I love the saying “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Now lemonade is not my first choice as a drink, but I do appreciate the philosophical approach of the sentence. When we are faced with something negative or something sad or something challenging or something that pushes us into the darkness of grief, we need to take that negative and all it encompasses and find a positive. A positive, can-do attitude that moves us forward. A positive that gives life meaning and light.
Take as an example the fast day of Tisha B’Av — the ninth day in the month of Av — the day on which our Holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed not once, but twice. In Jewish tradition, it is considered the saddest date on the calendar, and we begin the process of mourning a full three weeks beforehand.
But no sooner is Tisha B’Av behind us than we begin to turn away from the dark and toward the light. The very first Shabbas that follows Tisha B’Av is called Shabbas Nachamu. The day gets its name from the opening words of the haftarah (the additional reading from Prophets following the Torah reading) that is read in the synagogue on the Sabbath following Tisha B’Av: “Nachamu, nachamu, ami,” says the Almighty. “Be comforted, My people.” The brilliant commentator Rashi asserts that grammatically, the words actually reflect God speaking not to the people but to the prophets, advising them to “Comfort My people.” In either case, the message of those words speaks to me. Accept the sadness in the loss of our holy Temple, but do not allow that grief to overwhelm you. Take comfort in the possibilities of the future. A critical life lesson, to be sure.
My third grandchild — a boy — was born a year and a half after my beloved husband Bruno died. The baby arrived in this world on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Av — the Friday afternoon before Shabbas Nachamu. The auspicious date of the baby’s birth was a clear sign for me, a signal that this grandchild, born on this date, would bring me comfort. And I recall that in an earlier article I wrote, I quoted Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the founder of the Breslov chasidic movement, who said, “The day you were born is the day God decided the world could not exist without you.”
The world, Hashem decided, needed this sweet child. And speaking somewhat selfishly, I needed him and was ready to be comforted by him as well. The date was perfect. As we suspected on the morning of the bris, my grandson was named Dov, Bruno’s Hebrew name. But my daughter and son-in-law added the middle name of Avichai, which means “my father lives.” My daughter’s powerful message to her father was: “Never worry, Dad. You will be a part of us and our children always.” Light filled my heart and there I stood, a bit overwhelmed, surrounded by the comfort — the nechama — that God wants us to have after we have experienced sadness.
When my youngest daughter gave birth two years later to her first child — also a boy — she, too, named him after her father. What joy, I remember thinking then. Such joy, I feel even now. Two beautiful grandsons carrying their grandfather’s beautiful name. Added to the wonder of such comfort and such a blessing is the knowledge that my four children talk about their father often. Very often. And with whom do they share their memories most of all? Their children, of course. They share his adventures and his passions, they laugh at his jokes, they admire his entrepreneurial instincts, they discuss his professional world, the charities he supported, his involvement in the Jewish community, his love of food and cameras and technology and Chabad and history, his deep, loving devotion to all of us.
I admit that I am often quite pensive and somewhat sad on Bruno’s yahrzeit. But my children? They use the day to celebrate their father. When my oldest daughter’s children were in elementary school in Israel, she would go to each classroom on the day of her father’s yahrzeit, share something about him with each class, bring a fun project for the kids to do, and then top off the experience by distributing those wonderful Israeli chocolate and cream Krembos to the class. Some of the boys in Dovi’s eighth-grade class had known him since first grade. (The Dov was adjusted to Dovi by his two older brothers about a day after his birth.) They always enjoyed my daughter’s annual visit and actually remembered the approximate date of the yahrzeit (and likely the sweet treats as well). As the winter months approached, they would begin to ask Dovi if the yahrzeit and the krembos were on their way.
When my Israeli grandchildren were older, they often would write their Zaidie’s name on the board in school and announce that the learning that day of his yahrzeit was in memory of Dov ben Mayer. Or they might bring a special babke to their high school classroom, or perhaps some Krembos. My 17-year-old grandson once was taking a bagrut exam in a classroom the day after his Zaidie’s yahrzeit; he happened to look up and saw that his older brother, who had attended a class in that room the previous day, had written Dov ben Mayer on the board. “I felt as though Zaidie was watching over me,” my grandson remarked.
