Meme's Legacy

My grandmother passed away last week and as a form of catharsis I penned these words in her loving memory.

By DEBORAH DANAN
September 8, 2011 14:15
Meme and I on her birthday

Meme and I on her birthday. (photo credit: Raphael Danan)

 
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At 3am last Thursday morning, my grandmother took her last breath in this world. She died in Laniado hospital in Netanya after suffering from a heart attack one month ago. The doctors were astonished that she had survived the attack at all, averring that a heart attack of that scale should have killed a woman of her age.

My grandmother was one hundred years old.

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Despite having made Aliya from Morocco over 50 years ago, Meme (as my family affectionately called her using the French word for grandmother) spoke a crude Hebrew to say the least. I recall my male cousins' agitation whenever she'd refer to them using the female tense: "Tochli mashu," she'd say, using the feminine verb to insist—as she was wont to do—that one or another of my cousins "eat something."

But Meme didn't need language to communicate. She was beyond that. Her innate wisdom—borne from a century of life in North Africa and the Middle East—coupled with her dramatic gesticulations made any message she had to impart easy for anyone to understand. Even my closest friend from England, whose Hebrew skills were far worse than hers, was able to chat for hours to Meme as if they were old friends. This same friend was shocked that Meme passed away, saying, "But that's not supposed to happen. Meme's supposed to live forever."

And she wasn't the only one who thought so. Meme had been the guru, the oracle, and the glue that bound my family together. She was the Godmother and the person to whom all looked up to, and as such it was—is—nigh impossible for the family to conceive of a world in which Meme no longer exists. My father painfully notes that with her passing it was as if the family's "spiritual umbilical cord" had been severed.

Two days before she died, I visited Meme in Laniado hospital. It had been a  strange few weeks. My cousin's wife gave birth to their third child in the same hospital in the maternity ward only 2 weeks prior and the family felt a mixture of rejoicing at the new life combined with grief at the old life that was passing onto the next world only one building away in the intensive care ward. But that day, seeing Meme unconscious due to the heavy sedation, strapped to monitors and breathing with the assistance of a week-old tracheotomy in her neck, was a particularly sad one for me.

But knowing that Meme would never condone my sadness, I ventured to seek out the positive —as indeed she had strived to do all of her life. One by one, I counted her offspring, and their children, and their children's children. Having married in her teens, over the course of 4 decades Meme produced 8 boys and 2 girls (9 of whom are still alive today since one of my uncles died many years ago in a tragic motorcycle accident), and whom in turn produced 28 grandchildren and 37 great grandchildren.



Meme's legacy translates into 74 direct descendants. 74 people (not to forget their spouses of course) who loved her, prayed for her, cared for her and who were in turn loved, prayed for, and cared for by her.

These were 74 people who were also caught brutally unawares at the prospect that she too, was mortal. 

This past summer we celebrated Meme's hundredth birthday with all the family. She was proud at having reached that age and even prouder that she was still independent and living in her own place, cooking for herself everyday and even for her two sons who live in close proximity. At the birthday party, we all watched a slide show that included hilarious pictures of Meme donning a family member's sheitle (wig) and looking remarkably like a rock star. That night, she danced to the beat of Moroccan songs belonging to a bygone era, that with the help of YouTube we were able to resurrect to her eternal delight.

Meme had always sworn that she would never end her days in a retirement home - or Bet Avot as it is commonly known in Israel. She watched as all her friends and even her own sister (who coincidentally died at exactly the same age of I00 years and 3 months) languished in various Bet Avot before taking their final breaths.

The doctors at Laniado had consulted with various experts and had decided that open heart surgery was too risky to perform on a woman that was old enough to remember World War I. But after 3 weeks of lying in hospital another idea surfaced, namely, to perform a sintur on her. After discovering that even this procedure would be extremely risky, my eldest aunt (at 80+ years she's hardly a spring chicken herself) got annoyed at the doctors, insisting that they explain to her why in their right minds they would even dream of performing surgery on her – especially with the knowledge that they could stir a media frenzy for operating on a woman of her age.

The doctor that my aunt confronted shrugged his shoulders and pointed to my uncle Maurice who was dozing in the chair beside Meme's bed. "We're considering it only because of him," he said. "That man has been beside his mother's beside for one month solid, and we've never witnessed such levels of sheer devotion. We want to be able to say with a clear conscious that we really tried everything."

Maurice eventually decided not to sign the waiver for the operation and the doctors were morose as they told him that they could do nothing more for her. She would have to move into a Bet Avot because there was no longer any point to her being in intensive care. That day, my two uncles sought out the best Bet Avot in Israel and eventually arrived at Pardess Channa, a home that is equipped to deal with patients that are strapped to ventilators.

They returned to the hospital mildly comforted with the knowledge that Paardes Channa was the best place of its kind in Isreal, but at the same time deeply saddened by the cruel fate that meant Meme was to become just another of the "astronaut vegetables." [This was my uncle's description upon encountering the motionless, elderly residents of the home sitting in armchairs with breathing tubes protruding out from them.]

That night, Meme passed away at 3am with Maurice sitting vigil by her side. The latter described how the machines that were monitoring her blood pressure and pulse all diminished into a flat-line, and how the ward's emergency sirens screamed with each number that dropped, and how the doctors rushed in and tried in vain to resuscitate her, and how he knew it was all over when he saw, what he called "the face of death." All that was left was a breathing cadaver as Meme's chest - courtesy of her ventilator - eerily continued to expand and deflate.

