What Now? Episode 3 podcast transcript

Posted On Jun 13, 2019

The following is a transcription of episode 3 of the podcast What Now?, “Mourning in Public” with Shuly Rubin Schwartz, provided for accessibilty for all website visitors. 


Sara Beth: Welcome to What Now? A podcast from the Jewish Theological Seminary that asks how we respond when it all goes wrong. I’m Sara Beth Berman, your host and a graduate of the Davidson School at JTS and I’ve been searching for answers for a long time. By now, you know, my fiancé died when I graduated from JTS nearly a decade ago. What you don’t know is that I’ve had other friends that also died too young. I remember two friends from different schools who both died my senior year of college. We’ll talk more about one of them later. The other friend, my co-teaching assistant in undergrad, died of a heart defect a few weeks shy of graduation. I remember calling my dad and yelling at him when I heard my friend’s heart had just stopped for no reason. You’re a cardiologist, dad! It happens sometimes, he said.

Shuly Schwartz: I’ve never stopped asking, what now? How does Judaism think we should respond to our own tragedies? I’ve thought a lot about the tragedies and misfortunes we encounter every day. On a scale of one to 10 where one is spilling coffee on your white button down before you even arrive at your office and 10 is that time I was widowed before my wedding.

Sara Beth: I’m meeting with my teachers at my beloved alma mater, the Jewish Theological Seminary. Even teachers have had to wrestle with tragedies of their own and have applied their wisdom and scholarship to finding answers. I’m hoping that the answers they found will help me figure it all out. After years of banging my head against a wall while I whine loudly about tragedy, maybe my professors can finally help me out. In this episode I sat down with the new provost of JTS, Dr. Shuly Rubin Schwartz. I’ll let her introduce herself.

Shuly Schwartz: I’m Shuly Rubin Schwartz. I am the provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary and dean of its Gershon Kekst Graduate School.

Sara Beth: It’s really exciting to have you here today. Tell me a little bit more about the learning that you did that brought you to the place where you have been serving at JTS for so long.

Shuly Schwartz: I’m an American Jewish historian, so I got my masters in Jewish History here and my doctorate. I began my studies doing intellectual history, but when I joined the faculty and taught here, I grew to both study and teach women’s studies, gender studies, and, kinda, 20th century and now contemporary American Jewish community.

Sara Beth: So when you got into women’s studies and gender studies, where was the field?

Shuly Schwartz: It’s something I hadn’t studied in college, so it was a field that came into its own as I was growing into my own identity as a scholar. So it was something, a very exciting field, that I, I would say that there were others like Paula Hyman, zikhronah livrakhah, who really were pioneers in the field and I’m maybe kind of a half step behind them so there was some pioneering work, but there was so much work to be done in the field.

Sara Beth: It’s really, really cool. The foundational question that we ask here at What Now? is about this scale. On a scale of one to 10, where one is somebody eating your lunch out of the office fridge and 10 is the Book of Job, can you tell us about something that’s on the one end of the scale and on the 10 end of the scale for you? So I’m asking you that question, knowing that I went on USY on Wheels with your son, Elie, of blessed memory, and realizing that it’s a terrible question to ask you. So I’m asking it anyway. On the scale from one to 10, how could you possibly answer that question?

Shuly Schwartz: I don’t really think that I can. The 10 on the scale is present in my life every single day, so it’s hard for me even to remember what the one might be. But I would say that tragedy, I feel that tragedy is something that I’ve lived with my whole life as the daughter of a congregational rabbi, the wife of a congregational rabbi for 24 years. Death was always part of our lives. My parents never shielded us from death. If someone in the congregation died, that was someone that we knew, then it was something that we as a family felt deeply, but that was not a 10 because these were individuals that I knew, but they were not the kind of losses that I experienced when my son died and then five months later my husband died, both suddenly.

Sara Beth: You have a terrible and unique perspective, so I appreciate you sharing. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more of what it was like for you when you were younger, being raised in a congregational rabbi’s house, how tragedy played into your life.

Shuly Schwartz: I remember as a young child, I couldn’t have been more than 10, a young child in the congregation died. I didn’t know at the time, but in retrospect, I imagine she had leukemia. She was ill for a while; it was a kind of childhood cancer. And I vividly remember my father walking into the house after having been with the family right at the moment that she died. And it was scary for me as a child to know about a child who had died, but it was also very moving because I saw how deeply affected my father was. And this was something that affected him profoundly. It’s actually something I understood better when I became a parent too. Just knowing that a child had died was something that would have been hard for him. But the kind of empathy that he had for the family was moving for me to witness and the knowledge that this was something that deeply affected him.

