Today was a sad day for me. The title of this post pretty much tells why. Before I elaborate, allow me to go back in time for a little background. I grew up in a middle sized town called Bloomfield, NJ, which at the time consisted of a large populations of Polish-Americans and Italian-Americans and various other hyphenated Christian Americans. Blacks were a small minority and Jews were only slightly larger. At that time, in the 1950's and 60's there were two synagogues. Ours, the Conservative Synagogue, Temple B'nai Zion, was located in Bloomfield Center (about 7 miles from my house) and the Reform Synagogue, Temple Menorah, was almost across the street from my house. The two merged in 1979 to become Temple Ner Tamid. I can not speak for Temple Menorah, having not belonged there and knowing very little about it, but the Jewish community of Temple B'nai Zion was a close knit one.
My personal family was relatively small and though my father's side had more members than my mother's, we didn't seem to know a lot of them. However, the members of this Jewish community in Bloomfield were my "extended family" in a very real sense. Many of them lived either in my neighborhood or close by. Many had children my age or that of my sister and/or brother. These were the people who came to our, what in the Jewish religion is known as "simchas", meaning joyous ocassions, such as our Bat and Bar Mitzvahs (1960, 1964, 1968 respectively). other milestone birthdays, high school and college graduation parties, weddings, wedding anniversaries, and all the other milestone events that were signifcant, happy, momentous occasions of our lives. These same people later attended my Engagement Party, the Brit Milah for my son and Naming Ceremony for my daughter. They came to decade birthday parties, the ones we made for my parents and ones that were made for us. They have also been there for the not so happy milestones of our lives. This same extended family was there at the funeral home when my father died over ten years ago and again when my mother died over two years ago and they supported us at "shiva calls" at our homes. Needless to say, I feel very close and connected to this extended family.
As the years go by, many of this family have died. For the most part, they still lived in Bloomfield and those who did not, were buried there. In death, as in life, this community remains together. They have their own lot within a larger cemetery, where almost all are buried. When I visit my parent's graves, it is like "old home week", which brings me back to the subject of today's post. I will use initials to keep the privacy of the family. Yesterday, when I got home from work, there was a message on my machine. It was from J. J lives in Massachusetts, is my sister's age and thus was her friend in Bloomfield, and I hadn't heard from her since she called me a few years ago to offer condolences and lots of notalgia, after my mother's death. So, needless to say, receiving a phone message from her was in itself a surprise. Upon listening to the message, I literally fell to the floor, crying. The message was that both her father (who had had Alzheimer's for many years) and her mother (who in recent years had been relatively healthy and well) had, in the past week passed away. Receiving news of a death of a friend's parent is shock enough, but to hear that both parents died in the same week was beyond shock.
Again, a little background is in order. As I have previously mentioned , I lived in Israel from June of 1977 through April of 1979. During that time, my mother had been very generous with my addresses and phone numbers in Israel; thus I received serveral phone calls and visits from people from home (some of whom I knew, others I did not) It was thus that, Mr. and Mrs. S (J's parents) and Mrs. S's sister, Sally (any more initials and I'll forget whom I am talking about!!) invited me to come stay with them for a few days in Jerusalem. I knew them as part of the Bloomfield Jewish community, as well as the parents of my sister's friend, but I did not know them well, especially not Sally. Yet, the prospect of a few free meals, a night in a comfortable hotel, and getting to see people from home wasalluring, so I accepted the invitation. From those few days, I gained a connection that became for me quite meaningful. I especially loved Sally, but unfortunately she passed away decades ago. As for the S's, Mrs. S. and I exchanged Rosh HaShanah cards (Jewish New Year) for all these years since that time. I would see them occasionally at a simcha or funeral or at the occasional Holiday or Shabbat service at Temple Ner Tamid (where the S's had remained quite active). What I'm trying to say is that I had a special place in my heart for these people.
So, when I received this message about their deaths, it hurt.. a lot. As it turned out, Mrs. S. essentially planned her own funeral. Mr. S. had been moved up to an Alzheimer's facility in MA about a month or two ago and Mrs. S. followed, after taking care of business in Bloomfield. She had wanted to keep Mr. S. with her, but his care had become overwhelming and the children insisted on a facility. Mrs. S. came up to MA a few weeks ago and was beginning to settle in nicely, especially having her daughters and sons-in-law close by. Then on Tuesday or Wednesday of this past week, Mr. S. took a turn for the worse and died. Mrs. S. was of course heartbroken, but the death was not unexpected. Everyone tells of how she made all of the phone calls to the Temple and caterer and friends to arrange for her husban's funeral back in Bloomfield. She was, they all told me, sad, but optimistic and even a little excited by the propects of her future. Then in less than 24 hours after Mr. S. died, Mrs. S. was with her daughter trying on clothes for the funeral, when she suddenly dropped to the floor. J got her to the hospital within 20 minutes, but the massive cerebral hemorrhage took her life soon after. So, within the span of under a day, J and her sister, R went from having two parents to having none.
This was basically what was on my answering machines on Thursday when I got home from work. On Friday morning, my sister and I were at Temple Ner Tamid for the funeral of both Mr. and Mrs. S. Seeing the two rose covered caskets set before the congregation, in front of the Bimah, from which the Rabbi and two family members spoke, was both beautiful and heartbreaking. Feeling the hugs and kisses of so many members of the Bloomfield community, many of whom I hadn't seen in a very long time, felt welcomed and comforting. And it reminded me of how much I appreciate having once known what "community" really is and still having just a little more than simply the memory of it.