Wading through widowhood: Post-Passover perspective

Living as we do in a constant state of not-quite-peace, punctuated by periodic ghastly wars, perspective leapfrogs personal pain.

Last year’s Independence Day celebrations in Tel Aviv (photo credit: REUTERS)
Last year’s Independence Day celebrations in Tel Aviv
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Paul McCartney has always been my idol. When I was 12, I plastered my cupboards with every photo of him that the E.P. Herald could supply. Just over a decade later, a Paul McCartney lookalike knocked on my door in Jerusalem, wanting to take me out for dinner. I fell in love with Martin before his “Hello.”
I still adore the handsomest Beatle, despite the aging voice and skin, but little did I dream that Sir Paul would one day actually, physically, concretely change my life. Yet a couple of weeks ago, on my 57th birthday as I repeated my mantra – “What a privilege to grow old, but what a pain to lose one’s 20/20 vision” – I finally decided to listen to my brothers and Google “Paul McCartney: Eye Yoga.” As promised, four days after following the two-minute, twice-a-day program, I could read from the newspaper without glasses; two weeks down the line, I can focus on phone texts and type a reply – all by myself. Try it for yourselves – it’s a miraculous thing. Oh, and while you’re on the site, take a look at “Paul tells an interesting joke.” It sure is… ummm… interesting. And laugh-out-loud funny.
Now, I’m not sure that literally seeing better has anything to do with metaphorically seeing things in a different light, but in the run-up to the awesome “Yamim” (days) we are now negotiating – Holocaust Remembrance Day, Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars, and Independence Day – I’ve been mulling over one specific line from The Merchant of Venice. It comes when Shylock, devastated by his daughter’s defection to marry a Christian, wails: “The curse never came upon my nation till now.” Jessica is gone, taking with her much of her father’s gold and a stash of his ducats, and Antonio, who owes him a small fortune, has been declared bankrupt. To Shylock, it appears that the pain of the entire Jewish people throughout the ages is dwarfed by his current misery; thus the hyperbolic groan.
Then perspective returns. “I never felt it till now,” the Jewish moneylender continues, conceding that his downfall is not, in fact, the worst thing ever to befall his people.
Perspective is not cheaply bought. It seems to me that in times of extreme grief, one’s natural reaction is to think that life is simply unfair. As loneliness hits, together with regret for beautiful times that are now lost, it is pretty easy to slip into the mind-set that one’s own burden is more unbearable than most. A number of women have told me, for example, that I am “fortunate” to have been widowed relatively young; my life lies ahead and good times will return. Losing a spouse after 50 or 60 years is much harder, they say. From their perspective, it might well look that way. Am I going to start balancing out pros and cons of having your husband at weddings and births of grandchildren against a few years alone at the end of a lovely life? No, I just smile and murmur something polite. But as I accompany my too-young daughters to beit knesset as they say Yizkor for their father for the first time, it’s a challenge not to look around and feel sad and lost, and hard done by.
And then the hazan intones the Yizkor prayer for Israel’s fallen soldiers, and perspective returns with a boom.
Living as we do in a constant state of not-quitepeace, punctuated by periodic ghastly wars, perspective leapfrogs personal pain, especially at this time of year. Every square centimeter that we tread in this country, it seems, is born in blood and sorrow. First comes Holocaust Remembrance Day, with the stories that seem more impossible each year. As a young, idealistic new immigrant to Israel, I used to feel illogical emotions on the memorial day for Israel’s soldiers and victims of terror – a kind of solidarity and awe for the sacrifices to ensure Israel’s survival. Today I wish I could sleep through the whole 24 hours; the pity of it seems almost too heavy to bear. And then the sharp transition into barbecues and fluttering flags as Israelis celebrate our miraculous existence and incredible achievements… no wonder we are a nation that always seems a bit on the edge.
Yet this edginess translates into a vitality that has to be experienced to be understood. It’s an “only in Israel” feeling that is hard to define. When I was a starry-eyed teenage idealist, alone in the country many decades ago, everything seemed to be a “Hatikva moment.” A Jewish bus driver, wearing a kippa – wow! Jewish cottage cheese, milked from Jewish cows – wow, and wow again. As the years passed and “Home” became merely home, this sense of living in history inevitably waned. I don’t gasp with pleasure anymore at a “Shabbat shalom” from a cashier, or shiver with astonishment that my kids call me “Ima.” Endless hooting on the roads grates on the most Zionistic of nerves, even when the hands tooting horns are Jewish hands. Earning a quarter of the salary that you would take home if home were somewhere else is not always mitigated by pocketing shekels instead of pounds.
But as I reflect on nearly 40 years in this crazy, creative, compelling country of ours, I have to say that, given the choice, I would come back again at age 17 in a heartbeat. I am grateful that despite eyes that now need assistance, and despite the wisdom that decades of living somehow thrusts into our brains, I still thrill with the privilege of sharing in what I believe is the greatest miracle of the millennium. How lucky are we to be part of the most amazing Jewish adventure since the Exodus.
May this 66th anniversary celebration usher in a year when no more names are ever added to the ghastly list of our fallen soldiers. May it be a year of love and laughter for all, a year in which we make peace with our neighbors and with ourselves, and a year in which we keep everything in perspective. Even when the driver in front of us takes a nanosecond too long to pull out at a traffic light.
The writer lectures at Beit Berl and the IDC Herzliya.