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My Shoshana

IT’S a good thing this book is small. You know, one of those books that looks like an excuse for a book, a couple of inches high, a few pages long, with large type or drawings — on one of those soft, soft subjects, like how many ways to love your Mom or how to appreciate the sights and sounds around you.

In the present case, the opposite is true. The book is small because if it were bigger it would be too difficult to bear. Its subject is anything but soft. Its writing sears, so that after a few pages you need to put it down. You need to take a breather.

Again, these are not big pages. In my profession we deal with “type size” and with “leading.” Type size is the height of the type. Leading is the distance between the lines. In My Shoshana, the type is large and the distance between the lines is great. If it were otherwise, you could not continue.

Silly me. I had heard for years that Rabbi Rafael Grossman wanted to write about his daughter, his daughter who died at age 17, and about his feelings, his grief, and how he got through it, if he did; and I imagined that he would write a regular book, full of memories and portraits, a regular biography. I imagined sensitive, sophisticated lessons about mourning and psychology and G-d and theology and, given who he is, I also imagined a book about how he helped other people through their crises. I imagined a book full of case studies and painful, very painful, but inspiring endings.

Silly me. I should have known better. After all, I’ve heard Rabbi Grossman speak.

Actually, I brought him to Denver once to speak on just this subject, the death of a child, because a set of parents were deeply grieving and I thought he might help. I knew that Rabbi Grossman cut to the chase, that he avoided nothing, and that he had helped many parents.

I also knew he came for the cost of the ticket, since, to him, compassion trumped all.

So I should have known to expect a different book. Anyway, here I am, reading his book; and after 36 small pages I just have to put it down. I cannot continue. The feelings are too real, too hot, too honest, to continue; not in one sitting, anyway.

Shoshana Grossman died 40 years ago.

RABBI Grossman writes:

“So when I got a call from the father of a four-year-old boy who died in an automobile accident, and the mother of a nineteen-year-old girl who died of leukemia, I never said, ‘I know how you feel because I feel the same way.’No two people can feel the same way. Each of us feels pain, anger, even guilt differently.

“And, yes, I feel guilt for what happened to you. Parents who bring children into this world are supposed to protect them. They feel terrible guilt when a child dies. I couldn’t prevent your falling ill, but I feel guilty nevertheless.

“Do you remember a discussion we once had when you told me I was obsessed with death because all my academic and scholarly interests were related to it? With all the studying, all the thinking, I wasn’t prepared for your death. The only way I got through it was with the help of a colleague, a rabbi who visited us frequently and was willing to listen to me and our family.

“‘Change your scenery and you’ll find hope,’ he said.

“The Talmud teaches that a change of place brings a change of fortune, so I followed my colleague’s advice. That was when we moved to Tennessee.

“Eventually, I realized that the best I could do for other people who had lost a child, even elderly parents who had lost a middle-aged child, was to be their friend, what my colleague had become for me. If each of us could find someone we trusted, someone who didn’t make demands, who would listen to us, then we could begin to heal. I’m not grateful for knowing this. I wish I didn’t know it because of your death, but regardless of how I came to know it, I now sit with people for hours — and not as a therapist, a counselor, or a clergyman — but as someone who cares, who just wants to understand.”

It’s true. I saw it. When I spent Shabbos with the Grossmans in Tennessee back in the late 1980s, the doorbell rang at 5 a.m. I just heard the bell and went back to sleep. I learned later that someone had died, and the relatives felt the need to speak to Rabbi Grossman. They knew they could come at any time of day or night, including Shabbos. They knew Rabbi Grossman would be there for them. That’s how his Shabbos day began. He sat with the family for hours, then went off to shul. It’s a good thing he didn’t leave time to review his sermon. He didn’t have any time.

It was not even a family that active in the shul, I was told. This didn’t make any difference.

IN this little book, there are a couple of pages on love. On faith. On questioning G-d. On the afterlife. On pain. On mourning. A couple of pages is all it takes Rabbi Grossman to cut to the chase. It’s hard to recommend a book about losing a child. No one wants to think about that. No one wants to know. But Rabbi Grossman manages to say things that people do want to know, that everybody wants to know. On love, for example.

And almost everybody, at one time or another, does become a mourner.

“Over the years I’ve learned that people who try to comfort mourners usually do it the wrong way. They think mourners need to be distracted and turned away from their pain. They couldn’t be more wrong. Comfort comes from talking about a loved one, from hearing about her or his special qualities.

“Although it’s been decades since you died, I don’t stop talking about you. This is the most comforting thing I know. Because in talking about you, a part of you lives. I encourage other people to do the same. I think this is something you would want me to do. And when I do it, I say, ‘This goes on Shoshana’s side of the ledger.’ It’s a mitzvah for you.”

Later, Rabbi Grossman writes, “Although your brother Shamai is a grown man whose youngest daughter carries your name, she’s not you. You lived, you were, and you still are.” And: “My love for you is indestructible, even though you’re living in that other world.”

This is a book, small as it is, that bridges two worlds, that exists somewhere between here and there, between this world and “that other world.” How can it be otherwise? Unless, that is, one wipes the memory of the dead out of one’s mind, unless one forgets. Rabbi Grossman never forgot. He carries his pain and his love and his questions and his faith forever.

The book’s subtitle, “A father’s journey through loss,” doesn’t carry it. But that’s all right. Nothing could carry it. Nothing could contain all the feelings and joys and tears and insight that fill these pages. This little book, published by Eshel Books, of Baltimore and Washington, is listed at $12.95. Silly. Silly, indeed, as if all that is contained herein could be quantified. My Shoshana is eternal.

Copyright © 2012 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Hillel Goldberg

IJN Executive Editor |

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