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First Wednesday

The month of May, 2005, began on a Sunday. Outside my window, birdsong rang from one old pine tree to another, drowning the snorts of the first Egged bus making its way up my sleepy Jerusalem street. Six A.M.—far too early to wake up, too late to hope to doze again. It was one year since my sister Diane died, and I still couldn’t sleep well, couldn’t absorb the loss, couldn’t accept the soul-shattering absence of my sister across the globe.

The birds in my garden were singing like their North American cousins did in the maple trees and dogwoods around Di’s little guest room in Washington, DC, where I’d spent so many difficult days and months. I’d been part of her support team as she fought her determined three-year battle against cancer. Now there was nothing more I could do for her. But as her first yahrzeit approached—the Hebrew date, the “secular” date, and the exact moment, 365 days to the minute she breathed her last breath—I had a gnawing feeling that there was still something I had to do, something for me if not for her.

I tossed in bed, cursed the early-morning birds and buses and the bright lattice of sunlight beginning to shine through the shutters. The date, I thought. The date: maybe I should first decide when to observe the yahrzeit, and the how would come to me later. I forced myself back a year, to Diane’s room in the hospice in Virginia, to the nightly shifts as her breaths became more and more labored, to my dread of being there with her and my dread of not being there for her.

She died on Wednesday morning, the fourth of May. And suddenly it dawned on me, as the new day dawned in Jerusalem: Diane died on the first Wednesday of the month! How could we not have noticed? First Wednesday—one of my sister’s beloved “brainchilds,” the day she’d made special for a wide circle of friends and colleagues. Long a single businesswoman, a first-class networker and wonderful hostess, Diane decided in the early 1990s to invite all these women friends and colleagues she saw too infrequently to a monthly evening of socializing at her house on the edge of Washington. Whether monthly or, eventually, semi-annually, whether it fell on Wednesday or (as circumstances often had it) on a Tuesday or a Thursday, First Wednesday at Di’s became a Washington institution.

The format was always the same: light refreshments (featuring “Mom’s chocolate chip cake,” baked by Diane the night before); enthusiastic shmoozing, and then the formal program. Every First Wednesday, one of Di’s friends volunteered to speak about one of the nonprofit organizations she supported—generally one that benefited other women. After the talk and questions and answers, a big straw hat was passed around the room, a little bundle of cash accumulating for the evening’s chosen charity.

In a city synonymous with infinite personal ambition and cutthroat competition, Diane established a new tradition, feminist and Jewish, instinctively combining warm home hospitality and the friendship of other women for the sake of doing a mitzvah, contributing an anonymous gift to tzedakah. After her death, the First Wednesday women, many of whom were not Jewish, knew that there was no better way to honor Di’s memory than to meet again in Washington to express their love and respect for her.

Thirty days after her funeral, they held what I called Diane’s shloshim, marking the end of our first month of mourning. There was no chocolate chip cake, no official program, no comforting words of Hebrew. On that First Wednesday there were, instead, reminiscences and inspiration, laughter and tears, as those who knew my sister told how much her boundless generosity and professional dynamism had contributed to their lives. Some of the long years I’d been in Israel, far from Diane’s daily doings, took on more shape, got filled in with details I’d never known of her rich and enthusiastic life. And the straw hat filled up with contributions for the women’s scholarship fund that Diane and her best friend, Alice Herman, had established in tribute to their friendship, forged in freshman days at Douglass College.

For the first time since Di’s death, I jumped out of bed early and energetically. Finally I knew: the first Wednesday in May would be Diane’s yahrzeit, and it would be First Wednesday/Revi’i Ha-rishon, my own way of keeping my sister’s work and spirit alive. Within minutes, I put together a list of more than 30 Jerusalemites to invite, enough to stretch the walls of my small living room. Women I’d known since my early days in Jerusalem and women I’d met in the three decades since; women who’d kept me going through the traumas of Diane’s illness and women whose hands I’d held through crises of their own. Some of them I spoke with every week, some I barely saw once a year, one was a rare visitor from California. All were my sisters, their lives bound in sorrow and joy to mine.

