The Part They Don’t Tell You

Sharon July 12th, 2009

A few weeks ago we had guests for Shabbos dinner.  The friends we gathered there were ones who had come to our table before - a couple of our own approximate age and life stage with three children who are my children’s friends; a couple in their 50s who have been kind to us and who we’ve shared meals with at other friends, and a couple in their sixties who first helped welcome us to the community, who have been our friends since we arrived. In many ways the meal wasn’t that unusual - we love to have guests, and have them frequently.  In one way, it was very different indeed - Josh, one of the oldest of the three couples, was very ill, and we all of us knew that it was probably the last time we’d come together at our table.

It was a lovely evening - we ate a lot - my friend Alexandra  made Trifle and we all indulged in too much whipped cream.  We talked and laughed until Asher fell asleep in my arms.  Josh told me that night that they’d just learned he was not eligible for the clinical trial they’d hoped to enter into, and said very calmly “You hear this kind of news, and you don’t know how to react.”  I told him I was sorry, and he told me that he was more sorry for his wife, that it was harder for her than for him.  I didn’t know quite what to say, but he did - that morning he’d received what amounted to a death sentence, and he greeted it as calmly and gracefully as he approached his whole life.  

When Eric and I moved here, we knew we needed a Jewish community - in the city, we’d been able to get by with university groups and small minyans and prayer groups, mostly made up of people like us, because, well, Jewishness was always near, we were young, we did not have children and there were many such groups.  It didn’t matter that the members were always shifting, that grad students left and people moved, that families changed and there were no commitments, just a good times and good food now. 

But when we moved here, we knew we needed a shul - which was something very different, something heavier, stronger, with an institutional memory and a long past, sometimes a weighty one.  It seemed overwhelming to me - it was easier to be part of a light and shifting community in which there was no deep commitment to one another’s lives.  But the children needed a Hebrew School, and we could see, dimly, that there were things missing from our old approach.

Being part of a community, rooting ourselves in one place and with particular people,  was harder.  And better.  That is, it wasn’t always easy to fully enter into the community, it wasn’t always easy to fit into something that has its own life.  Sometimes it would have seemed more fun to pray only with people in our stage of life, people who never complained when the kids made too much noise and who got all the Gen X jokes.

But what we got was worth more.  It included the members who had been here for generations.  It meant dinner guests of 90 along with the dinner guests in their 30s.  It meant more kinds of laughter, and watching other people’s children grow up, and getting their advice on ours. It meant being supported through my pregnancies by women grown elderly for whom the blessing of a new life was long since shorn of any ambivalence.  It meant being part of lives that began after we arrived, of brisim and birthday parties, and of lives that began long before the world we live in now began.  It meant substitute grandparents, and people to tell us what having teenagers was like. 

Most of all, it meant experiencing all of the stages of life at once - there were always babies being born, always children making their way into the classrooms for the first days of Hebrew school.  There were always bar and bat mitzvahs, young girls in their first long dress and boys with cracking voices standing up and reading Torah alongside the grownups who do that good work each week.  There were always a few weddings, and children going off to college.  There were always people retiring, devoting more time to the community, and there were always elders becoming frail, and then loss, and mourning, and the routine of Kaddish, the prayer for the dead.  Life is like that, of course, but only in a strong community, religious or secular, can you be part of all of life at once, and see it all as a whole.   Even the hard parts lose some of their fearfulness, exposed to the light, lived in people you admire. 

Once, an older woman in the congregation told me a joke.  She named the person who had told it to her, went on, and then stopped, and named him again, saying with emphasis “of blessed memory!”  We both went on to laugh, and I was struck by that emphasis - she was not saying the name by rote, with a conventional reference, she was literally stopping to acknowledge that his memory was a blessing, and to remind me that the laughter she was passing on to me was a memory, a gift by transmission from a man now dead.  She wanted to be sure that I remembered, when I told the joke again, from whom it came.

Josh and his wife, Celia helped us join in the community - they were among our first friends, among the first guests from the shul we ever had to our home.  They were older than we, but like us - Josh was a Professor of Physics like Eric, with a dry sense of humor and a deep kindness, Celia had been an English Ph.d candidate and was merry and lively and brilliant.  They were good friends to us, and helped us navigate the loss of Eric’s grandparents, always kind to the children and welcoming to them. 

Last night, Josh died.  Eric and I grieve for him, and for Celia and the children and grandchildren he leaves behind.  And it feels rather strange to be saying that this grief we feel is one of the gifts of community - how, after all, are we to attract people to the sometimes hard work of making community by telling them this - if you stay in place long enough, you will grow to love people and they will get old and die or you will.  It would look bad on a brochure, so this is the part they don’t tell you.

