Friday, February 19, 2010

The Right Place at the Wrong Time

One of the hardest things about making aliyah from the US in an era when, and from a place where, Jewish life thrives and where it is not threatened, if not the hardest thing, is leaving behind friends and loved ones. Of course, as hard as it is, we also live in an era where technology enables families and friends to stay almost as close from 6000 miles away as if we were just down the street. Almost. I am always mindful of how much easier it is for us today in this regard as compared to others who made aliyah in previous generations. Like my grandparents, who made aliyah in the 1930s, not only not having regular let alone internet phones or Skype, not having e-mail with which to be in contact daily, and no airlines with frequent flyer programs and credit cards to accrue points toward free tickets, and literally not knowing when, or if, they would ever see their loved ones again. Knowing that missing friends and loved ones is expected makes us prepared, but does not make it any easier. Things that we'd have taken for granted by being able to spend time together, planned or impulsively, are now a distant but fond memory. Conversely, the infrequent opportunities to visit and celebrate milestones with friends and loved ones are occasions which we relish, and which we cannot take for granted. As much as a challenge as it is to move a family of eight anywhere at once, traveling internationally as a family is a virtual non-occurrence. Yet when given the opportunity to celebrate two family bat mitzvahs three months apart, it is a challenge for which we rise to the occasion. Planning and anticipating these trips are full of excitement equal to the resources needed to make them happen, as infrequent as this may be. In addition to missing most of the celebrations, we also miss opportunities to share the grief, or comfort a loss, with friends and loved ones, both because of distance as well as that these are never planned. The most recent trip that was planned months in advance for a joyous celebration turned into a case of our being at the right place at the wrong time, combining the joy of dancing at a family simcha with shedding tears at the funerals of two parents of two loved ones. As much as we looked forward to the celebration which was the purpose of the trip, we were glad to be able to be in the right place at the wrong time to mourn as well. A phone call to a mourner does provide comfort and, measured by the final episode of Seinfeld when discussing phone call etiquette, may be considered particularly meaningful to be sure to go out of the way to express condolences from 6000 miles, even by phone. But reaching out and touching someone by phone is not the same as reaching out and embracing them in person. For good or for bad, this is not the first case of our being in the right place at the wrong time. A trip in 2006 that was meant to be for another celebration, ironically of the granddaughter of one of the men whose funerals which we attended, ended up falling at the end of the 30 days of mourning following the death of my wife's mother. That same trip also saw my wife and our oldest and youngest children visiting with my mother, the day before she was hospitalized for what would be the last time, and I received the call to come at once because it was not expected that she'd be alive by the time my trans-Atlantic flight landed. Sometimes, being in the right place at the wrong time is in fact perfect timing. When my grandparents made aliyah, if there was news to share with, or from, those in the old country, the only means of doing so was by a letter. When my father was born, there was not only no realistic expectation of him meeting any of his relatives in Poland in any reasonable amount of time in the foreseeable future, but news of his birth likely took months to be transmitted. Just as news of the natural deaths of his cousins, uncles and aunts came as a shock albeit long after the fact, and long before the Nazis left nobody with whom to communicate. It’s unlikely to be likely that we'll be able to dance at and celebrate all the special occasions in person. Yet we'll look forward to relishing these, even from a distance. Whether we're there or not, mindful that the other side of the equation can come at any moment, it’s extra meaningful to be able to do so in person when possible. And if death and mourning are inevitable as they are anyway, it’s all the more meaningful to be able shed tears of sorrow, even if all that was planned was tears of joy. But sometimes the wrong time is just the wrong time. As I was packing our luggage into the snow covered car to take the family back to the airport for the flight home this week, my cell phone rang. “Steve died.” My good friend, colleague and mentor succumbed to a heart attack like the one that he survived several years ago, and on the anniversary of which I would always call or e-mail, a happy one indeed. But with a flight home in just a few hours, his was not a funeral which I would make. I won't get to mourn with or comfort Steve's family in person as I did with my sister in law on the loss of her mother, or our former neighbor on the loss of her father. But we did get to celebrate our niece's bat mitzvah, and look forward to the next one in a few months, and just hope that there are more happy milestones than sad ones, even if we miss them all. May Carol's, Jacob's and Steve's families all be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem, may their memories be for a blessing, and may they (and we) all have many more occasions to celebrate than mourn.