The whole world is a narrow bridge

Studying Torah with Rabbi Burstein, z"l

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The whole world is a narrow bridge and the important thing is to not be afraid ~ Rabbi Nachman of Breslav

כָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלוּ גֶשֶׁר צַר מְּאֹד וְהָעִיקָר לאֹ לְפַחֵד כְּלַל

This was one of the favorite quotes of my rabbi, Marcus L. Burstein, z”l

As this past day of Yom Kippur ended, and after the gates closed at Neilah, the soul of a tzaddik  (a righteous man) went back to its Source to make sure we would be sheltered under the sukkah of peace.

 

He had been my rabbi since 2013. At a time when things were not very easy for us, he came  with a mission to serve us and lead us towards change.

He had the smile that made you forget about grudge or bitterness, he had the heart that made you melt even when you were angry or upset, he had the listening skills and the wisdom of a very old and gentle soul.

I will always remember when he arrived in our congregation and the first Shabbat service as our new rabbi: because we were worried about the dwindling attendance at Shabbat services anyways, and moreover that Shabbat falling on the Fourth of July weekend, we feared about being not able to welcome him nicely with at least more than a minyan, so we had made sure to communicate well about that service: what we had not understood yet, was that this particular rabbi had already established such a personal connection with each and every one of the congregants, during the preliminary meetings and not only for the search committee members but for all who had been able to attend those “Meet the new rabbi” events (not more than two or three, if my memory serves well) so the sanctuary was filled to capacity and beyond!

And the ambiance was astounding in that room, our cantor was on fire and the ruach (spirit) was stronger than it had been in a very long time.

Rabbi Burstein was the first one to be delighted and surprised: he had no idea we were so musical, and so passionate maybe, but he also had no idea he had the power to bring the very best out of us. That was the first public encounter with our congregation. From then on, until his very last worship with us on Rosh haShanah second day of 5777, he radiated only love from others and the perfect connection with everybody. This is a gift that is rare.

And this was only at the end of his first week of working at our congregation.

Rabbi Burstein had also asked me to assist him setting up his computer on his first day. And I will remember that day all my life too.

You see, that day was a Monday, July 1st, 2013.

I do remember exactly that Monday morning because torrential summer storms had battered our county. I had made an appointment maybe around 10 am with the new rabbi and was still at my gym when it poured. At about the same time,  Rabbi Burstein was still at his home and the same storm had suddenly flooded his basement. He made it to our appointment late because of the incident and arrived a bit shaken. He told me how he had nearly died because he foolishly tried to stop the water from rushing into the place, but the force of the current was terrible and dangerous; he escaped harm but it had truly been frightening.

At this point of his retelling the story his office phone rang and because it was his first day he asked me to answer (we had no caller ID on those phones) and it turned out it was his mom so I left the office for privacy and they talked while I went to work in the main office on my computer.

Rabbi Burstein came then to let me know he had finished his conversation after a while and that I could come back to set up his computer and just by his looks, I saw that he needed to be somewhere else than in an office setting up a computer: I asked him:

– Rabbi, would you like your mother to hug you right now? I am good at this and can provide too!

He laughed with his absolutely wonderful laugh and without missing a beat gave me a “Marcus Hug” and I held him tight in what felt like one of the most reassuring hugs I could give when my son has escaped a great danger. We went back to his office, sat, and I said that we should recite the gomel, which we actually did at that Shabbat service I mentioned earlier!

We had started the most amazingly significant relationship that day. I was crying writing this memory during the shivah period because I knew that his soul was still remembering with me and I want to never forget those feelings for they are such blessings.

 

Rabbi Burstein impacted me as a person in the much too short years I got to know and learn from him. He made me a much better person and a certainly better Jew.

There are special moments in the too short period I got to call Rabbi Burstein, z”l “our rabbi”.

“BLTs” as illustrated by the very nice picture that is opening this blog post  embody the spirit that I want to convey so well.  BLTs here stands for Breakfast and Learning Torah (or Brunch, depending on whether the Talmud Torah was taking place early before a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony or later when there was only a 7th Grade class that Saturday morning).

This was a new program Rabbi Burstein had started. Before his arrival, Torah study took place on Sundays during Religious School. For some reasons, parents did not really sign up for that class when it shifted to Saturday morning, so for a couple of years most of those Shabbat mornings were my “date” with my rabbi and I loved it!

The first one who would arrive in the morning would prepare the coffee. I had my mug, and rabbi Burstein had his, I knew how he liked his bagel, he knew which ones I did not like, we discussed the merits of the cream cheese choices and of course talked about food on that occasion, a topic that gave him a chance to talk more than I since he was a cook and I was not, but I could bring up sephardic menus as I recalled them from my family and sometimes we even exchanged recipes. Because do not be mistaken, cooking is torah!

