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.