By the time I went to bed. First Wednesday’s other details were in place. It would be on Thursday, (Wednesday night was the eve of Holocaust Day, and Di would have agreed: Thursday night was perfect for First Wednesday) My friend Judy Labensohn, a marvelous author/teacher, agreed to read an essay she’d written about the death of her own little brother Joey, more than 50 years ago. Bella Savran, my oldest and closest friend in Jerusalem, would of course talk about her favorite nonprofit and mine: the Counseling Center for Women. Back in the 1980s, Bella shared with me her discovery of feminist therapy, and her excitement about it lured me into volunteering for the Center even before it was incorporated as a nonprofit—an activity that granted me the privilege of chairing its board for the next 13 years. When Diane held a First Wednesday in Washington to celebrate my visit there in February 2002, I spoke to her friends about the Counseling Center for Women. Now Bella would close the circle and tell my friends about it.

The evening was going to be okay. On Tuesday, I bought the ingredients for Mom’s chocolate chip cake, and scouted Jerusalem for pretty paper plates and cups. Di would have used fine crystal and china, but hey, I brainwaved her, this is Israel. I found paper doilies for the cake and added a kilo of bourekas to the menu. It may be a memorial evening, I told Di firmly in my head, but it’s Jewish – there’d better be food. On Thursday morning, I set up the refreshment table, the Shabbat kumkum (urn) for 40 cups of boiled water, all the chairs we owned and the chairs we borrowed from neighbors. A small, elegant blue glass candleholder perfectly matched the paper plates; I dropped in a white tea light and put it on the table next to a vase of white flowers. Michael, my ben-zug (longtime partner), eyed the glass doors to the balcony, wondering whether some people could sit out there.

“What about the movie?” he asked. My stomach stabbed me. Secretly I’d been hoping there would be a glitch with the movie. I had watched it being made, a mere four months before Diane died. After a full year in remission—blessed second honeymoon for her and Jim, her husband of just four years—she was again fighting major tumors in her lungs. She was horribly ill, pathetically thin and weak. And eager, as always, to do something for a cause: this time, a short film to promote public participation in cancer clinical trials. The company that produced some of the drugs—still in experimental stages—which had miraculously kept Di alive for two and a half years brought its PR and film crew to her and Jim’s door between rounds of chemotherapy. Months later, the disks arrived on my desk in Jerusalem, and there they had remained, unopened, like a letter from the afterworld that I refused to read.

“What about the movie?” Michael repeated, going into techie mode. “We’d better make sure it works.” Without asking, he turned on the machine and slipped in the disk. I held my breath. And there, wondrously, was my lovely sister, gracious, smiling, indomitably optimistic in spirit and in her conviction that she could help others win the battle she was fighting. I stuffed my tissues in my pocket and went into the kitchen to bake Mom’s chocolate chip cake.

A few hours later, I told my Jerusalem sisters about my one and only sister Diane. The little sister who never seemed to sit still, who was always tugging at my sleeve to persuade me, “Let’s do something!” Who told me, when she phoned to say she’d been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer, “I’m going to beat it. And I’m going to become the American poster girl for cancer clinical trials.” We all looked at the poster that was made a year later to honor her—and to encourage other patients to sign up for clinical trials. We watched the movie in total silence.

And then, as Judy Labensohn read her essay about her little brother, I looked around the room with sudden shock. Thirty smart, creative, successful women—and how many of us had been touched by cancer! At least three in the room— including another Judy, 81 years old—were survivors themselves. Sarah’s beautiful 18-year-old daughter had succumbed to leukemia, Evie’s husband died of lung cancer in his 40s. Many of our parents, among them my beloved father, were lost to cancer; Bella’s dad and Ann’s brother were struggling against it at that moment. When Judy finished reading her essay, the discussion segued movingly from the death of siblings to death in Jewish communities, to the connections between grieving and writing and the catharsis of letting it all out in diaries and essays and Internet blogs.

Then it was Bella’s turn. I couldn’t believe that, in my own turmoil during the past year, I had forgotten so many things I knew so well. That Bella’s mother, an Auschwitz survivor, had also died of cancer, when Bella was only 15. That it was in her mother’s memory that Bella founded the Freda Halperin Memorial Fund at CCW, to provide low-cost, feminist psychotherapy to women who would not otherwise be able to afford it. My friends, my Jerusalem sisters, talked about the Holocaust, about the strength to survive and the need of survivors—all kinds of survivors—to help others survive, too. They talked about therapy and feminism, about their relations with their own sisters and brothers, and they put their donations for CCW in a big straw hat.

As the guests began to leave, I knew they would be alongside me at future First Wednesdays. Devorah was among the last to go. She stopped at the door and took my hand. “You would have wanted your sister to be here tonight,” she said in Hebrew. “She was. Toda raba, thank you.”

Barbara Gingold, one of Lilith’s founders, is a writer, photographer and landscape designer in Jerusalem.