Aug 22 2013

Saying Goodbyes

Well, today one more door has been closed. Marit Hansson was laid to rest. It was a simple ceremony at Skogskyrkogården (The Woodland Cemetary) on the southern edge of central Stockholm. It’s a very beautiful place, with gentle hills and tree shaded burial plots.

There weren’t many people at the service. When you live to be 92 there aren’t many friends left to see you off. The Swedish präst or pastor was very young, maybe thirty. We got the conventional service – 2 psalms, the Lord’s Prayer, some words about Marit and of course some words about The Lord. The young pastor didn’t know Marit, he didn’t know any of us. He had spoken perhaps once or twice to my husband, Håkan, Marit’s son. So what was he to say? He probably knew that the woman lying in the casket wasn’t a big believer in God or even religion. And he probably assumed that those of us sitting on the hard benches in the chapel weren’t especially religious or serious church goers either. So he just did his job. He seemed kind at least.

As I sat there in the lovely chapel listening to his words, I kept thinking back to my own mother’s funeral just a year and a half ago. Two mothers, two funerals, so close together in time. My mother’s service had a rabbi who didn’t know her either. The rabbi for the congregation she had belonged to had retired many years back already. And since she stopped driving, she was unable to go to services even if she wanted to. The rabbi who did the service for my mother was the one who came with the Hospice care that took care of my mom during her last days. By the time he met her, she couldn’t really respond to anyone, even him, anymore. But he and I had a chance to talk those last days and get to know each other a bit. I was glad and relieved when he said he would be pleased to do the service for my mom.

And it was a good service. Coming so close together, I couldn’t help but to compare them in my mind. Mom had a good send off. We filled the small New Jersey chapel. My mom still had friends young enough to drive the distance to be there. Mom’s baby brother and his wife were there. Their three children, my cousins, came with their families. Even the hospice people came, who I had gotten to know those last weeks. And of course my husband and my son. The rabbi said the words he needed to say, in English and in Hebrew. And he had charisma, he held the stage, he made one feel that he saw you, he was there for you. That what we were doing there in that chilly stone chapel was important. He made me feel welcome, to come up and talk about my mother to the gathering. To bring my uncle up to talk about his sister, to say goodbye to her. And I think that was the big difference between the two services for me. While the Swedish pastor was kind and almost overly polite, he was also so unintrusive, so retiring, so grey, that it was like he wasn’t even there. No charisma. Nothing. Dried up, like dust. And this was a representative for God? Well, he certainly wasn’t going to be able to get me to believe. While on the other hand, Rabbi Bill Krause’s service, though being contemporary, modern and very Reform, made me feel like I was participating in something that was part of a 3000 year old tradition, a rite of passage that was part of life and connected me to my people. It was a good service.

After the paster was finished, we slowly moved out of the chapel into the sunlight. Once outside again, after saying a few words to each other, everyone separated and we drove off to another section of the cemetery to look for the gravesite of Marit’s sister Else. Håkan’s cousin Anne Marie and her husband Tord and their son Fredrik were also looking so we joined them. After locating her gravestone, everyone stood around talking for a bit. I went in search of a stone but all I could find were small pebbles on the walking path so I took a pebble back to where everyone was standing and put it on the top of Else’s and her husband Berth’s gravestone. I explained that when Jews visit a cemetery they leave a small stone to show that they had been there.

There had been 10 of us there at Marit’s service – a minyan. And though it hadn’t been a Jewish service it nevertheless felt good to me that we had at least been able to gather 10 people on a bright sunny day, to say goodbye to Marit.


Apr 11 2013

Gathering

It’s now been 26 years since I left New York City and moved to Stockholm, leaving behind friends and family. For the past 15 years, I have been celebrating Jewish holidays here with a group of Jewish/American/Swedish families which, except for some occasional changes, have stayed pretty much the same. When we first started gathering, most of our kids were about the same young age. Now, a number of those kids are no longer kids but young adults starting their journey of independent life.  Throughout the years, we have tried to gather together each year to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Passover. This year we managed it once again. Everyone contributes something to the evening and I’m the one who assigns out the jobs – what to bring, who helps with what, etc. I am also the one who leads the service. I usually try to say a few words before starting the age-old ritual of telling the story of the Exodus to our children. The following is what I said this year.

