When I say “Let’s get coffee,”
What I mean is “Let’s have a real conversation.”
When I say “How are you?” I’m asking for the truth
Even if you don’t think I want to hear it.
When I say “What have you been up to lately?”
I want you to tell me about the story you’re writing with your life.
I want the good, the bad, and the existential.
I want to know where you come from,
And how that affects where you’re going.
I want to know what moves you.
I want to know what’s holding you back.
“Let’s go for a walk” means “I care about you,”
And that means *all* parts of you.
“Can we catch up sometime?” means I’ve been thinking about your story
And I want to receive the next chapter.
Your trust is a gift and I’m so grateful for it.
Please tell me more.
I want to hear you. I want to be with you.
My heart is open.
Let me pull you in.
When I say “Let’s get coffee,”
History of Loneliness
In a beginning, there was nothing. Then, God said.
There were light and trees and oceans and horizons,
and there was Adam.
God said everything into existence,
Those that missed something nonexistent no longer suffered.
Darkness was lonely, and there was fire.
The trees were despondent, there was shade.
Adam was aching. God said. And there was Eve.
God said “This is very good.” And it was.
But soon, Adam and Eve realized they missed the longing they’d felt without each other.
They built a fire, darkness disappeared,
and when the fire sputtered out, darkness became even louder,
thicker than before the first flame.
When Eve ate the fruit, and offered it to Adam,
they were sent out of Eden.
And the first people on the planet felt another kind of longing,
Ever since then, people have been obsessed with the notion of home,
and the notion of emptiness,
not to mention God.
You see, in a beginning,
God didn’t know that people could long for nothing,
could court nothing, could fall in love with absence.
So God filled God’s world with endless somethings
that begat more somethings,
and each something found a longing inside
that no other something could fill.
They say God’s light was a vessel that splintered
into millions of pieces.
We are glittering fragments, trying to heal the world
by finding light in each other.
We are drawn to glowing, because we are drawn to God.
They also say that God didn’t create the world,
but is creating the world,
so we are constantly repairing and shattering,
and repairing again.
It wasn’t the beginning,
it was a beginning,
and it was an ending.
It was the end of nothing.
– Heather Paul, 2007
Written in 2007, this piece returns to me every year with graduation. Re-reading it has become another part of the ritual. Enjoy!
I didn’t realize graduation was coming until I discovered I would miss the last Hillel Shabbat celebration of the school year. Shabbat is the Hebrew word for Sabbath, the day of rest that starts at sundown every Friday, and ends Saturday night. I count the passing weeks and years with the coming and going of this holiday. The best part is that even when it ends, I look forward to it, since it arrives every week. These rituals are part of my mental calendar, like graduation, the first day of school, the steady cycles of winter, spring, and summer break. The last Shabbat of the school year is one of my favorite celebrations. We look back at the week, and the year behind us, we bid farewell to our graduates, and we welcome the new staff of Hillel interns. We do not meet again until fall. My very last “Final Shabbat” will be next year, after I finish my masters program. Still, I was upset when I found out the conference I’m attending in Virginia coincides with this year’s celebration.
I’m trying to cobble together a story based on the graduations and goodbyes I’ve known, the see-you-tomorrow goodbyes, and the forever goodbyes. I never want anything to end, but eventually, everything does. If I’ve learned anything in college, it’s that no school year is like the one before it. Our lives are marked by change, the comings and goings of seasons and friends. Ever since my friend died, not long after he graduated in 2005, goodbyes have felt like little deaths. At graduation, he promised he’d visit in the fall. Goodbyes can be betrayals, when sudden absence replaces a promised return.
At Shabbat services, we need a minyan – a group of at least 10 people – to ritually call each other to prayer. We can call ourselves to prayer without 10 people, but we need a congregation to call to each other. This emphasis on the congregation means every Friday night feels different, yet the same: we sing the same songs, but they differ, depending on who is singing. After five years of greetings and goodbyes, Hillel holidays, and weekly services, the room is heavy with missing voices. I might be surrounded by people I love, but a silence accompanies every song. Memories wander inside, sometimes unsolicited, when we open the door to welcome Shabbat.
