My family wasn’t very interested in Mother’s Day when I was growing up. My mother wasn’t a believer in contrived holidays. Her philosophy was that every day you were alive should be seen as your birthday, and if you had a mother, every day should be seen as Mother’s Day; nothing more needed to be said. So, our observance of Mother’s Day left a lot to be desired, and we usually marked the day with a casual toss of “Happy Mother’s Day” during a phone conversation.
This year, for the first time, there won’t be any Mother’s Day phone calls. My mother, Rochel Steinmetz, passed away last October. Instead of chatting on the telephone, I will be mourning in silence. Silence is a fitting tribute to my mother, because she understood that sometimes silence speaks louder than words.
As a rabbi, I know that mourning and silence go hand in hand. Oftentimes, visitors to shivas feel compelled to speak. After all, the North American cultural bias is to force-feed every social situation with conversation; silences are awkward and unwanted. But shiva houses are different; there are sensitivities to consider, and there is authentic grief in the air. So, when you arrive to speak with the mourner, you’re concerned that what you say might prove to be a faux pas.
For this reason, I often rely on the well-worn cliche, “There are no words.” I’ve gone to hundreds of shiva homes; and there are tragedies so large that it’s impossible to speak without acknowledging all of the pain swirling around the room. Declaring that “there are no words” makes an awkward situation less awkward; suddenly no one has to pretend to comfort, and no one has to pretend to be comforted. Death is final and tragic; nothing anyone ever says can change that. Clever attempts at offering comfort usually fail miserably and are more likely to offend than to console. In a shiva house, words cannot compare to silence.
After my mother’s funeral, I sat shiva for the first time. After having visited hundreds of shivas, this time it was me who sat hunched down in the low chair. Suddenly, the phrase “there are no words” took on new meaning. The Talmud says that upon returning from the cemetery the mourner eats a rounded food (like eggs, lentils, etc.). This is because a mourner “has no mouth,” just like an egg, which is an enclosed circle, without any hint of an opening. During the first few days of shiva, I realized how true this was. Even though I spoke nonstop, words couldn’t express my sense of loss. Inside my 47-year-old body was a 7-year-old-child crying for mommy; and even an ocean of thesauruses could not describe my heart, the heart of a grieving orphan. Silence communicated my feelings better than words.
As the year of mourning presses on, silence has become the playground of memory; I hear my mother’s voice best during moments of silence. And even as I turn my mind to other matters, precious memories turn up, without prompting and without warning, unannounced. They arrive with or without tears, while I’m doing everyday tasks like driving or saying kaddish; suddenly, I’m overwhelmed by how much I miss my mother. And these silent intrusions are actually quite welcome; it’s extremely comforting to know that I can remember my mom without even trying. She is a part of my heart and soul, with or without anything further being said.
While silence is a large part of any mourner’s life, it feels particularly appropriate in my case: Silence was important to my mother, and she made it a large part of my upbringing, as well.
My mother was deported to Auschwitz in 1944; at the time, she was just 16 years old. After the war, she came to America and rapidly rebuilt her life. She got married, bought a house in the suburbs, and had three children. In 1964, when she was eight months pregnant, my father’s car crashed, and her world fell apart. All of sudden, she was a widow and a single mother struggling to get by. And 30 days after my father’s death, my mother gave birth to her fourth child: me.
At my mother’s funeral, an elderly rabbi asked for the opportunity to speak. He told the audience that 47 years earlier, when he had visited my father’s shiva, he was struck by the enormous courage my mother had shown as a young widow. Even while sitting shiva, Rochel Steinmetz let everyone know she was going to raise her children by herself, and raise them well. And 47 years later, her children can confirm that she kept her promise.
Despite all the difficulty in her life, my mother was an absolute optimist. This Holocaust survivor, widow, and single mother insisted that the glass was always half full; and even if it wasn’t half full, it was at least a quarter full. To my mother, the most important thing a parent could give a child is a sense of hope, so she nurtured us with a steady stream of inspirational quotes and stories.
But my mother also nurtured us with silence. As a 16-year-old, she had experienced unspeakable horrors, yet she made it a point of not talking about them. Survivors have debated among themselves about whether or not they should speak about the Holocaust with their families; in my own family, my mother refused to speak much, while her sister carefully documented the events of the Shoah. Those who did speak have left a treasured historical record, and I am so grateful that my aunt left us her testimony. But I am also grateful for my mother’s silence. Even though she had a full portfolio of personal challenges, she was determined to shelter us from her struggles. She never complained, because she didn’t want to worry us; for the same reason, she never spoke with us about the Holocaust. She raised us to love life.
Mom’s silence was a symphony of determination and love, a desire to make sure the horrors of her youth were not visited on her children. As I sit silently tapping away on my keyboard, her quiet legacy still speaks loudly. I will remember many things about my mother; and I will never forget the sounds of silence, her silent struggle to provide us with a home filled with love.
Chaim Steinmetz is a the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan.