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Life after the fall

Blinded by tears, my brother's feet slipped and his body fell forward toward the open grave...
Illustrative photo of a Jewish cemetery (Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland)
Illustrative photo of a Jewish cemetery (Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland)

As we walked to synagogue this morning, a bone-chilling wind penetrated my winter coat and hit a raw nerve, transporting me to another freezing day in December many years ago.

The day of my father’s funeral was arctic, so much so the cemetery staff needed extra time to dig his grave due to the frozen tundra. It was as if the earth shared our reluctance to accept that it was his time to go.

As the plain, pine box containing Yossi Savenor z”l was lowered into the ground, a thick, wet snow covered the earth, mirroring our weighty tears.

A chilling numbness enveloped my body and soul as I watched the casket’s descent. Placing the coffin in the ground, frozen or otherwise, seemed incongruous, almost like putting a circle into a square or burying the center of our family into a black hole.

With a resounding thud, the casket hit rock bottom. In some way, so did we.

In shock, pain and disbelief, my brother Marc leaned over. I imagine he wanted to verify that this nightmare was really happening. Or perhaps he needed to check that our father, or at least his physical remains, was not hurt by his trip six feet under.

Marc and our dad shared a special bond. They worked together everyday and were as much best friends as father and son.

Blinded by tears and a flurry of snowflakes, Marc’s feet slipped, and he lost his balance. Almost in slow motion, his body fell forward toward the open grave, as if there was a centrifugal force pulling him in.

Out of nowhere, Arnie reached out his hand and pulled him back.

We would have laughed till we cried, but in this surreal moment we cried until we laughed.

Marc was not the only one who lost his balance at this very moment. Each member of our nuclear family lost our bearings as we buried our father and husband that day.

Simply put, the trajectory of our lives was derailed. Along with the casket, we buried hopes, dreams and a bundle of actual plans. Dreams of both of our parents walking us down the aisle, our parent’s retirement plans, and images of future family portraits were now shredded by a new reality.

Truthfully until that day, I had always thought that I would name my kids after my grandparents. The notion of naming a child after one of my parents had never crossed my mind, not even once. And just like that, it all changed.

Our father had taught Arnie, Marc and me about the Jewish responsibility of burying the dead. In Hebrew, it is called “leviat ha’mayt”, which means “escorting the dead” to their final resting place. Our tradition holds that this is the last act of kindness we can show for another human being.

My father was adamant that this act of kindness should be performed with one’s own hands, not the cemetery’s hired hands, or, heaven forbid, a bulldozer.

With every shovelful of earth, it became more and more evident that this nightmare was real. There would be no miraculous recovery. We would never hear Yossi’s voice or infectious laugh ever again.

With both determination and reluctance, we filled our father’s grave. We wanted to honor his wishes, yet we did not want to complete the task. To finish filling his grave meant saying goodbye.

And when there was no dirt left, we began traveling down an unpaved path towards an unimagined and unimaginable future.

So much of this chapter in our lives is a blur. For years I feared that we would never escape the painful gravitational pull of this place in time, forever ensconced in my mind as a cold, winter day.

My brother Arnie’s outstretched hand not only saved Marc from falling into a deep abyss. His gesture symbolized how we would get through this – by reaching out and pulling each other forward.

Over the last 22 years, the outstretched hands of family and friends have helped move us forward. Moments that stand out include:

  • joining hands for the hora dancing at Arnie and Caron’s wedding;
  • taking Julie’s hand when I asked her to marry me;
  • holding my mother’s hand as Julie and I named our first son, Joseph, after my father;
  • watching Marc extend his hands to embrace his beautiful twin girls at their baby naming;
  • shaking hands with Paul, my mother’s boyfriend, for the first time and knowing immediately that he’s a keeper;
  • and resting our hands on Joseph and Benjy’s heads to bless them every Friday night.

On that cold day over 20 years ago I feared that we would always be falling into a cold place, ensnared by its gravitational pull. Thankfully, many hands have supported and escorted us to an unforeseen reality with unanticipated joy.

Thankfully, there has been life after the fall.

As the wintry chill hit me this morning, I instinctively reached for Joseph and Benjy’s hands. Walking hand in hand with my sons brought me back to exactly where I wanted to be.

About the Author
Rabbi Charlie Savenor works at New York's Park Avenue Synagogue as the Director of Congregational Education. A graduate of Brandeis, JTS and Columbia University's Teachers College, he blogs on parenting, education and leadership. He serves as a volunteer fundraiser for Lone Soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces.
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