For a long time, I was obsessed with photographing doorways and windows. It started when I had only a few weeks left at Valley Forge National Historical Park, where I worked as a tour guide and historical re-enactor during summer 2005. I took pictures of the view though the door at Washington’s Headquarters, and through the window of the fee booth. There was nothing particularly beautiful outside. I’d just grown accustomed to it, and somewhere along the line I decided that this is what “home” is all about – it’s the part of you that opens into morning light, the door that closes when it’s time to say goodbye.
We are always leaving, arriving, and leaving again. Shabbat comes every week, and each school year has its end. But somehow, when it’s The Last Time, the most mundane activities become sacred: “The Last Midnight Safeway Shopping Spree,” “The Last Dumpster Dive,” “The Last Bluebook Exam.” We cannot look forward without looking back. The Last leans on the time before the last, the final hinges on the first. We create histories, even where none exist.
By mid-June, I will have witnessed five years of college commencements, and this would have been my fifth “Final Shabbat.” Still, no matter how I’ve tried to knit my farewells, to force my Valley Forge and graduation goodbyes to speak to each other, it never quite works. My loved ones leaving this year will take their place alongside my other memories. The memories will find me at Hillel, or at a favorite coffee shop. They will tap me on the shoulder when I least expect it, but these goodbyes, like the previous ones, defy the notion that it will all be ok. Some people have been whirlwind friends – in and out of my life before I knew what changed me. Others will be in my life, in some way, for a long time.
I accept the stories people tell each other – that all endings are beginnings, that it’s better to “live in the moment” than to live looking backward. But the real impossibility of goodbye is that although the door has closed, there is no immediate emotional closure. I still feel pangs of absence in the presence of memory. When the silences announce themselves, it’s difficult to accept that the “beauty of the moment” cancels the sudden loss. Yet, I can’t deny that I’m grateful for voices that enriched my life when I heard them, week after week. Saying goodbye, then, is another ritual. Instead of coming every Friday night, school ends every year, and everything changes. Despite the discomfort, the end reminds me that I’m still living through it, and that another beginning will come.
You’re walking through the desert and you’ve been walking forever. You are walking away from something you’re trying to forget. You’re not sure what you should be walking toward, but you do know you have to walk. There is sand between your toes and there’s a pebble in your sandal that’s just large enough to be an annoyance, digging into your heel. You don’t stop to remove it because you are compelled, with a focus you’ve never felt before, to just keep walking. Nothing will stop you. Until you see the light. The light of a thornbush on fire, burning but not consumed. Where is all the smoke?
Parsha Shemot is the beginning of the story of Exodus, and it includes Moses’s first encounter with God, through the burning bush. When Moses moves toward the strange burning, God calls out to him. “Moses, Moses!” And Moses said, Hineini, “Here I am.” Hineini is a statement of focused presence. I am here. I am listening. I am ready.
“Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing holy ground. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
You have removed your shoes, the pebble lost in the sand now. Your heart is pounding in your head and the voice is pounding with it. I am, I am, I am, it says. Hineini, you respond. I am, too.
“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt,” says God. “I have heard their cry. I know their sufferings.”
Their cry and their sufferings have enslaved you too. You tried to leave them behind, but somehow they came with you – their voices, their faces twisted in sorrow. You tried to escape it, but memory makes escape impossible.
God was not enslaved by the Egyptians, and yet, God knows the sufferings of the Israelites just by seeing the affliction and hearing their sufferings. This is empathy: to know the suffering of others, whether or not you can personally relate. According to Rashi, God demonstrates that God is with the Israelites in their affliction by appearing in a thornbush, instead of a more innocuous plant or tree.
“The cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them,” God says. “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.”
“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”
God, the God of my Ancestors, I am Here, but Who am I? I am the pebble in my sandal, I am trying to escape, I have been walking because I am afraid.