And yet, that’s a part of the truth, and maybe they should, because there’s something to tell about the gift of this - community, real community that invests all the people in it, old and young, comes with this gift - the gift of blessed memory. 

You get to be part of a whole life - you get to be there when people are celebrating, and there when they mourn.  You get to live the good parts, and the hard and painful ones, and be richer for it.  You get to know what it is like to be helped and to give help, to see people face death and grief, and come through it with courage, and when the time comes for you, perhaps you are a little better for it.   You get to be part of a living thing - the community, the whole, which exists not because of one person, but because of all of them, which transmits the past, those lost, forward to those still to come.  No death can kill it, as long as memory remains.  You get the stories, and the memories of the past, you get the comfort of knowing that others have come through hard times and gone on.  You get people in all stages of their lives - the ones with time on their hands and those with none, the ones who give everything and those who can give less, and those who need you. You get to give and receive in perpetuity as part of something bigger than you.  You get to know people you would never have known, to be part of their lives and memory, and in turn, they of yours.  You get, someday, the best we all can hope for - that someone will say your name, tell a story of you, and add sincerely, with feeling, “of blessed memory.”

We will take my sons to make a shiva call - it will be the first time they have been called upon to make formal expressions of mourning to others.  They do not fully understand why their father and mother are so sad, but that’s ok - what matters is that they be a part of the cycle as well, at least for a few minutes, before they run and play.  And I will talk to them, as they grow, about the people they knew that are not here any longer, but linger, in blessed memory.


32 Responses to “The Part They Don’t Tell You”

  1. Bob Sonnenbergon 12 Jul 2023 at 5:22 pm

    Beautiful post. Very touching. If this is something that comes from collapse,it will be worth all of the trouble.

  2. Green Hill Farmon 12 Jul 2023 at 5:51 pm

    I’ve been attending my church since birth, so many of the folks I’ve known for 52 years. I’ve been in the choir about 30 years (with a few years off to raise toddlers), we’ve lost 4 members (not counting those who move or dropout). We sit according to our voices (alto etc) and so folks sit in basically the same place for years, I can still “see” these people, with blessed memory.

    Tom the most recent loss was a member of the choir till recently (ill health) and the father our our director. It was an honor to sing as a unit for him at his funeral. Interesting one of his grandchildren read a poem which basically stated one should not stay sad but remember with happiness. Blessed memory.

    When my granddaughter was born 5 wks early they (my church friends) were the first people I told, got all sorts of pep talks re low weight babies. She’s now about 3 months old and weights more than 8lbs. I see her again this upcoming weekend :) . They live in Maryland.

    A new member recently announced she is expecting her first child……

    Beth in Massachusetts

  3. simply.belindaon 12 Jul 2023 at 6:19 pm

    My thoughts will be with you in this time of grief.

    I wish I could find and participate in such a full and complete community as the one that you described here. The good, the bad, the learning and sharing is something I yearn to share with a wider group of people. It seems finding and breaking into these groups is just not something I am good at.

    Kind Regards

  4. jt walshon 12 Jul 2023 at 6:45 pm

    This is the real. The economy, politics, society are all exterior. They affect us, but they are not us. The core of life comes down to our sharing our lives with a small group of people, remembering and being remembered.
    I vividly remember as a four or five year old being brought to the bedside of my dying great grandmother so she and I could say good bye. My grand parents (who all survived into my adulthood) have all passed more than twenty years ago. Their sayings, thoughts, connections with me are as vivid now as they were then. I find myself repeating their words and advice and stories to my own adult children and to my (so far) one granddaughter.
    I remember one thanksgiving eve, in the midst of cooking the next day’s feast, when my then wild and totally irreverant fifteen year old daughter asked me “Why are you doing all this work?” My Irish grandmother could have been channeling the answer. I responded without having to think of the reply “I am doing this so that if you live to be a hundred, the smell of turkey gravey and turnips will make you think of your mother and me.” She is now the one of our five children who helps me cook, who has learned the recipies and who continues the cycle.
    There is something in us humans which needs to be imprinted by others and there is something just as powerful which calls us to leave our imprint.

  5. Jerryon 12 Jul 2023 at 6:53 pm

    I’m sorry for your loss but your memories will help you get through this trying time. It’s funny how I always think and laugh to myself about my farming grandparents and still have vivid memories of my grandfather asking everyday “Hows things in the barn Jedhi?” in his own Polish way of pronouncing my name.

