How could that headline be? How is it possible that right here in the aftermath of the season of our rejoicing—the Zman Simchaseinu—our hearts are broken and tears pour out of our souls over the passing of our dear Aunt Esther, as she was known to me and my siblings seemingly forever.
Since the passing of my father—Esther’s older brother—almost 24 years ago, I have not experienced such a huge chunk being ripped out of me than when I heard the news, after our first three-day yom tov-Shabbos marathon, that Aunt Esther’s soul had been lifted out of the confines of this corporeal world and returned to its lofty, heavenly source.
I really did not know enough about Esther Goldman the person. I knew that my dad idolized her and respected her beyond measure. For all those Friday nights in our childhood years when Shabbos would begin around 4:10 p.m. and the Shabbos seudah would be over and done with by 6:00 p.m., it was part of my dad’s routine to take some of us with him to visit with Esther and our Uncle Shimon, may he be well, around the block from our home where they resided on Crown Street.
I try to hold onto the past as desperately as the next person, but somehow it seems to be able to slip away with alacrity. Most of the time, that suspicious movement of time is sneaky, even gradual, like on a three-day yom tov or on a Sunday when none of your young children have school. But then there are times when it takes an unimaginable and unfathomable giant leap that leaves us stunned and in utter disbelief.
Esther Goldman was a rock, no, a mountain, make that a mountain range, a towering peak that so many, including us, were able to look to for strength and influence. So I am grappling today with her passing and the great void it has created in all of our lives. For her family, it is a scathing wound with a halachically delayed mourning process of sitting shivah that began on Saturday night after yom tov came to a conclusion.
To me, Aunt Esther always exuded confidence and strength. She was a remarkable person who cared deeply about all of us, all the time. With the shivah period now here, I visited the home I had heretofore identified only with positive and joyous occasions. I remember my Uncle Shimon’s 70th birthday party—19 years ago—and the words spoken at that time by my cousin Yossy, the rabbi of a leading Johannesburg, South Africa congregation for more than 30 years.
“I want to thank my father,” he said at the time, “for not giving us, his children, everything he didn’t have, but rather I thank him for giving us everything he had,” said Yossy, referring my Uncle Shimon’s steadfast commitment to Torah, chesed, and the performance of mitzvos. The poignancy of those words attached themselves to me. The words ring true and are so much a part of that which ties our generations to one another.
Their home was always so full of life, with guests being welcomed and sometimes staying for weeks, others being fed, and still others arriving at all hours of the day and night to borrow money from the gemach that Esther and Shimon inherited from my grandfather, Yochanan Gordon, z’l, that was managed by them and other family members for almost 80 years.
On Monday, the house was bright and as neat as ever. But something was amiss. The mirrors were covered in sheer fabric and I noticed that the wall opposite the dining room table where Goldman family photos were on display was covered up as well. That wall, which I always perused during happier and more casual times, featured smiling faces of months and years gone by. The photos on the wall are ageless and while this is a simple observation, it also always struck me as somewhat remarkable. Up on that wall, the smiles are forever and there isn’t any pain.
All the hurt notwithstanding, this life of ours goes on. It is difficult, but we plow on, carrying all the emotional scars along with us. The beauty of our beings is that as each day passes, we do not miss our parent or loved one less, but something happens. The change or the difficulty finds its place; maybe it parks itself deeper into our complex psyches, or perhaps we just internalize the experience deeper into our systems.
The men—Yossy and Shmuley—say Kaddish, words of praise for G-d, and words that talk of our faith in His exaltedness and greatness, even though at this juncture He has brought us low and filled us with pain. Our cousin, Kraindy, sits alone with the women visitors in the next room. Her sister, our dear cousin Chanchy, passed away almost three years ago after a courageous battle with a difficult illness.
That day, the day we were dealt that blow, will always be at the top of my personal collection of memories. That was the day that my son and daughter-in-law, Dovi and Mari, were married in Chicago. It was early in the morning and I was on my way to daven in a hotel conference room that was set aside for the purpose, when I received a text about the levayah. I remember staggering in the hallway and leaning against one of the walls for support. It was a direct body blow. How do we deal with the incongruity of all this? But that is who we are. In the morning we mourn a loss and in the evening dance at our children’s wedding.
In a booklet distributed at the shivah house, there were a few very expressive introductory paragraphs that placed things in perspective. The few words explain that after someone leaves this world she can no longer achieve merit through her own actions. That person as we knew her, or that soul in its new existence, is still very much tied and connected to the earthly life, but in a new and heretofore unprecedented fashion.
As the booklet explains—“the soul is entirely reliant on the deeds of the living to enrich its portion in the hereafter.” That is where the idea originates for adopting good deeds or projects that improve the human condition in someone’s memory.
On that count, my Aunt Esther is no doubt soaring in that real and eventual world. She leaves behind accomplished children, family, and friends who love her dearly. The good and the chesed that emanated from her home defy description. It was endless and boundless and she felt, along with her husband, that whatever they could do for others was never enough.
Now a new reality is setting in; that is, everyday life without Aunt Esther. It will be difficult to fathom and even more difficult to adjust to. She leaves behind a beautiful and extraordinary family. She will always be on our minds and will be forever in our hearts. v
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