Jill Schulman
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The year of flames

Readying to flee yet another fire, I packed my son's bar mitzvah suit in our bag of essentials; it had become a symbol of what matters, in the face of too much loss
Mountain fire on Signal Hill, Cape Town, January 27, 2019. (courtesy)

On the first night of Chanukah, almost 10 months ago, my father died. It was a long, and awful day. I still feel my insides pulling away from me when I think of those last hours – they are painful to recall and come in slices, most of which make me want to turn and fold into a corner, head down, tucked away.

On that night, after he’d passed, we – my siblings, stepmom and myself – left the hospital and went back to our homes. My sister had come from out of town and came home with me, but otherwise I was alone. My husband had just landed in Europe, one of my children lives in Israel, two of them were on international flights, and my youngest had gone to my sister-in-law for the night. It was a strange limbo: knowing my middle children were travelling through the night, unsuspecting of the knowledge awaiting them on the other side. We should have been together, but we were scattered, six of us in six different locations.

I wanted my husband, to lean into him, to anchor me and tell me what to do, how to mourn, what to say. I wanted to wail. And what I wanted, was for someone to care for my father’s body, to look after him and be with him, not for him to be travelling into that long night alone, as well.

What I did instead, was take the Yarzheit candle that I’d bought in advance for my husband’s father’s Yarzheit, which falls on the second night of Chanukah, and I lit it, for my own, not-Jewish father. I closed my eyes briefly, held on to memories to push away those last hours, and then I prepared the hannukiah, said the brachot, and lit the candles for the first night. It brought a measure of peace, even in solitude.

The next night, with one Yarzheit candle still burning, I lit a second one for my late father-in-law, and then lit Chanukah candles again. This time my youngest son was home, and the two of us stood watching those twin flames flickering alongside the Chanukah candles, reflected in the window pane against the darkness of night. I was thinking about these two fathers: one I’d never known but who raised the father to my children and left an imprint even in his absence, and my own father who had so suddenly just gone, and whose absence was almost physical.

It had been another long, and difficult day. There was no burial. My father’s body was still in the morgue at Groote Schuur Hospital; we’d had to decide whether to go ahead with cremation, or had he changed his mind that one time he mentioned he’d like to be buried under a yellowwood tree? I could not bear to think of him being abandoned, and grew distressed every time I thought of it, and so I didn’t think about it. I told my son in the morning, when he came home, that his famously indestructible Grandad had not, after all, survived that last, final assault. “He won’t be at my bar mitzvah,” my boy cried, as his face crumpled, and my heart broke a little bit more.

Our rabbi had visited. When a non-Jewish parent dies, the community doesn’t always know how to respond. The mourner has no status, is somewhat adrift. As a Jew, we are protected from having to make decisions when our Jewish parent dies: the when, and the what, and the how are all borne for us. On that day after my dad passed, and we gathered as a family to discuss what was needed, I looked around at us. Every one of us looked as if we’d stumbled from our beds and blindly reached for whatever garments were closest – not far from the truth. We were at a local coffee shop, and my brother was wearing slippers. I was wearing the shirt I’d slept in, and my hair – curly at the best of times – was bunched up in a tangled and matted snarl. My sister looked bleached from the inside, and my stepmom looked stunned, her light blue eyes almost colourless.

My brother wanted to know what we do, when a parent dies. He’s a Mason, and he needed the comfort of symbolic ritual of some kind. And so I told him: we don’t wash, or shave, or look in the mirror. We bury our dead on that first day, we shovel the soil in ourselves, and we go home. Brought low by grief we sit on the floor, in that first week, and we recite Kaddish. We make a small tear in our clothing, over our heart, as if our torn heart is on the outside of our bodies, and we never mend it. Our community gathers around us, feeds us, takes care of us, and we are free to grieve. We remember, and we cry. And so we’re doing okay here, my family and I, unshaven and unwashed, crying and then laughing, and then crying again.

When our rabbi came, we discussed what I could do, how I could incorporate something to bring structure, comfort and solace. Some context. What would I like? Prayers at our home, would I like to say kaddish, what would work for me? Our rabbi said how conflicting this must be, grieving but with no script, and we spoke about how entrenched Jewish mourning is, and how it works so well at meeting some deep psychic and spiritual need, for comfort, care, and support. Our shul sent out a notice and within minutes messages came flooding in, meals were organised, and we were enfolded. People wanted to know if we’d be having prayers, and if so, when.

On the third night of Chanukah, my son and I lit candles again. My girls were on their way back to Cape Town, my husband was on his way as well. My younger brother had managed to secure a flight home, and my aunt – my dad’s sister – was en route from the States. We had settled on a cremation, I had made the payments needed, but hadn’t yet brought myself to sign the papers. Committing his body to flames was hard for me, but it was what he wanted. My dad’s body was still in the morgue, and there would be no levaya, but we had been to the funeral parlor, chosen a coffin. And in one of those strange ironies my stepmom and I had walked past all the various options for cremation and headed directly for the simplest, plainest wooden casket. It had rope handles. “But that’s the Jewish one!” the consultant said, and we looked at each other, laughed, and said yes, that’s the one for us.