“I will be with you,” God says. “I will be with you.” God doesn’t say “It will all be ok,” or “Don’t be ridiculous; of course you can do it.” God doesn’t tell Moses “This is your job – now deal with it.” I will be with you is validating and honest. God never tries to convince Moses that the exodus will be easy. Instead, God shows Moses that he will not be on this journey alone.
People often feel isolated when they face personal challenges, alone in our personal deserts, waiting for a bush to burn. I can talk with multiple students in the same week who are facing similar challenges, but they all think that they are the only one. It’s tough to combat feelings of loneliness because vulnerability is scary – our own and the vulnerability of others. Of course we are compelled to walk away from it all, to face the suffering of others by suffering alone.
This is why God’s promise, “I will be with you” is such a powerful and healing response. When we don’t actually know the outcome of a situation, “It’s all going to be ok” is a hard to swallow, and “just stay positive” can feel like blame. Validation and acceptance create a safe space for real growth and change. “Yes, this is really hard. It feels impossible. And yet, here I am with you, and I will stay.” My friend Donnovan likes to say “Your presence is the medicine.” When there’s not much to say to someone who is suffering, being present is enough. Presence means you’re not walking away. Presence says “Your pain is not taboo.” Presence says “You have not lost me, even if you feel like you have lost everything.” Presence says “Hineini,” Here I Am. I am listening. I am with you. Like Moses, most of us just need to know that we are not alone.
In honor of this parsha and at the start of our secular new year, I encourage you to really listen to your friends and loved ones, to seek an understanding of their suffering, even if you can’t personally relate. Listen to what your loved ones are saying and not saying, and check your assumptions when you’re about to offer advice. A simple “I will be with you,” may be more than enough. Suffering is hard, and isolation makes it harder. Your presence is the medicine. Only together can we do the work of healing.
I wrote this seven years ago, but I’m sharing it on my blog today to honor the memory of my wonderful grandmother, Adrienne, who died this morning at the age of eighty-four. May her memory be for blessing.
It was my grandfather’s 77th birthday, and we were out to dinner at one of those restaurants where I’m always paranoid I’ll spill something. The forks were chilled. The lights were dim, and a candle in a glass dish flickered warmly on the table. We wore our most uncomfortable clothing, mostly because it makes our grandmother happy. “Don’t you look nice,” she crowed when we walked in. “It gives me so much pleasure, would it kill you to dress up like this more often?” Everyone wished my grandfather a happy birthday, and no one pointed out that this was his first birthday without his own father, who had died at the age of 105 in February.
The conversation was relatively normal, especially for my family. My brothers and I talked about school and work, and my mom talked about her students. We didn’t even argue about politics! After the server brought appetizers, my grandfather smiled, and brought up the new real estate they had purchased in Simi Valley that day. I didn’t know he was interested in buying a place, but, he liltingly explained, it was inexpensive, on the side of a grassy hill, with a great view of the mountains. They told their bridge friends all about it, so their friends could get in while the bargains were still hot. When my grandmother described the matching headstones and coffins they’d chosen, I realized the “real estate” was a plot at a Jewish cemetery.
At this point, all other conversation died. Bits of food fell out of my brother’s mouth. I tried not to spit out my coffee. But no one could say anything before my grandmother continued.
“There’s plenty of space in the plot if any of you want to join us, when the time comes, but of course you don’t have to,” she chuckled. “We just wanted you to have the option. And there’s a pretty little bench under a tree nearby if you want to visit – not that you’d want to, because we’d be dead, but just in case.” My grandfather told us several of their bridge friends had, indeed, followed suit, purchasing their own real estate in the same cemetery. I didn’t know if I should laugh or not, as I saw coffins circling their ancient card table, in an endless game of imaginary bridge. As my grandparents giggled about their fantastic bargains at the cemetery, I decided my sense of humor is genetic.
Entrees arrived, and our laughter faded. My grandfather explained that choosing the coffins and headstone for his parents had been a miserable experience. Despite their health, they bought the real estate out of consideration for us. “You shouldn’t make those decisions if you don’t have to,” my grandmother said. “We have a place all picked out already, no need to worry.” They took care of themselves their entire lives, and they’re used to taking care of us. Why should they approach death any differently?
