I am an orphan.
My father died 38 years ago and I don’t know if it was because I was much younger or because he had been so sick for so long, had so long felt the anguish and guilt of being the only member of his family to have survived the Holocaust, but while I was, of course, sad, I was not shocked. Indeed, because he had suffered so much, had had so many illnesses, so many hospitalizations, was so much not who he had been, I felt a kind of sense of peace, a sense of gratitude that his long suffering was over, that he could now rest in peace, that he would be welcomed into heaven into the loving arms of his mother, who was murdered when she was 40 and his sister, who was murdered when she was 20, both of whom he had last seen when they all arrived at Auschwitz, his mother and sister immediately burned, their ashes thrown onto a pile with other Jews.
And I felt a sense of gratitude that he would be welcomed into heaven into the loving arms of his father, who was murdered when he was 44, after he and my father together endured time in two other concentration camps, his father, my grandfather, for whom I am named, finally succumbing to exhaustion and starvation.
My mom died two days before I am writing this. As I write this, I feel no sense of peace, only shock. I would say grief but I am too numb and disbelieving to feel grief.
While my mom was alive, no matter her condition, I always felt safe knowing she was there. I knew she would always be there for me, no matter what. I do not feel safe right now. I am an orphan, both my parents gone. I am feeling very alone.
My mom was an incredibly strong, determined person. Nothing would or could stop her. That was evident early in her life when she and her parents and four siblings survived a Siberian labor camp during the war. She was but three years old.
And from that point on, she survived, endured, dealt with everything. She got married at age 16, had me at age 17, had four more kids, worked with my father day and night to build a business. She took care of her parents as they aged and became ill. And she took care of others as well because caring about people, caring for people was who she was.
My mom was someone who was the very model of a caring human being, a Jew to her core, full of faith. Every single time she encountered someone with their hand out asking for money, she always gave them a dollar or two, no matter what. I vividly remember the times we would walk together downtown and pass homeless people selling the newspaper Streetwise. No matter how many we passed, block after block, she gave each some money. And as we passed each, she would start crying, so much did she feel sad that they were homeless, perhaps also remembering her own childhood in Siberia and so could truly understand what they were dealing with.
But her caring went way beyond giving a couple of bucks to someone in the street. Over the years, she took care of a series of people down on their luck, with no one to turn to, all alone. I remember particularly an elderly Jewish woman named Ida, who she would constantly visit, bring food to, take to the doctor, do whatever to make her sad life a bit happier.
To say my mom had a good heart, a generosity of spirit, is to make the understatement of all times.
I can’t believe she’s gone because for almost my whole life, she was the most active, vibrant, determined person you could imagine. It was only in the last couple of years that age began to catch up with her. She had trouble with her legs, found it harder and harder to walk. And yet even with that to deal with, she made sure to get out almost every night, accompanied by my sister Chani, who lived with her, was devoted to her.
Nothing it seemed could stop my mom. But then came the cruel and heartless plague of dementia, which robbed her not only of her strength but of her strong personality. The last time I called her, the mom I had known was no more. She didn’t even know who I was.
That fact, her not recognizing my voice, not recognizing me, the baby she had had when she was but 17, is seared into my heart. I still have not gotten over it and am not sure I ever will.
What makes my mom’s passing a moment of anguish not of peace is that it all happened so fast. It was but a couple months ago that yes, she had trouble walking, yes, she had trouble remembering but she was still fighting, you could still see her spirit. And then in what seems like the blink of an eye, things got worse and worse, faster and faster, until in the end, the woman who never stopped and was always doing for others, was just lying in bed, not able to talk, not able to eat, not able to swallow.
I have a photo of her when she was like that. I have looked at it but once and wish I had never looked at it at all. The mom I knew was never lying down, was always moving, was always doing and especially always doing for me, for Golda Shira, for my brothers Maury and Fred, for my sisters Susie and Chani, for her 10 grandchildren and her seven great grandchildren.
It is impossible for me to overstate how much my mom did for me, how much she was there for me, always giving. And always giving in the way most meaningful to me, the ways that made my life easier, helping me, being there for me.
My mom was a remarkable person, one who has meant so much to my life, one who not only gave me life but made it so much better in so many ways.
One of the ways she did that was through food. She was a great cook, had an amazingly large repertoire of dishes that she prepared in her own unique way. And because of her giving nature, she would prepare different meals for each meal, each especially tailored to the likes of each of us five kids. I can still taste the matzah brei she made on Pesach, the latkes for Chanukah, the barbecue steaks during the summer.
I have so many yummy memories of eating my mom’s cooking, of eating food that I could taste, could feel, was made with love.
I cannot believe I will never again eat a meal she cooked. Not for the food, I can get food plenty of places, but because of how much joy she got from serving it to me, how much joy she got when she saw I liked it, how happy she was doing for me.
One of the things that touched me most deeply about my mom is that whenever she cooked something for me, did something for me, gave something to me, and I thanked her, she always brushed it off, saying “you don’t have to thank me.”
My mom did for me and did it so naturally and so lovingly that she truly didn’t want me to thank her. Giving is just who she was, it’s just what she was about, it was just so much her, her way, that she saw no reason for me to do anything but accept it gracefully and be better off for having it. “You don’t have to thank me,” she always said.
She expressed love by doing, not by saying. I didn’t get ‘I love yous’ from her as a kid. Which is why I was at first taken aback and then very touched that every time I would call her the last year or so, she would almost immediately upon hearing my voice, start crying and would say over and over, ‘I love you.’ It seemed that when she was no longer able to give to me as she had, she made sure to give to me in the only way she still could. It was so unlike her to say I love you but so much like her to give in whatever way possible.
My mom died right after Shabbat, Saturday, April 6 at about 8:30. After her funeral in Skokie, she was flown to Israel for burial. Because her flight was delayed, her body arrived at Jerusalem’s Har Hamenuchot cemetery at about 10 at night, Monday, April 8.
Because it was so late at night, the cemetery was eerily quiet, no one around, no one visiting any graves, no other funerals taking place. Just quiet, darkness all around. It is the custom in Jerusalem that before burial, the casket is opened so that the surviving sons can identify that it is indeed their mother who was being laid to rest.
I stood and looked at her face. “Zeh eema?” is that your mother, asked the rabbi in Hebrew. “Ken, zeh eema sheli,” yes that’s my mother, I answered.
And so the very last time I saw my mom was in her casket, as still and quiet as our Jerusalem surroundings, at rest, her journey over, her life of doing and giving and loving at an end. I then accompanied her to her gravesite where she was laid to rest right next to my dad, and as is traditional, I filled her grave with the earth of Jerusalem as her body faded away from my view.
But my so many, so fond memories of her will stay as strong as she was, ever in my heart, ever in my soul.
Mom, may you find peace and comfort as you are reunited with dad, reunited with your mother and father. Please know how very much you have meant to me, how I will think of you every day the rest of my life and how much whatever I’ve managed to do with my life is thanks to you.
Mom, I will miss you terribly. Please know how appreciative I am for everything you did for me and everything you were to me. I know you would say I don’t have to, but I thank you very much. And I know it wasn’t our way to say things like this, but I love you very much.