By Larry Gordon
I might be resigned to it, and then again I might not be. I really don’t know. In my family we grapple with and remember Chanukah as bittersweet—a difficult as well as joyful celebration. It was 23 years ago next week, on the sixth day of Chanukah, that we experienced the life-changing event of having our Chanukah celebration turn into sudden preparations for a levayah, a trip to Israel, and the new experience of sitting shivah.
It struck us as such diametric opposites—Chanukah and shivah. Can two things be so different and contradictory to one another? I still shake my head in disbelief. But now it is not just at the passing of my father but also at the idea that all these years have passed and I’m still struck with this aura of incredulity.
I’m sure I have shared these sentiments in the past with you, the readers, but at least once a year I exercise some publisher’s privilege and indulge myself to recall these life-altering events here on paper, trying to figure out what, if anything, has changed after all these years.
Yes, though I was a new mourner and traversing new and unexplored emotional territory that Chanukah in 1989, I was also dealing with the gift that my dad left us. It was not something that I realized only years later; I realized it right then and there and dealt with extraordinary mixed feelings that to this day I fail to understand how I was able to internalize, feel, and deal with. And that was the fact that it was his choice to be buried in Eretz Yisrael, which, I believe, he perhaps only semi-intentionally wanted to grant us, his children, as a parting gift of sorts.
As you might be able to imagine, the details of every second of that day remain vivid and even intense as I review the events as they unfolded.
My father passed away early on a Thursday morning. The details of what would follow in the next few hours evolved in a combination of shock accompanied by an unusual and, even to this day, inexplicable calmness.
I remember sitting at my parents’ dining-room table with the doctor who lived on their block in Brooklyn, helping with information so that he could complete the death certificate. I watched his face as he perfunctorily filled in the blank lines. I didn’t know how to react, but he looked calm and sedate so I just followed along.
Then, as the shock of the overnight and early morning events began to set in, I came to grips with the reality that it was Thursday and that we had to get to Israel to realize and implement my father’s long-ago plan of kevurah in Eretz Yisrael. What was going to happen and how this was going to work, I did not know. I was just going to let it unfold and let the process that surrounds these events take care of itself.
Like I said, it was the sixth day of an abbreviated Chanukah (for us anyway, in a sense) as we left the menorahs, the oil, the wicks, the latkes, and the dreidels all behind us in order to take care of the business at hand. Little did I know, though I may have suspected it, that Chanukah was not going to be the same for a long time to come.
For years after that, I would light my Chanukah menorah each year with hesitation and trepidation. Chanukah was no longer normal; it was no longer just Chanukah. And that was because I knew that after the fourth wick or candle, I would be wheeling out a suitcase or two, heading for the airport to spend those last few days of the chag in Israel.
But, I have to say now, with 23 years of perspective, that from the very beginning the entire scenario had me on an emotional roller coaster—both down in the dumps, pulling myself away from my family, as well as flying high as a kite on those Friday nights singing and dancing at the Kotel.
These ups and downs—the sadness tinged with giddiness—began on that very first Chanukah of 1989. As those of you who know the story are aware, we arrived in Israel on a warm late-December/end-of-Kislev morning. It was a Friday, erev Shabbos Chanukah, and I did not realize it at the time, but everyone was in a rush. We landed at 10:30 a.m.; the levayah did not take place until noon. By 3:30 p.m. people were already arranging the lighting of their menorahs outside their homes, as is the custom in Israel.
In the whirlwind dizziness of the day, I overheard that it was impossible to find a hotel room in Jerusalem for my brother and myself for over Shabbos. I guess someone made some calls, pulled some strings, or pulled out a credit card, and we were in a tiny room somewhere in the center of the city.
We said Kaddish that night for the first time at Kabbalas Shabbos at the Great Synagogue. The chazzan performed fabulously, as did the choir. We felt alone and exhausted in a jam-packed room. I remember thinking that night that someday in the future I would have the opportunity to write about this experience with more reflection and, who knows, perhaps even some maturity and even some wisdom, if it was so deemed.
So now I can say this: I’m in less pain but still feel that inexplicable void, the emptiness that invades and pervades, gets covered over with time, but never really leaves. And even back then, when I was feeling so terribly isolated and alone, I knew that I wasn’t. I thought about the twin brothers who were in fifth grade with me when their father passed away. And I thought about the one-year-old child that was buried just a few feet away from my father in Bet Shemesh and the fact that he had never even had a chance at life, and about the people who mourn for him.
Then there was that first Shabbos Chanukah in Jerusalem. When we left our hotel to head for the Kotel on that first full day as those saying Kaddish, I was overcome by the beautiful silence and serenity of the early morning. Back in New York, it was cold and snowy when we left. Here in Jerusalem it was warm and sunny.
And this is where those mixed feelings began to be punctuated. At that point I had not been in Israel for over a decade. What can I say? It was quite sad as well as sensational. I’ve always felt that this was a manifestation of my father’s flair for the creative and dramatic, which always fueled his thought process. He loved us so much and we him—so much so that he probably could not just provide us with some standard kind of levayah. He probably additionally understood that if he did not do it this way, then we, his children, would, through all the busyness in our individual lives, just neglect the fact, the reality, and the magic of Eretz Yisrael.
That first Shabbos of davening and saying Kaddish at the Kotel was really something else. It was breathtaking, emotional, and overwhelming. And it was distracting and busy. After davening, a group of chassidim invited us into one of the outdoor crevices near the Kotel to make Kiddush. We explained that we were uncomfortable and thought that perhaps it was not right to go. But they would not relent and insisted that there is no aveilus—no mourning—on Shabbos, and that we should make Kiddush and partake in the Shabbos treats—the cold kugel and the herring—with them. We did.
So now I’m off to Israel for year #23. I mourn, I wonder, and I celebrate. If I said that I was at a loss for words, you would not think that I am serious. But I just don’t know. After all these years I am trying to wrap my mind and grasp all this, but I feel that I continuously am coming up short.
So I go just to be there and to relive these life-changing events. It seems like the longer the experience, the less I understand. The experience of that first day, the freshness of that first Shabbos, is still as clear to me as when it first occurred. So I don’t know if I go back every time to relive the experience or just to remember. Maybe they are both the same thing.
I know this—that it was my father’s expressed wish that at least one of his children be present at his kever on his yahrzeit. I’ve developed this quirky habit of when I exit my car and approach his kever, I always find myself saying the same thing, “Dad, I’m here, I’m here, Dad.” I know that he knows and that I don’t have to say that. But it comforts me. v
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