“There’s a part of me that thinks perhaps we go on existing in a place even after we’ve left it.”
— Colum McCann, “Let the Great World Spin”
My father called me Fred. It’s a long story involving a bald toddler (me), a brother who couldn’t at that time properly pronounce my name, and a shoe store clerk who misheard and then misspoke. Fred I became, and Fred I was, for the rest of my father’s life. Of all the great sorrows that came with my father’s death, knowing I would never again be called Fred was one of them.
I do not know what happens after we die and therefore have no certainty of being with my father again. Jewish beliefs in life after death are as diverse as Judaism itself, from the traditional view of one day being resurrected in flesh and spirit, to the idea that we live on in our children, to the belief of a heaven. My personal belief is embodied in the sentiment expressed by Jews upon a person’s death — “May their memory be a blessing.” The blessing implied in this saying is, it is up to those who bear the memory of the person to keep their goodness alive. We do this by remembering them, we do this by speaking their name, we do this by carrying on their legacy.
The Hebrew word “tzedakah,” is often translated as “charity,” but it is more accurate to say “righteousness. Tzedakah can take many forms, including a monetary donation, but it’s not just a contribution given to be kind, it is a balancing of the scales, a working toward justice. A complimentary tenet in Judaism is Tikkun olam or repairing the world, to actively work to make the world better for all. Tzedakah and Tikkun olam are not done with the idea of gaining bonus points for an afterlife, for adding more glow to the halo. They are done because they offer benefits to the world, to others, in the here and now.
This brings us back to “may their memory be a blessing.” Recently a media personality, who actively promoted ideas and opinions that harmed many people, died. He practiced neither tzedakah nor Tikkun olam. Reading comments on the news of his death was, for me, a glaring example of how not to live. We must always be aware that our choices and actions have effects and influences that outlast us. Jewish writing teaches: A leaf drops to the ground, where it nourishes the soil, enabling more plants and trees to grow. Such is true in our lives. We can nourish the future through the effects we have on those who follow us.
I carry with me a whole cast of characters, friends and family who have died, who influenced me in ways both profound and improbable, wise and whimsical. Every day I am apt to spout a saying, most not fit for print, from my Great Aunt Mary, a Yorkshire woman who believed everything could be fixed by either Murphy’s Oil soap, vinegar or Noxzema and was the embodiment of generosity. I cannot see a garden in bloom without remembering my cousin Lizz who loved flowers almost as much as she fiercely loved her family, including those that others may have turned away. My young friend Katie inspires in me the strength to walk through the worst of storms. Then, of course, there is the man who called me Fred, whose life influenced and informed all that I have become. These people will live as long as I am alive; their memories are a blessing. I don’t know what will happen when I die, but I hope and strive to live so that my memory will be a blessing. If that is all the immortality that is given me, it will be more than enough.
“And I don’t believe you dead. How can you be dead if I still feel you? Maybe, like God, you changed into something different that I’ll have to speak to in a different way, but you not dead to me Nettie. And never will you be.”
•Patricia Turner Custard is a member of Congregation Sukkat Shalom, This column was written in memory of Nick Turner, Dec. 14, 1985-March 8, 2021. “Living & Growing” is a weekly column written by different authors and submitted by local clergy and spiritual leaders. It appears every Friday on the Faith page.