Shuly Schwartz: And as I said before, he didn’t, he didn’t hide that from us. It wasn’t something where I might’ve said, gee, I wonder why daddy is so cranky today. And if he had tried to hide his pain, then it might’ve left us wondering: something’s going on, but we don’t know. They didn’t hide that. And in that sense, that was helpful. You know, growing up. When I met others who had different kinds of experiences with death in their lives, where they were much more shielded from tragedy, from pain, it became something that was more difficult for them to talk about, to think about as young adults.

Sara Beth: I hear what you’re saying. It’s a valuable way of being raised even if it’s really hard to be able to have that perspective.

Shuly Schwartz: But growing up in a rabbinic household also normalized death for all of us kids, my two siblings and myself, and it gave us a perspective that also could be humorous at times. I mean, how do you cope with the fact that if the phone rang on Shabbat afternoon, we would look at each other and groan because we knew it was the funeral home and that meant that whatever plans we had with my dad on Sunday were not going to happen.

Sara Beth: It sounds like you had a lot of experience with grief and tragedy around you in the environment where you were growing up. I’m wondering when you had your first personal encounter with loss.

Shuly Schwartz: Yeah. Both my parents died fairly young. They were in their sixties, so when my father died I was 40 and it was my first experience with death, so close to home. He had cancer. It was a terminal form of cancer. He had chemo and fought it twice as long as he was supposed to, but we watched him kind of waste away before our eyes. And my mother died two years later, almost to the day, both right before Purim. So I was determined to say Kaddish for both of them, which I did.

Shuly Schwartz: It was a time in my life when I had very young children, and saying Kaddish for morning minyan or evening minyan–it’s either when I needed to get my kids on the bus for school or it was bedtime. Kaddish is never convenient. It’s something that you need to mold your life around, but my doing that impacted the life of my family. And yet it was something that I was determined to do, and did, and found it meaningful and comforting.

Shuly Schwartz: And it was something that really tied in very much to the kind of research and teaching that I was doing about Jewish women, because with the rise of second wave feminism and then the Jewish feminist movement in the 1970s, so many women–it was part of the origin story of how women became Jewish feminists–thinking about that moment when a parent died and maybe trying to say Kaddish and being shooed out of the room, or going to a synagogue where the synagogue was not welcoming. These were often pivotal moments for women in helping them cultivate their own relationship with the tradition that wasn’t paying a man to say Kaddish, or just saying, well, you know, men do that. I don’t need that.

Shuly Schwartz: You know, we often talk about how the Jewish tradition is so sensitive to issues of grief and mourning and how the traditions that we have are exquisitely attuned to the psychological needs of people to grieve in a healthy manner. But Kaddish is the quintessential example of ways in which our tradition fell short, because if in fact Kaddish is so important for human beings as a way to help us through the various phases of grief, then why is it that only men are required to say Kaddish? Why is it that many of these rituals are written and focused on men and not on women? If it’s a human need, then both men and women ought to have that opportunity. And until quite recently in the Jewish experience, women did not take on that obligation. And in that way, were deprived of that really important mechanism to aid in the grieving process.

Sara Beth: The scholarship you do is so interesting and so intertwined to the practicalities of your life experience around this loss. What did that look like?

Shuly Schwartz: As I was saying Kaddish, I couldn’t help but think of Henrietta Szold, someone that I studied, a woman whose life I admired so much, and whom I’ve in recent years written about as well.

Sara Beth: Who was Henrietta Szold?

Shuly Schwartz: Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah, the largest Jewish women’s organization, founded in 1912. And she was also someone who studied here at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the early 1900s, she needed to promise Solomon Schechter that she was not interested in ordination and once he secured that promise from her, she attended classes along with the rabbinical students.

Sara Beth: I actually didn’t know that piece about her rabbinic education. That’s amazing.

Shuly Schwartz: She also helped the faculty with some of their research because her English was much better than many of the faculty members who were immigrants to this country. There’s a very famous letter that Henrietta Szold wrote to Haim Peretz, a friend, in 1916 when her mother died, and he offered to say Kaddish for her. I’m just going to read a few excerpts from it because I can’t do better in capturing her words than just reading them.

Shuly Schwartz: “It is impossible for me to find words in which to tell you how deeply I was touched by your offer to act as Kaddish for my dear mother. I cannot even thank you. It’s something that goes beyond thanks. It is beautiful, what you have offered to do. I shall never forget it; and yet I cannot ask you to say Kaddish after my mother. The Kaddish means to me that the survivor publicly and markedly manifests his wish and intention to assume the relation to the Jewish community which his parent had; and so, the chain of tradition remains unbroken from generation to generation, each adding its own link. You can do that for the generations of your family. I must do that for the generations of my family. My mother had eight daughters and no son, and yet never did I hear a word of regret pass the lips of either my mother or my father that one of us was not a son. When my father died, my mother would not permit others to take her daughter’s place in saying the Kaddish. And so I am sure I am acting in her spirit when I am moved to decline your offer.”

