Theme and Variation on Goodbye


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.


Real Estate

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.



Kesem Farewell Speech

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. 

Close Up: Memory, Confrontation, and the Days of Awe – High Holiday Sermon, 5774

“On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur is sealed; who will live and who will die.” This text from our High Holiday liturgy flooded my mind as I entered the gas chamber at Dachau Concentration Camp. The guide had explained that the word “Brausebad,” painted in black above the doorway, is no longer the German word for “shower.” After the Holocaust, the Germans started using a different term because “Brausebad” was the last word that so many millions of people saw before their deaths. When the year begins, we don’t know who will live and who will die. The victims of the gas chamber did not know either. I walked in, I saw the false shower heads, murmured the Mourners Kaddish in the middle of tiled room. And then, thanks to the timing of my birth, I walked out. 70 years ago, the only way out was through the chimney, and here I was, in July 2013, just walking through, processing the moment through my camera lens, like I always do – breathing, living, remembering. I visited Dachau this summer after spending a week in Berlin with Germany Close Up, a program designed to introduce young American Jews to modern Germany, heavily subsidized by the German government. A Holocaust survivor I know told me that if the German government was paying to bring young American Jews to Germany, it was for one reason only. But she was wrong. I returned. I am safe. I went to two concentration camps, and felt a surge of elated energy as I passed through the gates on the way out, overwhelmed with gratitude for my continued liberation.

I went to Germany with questions, and like any good Jew, I returned with more questions. I returned on the cusp of the month of Elul, the month when Jews, as Rabbi Alan Lew (z”l) says, look at the window instead of looking through the window: “When the shofar blows on the first day of Elul,” he says, “and every morning thereafter, it reminds us to turn our gaze inward, and to place judgment at the gates of our consciousness, to shift our focus from the outside world to the considerable activity taking place in the window through which we view it.”1 In this prelude to the High Holidays, Jews deepen our awareness, apologize to those we have wronged, and make plans to grow as human beings over the year to come. We have the opportunity to look back, to remember, and to learn how we can move forward in the new year.

Stolperstein - Stumbling Stones Berlin taught me a lot about looking back. For the first time, I had the opportunity to ask non-Jewish Germans, outright: What did your family do in the war? Most of them had no idea. It wasn’t something you talked about, their families said. It was something you remembered. You can’t walk anywhere in Berlin without remembering something. The city itself seems to have PTSD. Look down at the cobbled sidewalks and you see gold stumbling stones inscribed with the name of a Jew who lived in that spot, noting the date of deportation and the place of their death. Look up and there’s the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, tremendous and dominating, so much a part of the landscape that children have snowball fights amid the giant blocks during the winter. Turn the corner and there’s another memorial, in Hebrew, English, and German. Everywhere, the memory of someone we lost and the culture that went with them.

I don’t think anyone in Berlin has the chance to forget, even for a minute. It was like a tour through my own psyche. Yes, my psyche – I’m an American Jew, three generations removed from the Holocaust. I grew up reading too many books about the Holocaust, and had nightmares in which Dr. Mengele shot my mother while I had to watch. I was 10. I’d never been to a concentration camp and I did not know my own family’s Holocaust story, but somehow, these memories became my own. My favorite author, Jonathan Safran Foer, says “Jews have six senses: Touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing … memory. While Gentiles experience and process the world through the traditional senses, and use memory only as a second-order means of interpreting events, for Jews memory is no less primary than the prick of a pin, or its silver glimmer, or the taste of the blood it pulls from the finger. The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins. It is only by tracing the pinprick back to other pinpricks – when his mother tried to fix his sleeve while his arm was still in it, when his grandfather’s fingers fell asleep from stroking his great-grandfather’s damp forehead, when Abraham tested the knife point to be sure Isaac would feel no pain – that the Jew is able to know why it hurts. When a Jew encounters a pin, he asks: What does it remember like?”2

Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe

Visiiting Berlin, I got the sense that the city itself remembers the way Jews remember, with a sixth sense. Young German non-Jews who have no connection to the Holocaust still feel guilty when they meet someone Jewish. Holocaust education in the schools is extensive. Most highschool classes visit a concentration camp. All are required to visit a memorial.By the time they get through school, they are tired of hearing about it, tired of feeling guilty, tired of questions that don’t have answers: What did our family do in the war? What can we do about it? How can I live with this history? The trauma of the Holocaust has been passed down, l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation, among Jews and non-Jewish Germans alike.

The psychology of trauma teaches us that exposure is the only way to heal. Talking about it. Recognizing the pain. Being with it. Germany Close Up provided an opportunity for us to do that together. I don’t know if a r’fuah shlemah – a complete healing – is possible. But I do know that confronting the issue through compassionate conversation, sitting with the pain together, was itself a healing experience. As Rabbi Lew says of our sins, “What’s done cannot be undone— but it can be healed; it can even become the instrument of our healing.”3

We are good at remembering, but confronting trauma is much harder, and there comes a time when “never forget” just isn’t enough. For me, that time was this summer. I went to Germany because I was ready to explore some of the deeper issues in my own memory and in our collective Jewish memory. I engaged directly with the site of the trauma, with contemporary Germans, and shared a Shabbat dinner with the new Jewish community in Berlin. I also learned that Israelis love to visit Berlin and that Germans love to visit Israel. It’s harder for American Jews, and I’m not sure why. We remember. We’re not ignoring the trauma. But many of us are not coping with it either.

This is just one example of an evaded issue – the largest unresolved trauma of the 20th cenIMG_2441tury, and part of our collective Jewish memory. I know that some are not yet ready to get on a plane and fly to Berlin to cope with it. But I wonder if each of you can take this opportunity over the next ten Days of Awe to consider other evaded issues in your personal experience. What other traumas have you been ignoring? What is it that you are remembering, but not facing? What would it be like for you to engage directly with a painful experience in your personal memory – perhaps the death of a loved one, a challenge to your identity, a moment when you were unkind to someone who reminded you of something you fear in yourself? Can you acknowledge your failings and traumas without allowing them to consume you?

On Rosh Hashanah, we read the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, another traumatic story in our collective history. I have often wondered what it was like for Isaac, who lived the rest of his life knowing that his father was seconds away from sacrificing him. How did Isaac walk through the world carrying this trauma? Did he relive that slow walk up the mountain in his nightmares? Did he wake up relieved that he could move his arms and legs, that he was not bound after all, to the memory of the wood, the knife, and the imminence of fire? I’m sure Isaac never forgot the terrifying moment Abraham stood above him with the knife. What traumatic moments do you replay in your own memory over and over again? And are you hiding behind the memory itself, instead of engaging in the more painful but rewarding task of confrontation?

It is not for me to say that you need to enter your personal gas chamber so that you can walk out. Only you can decide when you’re ready to confront your own trauma, and you get to decide what that means for you. All I’m asking is that you take this time during the Days of Awe to notice the window you’re looking through. Then, when you’re ready, you can open it.

Note: Hillel at Stanford is now partnering with Germany Close Up, so I will be staffing this trip over spring break 2014. If you are a Jewish student at Stanford and you want to know more about how to get involved, email me at

If you are not a Hillel at Stanford student and you would like to do this program, check out the Germany Close Up website to learn more! 

1. Lew, Alan (2003-08-01). This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation (p. 78). Hachette Book Group. Kindle Edition.

2. Foer, Jonathan Safran. Everything is Illuminated (p. 193). Harper Perennial; 1st Perennial Edition/6th Printing edition (April 1, 2003)

3. Lew, Alan (2003-08-01). This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation (p. 29). Hachette Book Group. Kindle Edition.