My uncle, Steve, always ready to lighten the mood, announced that he wants to be cremated. We should take an urn with his ashes, and the ashes of each of his beloved cocker spaniels to Disneyland. My brothers and I promised to toss all of the ashes in the air, coming down the big hill at Splash Mountain. “Bring the photo to family gatherings. Max, Duncan, and I will always be there in spirit!”
Coincidentally, Joseph and I recently found a place to live for the fall. My grandparents found a more permanent residence. While Joseph and I will start our lives together in our new home, my grandparents’ real estate is the last home they will ever share. Despite these differences, we’re both preparing to transition. There’s no way of knowing what comes next, in life, or in death, and in the face of immense, unpredictable change, we seek stability, however illusory, in our respective real estate.
Why do we want places to represent stability or permanence? A headstone is just a rock. My grandmother was right – why visit? They won’t be there! But the headstone is not for her. Physical markers like headstones and houses are for the living. Both are coat racks for our recollections. We only access the past in cemeteries, but a home can also house future memories. “Real Estate” is more permanent than an anniversary, a memory, or even a photograph, but it also reminds us of the inherent impermanence and instability of life.
The strange collision between past and present makes me laugh, and feel uncomfortable. Whether it’s the grassy courtyard we’ll share with other apartment tenants, or the side of a grassy hill with a bench nearby, these are spaces where we can gather and remember. The house and headstone are also places where I can process that collision, where beginning and end are inseparable. Life necessitates death, moving in necessitates moving out. The sadness of death affirms that life was beautiful. Even though our family dinner conversation was macabre, we couldn’t help but have a wonderful time talking about death. Whether it’s a home, a meal, a memory, or a gravestone, sharing them is what’s important. Regardless of the space itself, it helps to have someone to move in with.
I can see them, huddling together behind bookshelves or under the desks. I can hear their thoughts, their heart beats. Is this it? Am I going to die? What will my mom say at my funeral? Will the police come in time to save me? Will anyone save me?
I can see them, huddling together over cups of coffee in a campus coffee shop. I can hear their thoughts, their heart beats. Will I pass my chem final? What should I do when I graduate? What if I don’t want to go home? Where is home anyway?
It’s cold, the first real rain California has seen in a long time. Stanford’s campus is relatively quiet. There are only a couple of days left before Thanksgiving, and people are mostly inside, studying for finals, buying their plane tickets for winter break. Meanwhile, at Florida State University, the students are wondering why it happened. A school shooting. It’s always another campus. It never happens here. Until it does.
I remember when it happened at Columbine. I remember how I suddenly felt cold in the middle of April, the kind of cold that makes you think you’ll never be warm again. When it happened at Virginia Tech, I kept refreshing the news websites, unable to look away from the rising body count. I thought about my friend who had died, young and unexpectedly, just two years earlier. The loss had shaken me to the core. When the death of one person can turn your world upside down, what does it mean to lose so many? I talked about it with my rabbi at a beach Shabbat retreat that weekend. The Torah reading for that week discussed the rituals that Jews perform after seeing or touching a dead body. Jews must complete these rituals before they return to their community for prayer. The ancient ones knew. A brush with mortality can shatter us. We need rituals to remember how to be whole again.
School shootings always raise questions. Is it because of guns? Is it because mental illness is stigmatized? Is it both? Maybe school shootings affect me so strongly because I can relate to students, and I’ve made a living out of it. I’ve worked on a university campus for the past seven years, and I was a university student for the six years before that. Students are the reason I get out of bed every day. Their lives are my calling, and their stories are a gift.
Over the past seven years, I have gained their trust. I have heard about their fears and their successes. I cheer them on in their campus musical and theater performances. I support them when they’re stressed about their exams. I coach them through interpersonal challenges. I give them feedback on their application essays and I write their letters of recommendation. I hold them when they cry because a friend has committed suicide or a grandparent has finally succumbed to terminal illness.