Hi Everyone,

I am very glad to see you all here. Just in case no one remembers, I’ll remind you all that I usually like to tell a little story as an introduction to our Seder celebration. Last year, we didn’t have a Seder because it was fairly recently after my mother died and I didn’t feel up to organizing one.

I wasn’t sure if I was up to it this year either but here we are. I seem to have learned something this year and I think it relates to the reason we are here now, today and I want to tell you about it. One of the main characters, in the story we are about to tell, is this guy named Moses. Now while Moses ended up becoming a great leader of his people, he was far from perfect. He had a temper, got mad at things which he thought weren’t right, and wanted things to be done the way he thought they should be done (or depending on what you believe, the way God told him they should be done). Well, the past few weeks I’ve been feeling a bit like Moses. And I want to explain why.

This year the process of getting all of us to this place, here, this evening, had quite a few twists and turns. When I first floated the idea of doing our Seder again this year, I was very hesitant, but I was told “Don’t worry Hilarie, you don’t have to do it alone. We will help you.”  So I gathered my strength and decided to go ahead with it.

In an effort to be democratic and not dictatorial I asked which day would the group prefer to meet – Thursday or Friday. Pretty much everyone, except Janet (who told me she had to work a half day that Thursday) said both days would work fine. So in trying to be considerate towards Carly’s plans for vacation, the Shevin’s plans for the countryside, Risa’s undecided vacation plans, Marina’s busy schedule and Barbara’s, too, I choose Thursday. But then 2 weeks later, after I’ve sent out the plans for the day, suddenly everyone is coming back with telling me that they are working on Thursday. And will be late, and don’t have time, and can’t do the complicated things. As I sat there reading these emails, I wondered how come no one told me this earlier? Where was all the help that I was promised?

And like Moses I got angry, and annoyed and very disappointed. I didn’t know what to do with those feelings. So last week I spent my whole session at my shrink’s talking about it. First she asks me, “But why do you have to be the one to do all the planning and organizing?” I sat there and looked at her for a while. It’s not the first time I’ve discussed this group with her. Finally I said, “Because it’s my tribe, I’m their Rebbe.” Now like Moses, I too, am far from being a perfect person. One of my less likable traits is that I often have a hard time accepting people as they are. So my shrink listens to what I said, and she sits back and says, “hmmm… But you know these people Hilarie, you know what they are like, who they are, what to expect from them. Why can’t you accept them for what you know they are?” I sat there and suddenly this calm came over me and I realized she was right. And all the anger, the annoyance and the disappointment disappeared. So I set to work to solve whatever problems there were to organize this evening. And here we all are. I am among my family, surrounded by them. 

So let us now start to tell the story of how a much more important, imperfect leader led a very unruly folk out of slavery in Egypt to freedom.

And we did. We told the story of freedom, we asked the 4 questions, we talked about the 4 types of people and we blessed 4 glasses of wine. And then when the ritual was all over we served up the dinner and ate, food from our memories – hard boiled eggs, gefilte fish, chicken soup with matzah balls, lamb with roasted potatoes and parsnips and lots of desserts. Our children ate and talked and joked with each other like cousins. And these friends, these parents, these new “siblings” that I have gathered and brought together to eat with me and share with me. My minyan, my Jewish family here in Stockholm. And it was a very good Seder.


Dec 22 2011

Chanukah

Tuesday, December 20 – the 12th day I am here with my mom and the first night of Chanukah. And I am not with my son or husband this year to take out the candles and organize the celebration or even to make latkes. But my husband called me on SKYPE and asked where the menorah was and if there were any candles. I told him where the menorah was kept and that candles were in the same place. So after about 15 minutes he SKYPED me again and I could join them for the Chanukah candle lighting and watch Bevin say the prayer. Its a Star Trek world and videophone is alive and well. But as far as latkes are concerned they will probably have to wait till I get back home.