Now keep in mind that only our first two grandchildren actually knew their grandfather, but they were not quite three years and one year old when he died, so the memories are quite few and far between. Yet when my grandchildren talk about their Zaidie, they know so much about him that you would think they knew him. Clearly shared memories can be quite powerful, even though you did not experience them firsthand. They can fill your life with light despite the darkness of the loss of the main character of the story.
A powerful example of this occurred when I traveled to Israel this past November and December for two celebrations: first the bat mitzvah of my twin granddaughters and then the wedding of the grown-up Dov Avichai a month later. Because of different complicated issues, the other set of grandparents was not able to travel to Israel for the bat mitzvah celebration. One bat mitzvah girl’s sad reaction? “No Zaidie, and now Saba and Savta are not able to come to the bat mitzvah!” As much as she was missing the grandparents who could not travel, she also thought about the grandparent no longer living. He was a part of her consciousness, a piece even still of the family structure.
When the 21-year-old Dovi shared with me this past summer the good news (which I had suspected for some time) that he and his beloved Lieden (Can there be a more beautiful name? Lieden, my Garden of Eden) were engaged, I casually asked: “When’s the wedding?” “December 15,” he responded. “Just four days before Chanukah.” I took a deep breath. So many years later and the connection between Bruno and this grandchild remained strong, quite remarkably so, as the date of the yahrzeit was one day before Dovi’s wedding. Dovi thought that was a nice coincidence; my heart knew it was no coincidence. Once again Hashem was watching over me, taking the sadness of one day and leading me directly into the joy and comfort of another.
“Would you like me to bring Zaidie’s tallis with me to use as part of your chuppah?” I asked. “Of course,” Dovi responded, without a moment’s hesitation. His answer was quick and easy, and he had no idea what emotions stirred inside of me. What irony, I thought; my son sat in place of his father at Dovi’s bris and wore that large tallis as the sandek (the man who holds the baby during the actual circumcision). Now so many years later, and again without Bruno, the tallis would be an integral piece of a family ceremony as Dovi, all grown up, would stand with his beautiful kallah under his Zaidie’s tallis on his wedding day. Nachamu, nachamu mishpachti. Be comforted, my family.
I admit that the day of the yahrzeit was a mixed bag, to be sure. Some of us, including the chattan, went to the Kotel in the morning, something I had never done on the yahrzeit since this was the first time I was in Israel on that date. But the rest of the day was busy and hectic, and the house was filled with people and talk about tomorrow’s celebration, and suddenly the wedding day arrived and I had slid fairly easily from a sad, thoughtful, backward-looking day to a happy, thoughtful, forward-looking day.
And the wedding? It was perfect. Just as it should be. An outdoor chuppah in December and none of us needed to wear coats. The chattan beyond handsome as he wore a suit for the very first time in his life. (It’s Israel, right?) And the kallah? Dressed in a gown like a Victorian princess with the black long ringlets of her hair framing her beautiful face. A bouquet of stunning red flowers. Glorious simcha on the faces of my daughter and her husband. And there I was with so many of my beloved children and grandchildren around me. And in the midst of it all were my Dov Avichai and his beloved Lieden, standing under the protection and love of Bruno’s tallis. I felt Bruno’s presence everywhere. But I wasn’t sad. I felt nothing but joy and thankfulness on this day, focused on my grandson’s future, which I pray will be filled with God’s blessings. A day of light. A day moving forward. A positive day. A lemonade day. A day orchestrated by the Almighty.
As the memorable evening came to a close, we folded the tallis neatly and I cradled it for a moment in my arms, cherishing it and recognizing how much nechama it had brought me during the wedding ceremony. I brought it back to my daughter’s house and then ultimately back to my Teaneck home, where it waits for the bright, beautiful, lemonade day of another grandchild’s wedding.
Tzivia Bieler and her late husband, Bruno, moved to Teaneck in January 1974. She retired as the executive office director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee; retirement brings her pleasure and more time to spend with children and grandchildren in the United States and Israel.