This week alone, I have had three conversations about grief, and one about depression. I listened, I validated, and I offered advice when they asked for it. This week I am including a memorial ritual for Transgender Day of Remembrance in my Shabbat service. We will think about this year’s 226 victims of transgender discrimination. We will think about Ferguson, and about the four men who were murdered in a Jerusalem synagogue two days ago, and we will think about the victims of school shootings, and the victims of genocide, about the Kesem campers who lost their parents this week, and about the Stanford alumnus who was found dead in the Bay. We will remember the ones who have no one left to remember them. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that no one should have to grieve alone.
When I read about a school shooting, my first impulse is to reach out. I desperately want to support the students who survived, I want to make sure they have someone to talk to, to process the trauma, to remind them that love exists in a world doesn’t appear to be loving. I imagine what would I say if it was one of my own students in the hospital, recovering from a gunshot wound. I wonder what I would say to the family. I visited a student in the hospital this past Sunday. It was an infection, and he’s mostly all right now. Healing takes time.
When the children and teachers were murdered in Newtown, it was in the week leading up to Chanukah, our Festival of Light. I remember going from one synagogue to another, looking for a place to say the mourner’s prayer. All three synagogues were hosting celebrations for the first night of Chanukah. The laughing and singing children and families felt like a punch in the gut. Wait, I wanted to cry out. How can you sing when so many are suffering? Then I remembered that it wasn’t right for me to think that way. People are suffering everywhere, and always. That doesn’t mean we should decrease our joy. It means we should increase our awareness, we should choose to bring light into the lives of others.
There was another school shooting today, and the rain is still falling. There is work to be done, and there are stories that need to be heard. We cannot suffocate under the weight of these losses when there are days and months marching ahead of us.
We need to remember, and we need to step forward, bravely, one smile at a time. We need to be the miracle, the moment of hope, the brightness bleeding through cracks in the darkness. We need to love in the face of loss, whether or not it touched us personally. We need to laugh sometimes, and cry, and hold onto each other. Because when it comes down to it, we are all we’ve got.
Another piece of older writing, but one that returns to me every fall, with the leaves, new students and the new year. New writing will be here soon, I promise!
The reason it’s so hard to tell this story is because it’s a story I don’t want to tell. I want to talk about everything around it until the space where this story lives is a tiny white dot, surrounded by circling black sentences. Every time I add another layer of writing, the white dot grows more visceral, and its silence, louder. I’ve written about goodbyes, graduations, new homes, and final resting places. I’ve called them “rituals,” hoping to lessen the finality of endings. Rituals are predictable; life itself is not so patterned.
It was September, and everything was beginning. September brings autumn breezes and new books. Old friends reunite with excited cries, while new students grow younger every year. When I was a child, I rose at five in the morning, even though my first day of second grade would not begin until eight. I couldn’t wait to see what second grade would bring, and this was the start of it all. In college, September still brought the familiar rush of excitement and nerves, and a fresh sense of purpose…which always faded by midterms. Longing for September’s optimism soon became part of the ritual as well.
In September 2005, I had just returned from a National Historical Park on the East Coast, where I worked as a historical re-enactor for three months. I barely had time to recover from my colonial adventure before my senior year of college began. That September, I began writing my history undergraduate senior thesis, after eighteen months of research. I wrote my first few blurbs as a new intern for the Santa Cruz Good Times, a local weekly newspaper, and I discovered that I loved writing literature features. I studied for the GRE’s, enrolled in my last two literature courses, and I began applying to history graduate programs. Everything felt enormous as I prepared to finish college, and took my first steps toward the unimaginable territory of graduate school.
Then, on September 20, my friend Randy died. He was 25 years old, and he had graduated in June with a degree in politics. I remember his bright orange “party shirt,” and sharing cold drinks on his porch. I remember that everyone sat up straighter when he started coming to Kresge Student Parliament meetings. By his senior year, Randy was the Parliament chair, and I was the secretary. I gave him Robert’s Rules of Order for his birthday. He made me feel like I was the most important person in the world. Randy had worked on Ryan Coonerty’s mayoral campaign for the city of Santa Cruz. He was going to go far.
When I found out that he had died, there was a scream that started in my stomach.
