In Memory of RivkA bat Yishaya

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Like so many people I have been devastated by the news of RivkA’s death. I read her blog regularly and was always inspired by the energy and optimism she conveyed. Her numerous friends in Israel have written beautifully about her and I fear I could never express my feelings and gratitude in such an articulate manner.

Instead I prefer to share what I found on Aish. We obviously feel besieged by numerous questions when someone as exceptional as RivkA passes away. Even if we find it hard to act rather than question, Judaism acknowledges our pain and bewilderment and encourages us to live life more fully in the merit of the deceased. The suggestions below concern a parent but apply to any one who has departed this world.

Our Sages have provided us with specific ways that we can help our loved ones gain merit in our daily lives. We can dedicate our actions for the soul through the following suggestions:

• Study Torah or ask a Torah scholar to dedicate his study to your parent’s soul (during the week of shivah, others study Torah since mourners are not allowed to study Torah).

• Tzedakah: Give charity or donate a Torah scroll, prayer books, or holy books in the name of your loved one to an organization, synagogue, or school. It is a good idea to have the name of your parent (or relative) inscribed inside the book.

• Acts of Kindness: Whenever you do a chessed, a kind deed, keep in mind that you are doing this mitzvah as a merit for the soul of your parent. This creates a great impact, for just as you have accomplished kindness, the soul of the departed will now benefit from God’s kindness in turn.

• Prayer: There is, of course, the holy Kaddish prayer that is said, during the first year (12 months) of mourning and on the yahrzeit. Kaddish proclaims our desire that the name of God be sanctified. When one suffers a loss and is then able to recite the Kaddish, he is publicly accepting God’s decree.This is considered to be one of the most awesome mitzvot — Kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God’s name. The merit for the soul is real and great.

• Embrace a Mitzvah: Choose a mitzvah and ‘put your signature on it’. It can be a mitzvah that your parent loved doing, or one that you would now like to take on. There are hundreds of mitzvoth to consider; such as helping children with special needs, visiting the sick, driving patients to doctor appointments, offering your professional services to those who cannot afford them, cooking and baking for families under stress,
Saying blessings before and after you eat, keeping kosher, honoring Shabbat, praying each day, and avoiding gossip and shaming others.

• Light a yahrzeit (memorial) candle in honor of your parent’s soul. Four times a year one lights a memorial candle, besides on the yahrzeit (date of passing) date itself. The holidays of Yom Kippur, Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, allow us the opportunity of Yizkor, remembrance. We light the candle at sundown and the flames burn for (more than) 24 hours. The flame of the candle symbolizes the human soul which is never extinguished. While lighting the candle, think about your loved one and say that “I am lighting this flame in the merit that my loved one’s soul find peace and attain greater heights in the heavens above.”
The date of the yahrzeit also gives us added opportunities to help the soul soar higher in heaven because yahrzeit is a day of judgment for the soul. It is a custom to gather together and have a meal, a seudah, where we speak about the fine character of our loved one. We tell personal stories that relay
his goodness, kindness, and integrity. Visiting the grave, giving charity, and studying Torah are all additional ways for us to add to our ‘care package to heaven’.

No Weddings and Too Many Funerals

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I have been rather quiet this week due a busy and difficult end of year. Busy because it was the end of the final exams (the baccaulauréat) so I was away on a commission on Monday which officialized who had passed, who had failed and who needed a last oral before graduating. On Tuesday the results were proclaimed throughout France. The students go to their respective high schools where they are given their results and advised on their choice of subjects if they need to take the final oral.

It was also quite hard as the colleague I had recently blogged about died on Sunday morning and was buried today, as is the custom with non-Jews in France.

Some of you may remeber that another colleague and friend had died in December and a student in September.

It is never easy to come to terms with the death of people you see practically every day. It is also a little odd to be the only Jew at a Christian funeral which means that I don’t go the funeral parlor before the service, I keep silent when people say prayers, I don’t bless the coffin and I wash my hands before leaving the cemetery.