Last night I met with my mom’s doctor. I want him to tell me how my mom is. Actually, I want him to play God – to know how long she has left, to tell me for certain. But he isn’t God – just an ordinary, geriatric specialist type of doctor and he doesn’t know. I asked him if we could take a few blood tests to see how her body chemistry is but he said if we do that and discover how badly she is doing then he would have to do something to try to fix it. Because he is a doctor. So we will just let her be, let her body do what it has to do.

So I wait. I sit in her room, sometimes next to her bed, sometimes in front of my computer. I help to feed her. She is given puréed food now. She would at least open her mouth when she felt the spoon near her lips. But now she is hard to wake up for meals. She sleeps. Peacefully. Seemingly without pain. And I wait.

December 30th keeps coming closer. That’s the date on my return ticket. Whenever I think about it I get very anxious. Worried. Scared. What will I do if she keeps continuing this way? I can change my ticket but not for too much longer than that – I have a job I need to get back to. A life. Do I leave, only to have to return a week later? Do I stay longer but its still not long enough? I can feel the anxiety building. So once again, I tell myself “One day at a time, just take it one day at a time.”

And tonight has become Wednesday already, the second night of Chanukah, commemorating God’s miracle of light.


Dec 9 2009

Chanukah in Swedish

In just a few days, Chanukah, the Jewish festival of lights, will start. I wrote this piece sometime in 2004 but since its that time again I thought I would put it up now. A few things have changed since I wrote it. My son is no longer in 1st grade but in his last year of school before going on to college next fall. We eventually did do a presentation of Passover when he was in 4th or 5th grade, which was a big success. The Swedish Church has now been separated from the state and is trying to figure out how to survive in this very secular country. In the spring, Bevin will have a course called “Religion”. We’ll see just how multi-cultural the class will be. Maybe Bevin will have to give a talk about his religion once again.

Moving from the United States to a land like Sweden is often fraught with surprises. Of course one expects to find differences – the language for instance, or foods like Falukorv and Tunbrödsrullar, and Lutfisk. Clothing and shoe sizes are different and so are the measuring cups. Remember the metric system that the states spent 30 years trying to introduce and failed? Well it’s here, in use every day. And don’t forget the price of gasoline – 4 dollars a gallon! And how about liqueur stores open on Saturday night so you can buy a last minute bottle of wine for the dinner party you just got invited too? Well, forget it! But overall, there are a lot of similarities too. Cars drive on the right side of the road. Traffic lights are red, yellow, and green. The Big Macs taste the same. So do the Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. TV shows from the States are all in English as long as they are for people over the age of 7 or 8. You can watch British Masterpiece Theater programs (often before they arrive in the States) though they are not called Masterpiece Theater here. The clothes people wear are often produced in the Far East and lots of the toys are made in China. Barbie is easily available and so are potato chips and microwave popcorn. Its when you find differences in areas you didn’t expect that you get surprised.

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Dec 5 2009

Being Jewish in Swedish

Once again this is something I wrote awhile ago, around 2004. In the years that have passed, my son has had his Bar Mitzvah and I now sit on the board of an organization called Progressive Judendom i Stockholm. We are working to bring Reform Judiasm to Stockholm. And the group of J.A.P.S. that formed all those years ago still (with some comings and goings) meet for holidays and other times. Our children are like cousins to each other and the adults in the group are more than just friends. They have become family.

An American Jew in Stockholm

It’s funny how things change the older one gets – one’s sense of immortality, one’s idea of how to live a good life, the color of one’s hair, the list of things that are important.

I’ve spent a long time living here in Stockholm. I’ve spent an even longer time being Jewish – pretty much from birth, actually. My parents were Jewish. Both sets of grandparents were also Jewish. All my family and the relatives around me were Jewish. But I didn’t grow up in a Jewish neighborhood. From the time I was 4 years old till I was 18, I lived in a small town in the middle of northern New Jersey. All through grammar school I was the only Jewish kid in my class. And if there were any Jewish kids in the large regional high school I attended, I didn’t know them. I always had to get special permission to be absent from school on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I then had to explain to my friends why I wasn’t in class. Getting permission wasn’t a problem and the explanations finally became routine but having to go through that process did contribute to making me feel different from all the rest.

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