  6. Susanon 12 Jul 2023 at 8:07 pm

    The Friday before last we buried Kenny H,. who has been part of our church as long as the mountains. He was always there through church theatricals, read at Mass, sang in the choir. Jim G. who sang beside him in choir, not for years but for decades, and read often at the same Mass, was there, his hair thin, his skin like paper but still standing, still singing. It was a large congregation with a whole cohort of middle aged men, some who mainly knew him as their wife’s distant relative, openly crying during the recessional. There was a presiding priest with the Bishop and five others concelebrating, and his life story sounded much like my late Father’s story. Not surprising since they aged within 5 years of each other, grew up in the same neighbourhood and attended the same school as well as the same church.

    I stopped attending church some years ago simply because the hierarchy doesn’t hold to the standards they preach to the rest of us.

    But I know exactly what you mean.

  7. Karinon 12 Jul 2023 at 8:22 pm

    My husband and I recently had to stand before our UU congregation and announced that we would be moving to a different region of the state.

    The move is positive for us. But when announcing our leaving I truly understood how I fit into that community. It is small, aging. OUr arrival in that community breathed new life ( and children) into it. I knew how important the church was to me but I never truly understood how important I was to the church until we told them we had to leave.

    We are interconnected and the loss of one can be felt deeply. I am sorry for your loss.

  8. Grandma Mision 12 Jul 2023 at 8:32 pm

    Sharon, this is a beautiful post. I’m forwarding it on to my Jewish in-laws (other grandma to our beautiful grandmas…)
    What a beautiful description and appreciation for “community” - These thoughts will stick with me for all of my days - as long as my memory can hold it anyway. So appreciated, I tell you!

  9. Beaweezilon 12 Jul 2023 at 8:41 pm

    This evening this post means so much more to me. I’ve just received word that a friend’s father past this morning. So many of my generation don’t have the community based in faith that you describe and this is one of the times I feel that it is lacking. There is no formal way to mourn or to express the grief that I feel for my friend’s loss. I will be there in whatever way I can though, just as so many have been there for me before.

    My thoughts are also with you and your community this evening Sharon.


  10. knutty knitteron 12 Jul 2023 at 9:36 pm

    Community is important but it can be secular too. I don’t think that those who came to my fathers funeral (15 years back now) were religious as such but they were the community who took us in when I was little and who came to respect him for the person he was. He really cared about those around and always did his best for them in a quiet way and that funeral was their tribute to a good man. I only hope my community find me as useful!

    One of the things I find that is neglected in this me, me, me society is community. Is it really useful to move all over without making close ties just for a job? Good roots to my way of thinking are worth more than just a job upgrade. My father thought the same and would never move as long as he could live adequately where he was. Community along with family and friends is something that money can’t buy.

    I am sorry for your loss but glad for your memories.

    viv in nz

  11. Brad K.on 12 Jul 2023 at 9:55 pm

    Thank you for your kind words of Josh, and his place in your lives and memories.

    Blessed be.

  12. Melissa Joneson 12 Jul 2023 at 10:35 pm

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful post.

  13. Sandraon 13 Jul 2023 at 4:18 am

    I am sorry for your loss Sharon. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful post. It is a gift in itself and I treasure it. It gives me much to think about.

  14. Basiaon 13 Jul 2023 at 5:17 am

    I am sorry for your loss.
    Blessed be Josh.

  15. Bill Parrishon 13 Jul 2023 at 6:44 am

    I thought I was going to sneak away tonight. What a glorious night! Every face I see is a memory. It may not be a perfectly… perfect memory. Sometimes we’ve had our ups and downs, but we’re all together, And you’re mine, for a night. And I’m going to break precedence and tell you my one candle wish: that you would have a life, as lucky as mine where you can wake up one morning and say, “I don’t want anything more.” 65 years, don’t they go by in a blink?

  16. New Mamaon 13 Jul 2023 at 7:36 am

    Beautiful, eloquent post, Sharon. I’m sorry for your loss.

    I almost hate to mention this in the same breath, but this post is an interesting juxtaposition to your one on Michael Jackson’s death. MJ is the cult of personality, while your friend was, well, your friend.

    RIP, Josh.