It was Rosh Chodesh – the day that marks the new Jewish month – of Elul, the penultimate month of the lunar calendar. Traditionally, dying in the month of Av – the month that precedes Elul – is considered to have bad connotations because of the many tragedies that befell the Jewish people throughout the ages during Av. Elul, on the other hand, is the month that the sages say is when Hamelech B'sadeh – translated literally to mean "the King is in the field." By this, Jews are given to understand that Elul is the month that God hears their prayers – especially their penitence in the lead up to the High Holy Days.

And answer her prayers He certainly did. Meme died just as Av was ushered out and Elul was beckoned in, which also happened to mark the same day that she was supposed to leave the hospital for the Bet Avot – her dreaded nightmare.

However, the divine intervention—there is simply no other explanation for it—didn't stop there. The next day Meme was laid to rest in Netanya's cemetery in front of a crowd of attendees whose number far exceeded what is usually expected for a woman who had already witnessed the death of all of her own peers. But here comes the even stranger part: Meme's husband, Raphael (who is posthumously referred to as Pepe and whose name was given to 5 of his grandchildren including my own brother), was buried in the same cemetery close to 40 years ago.

Being that no member of my family had accounted for the eventuality that Meme would leave this world for the next, no plans were made to wrap up her affairs – including buying a burial plot. But unbelievably, there was an empty plot only a couple of meters away from Pepe's resting place. The morning of her passing, Maurice fought with the Chevra Kadisha – the Jewish burial society – and managed to secure the plot for Meme so that she could be close to her husband again after four decades. Another uncle of mine, who is a rabbi in Jerusalem, promised that once the initial 30 days of mourning (known in Hebrew as the Shloshim) would elapse, a replica of Pepe's tombstone would be erected on Meme's grave.

In accordance with his character and disposition, Pepe's gravestone is simple and modest, starkly contrasting some of the fancy marble edifices surrounding his. The humble stone also belies the inscription engraved on it which enumerates the fact that Pepe descends from the rabbinical Aben Danan dynasty that traces its roots back to Maimonides. 

My father's family were renowned for being dayanim (the supreme judges of Jewish high courts), chief rabbis and for having authored countless Jewish holy books. Today, the only remaining synagogue in the mellah (ghetto) in Fez is the Aben Danan synagogue, named after my great-great grandfather who served as the chief rabbi of Morocco for over 50 years. A small replica of the synagogue can be seen in the Tel Aviv's Diaspora Museum and the synagogue itself underwent restoration over the last decade and is now a public museum. [Incidentally, in April of this year Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall visited the synaogoue, as was reported in these pages.]

Last summer I myself visited the synagogue on a tiyul shorashim ("family roots" trip) to Morocco, and with lump in my throat I walked around the men's section where all my family (including my own father who was in Morocco until the age of I8) used to sit and pray. The women's gallery upstairs is no longer a part of the present-day synagogue/museum, but upon showing my passport with the name "Danan" on it to the local Arab guard entrusted with the museum's upkeep, he was only too pleased to unlock the gallery for me. We walked up a narrow staircase that had a room off of it in which an Arab family now resides. The women's section itself was a tiny space of about 5 square meters, and because they were too poor to afford an apartment, it was in here that Meme and Pepe began their married life together.

But despite the illustrious prestige that came with marrying into the Aben Danan family, eminence was not what impressed Meme. She extolled virtues of simplicity, the value of unadorned faith in God combined with working hard to earn a parnassa (a living), and raising a Jewish family. Only to my father did Meme sing a didactic lullaby to when he was child to coax him to sleep. The lullaby was a beseeching mantra that urged him to never forget Shacharit, Mincha and Arvit (the three daily prayers). My father attributes this as being the reason that today he is a Torah observant Jew while most of his siblings strayed from their roots after immigrating to the Holy Land.

But perhaps above and beyond all, Meme was known for her simple simchat hayyim, (joy for life). Meme's joie de vivre and jeu d'esprit infected anyone who was around her, and she had an uncanny penchant to make even the most cynical person laugh. She also never pre-judged those she encountered, and treated her poor, uneducated Ethiopian neighbor with the same respect and love that she bestowed upon revered rabbis. 

This article is of course a tribute to Meme, who lived up to her namesake, Sultana, which translates to mean queen in Arabic (and incidentally, is also my second name.) Accordingly, Meme always conducted herself with the nobility and regality that becomes a real queen and imparted on her large family to act likewise. I only hope and pray that we are able to live up to her values, emulate her pure, humble nature and unadorned faith, thus giving her nachat (pleasure) and the chance to receive an illui neshama (a soul's ascent in Heaven).

But as well as being a tribute to Meme, it would not be appropriate for me to finish this article without also paying homage to the staff at Laniado hospital who administered to Meme this past month. And my accolade isn't reserved only for the doctors—whose care and empathy is unsurpassed by anything I've ever witnessed in hospitals here or abroad—but extends also to the nurses and national service girls and even to the janitors. Every staff member in the intensive care unit took care of Meme, making sure she was washed everyday and giving her physical therapy to ensure that her limbs remained supple.

Where else in the world can one witness such devoted care for a woman who had passed the hundred year mark? My suspicion is that this is something unique only to the Jewish homeland. I am proud of the fact that I myself had the privilege of being born in Laniado hospital and that my 2 week-old cousin was also born there during the very period that our grandmother departed to return to her beloved husband and to her Maker.

The writer is editor of The Jerusalem Post's Premium Zone and has a Master's degree in Creative Writing from Bar Ilan University. 

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