Sara Beth: Thank you for sharing that letter. It reminded me of the daughters of Zelophehad being just five daughters and no sons. It was an interesting parallel for me because I’ve done some education around that.

Sara Beth: In your going through the period of mourning for your parents over the course of what, two and a half, three years it turned out? (My dad said Kaddish for my grandparents, um, and right after my Bubbe’s Kaddish, like a week later, my Zayde died. So he basically said Kaddish for two years. He really loves minyan, so that’s great.)

Shuly Schwartz: That’s good.

Sara Beth: Anyway, you were talking about the challenge of being a mourner and saying Kaddish when you had young children. What did it look like in your work life?

Shuly Schwartz: I felt very grateful to be working here at the Jewish Theological Seminary with minhah every afternoon. So I knew that even if there was a morning that I couldn’t get out the door to morning minyan, when I was at work, I would always be able to at least say Kaddish at mincha. That was, you know, religious. I never had an appointment or never did anything else during that time. And I was very grateful for that. I came back to work right after shivah, I was teaching that semester.

Shuly Schwartz: I was not teaching a gender course, so I didn’t have the opportunity to reflect on any of this in class with my students. It was only several years later that I learned that my grieving had an impact on the community in ways that I didn’t even know. The most obvious example to me is that after shivah I had torn a black vest when my father died, and after shivah I loosely basted the tear, which is one traditional way of dealing with this issue of clothing and also the transition from shivah through sheloshim. So after the shivah, this first seven day period of mourning, I came back to work, but I continued to wear the black vest through the first 30 days after death. Several years later I met one of the students in the class and she said that she was so deeply moved by the experience of being in class with me during that time because she remembered vividly the week that I taught after sheloshim when I walked into class and she felt that I was bringing in a burst of color; and it kind of then made her realize that she had not seen that, in me, in over a month and it very vividly illustrated the different stages. I missed a week of class when I was sitting shivah. I then came back to class, but I was still close to death and that’s what that sheloshim period is about. So in a way, I taught that without ever saying a word. I guess that’s part of, as you know, as an educator, sometimes that can be the most powerful form of education.

Sara Beth: I’m wondering if you could tell us a little more about how your mourning practices occurred, how you were living through your mourning practices when we’re talking about your son and your husband, both of blessed memory.

Shuly Schwartz: Both Elie, my younger son, and Gershon, zikhronam livrakha, died suddenly. So, I don’t even know how I responded. I just somehow, unbeknownst to me, put one foot in front of the other. But I do remember that when Elie died, my husband and I were determined to both move in life as best as we could. We were determined to give each other space in the way that we would grieve. The first thing Gershon and I had to think about in terms of grief was how long we would say Kaddish. Traditionally parents say Kaddish for a child for only 30 days, not for a year. Elie was 21 when he died; clearly so young. He was a senior in college and there would be no one who would say Kaddish for him for a year.

Shuly Schwartz: As I think about it now, the decision to say Kaddish for 30 days was part of what I now understand to be one of my most powerful coping mechanisms for grief. And that is to be cognizant of my responsibility to others and to continue to be in a nurturing role. So I was very conscious of my three living children and my desire to be there for them, even as I was broken myself, that we should be broken together. And I had a cousin who died at the age of 35; I remember that debate with his parents of whether to say Kaddish for a year or for 30 days. And I felt that it was important that the entire year not be planned around getting to minyan all the time. I felt that would make me much less available to the living children that I had. And it was very clear to me that my priority was for the living. So that was kind of the first piece that we decided. So we said Kaddish for 30 days, and then when Gershon died, I said Kaddish for 30 days. And my kids said Kaddish for a year for them. Then it was more–it felt like they had said Kaddish for a much longer time, right, because they finished and then four months later their father died.

Sara Beth: Yeah, that’s really terrible. I appreciate the depths that you’re going into to share this. It’s really hard to listen to and to remember in the way that I remember, which was a lot less intense obviously. But thank you for sharing so deeply. I’m wondering if you could tell me with your living children how they, individually, or you all as a family, moved through the mourning process?

