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Kaddish With a Dead Celebrity

In a cemetery thousands of miles away, an unexpected host helped me reconnect with my lost friend

Ellen Sussman
December 21, 2012
(Robert A. Cantor)

(Robert A. Cantor)

Wendy and I were best friends when we were in our late 20s and 30s. We raised babies together, double-dated with our spouses, and shared family vacations. Then I moved away, and, over the years, our friendship cooled a bit. When I found out that she was dying of pancreatic cancer—at 59—I decided the best way to honor her was to show up. During a long and difficult 10 months I flew from my home in California to hers in New Jersey many times, and I called almost daily. We became very close again.

I knew when I left for a writing residency in France last year that Wendy was days away from dying. I had spent a weekend with her two weeks before; we had both struggled to say a last goodbye. But when I got the news that she had passed on, it was sudden and shocking all the same. I cried for hours, for days, using up boxes of Kleenex and wandering around the town of Vence in southern France with swollen eyes.

The day before the funeral, Wendy’s husband emailed to tell me that their synagogue would stream the service live on the web. I spent all day waiting for it to begin, crying, pacing the room, tossing tissues into the trash. At 3:45 p.m., 15 minutes before the start, the Internet at my inn went down. For an hour, I pressed “refresh” over and over, a cruel exercise in futility. Finally, I put on my hiking boots and headed up a hill near my inn. I had to get out of the room and clear my head.

At the top of the hill, on the edge of one of those charming French hill towns, sat a cemetery. I stared through the gates for a moment, unsure about entering. It was a Catholic cemetery, full of mausoleums with crosses and angels. All of the graves were above ground, bleached by the hot Mediterranean sun, and though they appeared to be well-kept—graced with fresh flowers, potted plants, and photographs—the place looked ancient and spooky. Wendy was an observant Jew; wasn’t this the wrong place to say a prayer for her? And what prayer would I say? I’m a lapsed Jew, and as I stood there, peering through the gate, I tried to recall the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for mourning. It had been too many years since my synagogue days; I couldn’t remember a word. I could see the sun dropping behind the hill. As I watched, the world darkened. I’ll catch the last of the sunset, I thought, pushing through the gate. Without looking at any of the graves, I hurried to the far side of the cemetery, toward the best viewpoint on the western edge.

I was too late. Only the tip of the sun, a tilted cap, perched for a lingering moment on the far mountain. Below, in the valley, the last light grazed the crest of the vineyards and villages. Yet another missed opportunity on this difficult day.

I turned around and looked at the grave next to me. It was different from all the others, I noticed: There were no crosses, no statues, no photographs of the deceased. A flowering rosemary bush draped over one side, and the rim of the tomb was covered with stones, many of them painted with words. Jews put stones on graves to show that they’ve visited, I thought—but this is a Catholic cemetery. Then I looked at the name on the tomb, so faint as to be nearly illegible in the disappearing light: Marc Chagall. My breath caught.

I stood in front of Chagall’s grave for a long time. Long enough for the words of the Kaddish prayer—magically, mystically, Chagallianly—to return to me from all those years ago. Yis’gadal v’yiskadash shmay rabbo. I lifted a small, smooth stone from the graveled earth of the cemetery and carefully laid it next to the others.

By now, the sky had changed from slate gray to rose, and the air had cooled. I heard a bird call out from the nearby cypress tree, and its mate called back. Then others joined, the sky ringing with calls.

Chagall wasn’t an unwilling exile, but he died half a continent away from his homeland, and his relationship to his faith was so troubled that, as Jackie Wullschlager writes in her biography of the artist, he would have died without Jewish rites had a stranger not stopped by his grave to say the Kaddish. Dislocation, loss, and separation all—and yet, in stumbling on his place of rest, I had discovered a brief sense of connection to my far-away friend, so far away now that I could reach her only in my heart.

After I returned to the States, I called Wendy’s oldest son, Adam, and told him about my experience. “Chagall,” Adam told me with something like wonder in his voice, “was Mom’s favorite artist.” For a moment I was back in that cemetery in the South of France, murmuring the words of the Kaddish. A prayer for Wendy, a prayer for Chagall. Of course he was her favorite artist; I shouldn’t have been surprised.


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Ellen Sussman is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel French Lessons and the forthcoming novel The Paradise Guest House.

Ellen Sussman is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel French Lessons and the forthcoming novel The Paradise Guest House.