Saying Goodbye

December 18th, 2021

Beth Hamedrosh Hogodel cemetery is located at 134 S. Dana Ct., Milwaukee, WI. It is a hard place to find, at least it was for me. I drove past the entrance by mistake. There was a cement truck blocking most of the street and I thought the road was closed, so I drove around to find a different way into the place. There was none. I had to circle back and squeeze through the only open section of a bridge that was being replaced. The Jewish cemetery is small, actually tiny in comparison to other graveyards. I-94 is right next to the cemetery. The highway and the burial ground are only separated by a dilapidated wooden fence. The location could hardly be called peaceful.

I was several minutes late for Jim’s funeral. Jewish funerals tend to be brief. Jim’s service lasted barely half an hour. I missed the first part of the rabbi’s eulogy. Even though he had a microphone and loudspeaker, it was hard to hear his comments over the roar of the semis on the freeway. It was also a windy day with grey clouds skittering across the sky. Between the howl of the wind and the noise from the traffic, it was difficult to understand any of the rabbi’s talk.

The rabbi, from what I could make out, spoke about Jim’s intelligence and his commitment to the things that mattered to him. He said that Jim was a brilliant man. I would agree with that. He taught mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His outside interests were eclectic. He once gave a talk at a Purim celebration about Yiddish cabaret music in Odessa and Lvov prior to World War II. That was a rather obscure topic, but Jim was able to make it fascinating to me. Jim was one of those people who never stopped learning. He had the insatiable curiosity of a toddler.

I only knew Jim from our conversations at kiddush after the Shabbat morning service. Jim didn’t talk much. He preferred to listen. I found that to be refreshing. Most people, including myself, are not good listeners. Jim was.

There were maybe twenty people at the graveside. Some wore yarmulkes, some not. I didn’t. I knew a few folks there from the shul: Neil, Ken, and Susan. The others were strangers to me. Each of us knew bits and pieces of Jim’s life. It is unlikely that anybody knew him completely. We all cared about him.

The rabbi explained a ritual to us that was traditional for funerals. Each person was encouraged to shovel a spade full of earth on to Jim’s casket once it was lowered into the ground. This was one last act of kindness that we could perform for our friend. It was an act for which we would never receive any recompense in this world. The rabbi went on to say that we should use the back side of the shovel blade to move the dirt. Using the wrong side of the spade indicated our reluctance to say goodbye to Jim. We were doing something that needed to be done, but we did it with sorrow in our hearts.

I participated in the tradition. I had never done that before. I shoveled a bit of soil on to Jim’s coffin. I found it to be a deeply moving experience. It was a physical act, something tangible.

Goodbye my friend. Peace to you always.

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