In memory of my mother and of my teacher, Carmi


25th of Tevet, January 6, 2013

T. Carmi, the Israeli poet of blessed memory, was my Hebrew literature professor during my first year of rabbinical school in Israel, from 1988-9. He encouraged me in my own writing and was a source of inspiration, wit, and great humanity.

On our walk to Mahane Yehuda today to buy more fruit and vegetables (after having already walked for over three hours to Yemin Moshe, the Jerusalem YMCA, the amazingly beautiful campus of Hebrew Union College — where I attended my first year of rabbinical school  — and the Old City, including all 4 quarters — Christian, Armenian, Arab, and Jewish — and the Wailing Wall, where I placed prayers in the nooks and crannies for dear ones), Chaim and I passed a used bookstore. In the window I spotted a book with a drawing of a man who looked familiar to me, and then I realized that it was Carmi. His name was hidden under a sticker on the cover, but I went into the bookstore, grabbed the book from the window and started leafing through it. It opened (miraculously?) to page 196, in which the poem is entitled “Mot Imi/My Mother’s Death.” I bought the book (pictured above).

I bought the book to honor my teacher, but I also bought the book because at the end of 1988, my first semester of rabbinical school in Jerusalem, I received a phone call from my father to fly home immediately because my mother was dying. My brother, also in Israel at the time (on a kibbutz) and I were only able to get a flight home at the busy traveling season at the end of December because the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 (the Lockerbie bombing) had just occurred a few days before. No flights had seats for us except for Pan Am, due to cancelled reservations. As a result of that airplane tragedy, my brother and I had a few days with our mother before she died on the 25th of Tevet, January 2, 1989.

Tonight, as I write, it is the 25th of Tevet, my mother’s 24th yahrzeit. The candle burns nearby, and in the morning I will attend synagogue to recite the mourners’ kaddish in her memory.

But there is more. During my stay in the U.S., keeping up with my schoolwork as best as I could, thanks to my teachers and classmates (a shout-out now to Stacy, in particular), and having a classmate (thank you, Lisa) deliver my first sermon on my behalf, one that interwove my thoughts about the verse “This month shall be the first of months for you” from Parashat Bo in Exodus 12 with my thoughts about my mother’s impending death, Carmi had assigned a new story. It was about the death of a mother (I believe it was a S.Y. Agnon story, but I’m not positive now). My classmates apparently thought this was not the wisest move. Carmi checked it out with me; I assured him it was fine, and that’s the story we read.

Today on the eve of my mother’s yahrzeit, I found Carmi’s own homage to his mother’s death. It was almost a psychedelic experience for me — what some might call a symptom of Jerusalem syndrome — my mother’s death, Carmi’s mother’s death, Agnon’s mother’s death all coming together in Jerusalem in the hours just before my mother’s yahrzeit. (Look it up. It’s real. According to Wikipedia,  “the Jerusalem syndrome is a group of mental phenomena involving the presence of either religiously themed obsessive ideas, delusions or other  psychosis-like experiences that are triggered by a visit to the city of  Jerusalem.”) 

So tonight, after going to a movie (an Israeli film, Filling the Void) and lighting my mother’s yahrzeit candle, Chaim and I sat down to translate Carmi’s poem. Carmi wrote about his mother’s death when he was 43, 23 years after she died, looking back. He writes about the nurse telling him to leave the room, of his not leaving the room, of his memory of hearing his mother’s soul ascend, of her yellow skin, her being only skin and bones, and of his ultimately agreeing with the nurse that “there are things that a son, a human, never forgets.”

Carmi himself died in 1994 at age 68. He was a masterful translator of poetry and of Shakespeare. In an ironic twist (thanks to Rabbi Bill Cutter for sharing this story with me a number of years ago in a class about Hebrew translation), Carmi’s erudite translation of Othello shortly before his death was rejected by the Israeli theater company that had commissioned it, deeming it too sophisticated a Hebrew for the audience to understand. (Since when was Shakespeare’s English perfectly understandable to an English-speaking audience?) Apparently, this was a great disappointment to Carmi and a shame on that theatre company.

Tonight is 24 years after my mother died, and I am looking back. There are things that a daughter, a human, never forgets. One of them is her mother. One of them is her mother dying and hearing her soul ascend. My father, sister, brother and I were all privileged to hear that whisper, as we gathered around the hospital bed, each massaging one of her limbs.

Zichrono livracha — may the memory of my mother — and of all of our mothers — be for a blessing.

And may we all be blessed with teachers whose memories are also a blessing.


9 thoughts on “In memory of my mother and of my teacher, Carmi

  1. dear pam i don’t know if you receive responses to your posts i just want to say how very moved i am by your writing of your mother and of your teacher, may their memories continue to bless and inspire you yes, there are things we do not forget, for which we say modah ani shalom judith (schmidt)

  2. Thanks Pam for sharing these moving stories/memories. Glad you are experiencing the Jerusalem Syndrome. I do believe you would not have experienced it in NY on the eve of Mommy’s yahrzeit, as it seems you were meant to find that book in the book store too…enjoying your blog very much! Continued safe travels…

  3. Tears for the loss of my mother and for the loss of yours. You’re right. There are things one doesn’t forget.

  4. Dearest Pam,
    I can’t begin to tell you what joy I have in reading these daily entries as I start my day. It’s like an autobiography, a travelogue, a prayer all in one. Modah ani. What an amazing idea you had to do this blog. Keep going.
    Jan. 2 was my brother Eddie’s yahrzeit, so I don’t have to tell you how this last one resonates with me. But also, I’m learning so much about you!
    I WANT the apt. you and Chaim have. It looks like the house of light.
    And it’s so wonderful to hear moving, daily news, as a counterpoint to all my e-mails from APN, or even Donniel Hartman.
    Love to you both,

  5. Well …. you did it again my dear Pam; I ended today’s reading with tears flowing, now dripping down into my beard as I type. The Jerusalem syndrome apparently reaches out all the way to Delray Beach. Tonight is my brother Mark’s 3rd yahrzeit, and the way he died, with his sons and wife and me there, was not a good one, as he was still aloof, angry, and unapproachable in death as in life. Not something to forget, but I try to forgive and remember the better times of all of our lives together, hoping one replaces the other over time. Perhaps, your personal poet has something appropriate I might read? Genug. Keep writing, we are so very much vicariously walking beside you each step of your journey. Best to my friend Chiam? How is he doing? |Love, DMR/JMR

  6. Dear Pam,

    Thank you for sharing your soul with us. I, too, had the privilege of witnessing my mother’s soul’s ascent when she died. It transformed my life – actually it redeemed out relationship. I look forward to discussing this miracle with you in person. Much love, Judith E

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