
As Thanksgiving approached, she wrote: “Yesterday I set your beautiful book… by my bed. I tried to read it while in the hospital, but was not alert enough because of pain meds … I could not add any more emotion to my fragile network.”
Two weeks later, in a message with the subject line: “happy Hannukah,” she wrote again: “I started reading your book and I LOVE it! It is so difficult to set aside for sleep. I don’t want to stop reading and yet it is so powerful I just want to slow down and savor the story.… I have experienced life in such an introspective way during these 11 weeks. It has been so enriching. I am so glad to be alive.”
And I am so glad to be in Jerusalem.