Friday, September 26, 2008

(1)A Visit to The Ohel of The Lubavitcher Rebbe (2) Comments on Patriotism

I visited the Ohel of the Lubavitcher Rebbe today. It was after dark, the only time available to me in an odd schedule that disrupts normal sleep patterns. The silhouette of the tombstones in the lanes of the cemetery looked like tall buildings built with the words and deeds of lives finished. The silence of the graves reminded me of a sleeping city awaiting morning.

I always visit three graves in Montefiore cemetery. The Rebbe's grave is of course one. He has shaped my life mostly through those who knew him more directly. The teachings that have connected me to the Rebbe have not changed since his passing. Those who might misinterpret his teaching without fear of forceful contradiction seem to have increased in number.

The second grave I visit is of a young soldier who was killed in action in 1944. I found his grave by accident. So many times have I visited his grave that I can find it in the dark It is decorated with a cameo photograph of him in uniform. His tomb stands at the corner of the cemetary lane. It is tall with a commanding presence, perhaps as he was in life. His parent's common grave stone is next to that of their son with a date of passing decades after that of their son.. It is wide and far shorter . It is of darker stone and appears stooped in grief. The years between his death and that of his parents fills me with sadness as I think of their life without him and the pangs of loneliness as they pass his friends in the street.

The third grave I visit is that of a woman who was murdered in Crown Heights in 1991. We knew her and her husband and children. My wife was pregnant with my middle daughter when Mrs. L was murdered. There is a serene calm that comes to a couple when they agree upon the name of a child. For us this feeling would arrive in the first hours and days after the birth of a child. My middle daughter is the only child whose name preceded her. It was an expression of and a balm for our grief.

For me, a cemetery is like an aquarium. The aquarium teems with fish silent behind the glass that separates them from visitors. When I walk among the graves it is as though thick glass separates me from the thousands of lives lived fast and slow, in shouts and in whispers, in my accent and idiom and in languages unknown to me. I think of souls departed, leaving behind dark and empty houses.

There is a book called "Maaneh Lashon." It is a book of prayers for the cemetery. It is to me like a guidebook to the language of a country to where all are headed. It helped me to address my prayers to G-d alone and to cope with the presence of the departed. Between life and death is a border dispute. This book gave me the courage to speak. It was a comfort. So many times I had seen it at the Ohel, at the Rebbe's grave site. The book is now to me like a stranger who has stopped on the street to speak to me and leaves as a friend.

A cemetery is like a strange foreign city . When I see strangers visiting those with whom they once lived , I feel a connection . There are those I see daily at a bus stop with whom I never speak. Such people when I meet them abroad in a foreign capitol are no longer strangers. They are "landsmen", people who come from the same city.

When I enter the cemetery, the living are like me, visitors from abroad, from the place that is called the land of the living. They are landsmen. As we leave silently, I feel that they are not strangers. We are all of the same city.


Patriotism:Variations on a Theme From Chicago to Belgrade

There are certain emotions that are universal. Love for a spouse and the love of one’s children strike chords of universal resonance. In a crowd, your own family shines like the brightest star. Patriotism is also a universal feeling. Around the globe songs of praise are sung under flags of every colour to nations of widely varying landscapes and climate. Every nation, great and small is the bright star in a vast sky to its own people.

Some people are more demonstrative of their patriotism than others. One person might feel a serene fondness where another likes to shout and wave the flag. It is interesting during an international soccer match to survey the sea of faces beneath a flag as the sound of a national anthem calls the crowd to silent attention.

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