Life is great.
Life is also sometimes difficult and filled with challenges.
Yet there are no problems, only opportunities — that’s what I work on telling myself and my children.
It’s also true that there is real pain and sadness. Troubles and sorrows.
Suffering is what happens when we don’t work through the agony, when we cannot or will not find meaning in the pain.
A year ago our community suffered a loss so great that it was a struggle to find any context or comfort. A dear man, Ronen Shacham, a loving husband and doting father, died from a brain aneurysm, leaving behind his wife, Zoe, two sons, Ari and Lev, and our entire intown community.
Personally, I felt a sense of déjà vu because my friend Rashi Minkowicz died three years earlier in an eerily similar way. The shock and pain of this tragedy were not minimized. If anything, the reality hit like a bolt, and the anguish for what I knew the family would face was very real.
A few weeks after Ronen’s sudden death, I heard about ELI Talks, a Jewish idea-sharing platform like TED Talks. ELI Talks was going to film in Atlanta in conjunction with the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and the Breman Museum.
I was intrigued, and as I watched many of the videos online, I was further curious. There were so many varying angles of people’s understanding of the Torah text, I wondered whether I could contribute my voice and passion for Torah through the lens of Jewish mysticism.
Serendipitously, that week we had Shabbat dinner with Federation CEO Eric Robbins, and he graciously made the introduction between myself and Mary from ELI Talks, who was taking applications for the Atlanta fellowship.
Ronen, his family and our community were on my mind. I was thinking a lot about how and if I could truly find meaning within my own hardships and family tragedies. I knew that when I could, it was not about someone saying something pat or profound in the moment or having one big idea to fall back on. It was a slow process filled with subliminal stimulus to the psyche.
When we are in pain, we are not thinking clearly, so sparks of meaning and solace come in waves of understanding and moments of reflection.
But where does one draw from to acquire this understanding and reflection? What is the seed for the inner voice of acceptance and comfort?
Everything I thought about led me to the stories I knew — not ideas or concepts, but stories.
Stories I had been told by my father as a child, stories that I had heard from others or stories that I read on my own. Jewish stories. Unsanitized, authentic Jewish classics. From the Torah. From the Talmud. From the treasure-trove of Hasidic tales. Stories about men and women. Sephardic and Ashkenazic in origin. Stories about my own family’s struggles and triumphs over the past century.
I was slightly late to apply for the Atlanta ELI cohort, but my application was accepted with its proposition about Jewish storytelling as a means “to build a muscle memory of faith and resilience.” I was prepared to join 14 others for the Atlanta production of ELI Talks.
The concepts I put forth were valued and encouraged, beginning my summer process of weekly online meetings with my coach to formulate my talk. I started with preconceived notions of storytelling, but it wasn’t until my ideas were fleshed out and nurtured through the kind and thoughtful professionals at ELI Talks that sense was made. They encouraged me to find sources, personal stories and Torah texts to support my thoughts.
A few years ago our family was in New York for my husband’s sister’s wedding on a Sunday evening. We arrived on Thursday night, anticipating a Shabbat with extended family. On Shabbat afternoon my maternal grandmother died. My sadness was compounded by the guilt at having not visited her earlier in the day while she was alive.
On Sunday afternoon we left the children with a babysitter to get ready for the wedding while my husband and I went to my grandmother’s funeral. My husband left the funeral immediately after the service to be with the children at the wedding, while I remained at the cemetery with my parents and siblings.
When I came back from the funeral, I got dressed quickly, reflecting on the fact that having my makeup and hair done professionally was truly superficial, and I would celebrate just as well. I was tinged with sadness over missing Bubby, but not over the feeling that I was not looking my best.
I got to the wedding after the chuppah was over, and immediately I could tell that something was wrong. My children’s grief-stricken faces were only slightly better than my husband’s pall. What they finally told me, in hushed tones, was that my husband’s first cousin had been killed two hours earlier in a water accident.
My two young teenagers understood that we were at a wedding and that the bride and groom could not find out what had happened to the bride’s first cousin, so we sat in our corner, crying and whispering. There were many such collections of relatives dispersed throughout the wedding hall. People trying not to cry and hugging while in shock.
I also knew I needed to ask my children to be strong. They needed to be able to wipe the grief and confusion from their faces for the next few hours because we were at a wedding, and we were required to display happiness and even pick up our feet to dance. Not because we weren’t in a lot of pain and not because we were trying to squelch our feelings, but because our purpose was to make the bride and groom happy on their special day, far removed from the reality of the tragedy.
My children amazed me. Their strength of character shone through as we all wiped our faces clean and danced the night away. The bride never knew that anything was amiss until the next day, when we all mourned with our cousins appropriately.
In my own sadness and confusion from that long and difficult weekend, I was present enough to smile for the bride only because I had context. I had my own story.
When I was 18, I went from the funeral of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to the wedding of my first cousin. No one in my extended family was in the mood to be at a wedding, but tradition told us that when you have a bride and groom waiting to be wed, you do not push off the wedding, so you celebrate. And you dance. Indeed, without any musical accompaniment, we danced.
I believe that my children’s conviction and ability to compartmentalize, to find import in their moment of pain that wedding night, came from their own integration of the stories we had told them. This ability was being passed from generation to generation. The stories my father had told me built a muscle memory of faith and resilience, and now the same had happened for my children. It says in Exodus, “V’higadita l’vincha” — “and you should tell it over to your children.” A literal biblical commandment to tell our stories.
Traditionally, we tell stories to entertain, to appease, to convey a message, to mind-travel, and to understand the precepts of goodness and kindness, troubles and sorrow. We hear about mundane acts of heroism and profound miracles. Each Jewish tale tells us something about how G-d is manifest in the world. Overtly through miracles or in the nuanced, small details.
Emory University’s Marshall Duke researched family storytelling, and his astonishing conclusion is that the more children know about their family’s history, the higher their self-esteem and overall emotional health and happiness.
While I did not do any scientific research to come to my conclusions, I believe that telling our collective Jewish stories has this same effect. We learn from our “personal” (Abraham was our father and Sarah was our mother) stories about how someone walked these difficult steps before us and came out whole on the other end.
We are still here, we have withstood the difficulties, and our inner voice is whispering to us, “You too can get through this difficulty, you’ve got this.”
When Zoe Shacham told her sons that their Aba had died, Ari, age 5, asked if he would get a new aba. Zoe told him, “There will never be another Aba, but he lives in our hearts and in our minds all the time, forever. And he loved you so much. He will always be with you.”
“Like Hashem?” Ari asked.
“Yes, exactly like that,” Zoe said.
(You can donate to a memorial fund for the family at www.youcaring.com/zoeariandlevshacham-845434.)
Stories about Chanukah, Purim and the Exodus give a young child this kind of undiluted faith. And this is the faith that helps even a child find meaning and hope amid the great pain.
While it is my wish that Zoe has another chance at love, her answer to Ari was entirely correct. It is my belief, passed down for generations, all the way back to the beginning of time, that we all have one Aba, one Father in heaven, and He loves us, He is always there for us, and He, even in times of great distress, is our source of comfort.
Dena Schusterman is a founder of Chabad Intown, a Jewish educator, and a founding director of the Intown Jewish Preschool and the Intown Hebrew School. She and her husband, Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman, are native Californians living in Atlanta for two decades with their eight children.