So my son and I lit third night candles, watched the flickering lights again, with the second Yarzheit candle still just burning, a low ember. As the flames died down I went upstairs, and stood, staring blankly out of our bedroom window, lost in time, snapshots of that last day flickering through my mind like the candles downstairs. To shake the images from my head I sat down and checked my phone, to see if there was a message from my husband, from my children.

And that was how I found out that our shul, just down the road, was on fire.

I stood up and went to the window again. This time, in the darkness, I could make out smoke, a glow of flames, and I could hear fire engines wailing. I texted our Rabbi: “Is our shul on fire?” and he responded immediately. Yes.

That night, our shul – Beit Midrash Morasha – burnt down. It made global news. The roof was consumed and the damage extensive. I was still in a state of detachment, and watched from our window, whilst community members responded en masse, ferrying books and siddurim to safety. As our Torah scrolls burned, our rabbi led kaddish, flames in the background, people weeping, faces white. My own desolation was what I saw in our community.

The next morning I told my son our shul was no longer, our Torah scrolls gone. His bar mitzvah was two months away. First no Grandad, now no shul. He was inconsolable. I was numb. We would make a plan, I thought, but just couldn’t think that far ahead.

And the next night, as reality started to settle in, this time with most of my family clustered around, we lit the fourth set of Chanukah candles.

In the following days and weeks, in some strange way, I saw our community battle with the same things I was battling with. How does one grieve when there are no rules? Our shul held decades of memories, it was the centre of our community. Every Torah scroll told a story, had been held and cherished by generations. Our garden was a place of green, shade, safety, respite and togetherness. Even the things we loved to complain about, we loved. As a community, we were reeling. We know how to mourn people, but this? We had no liturgy, no calendar of days to be counted, no rituals. And yet in this vacuum decisions had to be made, practicalities discussed, bureaucracy followed.

Through this, meals continued to roll in to our home. We still kept going to shul – in its temporary home. As a community we all cared for each other in the ways we knew how – by being kind, by making meals, by welcoming visitors to our shul over the holiday period, even through the shock and displacement.

Those were difficult weeks. As a family, we were all torn apart by my father’s death in some way. He battled many crises and always overcame them, and refused to discuss anything like wills or DNRs or living wills, growing angry, and distressed, saying he wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. I had known we would lose him, but not so suddenly, and in such an awful and heartbreaking way. I never felt as alone as I did in those weeks following, as if I had reverted to childhood and been momentarily lost in a supermarket. Abandoned.

My son’s bar mitzvah was two months later. A few weeks before, I put grief to one side and got mobilised. We needed to organize a venue, a Sefer Torah, a Shabbat, invitations, meals, visiting guests, a function… and to bring our son to this stage with joy and happiness, even under the circumstances. Which we did, and somehow managed to do in a way that included our dad and grandad as well. My eldest son inherited my dad’s kilt, and wore it to the function. Our bar mitzvah boy read from a brand new Sefer Torah which had been donated days before by a family in memory of their own father.

But before that, a week before the bar mitzvah, we had flames again. A mountain fire broke out on Signal Hill, was whipped up by the strong winds, and in a matter of hours roared from one peak to another, until the fire was blazing on the slopes right above our house. This time, instead of flames in the window, or flames down the hillside, they were right behind us, the air filled with smoke, ash drifting down, the trees crackling and popping. My husband was away again, and so my brother came to help me, and after bundling my boys and animals into the car and sending them away, my brother and I went through the house, packing the essentials. All I could think about was that we had already lost so much, I couldn’t bear yet another loss for my little boy, and to flames, and so I packed his bar mitzvah suit. In the event, the fire department worked through the night, the house was okay, and we spent the next few days cleaning ash and unpacking again. But it was another reminder, in a short space of time, about this balance that we hold between life and death, and the things we hold onto that make this passage from one world to the next most meaningful.

Right now we’re in Elul. Rosh Hashanah is a couple of weeks away. I can hear the shofar calling us to examine ourselves, examine our year, our deeds, our consciences. But I’m also aware that with Rosh Hashana comes “Unetana Tokef”: How many shall pass away and how many shall be born; who shall live and who shall die? Who shall perish… by fire. Who shall rest, and who shall wander.

I am dreading this.

As the year turns and moves on, we’ll arrive at Chanukah again. And then again and again. Except it’ll be different going forward. First night Chanukah will always be the night my father died, joined to second night which is when my husband remembers his father. And third night will always be the night of burning. Just beyond my fingertips I can feel some connection forming, some significance in all that, but for now that capsule of three nights somehow represents to me the time my non-Jewish and Jewish lives collided, and merged into one. Something, through all of that, came together for me. Somehow or other one life seeped into the other, a process which repeated itself in the opposite direction, and that overlap and merging solidified.

In this year of flames that’s passed, the year of loss and regrouping, the year of destruction and also of hope, the year of mourning and memory, I have spent days, weeks, months even, holding on to hope, and understanding what the flames left behind.

Mostly, what they left is love.

About the Author
Jill Schulman grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, before making aliyah with her husband and children in 2001. She lived in Israel for thirteen years while raising her family.
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