My father, Sam, had a remarkable life. He was healthy in mind and body for over 97 years and cherished in a marriage that lasted well over six decades. He saw his daughters marry men he respected and adored and became an idol to numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He never endured any chronic illnesses and thought an aspirin was the cure to whatever ailed him. Maybe he was right. A bottle of aspirin lasted for many years in his medicine chest.
And so, as he approached his 98th birthday in Achuzat Beit Raanana, a hotel-like assisted-living facility that he moved into after Mom died, he became briefly ill and bedridden. It was two weeks before Pesach when he said to me, “Sam won’t be at the seder this year.” I held his hand and told him I loved him. But I didn’t argue; he was ready to leave. A few days later, I tearfully said my final good-bye and returned to New Jersey. My husband and I were preparing to move to West Orange and with a closing looming on our Clark house and lots of packing to do, it was imperative that I get back to the tedium combined with the excitement that comes with packing and preparing for a new home. The confluence of the move and Dad’s dying was conflicting and torturous.
He lingered for several days, and our moving day was close at hand. At 5 a.m. on the day of the move, the phone rang. There can be no good calls at that hour. The call was, as I knew, from my sister in Israel. Dad had peacefully passed.
I had not intended to attend the funeral, but I could not stay away. The moving truck pulled up as I headed to the airport to meet our daughter, Amy, who had decided to also go to bid farewell to her beloved Saba. We headed for Israel with grief and victory. We would miss this man called Sam very much, but he had had a magnificent time of it for all those years.
Meanwhile, back in Clark, my husband assumed a new task — to prepare for shiva a house that neither of us had enjoyed for one moment, a house that would soon be filled with family and friends who would come to support me in my loss. He needed to make sure the house was properly cleaned and the furniture arranged for a gathering of many people. He needed to make sure the kitchen and the bathrooms were supplied and the beds were made. It was a daunting task that had to be completed on moving day — and he was up to it.
In Israel, the burial at Herzliya Cemetery was another reminder of the varying customs we Jews practice. In America it’s rare to see flowers at a burial; in Israel, numerous bouquets were brought to Dad’s grave. The plain pine coffin was nonexistent; instead, his thin body was wrapped in a shroud. He was laid to rest next to my mother, finally reunited.
We returned to our Herzliya home for shiva and were inundated with visitors. Unlike in our New Jersey community, there was no food — none served to guests, none sent by others. It’s not the custom. Late that night Amy and I boarded a plane for New Jersey, where the shiva resumed in the morning.
I remember walking into my new home, where I had never slept a night or made a cup of coffee, and sitting shiva as my first action.
Two acts, both from rabbis, bolstered me and gave me strength. I don’t remember if I directly thanked Rabbi Mark Cooper and Rabbi Stanley Asekoff. Probably not. Rabbi Cooper, our son-in-law, understood, in that remarkable way he has of knowing the human soul, that I would be feeling devastated when the joy of a new home was replaced by mourning a beloved father. He insisted on conducting a “chanukat habayit,” a dedication ceremony celebrating a new home, as a mezuzah is affixed to the doorpost. Our visitors gathered outside as he hung the first mezuzah and recited the brachot (blessings) for us and our new abode. I know none of those who had come to comfort me thought that they would be taking part in a celebration, but they did — and so did I.
Later that day Rabbi Asekoff walked in. We had not yet joined his shul, which is a short walk from our new home. And yet, there he was, comforting and consoling and understanding that, although we were not yet friends, we soon would be. I will never forget that gift, that remarkable visit to strangers that bonded us forever.
All of this was 14 years ago. We visit Dad and Mom often in their beautiful resting ground in the Herzliya Cemetery. They are at peace, and our furniture is still positioned in the same way as it was on moving day.
Rosanne Skopp is a frequent blogger for the Times of Israel. She lives in West Orange and Herzliya, Israel.