Death and Joy in the Spring

Posted: Apr 02, 2014 12:01 AM
Death and Joy in the Spring

My mother's yahrzeit came twice this year. Yahr-zeit: Literally, time of year. It's shorthand for the anniversary of a death in the family. According to Jewish custom, it's observed for a husband, wife, mother, father, brother, sister or, God forbid, a child.

You light a candle and say a prayer. I did it twice this year because my mother died in the Jewish month of Adar. It's the month that's repeated every Jewish leap year to make the calendar come out right, so Passover will stay in the spring and Chanukah in the winter and the harvest festivals at harvest time. (Yes, it takes a whole month to even things out in a lunar calendar. The Muslims don't, and their feasts are moveable indeed.)

So every few years, when Adar comes twice, Sarah Ackerman Greenberg gets an extra yahrzeit, which is just like her frugal self, always getting a little more out of everything. You'd be frugal, too, if you'd grown up on a battlefield in Poland during the First War, not knowing whether the village would be German or Russian territory when you woke the next morning. If you did.

She never quite believed in what she'd found in America: work, family, home. At least not till her last years, after she'd married off her first grandchild, when she relaxed slightly. Till then, she went to sleep as she had in that Polish village in no-man's land, as if she didn't know whether it would all still be there in the morning. I do believe she was surprised when it was.

All the while, she worked and worried and saved and sewed. I grew up in a house in which even the washcloths had been mended. So it's no surprise she'd squeeze another yahrzeit out of a year, too. Growing up in her house, I mistakenly thought the Yiddish word for sin, neverah, meant waste. ("You finish those potatoes! It would be a neverah to throw them away.")

I cherish an old photograph of the passengers lined up on the deck of the S.S. Manchuria when it arrived at the Port of Boston on February 10, 1921. If you look carefully through the faces, you can find a 19-year-old girl -- pudding face, pug nose, broad Slavic features, dark hair drawn severely back, unsmiling in the dignified photographic style of the day. A face indistinguishable from those of millions of other Eastern Europeans who flocked to the Golden Land at the turn of that century.

They, too, were coming here to take jobs from deserving Americans, or maybe swell the relief rolls, or somehow do both, and they'd never learn English or adjust to our ways and they'd overwhelm us. ... The faces and accents of American immigrants change, but not the fears they inspire, or the gratitude they feel. Nobody ever said a bad word about America in my mother's house. Not without her giving them what we kids learned to call The Look. My mother's Yiddish was piquant, her Polish rusty but serviceable, and her English was, well, deliberate, but her silence most eloquent of all.

My mother's yahrzeit falls on the 12th of Adar, two days before Purim -- the jolliest of holidays. It's a kind of Jewish mardi gras, complete with costumes, carnivals and noisemakers. Read all about it in the Book of Esther. Costumes from the East, a plot out of Scheherazade, fun and excitement galore! Love, beauty, intrigue, royalty, villainy, courage, knavery, wisdom, folly, terror, jokes and general merriment ... this script's got everything. Call it religion by Cecil B. DeMille.

This year at the local temple's Purim dinner, I heard the story from the Book of Esther more than slightly revised and sung to old Billy Joel tunes. It's that kind of holiday. One rabbinic sage said it was incumbent on celebrants of Purim to drink so much we could no longer tell the hero, Mordechai, from the villain, Haman. Some of us tried.

After all, it's a commandment. Scripture commands that in "the month which was turned unto them from sorrow to joy, and from mourning into a good day: that they should make them days of feasting and joy, and of sending portions to one another, and gifts to the poor. ... And that these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, every family, every province and every city; and that these days of Purim should not fail from among the Jews, nor the memorial of them perish from their seed." Amen, To Your Health, and l'Chaim! To life!

So, every year, almost as soon as the votive candle on the kitchen cabinet flickers out, I go from my mother's yahrzeit to the Arabian Nights. That's life. And death. And spring in these Southern latitudes: changeable.

One spring weekend, we drove up to the Arkansas Ozarks and watched the hills rioting in Technicolor. We drove through a dark, heavy rainstorm, then emerged into the sunlight to take a long walk through the cleansed air. It was like going from a yahrzeit to Purim -- as if the Bible went straight from the Book of Lamentations to the Book of Esther with nothing in between. Weeping may endure for the night, but joy cometh in the morning. The prayer of praise and petition you say on a yahrzeit is called the Kaddish. It doesn't mention death.