Monday, October 20, 2008


I must have re-written my condolence card 500 times.

“I wish there were something I could do…” Too hopeless.
“I’m so sorry for your loss…” No. Sure it’s true, but it sounds so impersonal.
“This is horrible…” Yeah, that’s a great opening line. Why not just say, “Sucks to be you” and tie it to a bottle of gin?

When the aliens land, let’s hope they don’t mistake the rolling green hills of a cemetery for a landing pad. Because if they do, their first impression of us will be that we’re a stupid, stupid species.

After someone dies, we have clearly defined rituals – crystal clear instructions about what to do: Order a quick burial, sit shiva, recite the mourner’s kadish. We know how to mourn, but we have no clue what to say to those in mourning. And so, inevitably, we say all the wrong things.

When my father passed away 13 years ago, I sat aghast as one of my
mom’s friends told my then 12-year-old sister that the pain Sis was
feeling “will never go away.”

“It will just get worse. Every day.”

The woman – a psychologist, I feel compelled note – then rambled on and
on about how she has never gotten over her own father’s death and how
Sis’s loss would be like a giant hole in her heart for the rest of her

I’m amazed she didn’t underscore her point by handing my sister a rusty
razor blade and bottle of sleeping pills. Saying “it’ll get better in
time,” might have been reductive, but telling her she’d never be whole
again doubled her losses – first she loses our father, then she loses
all hope. We throw dirt on the caskets, do we really have to throw mud
on the bereaved?

I was furious at the woman (and still haven’t quite forgiven her), but
less than a year later, I was confronted with my own awkward moment of
post-death wishes. A co-worker was in her office, next door to mine,
when she learned that her mother passed away. I heard her sobbing and
rushed next door. When she told me the news, I stood dumbstruck.

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

“Thank you,” my colleague said.

“I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you.”

“Oh! I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m so …” it went on and on like this for several minutes before I
realized what I was doing. I was at such a loss for words that I kept
repeating the few I could think of. Finally, I left the poor woman
alone – truly sorry for forcing her to play bereavement volleyball.

So, when a friend recently lost her newborn twins, I was determined not
to say the wrong thing. Everyone around her was making all the usual
funeral faux pas: “They’re in a better place.” “Everything happens for
a reason.” “This will pass.”

My friend was getting more and more agitated. She was clearly touched
that people came out to support her and her husband, but did they have
to say such patently stupid things? When it was my turn to approach
her, I just grabbed her hand and let her dampen my shoulder with her
tears. She spoke to me of her anger, of her numbness, her shock, her
confusion. I spoke little. Just hugged her and stroked her hair.

I didn’t end up finding the right words to say in a bereavement card,
so I didn’t give her one. Words may be my living, but in the end, I
discovered the only right thing to do was to shut up and listen.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Rabbi Is Mightier Than The Pen

I told myself not to look over. Don’t turn your head! Don’t do it!

The rabbi was seated next to me in the audience at a recent lecture. He needed a pen, and I lent him one. Now, as the lecture was wrapping up, I could tell the rabbi was getting ready to bolt. I could also tell, using my superior intuitive powers, that he likely forgot that he had borrowed my pen.

Would he make off with it?

Simple non-verbal communication, of course, could provide the answer. A quick turn of the head, would allow me to get a visual read on my pen – was he holding it out for me, or stuffing it into his pocket? He would see my silent gesture, and respond in kind: Raised eyebrows (oh! I’m sorry, I forgot. Here you go.) or a wink (one step ahead of you.) would tell me all I’d need to know.

Either way, I’d get my pen back and everything would be cool. So why was my brain telling my neck to play dead?

Don’t turn your head!

I have recently made peace with the idea of seeing a doctor who is my age, and I long ago accepted that I could hire a lawyer whom I’m old enough to have babysat. But I can’t get comfortable with the idea of having a rabbi as a peer.

My whole life, rabbis were always older than my parents – even when
they weren’t. They were wise, never goofy or surprising. And they all
talked in that same uniquely rabbinic cadence: Introducing thoughts
through questions, with the emphasis always on the interrogative and
the last word of the sentence (So, WHY are we afraid to let the rabbi
see us looking at our PEN?).

Other cultures believe their clergy to be uniquely chosen by God, with
some special, divine powers. Ours says any schlub who wants the job,
can have it. Still, I have always conferred a kind of superiority on
rabbis. In my heart of hearts, I know they’re just people, but they’re
people who have dedicated themselves to the study of Torah, so they’re
automatically deserving of my respect – or at the very least, my

So when the rabbi (who I think is a few years younger than me) was
about to pilfer my pen, my first thought was, “Let it go. He’s a rabbi.”

My second thought was, “That’s a really good pen.”

Uni-Ball Grip. Four bucks for a pack of two. Makes my handwriting look
positively sophisticated. Maybe I could just lean forward a bit, and
see if that would make him take notice of me – thus inspiring the
thought, “Oh, I’d better give back this pen.”

Didn’t work.

I had no option, then, but to either say goodbye to the pen or act like
a grownup, and face an only-slightly-awkward social situation involving
a Person Of Authority. I thought it over, imagining the kind of woman I
want my son to know me as. I considered the fact that I have seen this
rabbi give voice to a puppet on numerous occasions; I mustered my
resolve, and I made my choice: Goodbye, pen.

But then something happened. Without thinking about it. Without meaning
to, I turned my head! It was as if a little involuntary voice in my
brain kicked a message to my neck, saying, “Hey, moron. He’s a
rabbi, not George Clooney. Get the pen back.”

The rabbi laughed, when he saw my eyes light on the Uni-Ball – he had
used the metal clasp to clip his notes together, a sure sign of
premeditated pen-napping. He handed it back to me.

“WERE you worried I was going to steal IT?” he asked.

There was no hiding it anymore. Against my better nature, I had broken
down one of my last little mental blocks and treated the rabbi as a
peer. A rabbi is a person? Now, I know I’m a grownup.

“Yeah,” I laughed, taking it back. “I did.”