The only poem I wrote that school year was about his funeral. I wrote it without meaning to, sitting at my desk in the Good Times office in September, waiting to hear back from a possible interviewee. I called the poem “Twenty-five,” and when I went outside to get some coffee, I read it to my mom over the phone. Meanwhile, leaves scattered on Pacific Avenue, and students huddled together in coffee shops. Somehow, it was still September.
The day after his funeral, I tried to read Clouds by Aristophanes. It was inconceivable. I asked for my first extension on a paper in my fourth year of college, because I was so overwhelmed with grad school applications, the GRE’s, my burgeoning thesis project, and Randy’s absence, which made everything else seem trivial. How could the leaves fall?
On September 20, 2006, I was a busy new graduate student. I spent the entire day reading, and trying not to think about anything. But in the middle of the night, I blew a tire right in front of his old house, and I heard him say “Sweet pea, if you don’t slow down, you’re going to blow a tire too.” I stumbled out of the car and cried “I know, I have to slow down, I’m sorry! I love you! I miss you!” It was the one-year anniversary of his death. I hadn’t forgotten. I was just tired of remembering.
Each September, I start another year working at a university Hillel. Autumn arrives with its familiar markers – leaves and books, new students to meet, High Holy Day services to plan. My sense of memory is stronger than my sense of present – the past is vibrant, finished, and contained, while the moment is gray and intangible. Rituals provide an imagined structure, the illusion that I can order the present because I can count on new students. I can rely on September.
In 2005, Randy’s death disrupted autumn. Familiar rituals seemed insignificant, cruel in the face of shattering change. But over the last few years, I’ve learned that life is not ritual, and that rituals change based on life. I never wanted September to mark an ending, but I didn’t get to make that choice. I can, however, choose the way I want to remember, now that Randy is part of the autumn landscape. Like books, like leaves. Like new beginnings.
Delivered at Kesem Senior Luncheon, 2014
Oh Hey Camp Kesem! I’m Heather, or “Autumn,” and I have been the director for Camp Kesem at Stanford for the last four years. That means that I get to work on Camp Kesem year-round with a group of the most amazing students I’ve ever known, and it means I get to watch Camp Kesem change and grow over time. It also means that at senior luncheon, I get to take a few moments to thank the seniors and co-terms who are part of our Kesem family.
This is my fourth senior luncheon speech, and this time, unlike previous years, I am joining you in saying goodbye to Camp Kesem. I went back and read my previous speeches, which were filled with positive and hopefully inspiring advice to graduating seniors and co-terms. As with most advice, I found it far easier to share with others than to heed myself. Bring Kesem with you, I told them. You are the reason this community is so special. Kesem is what it is, for campers, counselors, and parents, because of what YOU bring to it. You can create caring communities wherever you go because you know what it means to be part of something like Kesem. The world needs more people like you and more communities like this one – more openness, more generosity, more compassion.
While I still believe this to be good advice, I also want to acknowledge that what we have at Kesem is special. As I’ve tried to imagine bringing Kesem into the rest of my life, I’ve realized that deep down, I know there really is no place like Kesem. We all understand that Kesem is so much more than a week long summer camp. It’s the way a camper smiles when he sees a group of his counselors who showed up to cheer him on at his middle school musical. It’s when a camper’s face lights up when she sees 15 of us at her dad’s funeral. It’s the comforting comment one parent offers to another who tells his story at New Family Orientation, while his son is outside playing his first round of Gaga. It’s the silence that falls on the room after the common ground activity at counselor training, when we understand for the first time just how much we share. The magic of Kesem is the community, and this community is a blessing to those it serves, but also for those who participate in building it. As much as I’d like to think we can bring that community out into the rest of the world, there’s also magic in knowing that it exists in sacred space, and that nothing else can replace it.
