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The God Squad: Honoring the dead

Rabbi Marc Gellman, Tribune Content Agency on

I asked you, dear readers, to share with me some of the ways you have created to honor your dearly departed. Remembering them is a fine spiritual practice but remembering them with some created ritual seems to me to deepen the act of remembering. This is particularly relevant since Nov. 2 is el Día de Muertos or el Día de los Muertos, which is the Mexican “Day of the Dead” and is celebrated with flowers (marigolds) and sweets (sugar skulls).

Here is an offering from H:

“My father was a prolific reader and coincidently (or not) his first name was Read. His personal book collection included, but was not limited to, the arts, science, literary criticism and comparative religions. I didn’t always understand the content, but appreciated and shared his passion for the printed word. When he was in his 80s, Dad started a birthday tradition for us: When I visited him he started taking me to his favorite bookstore so I could select a birthday book as a gift from him. This continued well after he had lost his eyesight; he loved being in the presence of books even if he could no longer see them. For his first birthday after his death, I donated a new book to our local library. Titled “At Home: A Short History of Private Life” by Bill Bryson. It was the last book I read aloud to him when he couldn’t sleep toward the end of his life. (A great non-fiction book, by the way.) In the years since, I have honored my dad’s memory by buying myself a birthday book “from him.” One year it was “Michelangelo's Notebooks”; this year I chose “Giovanni’s Room,” by James Baldwin. Between birthday book purchases I also read books from my father’s library that I inherited after he died. These books have me rediscovering Joseph Conrad and T.S. Eliot and visiting 1960s Japan. If I’m lucky, I’ll find his bookmarks, sales receipts or marginal notes: signs that we will always be reading together.”

Thank you, dear H, for your tender literary ritual honoring your father’s passion. I fear that in our electronic world actual books may soon become obsolete remnants, but that day is thankfully not yet here thanks to your father and you. I love your choices particularly Bill Bryson’s travel books which along with John Steinbeck’s “ Travels with Charley: In Search of America” occupy a deep place in my heart.

The power of your ritual of buying a book to honor your dad is that it preserves a window into the world of the authors you choose and expands your understanding of the many ways people flourish. Beautiful.

My favorite “book as a remembrance” story was told to me by my friend Rabbi David Wolpe who recounted this story about his father and his father’s friend. This is how I remember the story,

 

"My father, Gerald Wolpe, was a rabbi in Philadelphia, and one day he received a call from a dear friend who was also a rabbi. His friend spoke urgently, "Gerry, you have to come over and you have to come over right away!" Several years before, this old friend of my father bought an old set of the Talmud because he did not want it to be destroyed and he stored it in a box in his garage.

On the day he called my father, there were torrential rains in Philadelphia and the roof of his garage was leaking. There was water damage inside so he ran out to the garage and among other boxes, he opened the box with the Talmud in it to make sure that it was not damaged by the water. He took out one of the volumes and leafed through it when suddenly he saw writing in the margins of one of the pages. When my father arrived, he pointed to the writing with tears in his eyes. It said, "My name is Yankel ben Motel Greenberg from Vilna. The Nazis are coming, so if this book survives, it means I am dead. Please, start learning from here in my memory."

Books are the way we look back in memory, but books are also the way we look forward in learning. So, whether it is a book or some other memento of the past, let us try to make our remembrances of the dead a way to increase our service to the living. In that way what we were will inform what we may yet become.

(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at godsquadquestion@aol.com. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman. Also, the new God Squad podcast is now available.)

©2023 The God Squad. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


(c) 2023 THE GOD SQUAD DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

 

 

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