Once our breakfast would be prepared, we would sit and say the bracha laasok bedivrei torah and go into the portion he had prepared… or not. Because sometimes, we had many other things to discuss as soon as the first verse we had read was taking us to an idea, or because I needed some spiritual guidance in a time that was not easy for me to navigate: you see, I was not very happy with the direction the congregation was heading to and I was struggling with negative feelings a lot.

Rabbi Burstein did not only listen. Sometimes, he opened up about his own struggles.

Often, we traded roles because I was happy to bring some of the interpretations of the text I had studied with my previous rabbis. Rabbi Burstein’s openness was the most wonderful thing I can remember. I never felt judged, I never felt I was wrong (nor right, in that matter! it was just a shared discovery because most of the times, the ideas we were laying out were taking their own path to make new meanings that neither of us had anticipated and it made us simply happy!).

It was often too short. I was always surprised how refreshed I felt after our BLTs. I know that after we cleaned up there was either a service that I would enjoy and sing my heart out or if it had been after a class, I would go back home and have the rest of the Shabbat with my boys and continue to think about all we had brought up. And it was helping me grow.

Rabbi Burstein was so humble and accepting.

When my father died, in April 2014, shortly before Passover,  I told him bluntly that no rabbis were allowed because my father was such an apikoyres that I did not want his soul to be upset if a rabbi officiated at his shivah!

Rabbi Burstein stood with us in my condo among all the other friends who had come to comfort me, and my son lead the service with me. But I still asked him to sing the El Male Rahamim for us. This was so special too. A memory that I can only cherish. On my father’s first yahrzeit, I recorded Kol haOlam Kulo, which rabbi Burstein had taught me to understand and love.

When you have to cross a narrow place, you should not fear having to do it. Keep going.

Even if scared.

Just keep going.

Rabbi Burstein did just that. When he learned of the dreadful diagnosis that explained why he had not felt so good for a few months, around the time of Rosh haShana 5776, he went for very aggressive and devastating treatments to fight the tumors from the rare form of cancer that had taken over his body. Even when he was afraid, he kept being the same giving person, listening to us, thanking us for our notes and making plans for his congregation that was going through a significant transition, that felt difficult for many of us, especially without his guidance and physical presence.

We had mourned our cantor less than a year ago, and some of us had lost their best friend and musical director when Kathy Storfer died also prematurely in November 2015. Our sanctuary had closed and we were worshipping in a very different place with different customs. Each time, Rabbi Burstein was joining us, he was delivering a powerful message of hope and resilience, and always making sure we were okay.

I have been struggling to publish this post for too long now. I wanted to give some of the memories that were personal to me, like the hydrangeas that he brought me when I returned from burying my father in France. We then shared the stories that this plant was bringing to my mind, from the time my father was a young teen in occupied France during WWII.

I wanted to share how grateful I was that he had played such a significant role in my own son’s life as a teenager who faced heartbreak and had to navigate his age’s turmoils without a father figure around, and rabbi Burstein played this role so smoothly and without being asked, it was the best gift I could receive and I had very few words to express my gratitude in an appropriate manner.

I prepared to chant some verses of the first chapter of the Torah on the second day of Rosh haShanah. I had not expected rabbi Burstein to attend the service because I knew how exhausted he was at the time nearing the end. But he was there. It was truly special, I could spend a few private time with him when he gave me the book I had asked him the references, as I wanted to make sure I would remember the sources of the teachings I had loved most from his sermons for the High Holy Day seasons he had served our congregation. Not only he gave me the actual book, with his handwritten marks and post-its still in it that will guide me to the places he valued or questioned most, but he inscribed it with the loveliest of inscriptions for me.

Rabbi Haddon summed up the essence of Rabbi Marcus Burstein, z”l by saying that he was the essence of tsimtsum, צמצום / the contraction: allowing others to grow through his own contraction. As Rabbi Haddon added: “Quite remarkable”.

 

 

The Birthday Cake

Making of the birthday cake from Otir on Vimeo.

Today was my son’s 14th birthday. Yesterday we prepared the traditional chocolate cake with his brother; we had a lot of fun of course, but not as much as today’s while eating the cake.

During the making of the cake, I mention a pinch of sugar in the whites, when I meant a pinch of salt of course. While the cake was baking, we enjoyed the last episode of season 5 of the West Wing, had you guessed it?

Traditions are sacred. Six years ago, I already documented the making of the famous homemade chocolate cake, that I learned to bake when I was a child, and that my four-year-old made with his grandmother in 2001 back in Paris. I am not sure I have any digital photo from back then, but the delicious pictures of the toddler in the kitchen mixing the batter are everywhere in my mind.

