During Elul, I Visit My Family Among the Kingdom of the Dead
“That time of year thou mayst in me behold, When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang….”
—William Shakespeare, “Sonnet 73.”
Each year as summer’s brightness dims and the morning air is delicately fringed by fall’s tentative chill, that line from my favorite Shakespearean sonnet resonates in memory, triggering the realization that the month of Elul, ushering in the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, is upon us. The shofar is sounded daily during those weeks of earliest autumn, and each tremulous blast is a reminder of the varied odysseys, some melancholy, some joyous, that we will make during this span of sanctified time.
It has long been the tradition in our family to visit the graves of our loved ones during Elul. Always my husband and I drive to Beth David Cemetery in Elmont, New York, late on a weekday afternoon, knowing that few funerals are held at that time and the narrow lanes will be more easily negotiated. More often than not, at such an hour, the kingdom of the dead is deserted. Shadows fall across the chiseled gravestones and lonely sunbeams twinkle on the heavy branches of the dwarf yews as we slowly drive to our family’s burial plots.
There was a time long past when elderly pious men—or the occasional rabbinical student—waited at the iron entry gates, prayer books and slender volumes of Psalms in hand, hoping to accompany visitors to a grave where they might murmur a prayer in exchange for a small donation. There were those who saw this as a mitzva and others who simply wanted to supplement a meager income. My maternal grandfather was often among their number, and there was a time when he failed to return home at a reasonable hour; my uncle drove to the cemetery and found him asleep on a bench, a holy text open on his lap. Each year, I tell my husband this story, and each year he gently reminds me that I have told it to him before. It has become intrinsic to our Elul itinerary, our annual journey into the past. We offer our own prayers at the graves of our parents, whisper news of all that has occurred in our family over the year and place the smoothest pebbles we can find on each gravestone. I pluck withered bits of greenery from the ground cover, pass my fingers across the names carved so deeply into the weatherworn marble.
On yet another Elul day, at that same hour, we travel to the cemetery in New Jersey where my younger sister is buried and then, absorbed in an accepting sadness, we drive home to Westchester County across the George Washington Bridge as evening hovers. Always then I recall other lines from that sonnet:
“In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west.
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.”
Oddly comforted then, i plunge into the more temporal and frenzied demands of the month, each requiring a disparate odyssey. There are preparations to be made for festive meals. I drive to a bakery in the long-since-abandoned neighborhood of my childhood that prepares the raisin-studded round hallas my children favor. I exchange greetings and news with the baker and his wife.
“Shana tova!” we call to each other as I dash out, hugging the fragrant loaves. I am reminded of the mother of childhood friends, a heavyset, kindly woman who baked her own hallas, pulling them out of her oven, flushed with pride at their golden radiance. We children watched in admiration as though witnessing a magician execute a miraculous feat. For a few moments, I am spirited back to my Brooklyn past, each recurrent memory a landmark of the life that was.
My daughter calls and asks if she can bring a honey cake from an excellent bakery in her Cleveland neighborhood. But, as always, I will bake my own, using my mother’s recipe, her Mixmaster and her flour sifter, dented in a half-remembered scuffle with my sisters over whose turn it was to create the fine flour. I use clover honey, as my mother and grandmother did, and add strong tea to the batter, recalling the maternal admonition to grease the baking pan to excess.
My compounded pasts combine as the aroma of the baking cake fills my kitchen. My mother is long dead and my own children, who in their turn vied to use the sifter and lick the mixing bowl, are now parents themselves, fashioning their own road map of memories.
I join two friends for our biannual excursion to a kosher emporium in a distant county. During Elul and again during the month of Nisan before Passover, we brave the highways in search of yom tovbargains, laughing and gossiping even as we complain about the mess, the cooking, the lack of freezer space, vowing that next year we will explore the possibility of a caterer, of extra help.
In the huge store, we race from freezer to freezer with our shopping carts, hefting first-cut briskets, soup chickens, pickled tongues, cold cuts and cans of pickles from Israel, debating the virtues of dill over parsley, matza balls from scratch, matza balls from mixes.
We buy sacks of apples from the savvy farmer who knows where to station himself during Elul, and we munch the tart fruit as we drive back, listening to Debbie Friedman and Dudu Fisher CDs. We help each other carry in our purchases.
“Shana Tova,” we call to each other as car doors slam.
Then the cooking begins. Recipes—some yellowed with age or encrusted with food stains—flutter from the pages of cookbooks that are read as carefully as travel guides. Like all good travelers, we need lists, advisories and estimated time to be allotted for each leg of the journey. How long for the brisket? How long for the kugel? Veterans of culinary roadways offer us hints and shortcuts.
“Use the quick-cooking barley,” my friend Mindy advises as she reads out her recipe for a barley and mushroom bake. “That’s what my mother used.” She falls silent and I know that she has made her own brief pilgrimage back to her mother’s kitchen in the small Pennsylvania town of Tarentum. Such are the Elul odysseys, both physical and spiritual.
We stir and baste, passengers in our own time capsule, as memories converge and the aromas of past and present mingle. The soup simmers, the honey cake rises and there are smiles and tears of apprehension, as there always are at the onset of a journey.
New Year’s cards are written and mailed. Sealed white envelopes carry our wishes to distant family and friends. We speed them on their way and imagine them crossing continents and oceans, epistolary greetings from our homes to the homes of those we care about. The cards we receive in turn are arranged on our mantel, where, in the summer, we place the picture postcards sent by friends who have traveled to distant places. “Yes,” we are saying as we arrange them, “we know you are in distant locales, but during this holy month of Elul, you are with us and we are with you.”
Children and grandchildren arrive for Rosh Hashana, welcome trekkers to a happy destination. Candles are lit, Kiddush chanted, children quarrel and make up, wine spills on a white cloth on which faint stains of previous years form a map of recollections.
“Do you remember when Hesh spilled the bottle of Manischewitz?”
“Do you remember when Esther dropped the gravy boat?”
We smile and close our eyes against the convergence of remembrance. Hesh is now a father himself. Esther has been dead for many years. Apples are dipped in honey. Sweetness is the motif of this holiday.
We join the throngs of worshipers at the synagogue, allow the familiar liturgy to sweep over us. We are sent on a spiritual journey, pilgrims winding our way toward the open gates of heaven, singing the hymns of terrestrial wayfarers, reliving the year past, praying for the year to come. These hours of communal prayer and private meditation, of sweet singing, of tears and tenderness, are in the final migration, the climax of all our Elul odysseys.
The shofar sounds in an ancient rhythm: Teki’a, teru’a. Teki’a gedola.
“It’s like a ship’s horn,” my grandson says.
“Like a train,” his sister contributes, lifting her own toy shofar and struggling to coax forth a single note.
They are both right. The harsh melodic ram’s horn resonates with all the sounds of arrival and departure, unique to this holiest of months, sacred to both hope and memory.