Updated: Mar 20
I want to share a bit more personally about where my work as a rabbi in this congregation has taken me over the last few weeks. It’s not often that your rabbis have a chance to pull back the curtain and reveal the experiences that we have in doing some of the more hidden, spiritual work here at Hevreh.
Over the last 10 days, I’ve had the honor and privilege of walking with two families as they faced the death of their mothers. Both, as it happens, were women who were 97 and 99 years old, respectively. The time between concluding shiva with the first family, and learning of the death of the second person was just two days, and I have been sitting with the compounded feelings of awe and grief and love that come with deaths like these.
Specifically, I am aware of the feeling of touching the end of a generational chain: of having witnessed the unique kind of loss that comes with the death of someone so aged.
The Psalmist taught “teach us to number our days that we might attain a heart of wisdom.” How wise a heart must someone who lived for so many days have then? I want to share a little bit about each of these women with their families’ permission, of course, because I have a deep sense that stories like theirs will become less and less available to us.
First I think of Blanche Caron, Jim's mom, who died just one week shy of her one hundredth birthday. As I joked with Jim and his family at Shiva, I think we can give it to her and say that she did in fact, live to 100. Joking aside, I couldn't help but notice, as I looked over her biographical information that she was born in 1923. The same year as my own grandmother Ruth was born, which on a personal level sparked a particular kind of noticing – inviting me to imagine the long life that Blanche lead, imagining what she would have been like had I met her myself as a teenager when she was still in her 70s.
What stood out to me in journeying together with the Caron family from planning to the funeral itself to Shiva is that this was a real marking of time in the story of this family. Blanche was the last of her generation, and with her death a page of history is turned. As a rabbi, it is one of the great honors and delights of my work to hear and collect the stories, each one feeling like a gem that I put into my own pocket. And so to hear the story of a woman whose wisdom let her to parent a little differently than she had been parented, whose resourcefulness led her to create worlds for her children that may have been unavailable to her is really quite remarkable. The stories of Blanche’s life are remarkable as we imagine the changes she saw over her long life: how her innate sense of right and wrong spurred her to action. The stories that her family told are stories that I now weave into my own: remembering them as part of the story of the Jewish people, righteous and brave in her own generation.
Just two days after leaving the Shiva home with Jim and his family. I learned of the death of my friend and our late member Edith Velmans. Edith died here in Great Barrington last Friday at the age of 97.
I first got to know Edith about six years ago when her husband Loet died. Edith’s life story is captured in her memoir, which is called “Edith’s Story” in which she recounts the experience of being a teenager in Holland in the 1930s and 40s, when her life changed forever. She lost her family, except for one brother, in the concentration camps, and eventually made her life in the United States, where she had a long and successful career as a psychologist.
Following Loet’s funeral back in 2016, Edith and I struck up a friendship. Over the years that followed up until Covid, Edith would invite me over periodically once or twice a year and I would know to clear my schedule for the day. Going over to Edith’s house meant that her aide would have prepared us tea and cookies on her porcelain tea service and then we would sit and talk about just about anything. She always wanted to know about my children, she always was proud to show me what her grandchildren were doing all over the world. She rarely talked about the war, but in those early years of our friendship, she would remark on the scary similarities she saw emerging here in the United States with what she saw growing up. One year, just before the confirmation class trip to Amsterdam, I asked Edith if she had any advice or things that she hoped we would do or see with the teenagers once we were there. She generously offered to make a connection for us to have someone she knew come and speak with us at the Anne Frank house. Before leaving on the trip I asked her if there was anything I can bring her back from Holland. She asked for a particular kind of cheese and so dutifully after an amazing trip to Amsterdam, I called her up and said "thank you so much for that amazing connection. The speaker was wonderful and don’t worry, I brought the cheese you asked for." A few days later I went over to her house for one of our tea and cookies dates and she was very excited to open and serve the cheese with me there. She asked me how the trip was, and so I offered to show her pictures. I wish I could remember verbatim what she said, but in that moment with my iPhone in her hand as she scrolled through pictures looking at young Jewish people walking the streets of the place where she had been born, she looked at me and said, “can you believe this I'm sitting here eating cheese with the Rabbi looking at pictures of Holland on this little box?”
