Four years after the death of my husband, I felt a deep sense of renewed loss as I contemplated leaving the home that we had shared. Preparing to move from my home of more than two decades during the pandemic was lonely and exhausting work, and I had damped down my feelings as I sorted, discarded, and packed all the stuff of our household; it was the only way that I could do the physical work. But as the moving date drew nearer, I realized I needed to find a way to make personal meaning of the impending emptiness.
Anticipating the day when I would turn the key in the door for the last time, I decided to create a ceremony to help me reach some emotional closure to reorient my consciousness toward the new beginning ahead.
Creating a new ritual can enhance and deepen our experiences of transition. Rabbi Laura Geller frames these moments of personal change as “the Torah of our lives.” With this idea in mind, I invited close friends and family members to join me in an original rite of passage. I sought to infuse my move with meaning and provide myself with some sense of control when all the work of moving was suppressing access to my feelings. In his book Chatter, Ethan Kross supports engaging in rituals as an effective way to harness nonproductive silent conversations we have with ourselves. I realized I had been doing this for weeks.
Because of the pandemic I would be physically alone for the Zoom ritual. I turned to my three daughters for assistance and they offered insights and ideas, My eldest daughter, Tamara Cohen, a rabbi, feminist ritual maker and liturgical poet, helped me compose the ceremony of remembrances, songs, movement and blessings. Rabbi Ayelet Cohen and Maya Orli Cohen, my two other daughters, contributed resources and reflections.
My options for the choreography and mechanics of the ceremony were constrained by the fact that I would be walking around holding my mobile phone, focused on keeping myself in view on the participants’ screens. Without another pair of hands, I couldn’t coordinate lighting a candle or opening a spice box. This regrettably limited my ability to incorporate objects that are associated with traditional Jewish rituals that sanctify special moments and would have enhanced this one.
The website ritualwell.org suggests a framework for creating a new ceremony by addressing three questions: What do you want to leave behind? What do you want to remember and/or take with you? What do you want to create for the future? These issues guided my way.
We chose the 8th day of Hanukkah, a festival that commemorates place and time, and embedded my individual experience within a Jewish frame. We began by singing the Hebrew song “Hayamim holfim, shana overet” (the days go by, the year moves on.) Thanks to my dear friend Menorah (whose name conjures the light of this holiday), we changed the lyrics of the second verse from “aval hamangina l’olam nisheret,” to “aval hahavurah l’olam nisheret,” friendships always endure.
I walked through eight spaces of my home, inside and outdoors, the iPhone video camera capturing my steps. In each room, I shared an experience that had taken place there or recounted a special association with an object, item or persons identified with it. It was especially hard to take my leave of the spaces that Steve and I had designed together. Twenty years earlier, we had converted the attached garage into a beautiful wood- paneled library and filled it with some two thousand volumes. In the spacious kitchen with its island and hidden pull-out spice racks, I had prepared hundreds of Shabbat meals, family seders, and parties. I felt sad to see the room denuded of the aromas and flavors that had made it a center of my home-based activity, realizing that I was unlikely to want to engage again in such feverish preparations alone in my new apartment.
The TV room, emptied of the furniture that Maya had transported with her when she moved to Brooklyn a couple of years after Steve’s death, held their tactile, warm red presence in my visual memory and in my heart. It was hard for me to pause there as part of my farewell tour and I avoided it—Steve had died in his sleep in that room where he had been sleeping in a hospital bed for a few weeks. The space was still too fraught with pain, regret, and sorrow.
The backyard was one of the outstanding features of my Teaneck home. In winter the swimming pool silently held its dark green cover with a garnish of leaves and branches that had fallen from surrounding trees. Summer memories of happy romps in the shimmering blue water with my grandchildren infused the cold, gray day with sunlit recollections. When I closed my eyes, I could smell the luxuriant lilacs of springtime and picture the lush rhododendrons that burst open every April.
Nearby and faraway women friends with whom I have remained connected through many years and moves (from Cambridge to Jerusalem to Teaneck to Montreal and back to Teaneck) took turns recalling times they had been in our home—Shabbat dinners, backyard gathering, overnight visits, shiva minyans—meaningful get-togethers both joyful and sorrowful. My dear friend Barbi sent a message from Israel: “All your homes have been havens of warmth and comfort.” Others’ comments echoed hers and lifted my spirits with their appreciation of my personal attributes and values that anchored our enduring friendships. While their generous words and poignant remembrances rooted me in the times spent together in specific spaces, I grew more confident that their wishes would accompany me as I settled into the apartment where I would soon be living. They helped me to believe that I’d be able to infuse my new abode with these qualities, too.
We listened to a recording of Debbie Friedman’s “Lechi Lach,” its soaring stanzas inspiring trust in the journey to a new place. Its deep resonance was magnified by our family friendship with her. Loss, longing, and love were intertwined themes that held the moment. A banner inscribed with the Hebrew words: “Blessed are you in your coming in and your going out” had been affixed over the lintel of the foyer. We recited it aloud. A gift from Debbie, this enduring blessing attaches to whatever space it graces. It hangs now over the coat closet in my apartment.
Had circumstances been different and with more time to prepare and less pressure, there are a few things I would have done differently. We had curtailed spontaneity by inviting just a few paticipants to speak, not making space for impromptu words of greeting. I felt hur- ried, knowing that people’s patience on Zoom has its limits, and I rushed through a few rooms where I would have liked to linger longer, allowing more memories to surface with their attendant feelings. I would have wanted to include a few ritual objects to convey a spirit of sanctification. I simply forgot to click on the record button and had not assigned a co-host to manage the session. I neglected to add an element of tzedakah—a serious omission. How appropriate it would have been to donate to the Coalition for the Homeless or Habitat for Humanity! While I made contributions privately after the event, I regretted having missed an opportunity in the presence of my friends and family to reach out in support of people who lack secure housing.
Traditional rituals give us a way to mark time and infuse it with meaning. We often do this through attaching ourselves to codified formulas of practice that have been in place for a long time. Sometimes there are none that meet our current needs. How to address the imminent transition of a woman in her 70’s, living on her own, choosing to move out of the permanence and stability of her own home, opting for change?
I felt that creating a new ceremony within a Jewish frame could help me address the losses, face my anxiety, and also express gratitude for the fullness of the time lived in my home and the relationships associated with it.The ritual marking my move to a new environment that would be mine alone built a bridge that I could cross with fortified hopefulness to what lay ahead.
Elaine Rachel Shizgal Cohen, EdD, is a retired Jewish educator and educational executive.