Today is my grandmother Pauline's 21th yahrzeit. She died on the 3rd day of Chanukkah in 1996, when I was 24 years old. She was the only grandparent I knew well, as the other three had died by the time I was 4. I was living in Boston at the time and suffering from depression, which was in many ways connected to not having a clear sense of purpose. Pauline's death brought me back to myself.
When I got the call that she had died (she died suddenly-- had a heart attack after winning a game of bridge), I knew what I needed to do. I bought a plane ticket to Florida, where she had been living with Arthur, my step-grandfather. I helped Arthur make the arrangements with the funeral home to transport her body to New York, conducted a memorial service for her friends in Florida, found a rabbi who taught me how to conduct a burial, and flew with Arthur up to New York, where we met the rest of the family and buried my grandmother. Pauline, a first generation American, had strongly discouraged me from becoming a rabbi. It was "too Jewish" from her perspective, the perspective of one whose life project was learning to integrate into American life. Yet, my grandmother's friends all said to me, "that was such a beautiful service! You should be a rabbi."
In her life, she was not ready to bless my path to the rabbinate, yet in her death, she was. I found the courage to navigate my way out of the depression and two years later, moved to Philadelphia to study at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Today, on her yahrzeit, I am preparing to conduct a memorial service for a friend's uncle, and I am grateful to be a rabbi and grateful for the blessing of knowing my work in the world, to create sacred space and to serve God with joy.
I recently wrote a blog post, "Serve the Beloved with Joy", for Mental Health Safe Space, a peer support Jewish community for those struggling with mental illness, which you can read here.
Happy Hanukkah! Shabbat Shalom!