  17. shoshanaon 13 Jul 2023 at 7:50 am

    …and after loss we continue…this coming shabbat we have invited a friend whose husband died this spring. She’ll come with her elderly mother who sits next to my mother-in-law at shul. Also attending will be one of our Hillel rabbis, his pregnant wife and their 2 yr. old. Sometimes I wonder if this wide mix will work out…and it always does. -Shosh

  18. Ruthon 13 Jul 2023 at 12:16 pm

    How beautiful, thank you… my community is the church I was born into. Right now we’re in the midst of a difficult pastoral change — you know how these things can be and how people can chatter and struggle and relationships strain against change… this is a beautiful reminder of why I am here, and why my family and I will (despite my many thoughts of “dumping it all” and leaving) stick around with these people I love for as many more years as we can. Thank you! (I’m here via Crunchy Con)

  19. Sharonon 13 Jul 2023 at 12:36 pm

    Belinda, it may not be you - not every community works this way, and sometimes it can be tough to find the right one. Keep trying.

    Ruth, our shul went through the loss of a controversial Rabbi (who we loved, but others didn’t), his replacement with a Rabbi that in the end, no one liked, and another change. We stuck it out, but just barely, and I’m grateful we did - but it was hard. So you have my sympathies.


  20. Scott Walkeron 13 Jul 2023 at 12:59 pm

    May the Lord remember the soul of His servant, Josh, and grant him great mercy.
    Thanks for sharing this.

  21. Laurenon 13 Jul 2023 at 1:30 pm

    What a wonderful post, Sharon. Thank you.

  22. NMon 13 Jul 2023 at 2:23 pm

    Oh Sharon, my condolences. And my thanks, too, for articulating so beautifully the importance of saying goodbye to each other and grieving together, as well as celebrating. There’s something sacred in that.

  23. Sharonon 13 Jul 2023 at 4:03 pm

    Bill, somehow I read through your comment and didn’t fully grasp what you said. I’m glad that’s true of you, and I couldn’t wish for anything more. Thank you for saying that.


  24. Shambaon 13 Jul 2023 at 4:37 pm

    I’m sorry for you family losing Josh and for his immediate family as well. May you all have Peace and may Josh have it too.


  25. Lori Scotton 13 Jul 2023 at 5:46 pm

    Having lived in a tiny isolated town, I can tell you that regardless of personality, everyone had their place.

    Whether you liked them, loved them, knew them or not - each person filled a position in the community which was less for losing them. It upset the balance and the knowledge that all was fairly right with the world.

    New people would come along to take their place but the adjustment was often hard, especially for those older people.

    Maybe its natural that as we age, we become less able to adjust to the changes that time brings and therefore more easily adjust to the idea of our own mortality.

    Maybe this is the lesson we must learn.

  26. Lydiaon 14 Jul 2023 at 8:04 am

    You are so right-everyone does have their place, from the old curmudgeon down the street that is always grumpy to the meek mild woman next door who is always helpless and needs another to do for her. We are all so imperfect and yet we all need each other. This is the only reality. All else is smoke and mirrors and external trappings. The real is the human face, the human condition, the human life -in all it’s glory and squalor and failing. It passes by in a blink and is gone.

  27. Eleanoron 14 Jul 2023 at 9:07 am

    I am so sorry for your loss. Though there is little I can do, I thank you for telling this story. You have reminded me how precious my loved ones are, and I am thankful for them again and again.

  28. Stephanieon 14 Jul 2023 at 10:03 am


    This was such a beautiful tribute to your friend Josh, may his name be for a blessing. My son Jacob was young when we went on his first shiva call and his young face and serious way of empathy for the mourners brought us all peace. The loss of your friend is a hard one, but the community will be together in remembrance of his good deeds while he was with us. I wish you and your family solace in your memories and continued kindness in your community.


  29. Kation 14 Jul 2023 at 11:54 pm

    My prayers for the peace and comfort of the family, as they adjust to daily life without Josh. Thanks for sharing these thoughts with us, Sharon. Truly beautiful.

  30. al_bedoon 15 Jul 2023 at 12:17 am

    so lovely…i’ve got a lump in my throat.

  31. Anna Marieon 15 Jul 2023 at 2:13 am

    I’m sorry for your loss Sharon. Josh sounds like he was a very fine person. Though I’m not Jewish or religious (agnostic), and the ritualistic aspect of births and deaths is quite alien to me, I can see how it gives a sense of comfort and belonging to those in its community. Very lovely post, and thank you.

  32. Theresaon 15 Jul 2023 at 11:36 am

    Thank you Sharon for writing about this amid your grief and sadness. It is this kind of profound interconnectedness over place and time which is the meaning of life, I think. I am glad you are part of such a strong community to see each other through this time of turning and remembering.

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