It was the perfect activity for the Sunday before Tisha B’Av: a visit to the cemetery to my father’s grave. I’m not much a cemetery-goer, it’s one of my “shoulds.” Making it even harder to visit him is the fact that he’s buried in a cemetery forty minutes away; getting there involves a lot of winding roads which means I always arrive feeling nauseous.
I hadn’t been there since his first yartzeit in December and I had some new faces to show him. First, there was my daughter Leah, visiting from Dallas. She was newly expecting when he passed away and, because pregnant women typically avoid cemeteries, she had never been to his grave. My daughter Mushkie wanted to bring the guest of honor–her son, Avraham Gershon, known as Avremi, who was born in April and named after him.
The days leading up to Tisha B’Av are perfect for “shoulds.” If we would’ve done what we should’ve done when we should’ve done it, the Temple would still be standing and everyone would be happy. But we didn’t and it’s not and we’re not, and the days before Tisha b’Av are perfect for doing even small things to change that reality.
I called my mother to see if she was up for the trip. She has always been a cemetery-goer for as long as I can remember. Mother’s Day. Father’s Day. Birthdays. These days she doesn’t see well and It’s hard for her to get out of the car, but she said she wanted to go.
It’s not simple to get a caravan of people between the ages of 4 months and nearly ninety on the same schedule, but with Leah’s daughters between naps and Avremi just getting up, we were on our way.
As I bounced down the stairs to announce that we should get in the car, it hit me: Avremi is a Kohen, which means that he can’t go into a cemetery.
Of course, he can’t go anywhere because he’s only three months old. But, Nisson, his father, who made him a Kohen because it’s one of those things you get from your father, did some quick calling around to his brothers to see what was permissible. For the purposes of this cemetery visit, Avremi could stay in the car, either with the doors closed or six feet away from the graves.
Getting there was a trip down memory lane for my mother; despite her poor eyesight, she knew just when we were passing the elementary schools where she gave speech therapy fresh out of college.
But we probably made a wrong turn from the beginning as we entered Beth Shalom cemetery, giving us extra time for black-humored jokes as we tried to find my father’s plot. (“Do you see anybody living who can help us?” my mother chuckled.)
We weren’t in a rush–this was the activity of the day–but looking sideways for that long was making me queasier. There was a lot of stimulation, too, with so many names I recognized, it was a trip down memory lane for me, too. For starters, my grandparents and my husband’s grandparents were buried across the road from each other, long before we had our first date.
Finally, we hit upon my father, as my queasiness was overtaking me.
Leah stopped her minivan, assuring us that we were six feet away from any body.
“Why can’t you take him out?” my mother asked as Mushkie and I wiggled out from our seats in the way back.
“He’s a Kohen because Nisson is a Kohen,” I told her. “A boy is a Kohen if his father is a Kohen.”
“What’s a Kohen?” she asked.
“They were the ones who served in the Temple and they’re not allowed to be impure by coming too close to dead bodies,” I answered as I jumped out, eager for fresh air.
“That’s a new one,” my mother said, but she wasn’t being critical.
“How do you get to be a Kohen?” she asked.
“It goes all the way back to the days of Aaron, who served as the High Priest in the Temple. Purity and impurity are spiritual concepts. They have nothing to do with physicality.”
It sounded good to me. Once upon a time, Jewish people didn’t roll their eyes at these things; that spiritual sensitivity will return when the Third Temple is rebuilt.
As I stood at my father’s grave with Mushkie, Leah and Leah’s daughter, Mushka, we said my father’s kapital of Tehillim. I never take for granted that my family has reclaimed the ability communicate with G-d in His favorite language. I know my father appreciates that now, too.
I’m sure he appreciates Avremi, too, even if he didn’t get out of the car.
Some things we just don’t understand.
At least, not yet.
For now, that’s what “shoulds” are all about.