Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Week in Seven Words #117

Am I really in Israel? More than once I ask myself that. I leave the U.S. on Sunday afternoon, land in Ben-Gurion airport early Monday morning. The funeral is that afternoon, and I spend many hours in my maternal grandma's apartment at the nursing home, where shiva is being held. And then Wednesday night it's time to go back. I see a lot of my family in those few days (grandmothers, uncles, an aunt, cousins, the spouses and children and in-laws of cousins), and it's the first time in years that the members of my immediate family have been in Israel together. As for the country itself, I get glimpses of it. A walk around the lake in the local park among moorhens, geese and hooded crows. Sitting wedged in the back seat of a taxi cab as it loses its way in Tel Aviv traffic. Running through a crowded souk like a video game character who loses points every time she bumps into someone. Eating delicious breakfasts and going out to lunch at a place that serves shish-kebabs and salad platters with hummous, falafels and Moroccan cigars. On Wednesday night fireworks go off; it's the eve of Independence Day. I catch some of the fireworks from the backseat of the cab that drives us to the airport.

The plane flies over the northern coast of Spain, all dark at night except for strings and clumps of golden light, shaped like cobwebs, snowflakes and amoebas.

At the funeral for my maternal grandpa, Saba Yossef (Grandpa Joseph) of blessed memory, whom I wrote about in the previous post, there's an atmosphere of sorrow and reunion as people arrive - many of them I don't know, others remember me when I was three feet tall (I don't remember them), and some I know well but haven't seen for years. Here they all are, mingling outdoors, waiting for my grandpa's body to arrive. The Israeli cemetery looks like a desert, full of stone, bright dirt, cacti and flowering shrubs, strange birds crying out from a handful of trees. The main part of the service is held indoors, my grandpa's body wrapped in a shroud and laid out in the center of a cool dim room. I know it's his body, but at the same time it's difficult to accept that it's really him. It doesn't seem like him; it's only his fragile shell. Where he lies in the middle of the room as a shrouded figure there's emptiness. His presence is felt not in this emptiness but in the surrounding people - in the thoughts they have of him, their prayers, their love, their words of remembrance, their grief, the fact that they're all there. The Hebrew word for funeral is "halvayah"(הלוויה), which at the root of it means "accompaniment." Some of his relatives and family friends carry his body out of the room on a pallet and take him outdoors into the cemetery, and everyone else goes with them, accompanying him on a long walk to where his grave is waiting. There's some recitation of lines from psalms and some more quiet reminiscences. When everyone arrives at his grave his body is lowered in, still in its shroud; there's some sort of receptacle at the bottom (I can't see it clearly), which is then covered by stone slabs. After that the grave is filled in, mostly by one of the men from the burial society, but also by family and friends who take turns shoveling in some dirt. Then everyone walks by, placing small stones on the grave. We stare and stare at this mound of earth dotted with many stones.

A visit to the grave of my paternal grandpa, Saba David (Grandpa David) of blessed memory, who passed away in 2005. Like my maternal grandpa, he died of an infection - in the very same hospital - after living the last few years of his life in a poor state of mental and physical health. Like my maternal grandpa, he was a fighter. He was a war veteran. He also survived the Holocaust (his tombstone bears the names of close family members who didn't). As a very young child he survived smallpox, after the doctors told his mother that he was a lost cause. Luckily for us, she kept taking care of him.

shiva (שבעה)
While sitting shiva, mourners are not meant to be left alone to brood, to sink too deep into grief. Visitors come bringing comfort, conversation, inappropriate funny jokes, and food. Some of them also bring small children who distract and delight with their antics. It's all a mix: tears, laughter, religious musings, mundane conversation, reminiscences, an airing of personal troubles, and silence.

On Yom Hazikaron - The Day of Remembrance, Israel's Memorial Day - a nationwide siren sounds twice: a minute-long siren in the evening, and a two-minute siren in the late morning. It's a haunting mournful sound, fitting for a day honoring fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism attacks. When it starts up, playing all over the country, everyone stops what they're doing and stands in silence. Cars and motorbikes stop in the middle of the road; the drivers get up and out and stand beside their vehicles. For those three minutes day-to-day life comes to a halt.

A heart-to-heart with my maternal grandma, who is used to taking care of everyone else and needs time to sit and talk and consider herself too.