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Something to Hold

As Yom Kippur approaches, finding comfort among the afflicted

by
Alana Joblin Ain
September 15, 2021
Ivan Radic/Flickr
Ivan Radic/Flickr

I gathered stones in my hands for the mourners to place on a headstone on a recent Thursday.

Honestly? It was the highlight of my week, the unveiling.

Even the drive through San Francisco to the Home of Peace cemetery—the scent of eucalyptus through the open car windows, the kids at school, just the two of us, me and Dan, my husband, a pulpit rabbi—felt like an enforced respite on a late August morning.

Have you been to Home of Peace? I asked a friend later. It’s really nice, I said, passing it off like some Michelin recommendation.

A year-and-a-half prior, April 2020, I’d watched Dan make calls to the funeral home, the cemetery, the hospital, trying to negotiate the burial. That was our first COVID-19 funeral, and it was for the mother of a friend, someone I’d known since college. I called mutual friends with updates, as questions and roadblocks arose:

How would we get possession of the body? Were we allowed to convene a minyan? Would anyone aside from the rabbi and gravediggers be allowed on site? Would we need to scale the fence?

I wept at the idea of my friend being unable to bury his mother.

I told Dan that if people can’t bury their parents, I don’t want to be Jewish anymore.

“This is not helpful,” he said.

“I’m done being helpful!” I cried.

We were a few weeks into Zoom school for our third grader and preschooler, our home was the virtual congregation headquarters—streaming morning minyan out of our bedroom, and multiple programs and meetings out of our living room each day.

But even as we opened the mail in the garage, disposing of the envelopes and sanitizing our groceries, I knew Dan agreed. People need to be allowed to bury their parents.

The rules had nothing to do with Judaism. We were subject to the measures of the city, which were not yet defined clearly—and all of the uncertainty and fear.

After hours of back-and-forth negotiations, we were assured that the police would not be called on a group of mourners.

But unsure of how the virus spread, the gravediggers were not allowed to share their shovels.

The 10 mourners took fists full of dirt, in their hands, and placed it over the plain wood casket before it was lowered into the earth.

I’m always trying to figure out what to do with my hands.

Typing helps. Praying, too. Collecting rocks to give to the mourners.

I love that prayer is physical. And never more so than during the High Holidays when we lay in supplication, fully prostrate to God.

Dan and I were set up on a blind date, in September, 15 years ago in Manhattan. He was finishing rabbinical school, and I was wrapping up an MFA in poetry. We met for coffee at Irving Place near Union Square. I had a stack of student papers to grade and he was preparing his sermon for Yom Kippur.

“What’s it about?” I asked him.

“Death,” he said. “The holiday is about death.”

“I disagree,” I told him. “It’s about life.”

We face down our afflictions on the High Holidays.

One of my afflictions is that I can’t stop thinking about my Aunt Sherrie’s hands. She took her life just over three years ago. I know that I am supposed to say “died by suicide” because it’s been voted a less stigmatizing label, and I really did try that for a while, but it just sounds too passive for truth.

Because it doesn’t account for her hands—the activity of them, her last living movements and her intentions being physically carried out by the hands.

I’ve tried out saying “died on purpose,” which is also true.

But this seems to make other people even more uncomfortable. It is awkward to mourn someone who died on purpose in a society that is trying so hard, that is willing to trade so much, to evade death.

When I pray, I clasp my hands together.

If I’m alone, I fall to my knees.

If it’s Yom Kippur, I do this in public. I lie down and place my hands on the sanctuary carpet.

I don’t have to be alone on Yom Kippur. I get to be among the rest of the afflicted.

“Do hotel rooms still have Bibles?” I asked Dan on a recent trip out of the city.

The drawers were empty. And I wanted something to hold in my hands.

I’d gotten into the habit of reaching for hotel drawers and opening the Bible ever since a family trip to Florida when I was 8, where I found an unused plane ticket and $17 tucked inside the pages.

Every drawer I reach into holds a story folded into the pages of another story.

Even in cleaning out Sherrie’s apartment drawers, there was a different suicide note from the one she left. An earlier draft, an alternative explanation.

At the hotel, Dan tells me we’re supposed to hold our phones up to a scan-code for menus, and there are no pens and little stationery.

There is no Bible.

There is nothing for me to hold in my hands.

And now the only thing I want to do is make paper cranes out of the nonexistent stationery, and write notes to my dead matriarchs.

My therapist places her hands on her heart, I mirror her, and we say a prayer: Dear God, Please give me strength and courage to do what is necessary in this world.

I like that she’s adapted this space to bring in God because she knows God is important to me. It also feels appropriate that pandemic therapy has borrowed AA rhetoric.

She also teaches dance, the therapist, and we spend the last few minutes of each session doing neck rolls and breathing—the two of us embodied across this ether. I imagine someday graduating talk therapy, the pandemic ending, and doing a communal dance performance with all of the other patients.

We were two short of a minyan for the unveiling and then two women who were just passing through town volunteered to come. They sat in traffic and drove to Home of Peace and joined us up on the hill and I handed them rocks and they prayed for the memory of this woman they’d never met, and we all said Kaddish together, the sun shining its warmth on our faces.

We carry out these rituals in a city in a country in a world that makes decisions about safety, our risk, our vulnerabilities.

But uploading health records on my phone next to the menu scan won’t make me feel safe, it will just make me feel hungry.

And all I’ll want to do is hold a Bible in my hands, and hug my dead matriarchs, and hand out rocks every Thursday at the cemetery, and lie down prostrate, taking in the scent of sanctuary carpet, next to all of the other afflicted, and pray for our collective mercy—for another year of life.

Alana Joblin Ain lives in San Francisco where she writes about poetry, consolations, and faith.

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