I have this fantasy that I have time to spare building a whole interesting book of memories on a unique theme, as discreet as the making of the chocolate cake. Each year, I think about it and pass on the action because pictures are either scattered or suddenly I realize how futile the endeavor would seem to anyone but me.

And then another year goes by and I really regret I did not do it, as it would be such a wonderful way to show something to the world, something that is so difficult to explain with words when you are living it day by day, one day at a time, and have done so now for decades in the plural form: the tiny changes that you cannot see, cannot feel, cannot experience, because one year after the other, all is so exactly the same and at the same time absolutely not any more.

Yes, the seasons come back, and with their name and their flow, what is expected at that time, happens. But, you have grown, and aged, and lost so much that remembering would allow to measure how much you actually have won, what you gained in wisdom and in patience, in understanding and in marveling.

This year was no different: I wanted it to be memorable and at the same time it felt such a repetition of the previous years heartaches that I nearly was discouraged before even starting. There is such an intense hope that things have changed for the better and the utter inability to feel that it happened. But only static memories can prove the feeling wrong and show that things change, not maybe what we wanted to change, but something is happening. Growth is happening.

The cake remains the same and the pleasure to eat it is a continuous renewal of memories to cherish.

 

 

Joseph 20th Birthday

Click on the picture to go browse the full album of pictures – starts with a short recap of past birthdays 

Today is my father’s Yahrzeit

memories 1992
Francis and Laurence ~ April 25, 1992

 

Today is my father’s yahrzeit ~ the anniversary of his death on the Hebrew calendar. Tradition has it that you light a special candle that will burn for twenty-four hours. Since the Hebrew day starts at sundown, I lit a Yahrzeit candle after Shabbat yesterday evening and it has been glowing all night long. yahrzeit candle glowing in the night

Then, this morning I went to shul (the synagogue) to recite the Mourners Kaddish with the congregation during the morning service.

Since it was the first year after my father’s passing, I had been going daily to recite Kaddish for exactly eleven months, as is the tradition. This religious ritual is set up as a way to “elevate the soul” of the departed, when you are a strong believer, and it actually acts as an amazing source of help in the mourning process.

For each time I was setting myself to go to recite Kaddish, every evening was taking the time of a personal journey, an island in my daily chores and obligation, during which I was allowed to be thinking only about my loss and how I was processing it. Some days were easier, others not so much. Grief goes and comes, and seems to have no real rime or reason. It took me many weeks, even months before I could actually shed uncontrollable tears, tears of sadness but also tears of relief.

 

During this entire year, several of my friends lost their parent, sometimes even both parents because this is a natural time in my generation. Some other tragedies happened when I had to feel the pain of the loss that was befalling on people I knew. And a month ago, our congregation lost our beloved Cantor very unexpectedly. The period of mourning ended at the very same time as my personal period of mourning for my father.

Tonight, I will not be a mourner anymore for at least the time being. I will step up in the next stage and I know that it does not make the grief and sadness, and pain of the loss go away. There is nothing mechanical to it. It is just that from now on, it won’t be the first time without my father, not anymore the first time I am waiting for Spring, not anymore the first time this or that is happening and I cannot talk about it with him. No more a new date that he has not shared with us. Soon my mother who was younger will be older than him. Soon sharing his grandchildren’s success will be without his commenting on the accomplishment because they now have taken roads he has never known they were taking.

 

My father was born in 1926, in Paris France. His parents were divorced in 1929 which was a rare thing at the time, that a woman would have to raise a child as a divorcee and have to work. So her mother helped raising him, and he grew up as an only child with the two women.

He studied from 1931 until 1941 in a famous parisien school

Lycee Janson de Sailly Paris
Lycee Janson de Sailly Paris

and was friend with B. Hirsch (who became the famous urbanist who built the town of Cergy-Pontoise) and was a classmate of V. Giscard d’Estaing (who became President of France in 1974 ~ but they were not friends). His childhood friends remained close until very late in their lives, even after their death and he kept mementos that we found after he passed that showed how important their friendships had been, like articles in newspapers when controversies tainted the reputation of said friends, as it had been the case with his very close friend Alain Bombard. 

After the invasion of France and the signed armistice of 1940 that marked the beginning of Nazi occupation, he found refuge in a small town south west near Rambouillet, then in Brittany and then returned to occupied Paris until 1942, when it became mandatory to wear the infamous yellow star. His mother, who had been banned from her work as a Jew, had him leave and cross the occupied line in May 1942, while she stayed behind, as she was taking care of the Jewish community as a social worker.

His grandmother died that summer, some time after he passed the first part of the Baccalaureat.