So with this in mind, I turn to one more lesson I’ve learned from Kesem and our campers, perhaps the most important lesson of all – that letting go, like holding on, can be an act of love. Letting go does not mean forgetting. It means that our hearts surge with gratitude in moments of grief because we are so lucky, so deeply fortunate to have been part of this community. Four years ago, I chose Autumn as my camp name because change and transition are challenging for many of us, myself included. The trees are going through an immense change in the autumn season and they respond to this change with beauty – with vibrant oranges and deep reds and golden yellows. It’s a reminder that change can be a beautiful thing, and that at some point, we all must let go of our branches and catch the next gust of wind.
Seniors and co-terms, I’m so grateful that you’ve been on this journey with me, and I’m so excited for our last week of camp together. Thank you for holding on and letting go with me. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Edited to add/explain: I have been promoted within Hillel at Stanford. I will be supervising and supporting the new Camp Kesem director, who has been involved in Kesem for three years and is perfect for the job. I will stay involved in Kesem as a member of the advisory committee and I will provide support in any way that I can while empowering the new camp director, who deserves to have the amazing experience that I had. I will miss my direct and daily involvement with Kesem with all of my heart but I know that wonderful things are ahead and that I can support Kesem in other ways by supporting the new camp director.
Do you remember the first time you heard a Holocaust survivor speak? I do. Her name is Renee. I met her when she spoke in my fourth grade class at Sunday school student at the Center for Early Jewish Education (which no longer exists, z”l). I remember everything about her talk – her voice, her wrinkled hands, her stories about Dr. Mengele and Auschwitz. I remember how two of the girls in my class broke down crying afterward. I remember how she comforted them. I remember that she told a story about a bathing suit…a gift from her father that she wore under her clothes on the way to Auschwitz in the cattle car. I remember that she said when it was time to strip down for inspection, she didn’t want to take that bathing suit off, because she knew that after that, everything would change. When she came back to speak to my fifth grade class the following year, we asked her to tell the bathing suit story again.
I’m 30 years old now, and I just returned from another trip to Berlin with Germany Close Up. This time, I was staff – I brought 26 Hillel at Stanford students with me. I thought about Renee often on that trip, as I have many times throughout the last two decades since I first met her. I had tried to look her up online, but there are so many Shoah victims and survivors name Renee. I couldn’t remember her last name. I was only 10 when I met her, after all.
Today, Holocaust Remembrance Day, my friend and colleague Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz posted a picture on his Facebook. The captions says “Such an honor to spend time with hero Renee Firestone (Holocaust survivor who was in Auschwitz). May she have health and success in inspiring through story.” She’s wearing sunglasses in the picture, but a Google search with her last name confirmed that this is the same woman who inspired me so many years ago! I immediately began to cry. I found her at last.
I have taken Renee’s story with me on every part of my journey. I thought about her when I was writing my first High Holiday sermon this past summer. I have thought about her every time the Holocaust has come back to me – in museums, in novels, in films, and in my own memories. I am so grateful that I saw that photograph today. I am so grateful to know that she is still alive and lively, inspiring others with her story every day. Thank you, Renee, for letting your story become part of mine.
This is what I wrote after I visited the Information Center at the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin this past March. It’s the Mourners Kaddish, a Jewish prayer for the dead (which, actually, is a prayer in praise of living, and God), wrapped between words from a letter and a journal entry from victims of the Holocaust. I write this for them. For all of them. And also, for all of us.
Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mai raba
“Dear Father, I am saying goodbye to you before I die.
B’alma divrah chiruteh viyamlich malchuteh
We would so love to live but they won’t let us and we will die.
I am so scared of this death, because the small children are thrown into the pit alive.
Uvchayay v’chol beit yisrael
Ba’agala uvizman kariv
I kiss you tenderly.
Yehay shlama raba min sh’maya
“Blood, this blood of murdered mothers and children.
V’chayim aleinu v’al kol yisrael
And fear, the constant paralyzing fear, running, hiding, forests, bunkers
and all of this in vain
Oseh shalom bimromov
We are so powerless.
Hu ya’aseh shalom
We want to live!
Aleinu v’al kol yisrael
We want to survive this!
V’al kol yoshvey tevel
Where is God?!”
This is an “oldie-but-goodie.” I wrote this in fall 2005. I have performed it on stage and on live radio and I find that its message keeps coming back to me because I work with young women and I am always considering the way we talk about our bodies. Enjoy!
