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Steve Cohn

Five things I learned while mourning

My mother passed away. I observed shiva and shloshim as best as I could. The shloshim was intense, coinciding with the 3 weeks, as well as the 17 Tammuz and ending on the morning of Tisha B’Av with the reading of the Kinot. I had never been in shul for any of those days.  It was also the first time I had attended Shacharit, Mincha or Maariv. I attended in order to say Kaddish in a minyan, which I was also doing for the first time, since one only says kaddish for a parent. Since these rituals were new to me I saw them in a fresh light, with no past experience to compare them to. I had several realizations, I mention a few of these below.

Jewish unity:

I had never truly felt part of a community before, let alone a Jewish community. The very first time I lived in a Jewish community was in 2017. This community is overwhelmingly Israeli American, and this was one reason we chose it. However, this turned out to be a reason we felt isolated. It seemed at least to us, and some others we have met, that Israeli Americans, at least in our community, tend to mostly associate only with other Israelis. Of course there are exceptions to everything, but in general we found that the welcome lasted only until a person became aware that we were born and raised in the US. It was very disillusioning, and even extended to an all Hebrew whatsapp group, and very interesting adult education classes offered which are conducted solely in Hebrew. The mourning period taught me though that these differences, so important in the community we were living in, are actually superficial, on a more meaningful level there is Jewish unity. Jewish unity is found at the level of “Jewish” rather than at one’s citizenship status. The Shachrit, Mincha and Maariv minyans in which one recites kaddish are collections of Jews of all kinds, and we of course face east, all of us, what we face today is the location of the state of Israel, but when my grandfather faced it it was the British Mandate, and when his grandfather faced the same place it was the Ottoman empire. Our common connection is far deeper than what divides us today. Another but more grim and undeniable proof occurred to me when we purchased a cemetery plot: all Jews are there in the cemetery together, regardless of degree of observance, nationality, or division of any kind. Jewish unity is the ultimate fact.

Lasting sources of belongingness:

Along with my lack of experience of inclusion in a Jewish community, was a lack of feeling of belongingness in general. This is both professional and familial. The IT field in which I work has steadily become proportionally more consultant/contract oriented and less and less “permanent” each year, and what does “permanent” mean when its “at will” employment? Many do not genuinely identify or feel belonging at their workplaces. As for family, my father is an immigrant, while my mother’s family has been in the US over 120 years, while Jewish on both sides, a bicultural background can lead to feeling as though one is half of two things but not 100% of either. I often feel more foreign when among Americans, and more American when among Israelis.  Shiva though brought a steady flow of visitors for each of the 7 days, the support shown by family and friends was mind boggling. There were even visitors who knew my mother as much as 60 years ago. After the end of the shloshim period, it occurred to me that Jewish community, Jewish prayer and study groups, are the only real and lasting sources of belongingness available. At will and contract jobs are not, all of these are temporary. However Shachrit, Mincha, Maariv, and other Jewish practices have been in existence for thousands of years and will continue long after every one of us is a distant memory. Judaism and Jewish practice are ultimately the only source of belonging that is lasting.

Labels are often inapplicable:

My mother was in the ICU for an agonizing 4 weeks before she passed away. During this time I visited the hospital as much as I possibly could. On each visit I would invariably meet a set of people. There were doctors of various kinds, visitors, clergy, and others. We had a series of “family meetings” to discuss my mother’s condition. One of these was run by a doctor who was of Syrian origin. I had worked at the UN for 5 years, where I had frequent interaction with coworkers currently located across the world, and I understood that we are all human beings not defined by nationality, but, my mother’s life was in this person’s hands, my sister was wearing a very noticeable Jewish star and our last name was obviously Jewish. However he was among the most caring and professional people I met during this experience, he showed true warmth and empathy. In contrast, another “family meeting” was run by a doctor with a different speciality, this doctor was ethnically Jewish but rabidly anti-religious, (and we were not visibly Jewish, although obvious in the cues I mentioned earlier) he raised points such as his admiration for the policy in place in Italy of not providing treatment to anyone over 80, he was vehement about his opposition to rabbis (how this topic came up is beyond me) and similar points. I’m sure he is an excellent doctor, but he was speaking outside his field of expertise, and honestly being very offensive. Yet another experience was the behavior of a non Orthodox rabbi my mother had known for decades, who now abandoned my parents in this most critical situation, a protestant minister working for the hospital quickly stepped in to take his place and honestly I was deeply impressed with her degree of compassion, in fact this was my very first interaction with a protestant missionary. If not for Chabad’s active engagement throughout (sending my father care packages, checking in on him, providing medical advice (from doctors who volunteer with them through chabadoncall.com))

Stereotypes are worthless, non Jewish clergy, Jewish clergy, Syrians, Jews, all these labels include both compassionate and less compassionate people, reality requires we transcend pre-judging behavior based on nationality.

Perspectives and searching for meaning:

As my rabbi once pointed out, when someone passes away many people ask why the person died, but no one thinks to ask why they lived. We can’t change the past, but we can choose what we focus on, and we can find meaning in it. Another rabbi, during a shiva visit, pointed out that my mom suffered for four weeks, but she lived 84 years, we lose sight of her 84 years if we focus only on the last four weeks.

Continuity:

When I see my children, my mom’s grandchildren, running, playing, laughing, being kids, I sometimes think to myself there is a small peice of my mother in each of them and its fresh and new and just starting out. Its the opposite of the grim place i was at during her decline. By having children, by raising children to hopefully be good Jews, by being a good father I am giving continuity to my mother. Yes my children and their grandmother are separate individuals, but a small part of her is in each of them, and through them her memory can live on for generations into the future. Eveb in very dark moments during this experience it was very uplifting to hear my 9 year old son tell me he wants to one day name one of his own children after my mom. Children don’t bring back those we lost, but it’s the most a person can do. Give those who came before us some form of continuity

Its been a sometimes extraordinarily difficult learning experience, but a learning experience. Jewish unity is for real, it exists, and our divisions are petty and fictional. Belongingness is there waiting for those who feel it lacking in their surroundings including in the modern workplace. And lastly, people are people, all humanity contains both good and bad, one can find the despicable and the admirable in all groups. Lastly, while we should never forget the past, don’t get stuck in nostalgia. Instead provide some form of continuity to those who came before us (and to ourselves) through the next generation, through our children, through Jewish continuity.

About the Author
Steve Cohn, President and Founder of Belltown Analytics, was born in New York City. He worked with mostly the Islamic world while at the United Nations for 5 years where he gained experience in conflict resolution, an in depth exposure to global issues, and an intensification of his life long interest in issues involving Israel and Jewish continuity in the diaspora. His background consists of over 3 decades of financial and technical education and experience which he now applies to help small businesses stay in business after the social, political and economic upheavals of 2020.
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