Monday, September 26, 2022

'A Calm and Very Clear Eye'

“[T]oday one rarely sees flowers on the graves in traditional Jewish cemeteries. Instead there are stones, small and large, piled without pattern on the grave, as though a community were being haphazardly built.” 

I wondered about this custom of placing stones on the graves of Jews but never looked into it. Stones suggest solidity and permanence. Flowers are virtually a symbol of transient beauty. The sight of withered flowers on graves I’ve always found sad, more than unadorned graves. That’s how I have felt when visiting Proust’s burial site in Père Lachaise. His mother was Jewish. I’ve always seen stones and dead flowers left on the flat slab of black marble that covers his grave.


The observation above is from Rabbi David Wolpe’s essay “Why Stones Instead of Flowers?” He reviews various explanations for the tradition, “from the superstitious to the poignant.” The Talmud suggests the souls of the dead remain at their grave, Wolpe tells us: “Stones are more than a marker of one’s visit; they are the means by which the living help the dead to ‘stay put.’” The stones prevent the hauntings we know from Yiddish theater and the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer. The rabbi writes:


“All the explanations have one thing in common—the sense of solidity that stones give. . . . But the memory is supposed to be lasting. While flowers may be a good metaphor for the brevity of life, stones seem better suited to the permanence of memory. Stones do not die.”


As I write on Sunday, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is about to start. Eight years ago on this date, September 26, my friend D.G. Myers died at age sixty-two after living for eight years with cancer. David was a literary critic, teacher, husband, father and Orthodox Jew. I’ve thought of him every day since he entered what Longfellow called “the long, mysterious Exodus of Death.” David died in Columbus, Ohio, and is buried in that city’s New Beth Jacob Cemetery. I’m unlikely to visit Columbus again but this annual post on his yahrzeit is a polished stone placed virtually on his grave.


The Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, raised a Roman Catholic, claimed Jewish ancestry. The final stanza of his poem “Pebble” (A Study of the Object, 1961) might have been written for David:


“Pebbles cannot be tamed

to the end they will look at us

with a calm and very clear eye”


[Rabbi Wolpe’s essay is collected in Wrestling with the Angel: Jewish Insights on Death and Mourning (ed. Jack Riemer, Schocken Books, 1995).]

1 comment:

David Wolpe said...

Just seeing this after the Rosh Hashana holiday. Honored to be mentioned in the most civilizing blog on the internet.