My body looks like Russia. It is immense. It spans a hearty portion of the Eastern Hemisphere. There is very little room for neighboring start-up republics on its borders, and when I was younger, I feared I was doomed to live like a frozen wasteland forever. Everything about me kept getting bigger. In fourth grade, my breasts resembled onion domes. By sixth grade, they were the size of St. Petersburg. These days, I think my breasts may be out to take over the world. You could hide nuclear missiles in there! I don’t recommend it though. You may not be able to find them again.
On the map of my body, stretch marks climb over my hips like rivers trying to reach both the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. The space between my legs, though not as barren as I feared it would be, seems to get lost between the snow-crested mountains of my thighs.
I inherited this Russian body from my foremothers. They handed it down with their recipes for matzo-ball soup and knish. I can still see my weight-conscious family members frowning around the table, examining my expanding waistline as they examined their own, while my great-grandmother, who sat on the other side of the table, encouraged me to take another helping. What, you should want to deny your heritage? This recipe was my grandmother’s! Eat! Enjoy! We are a zaftig (full-figured) people, that’s how we survived hard winters in Russia, and now, ha! We use food as a way to survive everything! We kvetch (complain) about how big we are, and then we eat more because we’re upset. Nu (so), it’s in our blood. What can we do about it but thank God that we have hearty appetites and big hearts to match.
I tried to listen to my great-grandmother’s words, but it’s awkward to be the largest country. I don’t mean to take up most of the space in Europe, but at least I’m nice about it. I only occupy the spaces no one else wants, the cold, lonely places where the nights are white and the darkness envelops the day. I’m clumsy about government too. My immensity gets in the way, and I seem to trip over everything.
You’d think I would do something about this. I’ve tried. I stopped eating for awhile, in hopes that I could slim down to the size of Italy, or maybe even Chile. It worked at first, but my heritage stuck out in strange places. My waist and hips lost their gargantuan dimensions, and my face took on that sexy angular look, complete with the hollow eyes and sunken cheeks that many people associate with third-world starvation. My breasts, however, never shrank down to normal size. Russia evacuated most of my body and the entire population took refuge in my chest. They threatened to secede and become countries of their own.
Eventually, I grew tired of trying to be the size of Switzerland. I could squeeze into smaller spaces, and at last I was pleased with the country staring back at me in the mirror. But the truth is, I never really fit into that shrunken frame. I was sick all the time, dizzy from my efforts to battle off sinister invaders like bread, cheese, potatoes, and even carrots, those dangerously carb-laden vegetables. I’d wanted to train for a marathon, but my body couldn’t seem to handle it. When I started to pass out after running too many miles without enough fuel, I decided that I couldn’t avoid my Russian heritage any longer.
I gently allowed my body the time it needed to grow again. At first, it was kind of fun – I enjoyed all the food I’d denied myself for so long, though I consumed a hearty serving of Jewish guilt with every bite. But after awhile, as my body regained its Russian proportions, I began to wish that there was anything I could do to abandon my genes – or squeeze into smaller ones.
My great-grandmother’s age finally crept up on her in the fall of my freshman year of college. She died at the age of 98, and I wrote poetry for her all morning, this woman who represented my past. She was one of my few family members who could tell me about Russia as she remembered it – a legacy far bigger than my body snuggled between the bodies of my foremothers and the daughters of our future.
These days, I still kvetch about my size. Having a Russian body means that shopping is devastating, my breasts hurt when the car goes over speed bumps, and every time I eat, I know that I’m feeding the Russian peasants who live in my thighs. Some days, I still look in the mirror and bemoan my figure, even though it is part of my past.
But other days, when I look at the curves of my breasts and hips, I can hear my ancestors laugh with full-figured good nature as they sit together over elaborate meals, passing the kugel and the stories across the table. This is where we enjoy old recipes cooked up and often exaggerated for flavor, this is where my own experiences collide with my history, and this is where my future will be – served up with a sizeable portion of memories, and shared with my zaftig, loving, Russian family.