Thus far in the Jewish Mother Project, I have chosen to write about practices and activities that I wanted to do, such as cooking with my children and learning Hebrew.
This week was different. I didn’t want to do this one, but I did it nonetheless, because part of being a Jewish mother is teaching our children about death and grief.
My daughter’s beloved Hebrew and Torah teacher, Yaffah (Gail) Korinow z”l, died early last Friday morning. She had been battling cancer, so we knew it was coming, but there is no amount of advance knowledge that can soften the blow of such a loss.
I only knew Yaffah for a short time, but her deep love of Judaism, children, and education impressed and inspired me from the moment I met her. Her presence and style with the children reminded me of the words of Denah Weinberg, an Orthodox Rebettzin, I recently found online: “Torah is not education, it is transformation.” Through her kindness, knowledge, and wisdom, Yaffah transformed the lives of those who knew her.
And then she was gone, and I wanted to figure out how to support my community and my daughters. Apparently I am a true Jewish Mother after all, because the first thought that came to mind was food. On Saturday morning I brought some lox and bagels to some friends who were very close to Yaffah.
I came home to find my daughter sobbing on the couch. She and my husband had been talking about something that had nothing to do with her teacher, but her reaction was disproportionate to the situation.
It was time to talk about what had happened.
Let me be clear: I did not want to talk about Yaffa’s death. I wanted to distract my daughter (and myself) with a craft project or a silly dance or anything that had nothing to do with loss or sadness. It would have been easy; my daughter didn’t want to deal with it either. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone in this; I had Judaism. I am never more grateful for our faith and traditions than in times of loss and grief.
Because sometimes we just need to be told what to do.
While I didn’t remember everything I was supposed to do, I remembered what I had learned from various shiva minyans I had attended over the years. We don’t shy away from the sadness, and we don’t expect mourners to pull themselves together or put on a happy face. We create a place and a space to grieve, to remember, to celebrate, and to just be together.
I took a deep breath and asked my daughter if she’d like to talk about Yaffah. She said no, that it would make her too sad. I was tempted to let it go at that, but I didn’t.
“Sweetie,” I said, “I think you’re going to be sad no matter what, because it’s really sad when we lose someone we love. If we don’t talk about it now and find a way to remember Yaffah, the sad will come out in other places and other times when you’re not expecting it. So let’s take a little time now to be sad together.”
And so we did. We talked about Yaffah and we remembered her and the girls drew pictures of her and I transcribed notes saying goodbye, which I have sent along to her family. We talked about her funeral, and who would be there, and what would happen.
“Yes,” I said, “it will be sad, and people will be crying. There may be smiles and moments of laughter when they are remembering a happy moment, but it will be sad. Yes, Yaffah will be there, but her body will be in a special box called a casket, and the casket will go in the ground. The people at the funeral will help cover it with dirt.”
The words felt thick and sticky in my throat. I felt like I was doing the wrong thing by talking about it all, that somehow I was making everything worse by giving voice to it. But the girls were curious, and I felt just as strongly that I needed to answer their questions as honestly and clearly as possible.
I don’t know if I got this one right, but I’m glad I tried. There are so many times in life, and parenting, when I feel like I’m fumbling around in the dark, running my hands over the bumps and cracks until I find the right switch to flip. I’m so grateful for any guidance I can get, especially when it comes from my own tradition.
May Yaffah’s memory always be for a blessing, and may her family and friends be comforted among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
In memory of Yaffah Korinow, z”l. Her family has requested that contributions in her memory can be made to:
Gail and Rabbi Ira Korinow Family Fund
514 Main St.
Haverhill, MA 01330
JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School in memory of Yaffah
57 Stanley Ave,
Watertown, MA 02472
If you’re looking for resources on grief and dying for your children, check out this thread on Kveller’s Facebook page with readers’ suggestions.