Elul is the month of personal reflection. It is when we prepare ourselves and our souls for the High Holidays. We ask forgiveness of those we may have harmed, and we visit the cemetery to pay respects and remind us of those who came before us and paved the way for our own spiritual connection.
I swiped these words from the August 2018 bulletin of Temple Beth David in Cheshire, Connecticut. These words, which were in the bulletin’s Ritual Committee section, were written by my late aunt, Roslyn Croog, who died on Saturday night, August 18. These words, which my father shared in a graveside eulogy, whispered in my ear as I looked around the cemetery after the funeral service.
And so, as instructed, I paid respects to my uncle Jerry, who lay at rest to the right of the new cemetery plot. Jerry, an inspiration to me, served as a planning and policy specialist for Connecticut’s Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. As is tradition, I placed a stone on his tombstone, symbolic of his lasting presence in my life.
In a row close by, I paid my grandparents a visit. They, too, paved a path upon which to follow. Both were hands-on involved in their community; my Bubby served as sisterhood president of the Young Israel of New Haven, and my Zaidie at various times served as both shul president and gabbai. Upon their tombstones I placed another stone, and then another, recognizing how—like my uncle Jerry—they, too, have made a lasting impression on my present and future.
On the day of the funeral, I paid my respects to Aunt Roz not in the cemetery but in an apple orchard. Shiva was being held that first day at her ranch house in Cheshire, a town in New Haven County, and the house bordered the orchard. Since I was hanging out there for a few hours, I was fairly certain that my aunt would have been upset at me if I didn’t take the opportunity to go apple picking, especially since apples are an integral part of the approaching new year.
So I did. Roz and I had a little conversation—though it was pretty one-sided—about what I loved and admired about her. I also told her how it was pretty dumb that she passed away without warning, not giving me enough time to tell her these things in person. And that’s when it occurred to me:
Why didn’t I tell her these things in person?
There’s something about being outside among nature that makes it easier to reflect on the important things in life. Being in the apple orchard, it wasn’t lost on me that Roz played an integral role in the restoration of New Haven’s Orchard Street Shul, home of Congregation Beth Israel, which opened its doors in that location in the 1920s.
This endeavor was one example of how much of a role tradition and personal history played in Roz’s outlook on life. Another example is when in July 2013, at age 71, she decided to have the bat mitzvah celebration that she never had. In her speech, she expressed feelings of acceptance and belonging as a vital member of her community and a proud member of the Jewish people. She shared her recognition that her “historical presence is included among generations—past, present, and future—and makes a difference in the progression of our Universe.”
Roz was one of those rare people who always kept in mind that “the now” exists because there once was a “then.” She was cognizant of family milestones, sending wishes of mazel on birthdays, anniversaries, and major life events. On her final visit to Teaneck, three weeks before she died, Roz brought my daughter a birthday present. It wasn’t new, but rather a hand-me-down from her granddaughter. And it made one 7-year-old girl ecstatic.
I came across a proverb that speaks to me on multiple levels, certainly during this time of year and in light of the loss of my aunt. The proverb is translated from Hebrew to English in a few different ways, but the most common version is:
“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” (Proverbs 25:11)
Maimonides, in “The Guide for the Perplexed,” explains that the settings of silver refer to a silver filigree overlay. Superficially, from afar, the apple looks valuable like silver. When looked at from beneath the overlay, the apple is revealed to be golden, which is even more precious. So, too, with words. A word “seasonably spoken” or a “phrase well turned”—two other translations of the Hebrew text—has a double meaning, both the literal (silver) and the figurative (gold).
I understand the proverb as relating to other art forms, as well. It’s interesting to me that Roz, an avid photographer, used photographs as her medium of choice. Like words, photos can relay a message with a double meaning—the message’s surface value, and the deeper interpretation within. At the same time, the deeper meaning of the image only exists because there is an image at all. The extent of the golden apple’s value only exists in relation to it being more valuable than its silver overlay.
Aunt Roz had a way with relaying messages, whether that was through her photography or via an email with well wishes. I wonder, though, if people are sometimes hesitant to relay their own messages for fear of their words not achieving the level of being “fitly spoken.” I wonder if people might be so concerned about finding the “right words” that they may not try to relay their messages at all.
I tend to worry about not finding those “right words.” As of late, though, I’ve decided that sometimes it’s more important to speak imperfect words presently than to spend too much time trying to figure out how to turn a phrase just so. I think that people should speak to others in the now. If you appreciate someone for their existence in your life, tell them now, not when you’re stealing their apples and their words. People should know that they matter. And people don’t express that enough.
Aunt Roz died on a Saturday night during those ambiguous moments that we call “nightfall”—when Shabbos is over for one Talmudic scholar and not yet for another. I’d like to think that Roz did so deliberately, planting her feet into that in-between where the end of one week evolves into the next, a time when multiple interpretations are valid and important, as has been the case throughout Jewish history.
I’d like to view Aunt Roz’s moment of passing as a photograph—her word fitly spoken, her apple of gold. It is her final and everlasting statement to the world that we should cherish life not just in the week that passed or the possibilities of the coming week, but in “the now.” And that, simultaneously, we should recognize and remember that “the now” exists because of “those who came before us and paved the way for our own spiritual connection.” We should live presently and we should frame our moments in the context of our own heritage.
In this new year, may we all be blessed to live like my Aunt Roz lived. May we appreciate life in the day-to-day, and may we, simultaneously, recognize that we are each an important and valid part of a larger entity that spans across past, present, and future.