In Toledo this last Sunday was my aunt’s unveiling, a Jewish tradition honoring the deceased one year after their death. A piece of cloth covers the headstone and after a short grave site service, the gauze is torn from the stone by the closest relatives, in this case her two children.
At the end of this service, the rabbi said that we should all grab a stone to place on my aunt’s grave, and anyone else’s grave we wanted to visit. We have always done this when at the cemetery, an old tradition. When we were young, my mother would place stones in our hands as we entered the cemetery, her explanation being that it signified that we were there, remembering, connecting to the lives of the people who had passed. Often she would share stories about the people whose graves we visited. The rabbi said that Rav Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), a famous and important Halachic (Jewish Law) scholar, used to say that in the Jewish tradition there is no static unchanging monument, that, in fact, adding stones to a grave was a way to show the constant evolution of thinking about and of practicing Judaism. Sounded very Buddhist. Not an expected sentiment from an Orthodox scholar of Jewish Law.
The rabbi continued that this famous Rav Moshe Feinstein, whom I had never heard of before, had a strong connection to Toledo Ohio. That, in fact, the rabbi at B’nai Jacob, Rabbi Katz, was responsible for sponsoring his coming to the United States. Rav Moshe Feinstein was Rabbi Katz’s brother-in-law, married to his sister.
Rabbi Katz was the rabbi of the shul where I went to Sunday School. He seemed old and distant, practicing a religion that seemed so far away from what I thought of as contemporary and relevant. He wore the broad black hat that today I am used to seeing in various neighborhoods in Chicago, but to me seemed odd and out of place in Toledo 50 years ago. Yet this old and seemingly strange man was approachable and warm and had a terrific sense of humor. He knew everyone in my family. He visited my father, when my father was in the hospital after his first heart attack, walking in his room covering his watch with his hand so my father wouldn’t see it. This set my father into fits of laughter, because Rabbi Katz was responding to the tricks my father would perform as an amateur magician, one of which was making people’s watches disappear and then reappear. I still remember his words at my father’s funeral a week later, when he said “Izzy died young, but he was the kind of person that no matter how old he would have been when he died, we all would still say, he died young.”
We wandered through the cemetery, my sister, my mother, and I, visiting the graves of my father, my uncle, my stepfather, my grandparents. My mother is in a wheelchair so the wandering was not easy crossing the bumpy grass-covered ground of this old Jewish cemetery. She insisted, however, at each specific grave that my sister and I help her to walk to the headstone. So we each grabbed her beneath her arms, helping her out of her chair, and our trio slowly shuffled to each marker. She placed a stone, as we did, at each headstone. She then kissed the marker and we helped her back to her chair, pushing her to the next headstone.
My mother reminded us that there is an empty spot for a grave between my father’s and stepfather’s. “That’s for a very important person,” she said, smiling. I thought about the stones I would be placing there.