Shuly Schwartz: Well there’s no question that a sense of humor is really important. Shivah, both times, was, I guess kind of like a marathon. There were so many individuals who came to offer us comfort and it was very moving, very powerful, and very exhausting as shivah is. And in both cases, because both of these deaths were shocking and sudden, unexpected. These were young, healthy, vibrant individuals. And people often don’t know what to say, at a shivah house, as I’m sure you know.

Sara Beth: Yes, I’m familiar.

Shuly Schwartz: And we were both generous in understanding that everyone was trying to offer comfort in the best way that they could; and yet we would often share stories about some of the less successful ways in which they were able to offer that comfort.

Sara Beth: Yes. I have also had experiences where people say some pretty interesting/ridiculous things to you, trying to be helpful.

Shuly Schwartz: Sometimes people also said things that just were offensive, theologically, and that was painful to hear; and so often just being able to make light of things that people said in all seriousness became a really important coping mechanism for all of us.

Sara Beth: Are there other ways with the experience of saying Kaddish, or other ritual ways that you and your family marked all of this terrible?

Shuly Schwartz: One of the things that has become obvious to me, saying Kaddish now several times in my life, is that moment at the end of 11 months when Kaddish ends, and there is nothing to mark that final Kaddish, it just stops. And the anniversary of the death, the yahrzeit, doesn’t come for another month. So what are you supposed to do at that moment? And our tradition doesn’t really offer anything. So I was very moved by what my older daughter and my son each chose to do at that time.

Shuly Schwartz: They each were anticipating, Kaddish is gonna end, how am I gonna mark this? I want to mark this in some way. My oldest daughter was an EMT in New York City at the time, with a crazy schedule, and she would slip into minhah at The Jewish Center in the afternoon whenever she could, you know, the ambulance would drop her off. She’d come in in uniform and say Kaddish. And this is an Orthodox synagogue on the Upper West Side. They were very welcoming, and very cool with the fact that she came in in her uniform. And at the end of Kaddish, the rabbi suggested that she might want to offer a devar Torah, which she did. And she felt that it was not only a very moving way for her to signify the end of Kaddish, because, of course, she spoke about her father, but it was also a way of thanking the community for welcoming her into its midst at this time.

Shuly Schwartz: My son, Moshe, was a rabbinical student here at JTS. When he was about to end Kaddish, what he chose to do, he remembers it in a serendipitous way. He said at some point after my husband died, my son began to wear the daily tallit that my husband had made several years before. A little bit before Kaddish ended, the tallit got caught in a chair, and one of the corners ripped. So he went back to wearing his own tallit, but it got him thinking about a ritual to mark the end of Kaddish. So when cottage ended, what he chose to do was to take one string from the tallit that my late son had worn, one string from the tzitzit of the tallit that had ripped, and one from his own tallit, and then he bought a new set and he wove them all together to form the tzitzit of one corner of the tallit.

Shuly Schwartz: And he did this so that he would literally have a piece of something of his father and his brother with him, on him, each day. You know, we say when we’re kissing the tzitzit “ur’item oto,” you should see them. And he said that he, to this day, can visualize his father and his brother every day when he kisses the tallit. And so he not only remembers God’s commandments at that time, which is why we do that, but also the values of his father and his brother. He’s now a rabbi and an educator and so he brings his tallit whenever he’s teaching children the mitzvah of tzitzit. And so it also gives him another opportunity to talk about these individuals whom he loves and who had such an important impact on his life.

Sara Beth: It’s hard to believe it’s been so long since Elie and Gershon died. And I’m wondering, what now? How does that loss integrate into your life, especially as such a public figure?

Shuly Schwartz: In terms of my public life, I have begun to understand that being able to speak about death, speak about loss, to be able to write about loss, can serve an important function for other people. I understand that experiencing that loss can enable me to comfort others in ways that are unique to those who’ve undergone this kind of tragedy. And for many years I did not want to be defined by my grief. It was enough that that’s all people saw when they looked at me. But I began to understand at a certain point that it would be important for me to do so, because of my public role, that there are things that I could say that could reach a wider audience, and that maybe I could offer comfort in a broader way by being able to speak about this openly.

Shuly Schwartz: Privately, there are other challenges. 15 years later, I feel enormously blessed that my three living children each have an eldest child named for their brother and a second child named for their father. And now the challenge is how to keep people that are so present in our lives, how to bring them to life for the next generation. And that is something that we think about and that we strive to do, not only around the yahrzeit, but all the time. We talk about Elie and Gershon in our lives often, and we share stories, and we share photos, and they are a part of our family even though they’re no longer living.

Sara Beth: It’s amazing, it’s beautiful that you’re able to do those things. What are some of the pieces more publicly that you have created and you’ve sustained to remember Elie and Gershon?

