Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Only in Israel: Babysitting in the Cemetery

Yesterday was an azkara, memorial for a neighbor who had passed away from cancer a few years ago.  I ended up next to a good friend who is also a very veteran immigrant, though not from the United States.  Even though our backgrounds are actually very different and we've both spent two-thirds of our lives here in Israel, there are times we're both taken aback by major cultural differences that exist between our childhood home cultures and are present one.

We suddenly found ourselves babysitting for the infant granddaughter of the deceased when the young mother suddenly wanted to stand with her siblings and father closer to the grave.

"A baby at a cemetery?"  My neighbor whispered to me with that familiar "only in Israel shrug." 

There were other grandchildren attending, though not as many as at azkarot of other friends, but no doubt with time will will be many more.  Our friend was pretty young when she died, and it was just a few years ago.  Now more of her children are married and parents.  As the grandchildren increase and grow older, they'll be joining us all visiting their savta, grandmother by her grave, unless the Moshiach comes beforehand and there will be T'chiyat HaMeittim, resurrection of the dead.

In Israel cemeteries, funerals and azkarot aren't "adults only."  Children grow up learning about life and death and remembering.  That's what an "azkara" is.  It's from the Hebrew זכר the root "remember."  It is a joy and comfort to see children attending these events, knowing that although our friends no longer breathe the air of life, there is a new generation that although may never have known them, they know of them.  The children can see that we must remember and pay homage to the dead.

I think that the Israeli custom of welcoming children to cemeteries is the right one.  This way children know that the dead didn't desert them and disappear.  The dead can still be visited and there's a presence always.

Shiloh Cemetery- photo by Batya Medad
When I was three and a half my grandfather passed away.  This was the third death in my mother's family in well under a year.  First her mother died and a half-year later her eldest brother.  I had become very close to my grandfather during this time, as he lived with us for a few weeks here and there.  I kept asking to see him and didn't know what it meant, his being "dead" and all.  Even the most precocious child has no concept of death.

Finally, someone suggested to my mother that she do the unthinkable and take me to the grave.  I remember that I had been prepared with explanations that he was "underground," so I pictured the New York City Subways, thinking that we'd go down the steps and I'd find him, and he'd talk to me that way he used to.  Instead, we were in some park-like place and I met a "grave" for the very first time.  It was not at all traumatic; it was a relief.  I finally knew where my grandfather's body was.  His neshama, his soul is with me still almost sixty years later.  He was a very religious, Torah observant man, and I have no doubt that my being who and what I am today is a result of the things he told and taught me when I was just three years old.

Li'ilui Nishmato: Avraham ben Avraham
May his soul ascend higher: Avraham ben Avraham,
named after his father who had been murdered before he was born.

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