These stories feel so precious now more than ever as people like Blanche and Edith leave us as the last connections to a time and place in our world, that now no longer exists. As I reflect on their deaths, and the experiences of being with their families, in those first days afterwards, it feels like touching history.
In just a few weeks, we will gather around Seder tables and tell the story of our people’s journey from slavery to freedom. Storytelling is essential to the experience of Passover itself – literally the Haggadah, from which we read means the telling. The Maggid, that middle section of the Passover Seder, in which we declare “my father was a wandering Aramean” and we position ourselves to imagine what it would be like as if we ourselves went forth from Egypt is literally all about storytelling. Reflecting on the lives of Edith and Blanche and the families that mourn them I feel acutely aware of the power and importance of storytelling.
As I thought about Blanche and Edith and their stories over these last two weeks, I was reminded of an article which appeared in the NYTimes a few years ago. It was called “The Family Stories that Bind Us”, and it spoke to the significance of family narratives. The basic idea being that storytelling is crucial to resilient families--- and that there are different types of family narratives. For some, the predominant mode is an “ascendant narrative”--- a story we hear about how “Your grandfather arrived in this country with nothing but a nickel and an address for a cousin in the city, and here we are now having built up a life and a livelihood for ourselves”. For other families, the family narrative is a descending one—“We had everything, a nice house and good jobs, and wonderful friends, but then the stock market crashed and we lost everything, and life became very hard.”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, researchers found that the most resilient families are the ones who land somewhere in the middle. The oscillating family narrative is one that ultimately creates the ties that bind. Stories that reflect the very real ups and downs of human existence: the moments of great love and success and contentment, and the moments of grief and loss and alienation. The evidence found by these social psychologists may come as no surprise: “if you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.”
How amazing is it then to find this very same impulse in the story we tell on Passover. Each year, we tell of our ascent from slavery. We celebrate the onset of Springtime. But we also temper our joy with our recollection of the plagues- and with the commandment to see ourselves as though we personally went forth from Egypt. We heighten the drama of our storytelling by trying to internalize that memory with symbols of slavery. We ingest charoset, and with it- we remember the work of the slaves, making bricks. We swallow salt water, and with it- the tears of our ancestors, embittered by the experience of oppression. The oscillating family narrative of the Jewish people brings us back to that Seder table year after year, as we tell and retell the story of our ascent, and our descent- and ultimately- of the collective strength of Jewish peoplehood.
And so I feel uniquely fortunate to have been taught this lesson again in real time by hearing the stories, told by Blanche’s children and grandchildren, and by Edith's children and grandchildren. It is a generation whose stories will soon enough only be told by those who remember and loved them.
Our Passover Haggadah reminds us: “B’chol dor v’dor, chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mi’mitzrayim. In each and every generation, each of us are obligated to see ourselves as though we went forth from Egypt. This year, as I anticipate gathering around a Passover seder table, I am hearing that directive in a new way: in each and every generation, each of us are obligated to carry forth the stories that shaped our lives: to remember the stories of our own Blanches and Edith’s.
And so, a final story, for all of us:
“The Gates of the Forest” by Elie Wiesel ”When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem–Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished, and the misfortune averted.”
“Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Magid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: ‘Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.’ And again the miracle would be accomplished.”
“Still later, Rabbi Moshe–Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: ‘I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place, and this must be sufficient.’ It was sufficient, and the miracle was accomplished.”
“Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: "I am unable to light the fire, and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.’ And it was sufficient.”
“God made man because [God] loves stories.”
May each of us continue to tell the stories that bring meaning and blessing to our lives, and may the memories of Blanche Caron and Edith Velmans abide as eternal blessings.