Shuly Schwartz: After Elie died, many people made contributions to JTS in his memory, and JTS was gracious enough to hold all of those funds until I could figure out what I wanted to do. But it became pretty clear since Elie was very clear in his own interests. He really loved business, he was quite an entrepreneur, and he also loved Judaism. And so I decided to create a scholarship fund for List College students who wanted to take unpaid internships in the summer to help them figure out what kinds of careers they wanted to do, particularly for those interested in business, but very broadly as well. And thankfully we are still able to offer about a dozen scholarships each summer to List College students, and it’s lovely for me to know that we’re able to do something that would have been very meaningful to him, and that there are other people who are benefiting as they figure out their lives.

Shuly Schwartz: With Gershon, one of the things that he loved was Israeli music. He didn’t have much of a intensive Jewish education. He went to religious school, he went to Ramah, and when he knew he wanted to be a rabbi, he was determined to improve his Hebrew; and he did that by translating Naomi Shemer songs. And that love of music extended, even though by the way, he couldn’t really carry a tune, but that did not stop him from singing with passion and from being a wonderful teacher of others. He could teach others to sing, he could teach Torah reading, but he couldn’t quite carry a tune. We used to host a leil shira in our home every winter, a kind of song fest where we would, at that time, I know I’m dating myself and you might snicker bit, but we had Israeli song slides that we would project, on a projector, on a screen, in the living room, and we would invite our family and friends and we would just sing as many Israeli songs as we could, the words were on the screen. And after he died we decided to do that at my synagogue Congregation, Ansche Chesed. And we do that every other year in the winter. We try to add one or two new songs every year. So it’s also very moving because it’s a fun and joyful gathering.

Sara Beth: Those are really excellent ways to remember really excellent people. I’m known as an oversharer among friends and family, and the general public now. And a lot of people choose not to share a lot of their stories. And the amount that you are sharing here is impactful, and beautiful, and I’m grateful. And on behalf of all of the listeners, I’m really grateful for how forthcoming and open you are. I do think that it is helpful, to people, to build sympathy skills and empathy skills, by hearing from people that have gone through stuff like me and like you. So thank you, and I’m sorry that you’re so well positioned to share so much.

Shuly Schwartz: And I want to thank you. Even after 15 years, this is hard to talk about. And sadly we do share that bond of having experienced horrific grief that no one should have to experience, and your presence made it easier for me to share. Thank you.

Sara Beth: You’re welcome.

Sara Beth: What now, Provost Schwartz? Well, for starters, I’m going to keep sharing memories with those who are left behind, starting right now. Elie Schwartz, of blessed memory, and I went on USY on Wheels together. In a bus of 45 kids, half of whom were from New York, Elie was named the Seinfeld of the bus and I was the girl chosen to be Elaine, probably because I used to shove others to emphasize points in discussions. What you didn’t hear in the recording, is that I brought some photos from that summer to share. During a game of paper bag dramatics, where you receive a bag of tchotchkes and have to make a themed skit out of them (his group theme was the future) Elie had taken the actually plastic bag and ripped it into parts, putting it on as if it were attached to his clothing. Clothing is baggy in the future, he quipped. I never stopped finding this amusing; so much so that 21 years later I found myself sharing the story with his mom before the tape was rolling. As many childhood friendships fade away, as a camp professional that fact looms large in my head, those memories live on and I cherish them.

Sara Beth: Provost Schwartz shared her gut-wrenching story, her scholarship, and her wisdom with all of us today and we’re better for it. The very least we can all do is honor the memory of those we’ve lost, and how we all wish Elie was here, along with his father Gershon to show us exactly how baggy clothing got in the future. Dr. Schwartz’s What Now?-level tragedy found her wearing her forever marked vest, attending minhah, and juggling family work and halakhic responsibility. Henrietta’s Szold’s What Now? showed women everywhere how to take on the mantle of Kaddish as a proud daughter. And it showed how much can be gained by engaging with ritual, not just for the deceased, and not just for men. But I’m still not all the way there. I’m not ready to stop banging my head against the wall. I have more professors and a lot more questions to fling at them. The first of which is always, of course, what now?

Sara Beth: What Now? Is produced by Michal Richardson, editorial oversight is by Rabbi Tim Bernard. Funding for the series is provided by JTS’s Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies and suffering is provided constantly by the human condition. What Now? is recorded by JTS’s delightful and inquisitive new media staff, Larry Cameola and Brian Hart. Hit subscribe, give us a review, help more people find answers to the big questions. This has been your host, Sarah Beth Berman, JTS Davidson, 2009 and USY on Wheels, Bus D, 1997. It has been real banging my head against the wall with you.