What is more I find that life doesn’t prepare us for showing people that we care for their loss, especially if they are not Jewish and colleagues (as opposed to friends). Yet I have been in the same school for 16 years now and have obviously established good relationships with a number of people.

Since my colleague’s husband is also a teacher in my school, I had sent him an email on a couple of occasions to tell him how sorry I was when I learned his wife was very ill. On Sunday evening, I dropped a note in his (real) mailbox to express my sorrow and support since he had specifically asked that I be told she had died. However I still wonder whether my gestures were adequate in those circumstances.

Death & Birth – Musings & Questions

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– My friend was buried on Tuesday. Two friends read addresses they had written; they were beautiful and, strangely enough, comforting. Then her nephew read a letter she had written a few weeks ago to be read during her funeral. Obviously this was very moving.

As my friend was Orthodox (as in Christian Orthodox) and since there is no Orthodox church in my hometown, the funeal wasn’t in a religious building. At the cemetery, however, a priest said a few words in Greek.

A few years ago I questioned my rabbi about attending a non-Jewish funeral. Living in a predominantly Christian culture, I felt the need for clarifications so that I knew how to deal with the funerals of the people who are dear to me. His advice helped me deal with the issue Do you attend the funeral of non-Jews? What are your limits?

– A friend of mine and his wife have just had a baby girl. They are waiting for the rabbi’s approval before she can be named. They have submitted a name, a double one in fact, and should get his answer pretty soon. Is anyone familiar with this custom?

Goodbye My Friend

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How do you say goodbye to a collegue who was more than just a workmate?

I changed schools 16 years ago. After 7 years in a a junior high school I applied for a job in a nearby high school and got it. I was lucky to find a great team of English teachers.

My colleague also taught English and had been working in this lycée for quite some time. She was a respected and demanding teacher and her students knew they were in good hands. She was a keen linguist and was always striving for the most accurate word.

She fell ill about four years ago and left teaching one year early because of an operation and the chemotherapy treatment that followed. Last September she learnt that she was terminally ill. She died this morning surrounded by two very close friends of hers.

She was frank, sometimes even blunt, but also extremely generous. When I last phoned her, she asked me a lot of sensitive questions and did not wish to dwell on her own condition. A friend I phoned tonight told me she had given her a book for me, which deeply moved me.

Because of her generosity and strong personality she will be missed not only by her closest friends, but also by people like me who are proud and honored to have met her.

Baruch Dayan Emet

The Last Jew

287a2f10.jpgAfter enjoying the Physician so much, I thought I would read another Noah Gordon’s novel. So I went to one of the local bookshops. They had three. The Last Jew seemed to be the most interesting. I also picked it up because, although it is not that far from home, I have actually never been to Spain. I suspect I needed something a bit exotic.

Another reason I chose this novel, rather than the two other ones, is that I felt I wanted to know more about the Jewish community which was expelled by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain in 1492. The Edict of Expulsion was issued against the Jews of Spain on March 31. All Jews of whatever age were ordered to leave the kingdom by the last day of July, (one day before Tisha B’Av), the “saddest day in Jewish history” and a traditional day of mourning.

It is estimated that 165,000 emigrated, 50,000 converted and 20,000 died en route. This is a low estimate; people disagree on the actual figures.

In today’s French Jewish community a lot of people are the descendants of the Spanish Jews who settled around the Mediterranean Sea, mostly in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Turkey and Greece.

During the twentieth century they were forced out of the countries where they had settled but their Spanish roots is reflected in their surnames; they are called Toledano, Bitton, Cardozo, Malka, Marciano…

In fact the novel is not so much about the Jews who left than those who stayed on, one teenager in particular Yonah. The book deals with his attempt at remaining a Jew when everything and almost everyone was against it. As in The Physician, its author manages to convey historical authenticity and the story rings true.