Celestine

 

He then spent several months going from one place to another, sometimes by bike with his cousins who were blacklisted on the Gestapo lists, so it was too dangerous to travel otherwise. He boarded a high school for his senior year in Briançon, where a life long friendship was born with Michel Couetoux.

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Around Easter time in 1943, he sneaked into occupied zone with falsified papers to go see his mom and went back to Briançon to take the Baccalaureat exams.  He graduated in June that year. In July, his mother was arrested, and eventually taken to Drancy. She was deported beginning September to Auschwitz where she was assassinated. At that time, the fate of the deported was not known to those who were left behind. My father started his higher education while still going from places to others as they were getting occupied by the Nazis and they were fleeing from them.

He was living most of the time with his older numerous cousins, who were actively engaged in resistance. In 1944, some of these cousins were arrested and deported, like Ginette Salomon. My father was studying and also working to make ends meet. Food was scarce and he was not very big.  In the end of August 1944, Paris was liberated and in October he returned with his cousins to their home. Everyone managed to dissuade him from entering the Free France Forces so that he could be ready to welcome his mother’s return from deportation.

He started studying to become an Engineer in electricity.

The year 1945 was spent waiting for his mom to return after the camps were liberated. They learned about Ginette’s death three days after the Soviets liberated her camp. And eventually they learned of his mother’s death, as well as the other cousins Germaine and Georges Salomon.

The head of the family became the elder cousin, who was in her twenties.

My father graduated from the Engineering School in 1947 and went to post-grad school Sup-Elec. He also started to teach electrotechnics in an all female post high school, teaching what he had basically just learned and mastered right before he had to deliver the class but would love the experience and gain skills that he would use all his professional life long, as a very pedagogical manager.

His father died in 1950. They had been mostly estranged until he found out that he was sick and dying and he took care of him. He stayed friend with his brother and other family members on that side of his family, but his close family was all on the maternal side mostly.

La Coudraie ~ circa 1952
La Coudraie ~ circa 1952

 

He started working as an engineer at Alsthom in November 1950. He traveled very frequently. In 1953 he met my mom, they did not date because she told him she was studying for an exam to become a professor and he said OK. She regretted it and pursued him later in November. They got engaged in March 1954 and married in July. My older brother was born in June 1955 and I came in 1958, nine months after one of his return from a long-distance trip to China. My younger brother was born in 1960. My parents remained in love until the last day ~ that is for sixty full years.

Francis_Colette_94

 

Colette_Francis_2003

 

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My father was the most faithful to his ideas. Family came first, loyalty was paramount to everything he was undertaking and honesty guided him always. His love for his wife came above everything, and he would be ruthless when he had to take her defense. Stories about this would take many more blogposts.

He was never very strong physically, mostly because of having been malnourished during his teenage years during wartime. He also suffered from back problems pretty often until 1980. After a bout with hypertension a heart anomaly was discovered in 1981: I called him the “man with a broken heart” after he died, as his mother’s deportation left him with this hole that only his wife’s love was able to console. He then found in the physical traits of his daughter (me) the resemblance that made him remember my lost grandmother Thérèse.

His entire career took place in the same big corporate. After succeeding at being an engineer (he was said to have “built” the TGV, the very high speed train, but that was a team work of course), he became a manager of a plant and remained at the C level until his retirement in 1989. During his career, he traveled to the USSR, China, Mexico, the USA, Canada, Argentina, Brazil and of course all over Europe. He taught and supervised council at his grad school until retirement.

He was passionate about politics and history. He loved following the news and commenting. He was reading the newspaper and playing crosswords. His personal library contained hundreds and hundreds of biographies and books about historical periods. He kept repairing electricity with very basic tools, his favorite being a broken match, that according to him could fix any mechanical issue. The state of his home office was an ocean of cables and screens after he retired, but under the apparent mess, his organization was stellar because everything had been carefully thought and rationally probed.

He would never take a decision without consulting people who might be involved in the consequence of such decision. His sense of fairness was extreme and even when his plant workers went on strike to claim for better wages, his huge popularity as a manager was palpable. He turned out to be an excellent negotiator and social justice was extremely important to him. At the family table, discussions were not only allowed but encouraged: we learned politics as children and how to disagree while being true to ourselves.

After I started living far away, we would still talk every day, emailing back and forth. I would be discussing politics from a new point of view and we would still enjoy having very different opinions, especially about religion. He started developing a very particular friendship with my youngest son through their shared love of strategy games. He taught him many tricks when he was 10 or so.

Paris - Summer 2010
Paris – Summer 2010

The memories are now just that, memories that I want to keep and remember with words and images and stories that we talk about daily with my mom on the phone. They will not replace the smile and embrace, the sound of his voice and how he would frown or beam. But they are what I have to cherish now and forever.

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