In 1979, my grandmother, Bertha Teller Augenbraun, was diagnosed with lung cancer. She was a chain smoker for most of her adult life. It was no surprise that her lungs began to fail her during that year. Her health began to progress from stable to critical around the time of Tisha BÁv, 1979. It unfortunately only was two months later, several days before Rosh Hashana, that she passed away.
At the time, I was 8 years old, and my sister was 7. When we were told that our grandmother passed away, we did not truly understand what was going on. Death is a strange concept for a child. We had a dog pass away, but neither of us really had a real understanding of what it means when a person close to you dies.
I remember that my father arranged flights for us to return to New York for the funeral and the shiva. We had spent part of the summer in New York with Grandma only a month before. But, now this was very different. We were going back for a funeral, not hospital visits.
The actual funeral is a blur for me. I do not remember what was said, who spoke, or who cried. I do remember the cemetery. I had never really been to the cemetery before. Large grey stones with Hebrew lettering littered the area. It was eerie, and beautiful all at once. My cousins and I began to wander off, and hide behind the stones. I was only 8 at the time. I did not realize that it was inappropriate to step upon the grave mounts, or play between the stones. I was just a child only learning about life, and now death.
Someone found us playing, and reprimanded us. Our smiles turned to hushed glazed looks of shame. We returned to the shiva house with our family. Grandma's apartment was not bigger than most average Riverdale apartments. My sister, my cousins, and I just looked out the windows at the tiny people, taxis, and dogs below. We must have done this for hours, until my parents would peel us away to eat or to play with Grandma's perfume bottles as they sorted her belongings.
I never really got over the guilt of not mourning my grandmother. Although I was only 8, I was somewhat saddened that I did not act properly at the cemetery, that somehow I was guilty of some major sin. A sin of inability to mourn those close to us. Now, looking back , I was only 8. There were no books about death, dying, or bereavement for kids at the time. My parents tried to explain it the best they could. But, how could they really know what an 8 year old understands about death? So, I lived with the guilt and moved on.
Eventually, I began to go to summer camp. Every summer, the camp would commemorate Tisha BÁv, the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av. We learned that it is traditionally the saddest day of the Jewish Calendar. For, it is the day that the Holy Temple was destroyed. It is also the day of the Crusader invasions of countless European towns, it is the day of the final expulsion of Jews from Spain, and it is the day of countless tragedies during the time of World War II.
After learning this, I realized what it meant to mourn. As we mourned these tragedies of our Jewish people, I realized what it was to mourn for our own loved ones as well. And, during the first time I heard Aicha (Lamentations) at our sleepaway camp, Camp Hatikvah, I opted to sit next to my sister. I knew that I needed her strength to get through the painful liturgy. Sure enough, I began to cry. I wept for my Jewish people, I wept for our tragedies, and I wept for Grandma Bertha.
Now, some 34 years after my grandmother's passing, I have witnessed death, mourning, and grief time and again. It is never easy, but yet, somehow the shiva process does make it somewhat more helpful for the grieving parties involved.
Today, I live in Israel, and although Grandma Bertha never had a chance to visit, I am sure she is with me here. Sometimes a bird flies by the window near my kitchen sink, as I think of her, and I wonder...."Can you hear me? Do you see me? Do you see my Israeli children? Are you proud of us?" I sure hope that she is.
I just witnessed a video of an anti-Israel demonstration down the Diamond District (47th and 5th Avenue) that occurred last week. Anyone who knows my grandmother, knows that she was very proud of the fact that she was the first woman voted onto the board of the Diamond District Association. She was a proud businesswoman, who cut diamonds for a living. She loved 47th street, the friends, the colleagues, the excitement of it all, it made her alive! During the Palestinian demonstration, Jewish shopkeepers heard the ruckus outside, and ran down to see what was happening. When they heard the Palestinian propaganda, they closed their shops, and began to follow the protesters shouting "Israel" louder, and louder as they went. Eventually, they outnumbered the cowardly Palestinian protesters. The crowd then began singing Am Yisrael Hai (The nation of Israel lives!). They stopped the anti-Israel protesters in their tracks. No one could believe the quick response of the pro-Israel crowd.
I am not surprised. If Grandma Bertha were alive today, she would be out there, smiling, and chanting too! I would not be surprised if she was there, following the crowd, like a dove returning home.
And so, as I mourn this Tisha BÁv, I think of my Grandma Bertha, for whom if she were not the strong-willed amazing woman she was in the 1950's, I would most definitely not have had the courage to be living in this land of Israel today. May her soul have comfort knowing that Israel is here to stay, as are we.