In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we talk to Rabbi Josh Grajower – rabbi and educator – about the loss of his wife, as well as the loss that Tisha B’Av represents for the Jewish People.
The Jewish people mourn every year on Tisha B’Av, but it can still be hard to connect with the feelings of the day. Mourning is felt most strongly with those closest to us, and while the things we mourn on Tisha B’Av are of great religious and historical significance, they can feel foreign. Rabbi Grajower lost his wife, Danielle Grajower, giving him intense insight into the mourning process.
Tune in to hear a conversation on loss and mourning.
Eim Eshkachech by Itzhak Azulai
Holocaust Commemoration and Tish’a be-Av: The Debate Over “Yom ha-Sho’a” by Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter
A Grief Observed by CS Lewis
It’s OK That You’re Not OK by Megan Devine
The Unwinding of a Miracle by Julie Yip-Williams
Hello, and welcome to the 18Forty podcast, where each month we explore a different topic balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches to timeless Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and today we are exploring loss. In honor of the time that we are in, specifically the days of mourning associated with Tisha B’Av, we have decided to release a special episode focusing on loss itself. This podcast is part of a larger exploration of Jewish ideas, so be sure to check out 18Forty.org – that’s 1-8-F-O-R-T-Y.org – where you can find videos, articles, and recommended readings.
As a child, one of the memories that probably has the most indelible mark on who I am as a person are all of the rituals associated with Tisha B’Av: the day of mourning where Jews gather together and reflect on the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash, the temple in Jerusalem, and the rituals associated with that day, where the shul, the synagogue, if you’re in camp, really has this focal point of mourning. And what’s so interesting is, nearly everybody who’s ever gone to any sort of programming on this day, so much of it really grapples with the question of how difficult mourning itself is to connect with, particularly when we think about a loss, like our collective national loss of the Beis HaMikdash on Tisha B’Av. So often, and there’s probably not a Tisha B’Av that goes by where so much of the mourning is centered around the fact that we have difficulty mourning, that we struggle with our mourning, that for many people we are mourning the fact that we cannot mourn.
And what’s so interesting, what I have found and really couched a lot in a fabulous article that my dear friend and a past guest, Chaim Saiman, wrote for the Lehrhaus, is how programming within shuls, within camps, within synagogues have evolved to try to cultivate some sense of connection with mourning itself. Particularly when you’re dealing with a younger audience, that can be very, very challenging.
And there are different ways that the Jewish community has done this, particularly as it marks Tisha B’Av. You could go into shul, and maybe 100 years ago or 200 years ago it would have been a surprising focus, but in many shuls today, they have videos and programming from the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation, which focuses on lashon hara, on negative speech, which is definitely an important part of the day, given the fact that it was baseless hatred that the Talmud says contributed to the very destruction of the temple. You could go into some camps and they will have a kumzitz, they will have people on the floor, they’ll be singing together as a way of trying to foster some glimpse of what it means to lose something. And then finally, in a lot of synagogues and past guests – Rav J. J. Schacter, who we’ve had on quite recently, is really world renowned for this – people who will really go through the history or moments of mourning, whether it’s stories about the Holocaust, the crusades, or just that national narrative that we have as a people of confronting loss.
And that also has very real grounding in what Tisha B’Av is all about. A lot of the idea of connecting to this historical tragedy and to the history of the Jewish people throughout times, all those different periods when we were persecuted, comes from the words of the Talmud, where the Talmud says in Tractate Taynis on page 29, daf chaf-tes, it says that God looked at the Jewish people following the sin of the spies, which is recounted in Parashas Sh’lach, when the spies went into Israel and looked at Israel negatively, and the Jewish people, when they heard the report, all started crying. The Talmud says that God looked at them and said, “You cried these empty tears, these undeserving tears. You didn’t have a justification to cry, and I am going to establish for you a reason to cry for all generations.”
And that, we’re told, took place on Tisha B’Av. And there is this notion that we talked about in the kinnos, and Rabbi Dr. Schacter actually has an incredible article about, which came out in Tradition in 2008, volume 42, issue 2, is entitled Holocaust Commemoration and Tish’a be-Av: The Debate Over “Yom ha-Sho’a”, which is an article, a brilliant article, as all of his articles are, which is about, should we have a separate day to commemorate the Holocaust? Or, like all other national tragedies, should it be subsumed within the larger rubric of Tisha B’Av?
And I think this is a question that we’re not weighing in on now, and I want to explain why, but it’s adjacent to this question, because if Tisha B’Av is supposed to be this day where we’re able to reflect on loss, we’re able to reflect on some glimmer of what it means to be in mourning, I think we’re still struggling with how we do this. We have the lashon hara program, and we have the kumzitz, we have these amazing tours through history, but I think in many ways when I am as an adult sitting in shul on Tisha B’Av, I kind of miss that instinctive, deeply emotional connection that I was able to access in a much easier way when I was a child. I still remember and associate in many ways the maroon carpeting in the shul – I grew up in a shul known as Shaarei Tefillah, we lived right across the street, and always the lights were dim and you would sit on the floor. And there was this very natural sense of loss that I was able to tap into as a child. It wasn’t the loss of history. It wasn’t any sense of reflecting on lashon hara. It wasn’t even the kumzits. There was no kumzitz in the shul I had growing up.
It was a different form of loss. I think it was the angst of being a child, of being a teenager, and feeling out of place, feeling lost and bereft in the direction of my life. I think it was the very natural ability that I had then, and I still very much have in my heart, of being able to reflect on my own feelings of loss. Not of loved ones, but the loss of direction, the loss of clarity, the loss of, what is the narrative and trajectory of my life going to be? And I think in many ways it’s that very personal, that very intimate reflection on loss. The loss that is not necessarily connected to the historical events of the Jewish people, but in the deepest sense is a product of that ultimate loss of that centralizing temple, that Beis HaMikdash, which gave us all that animating sense of direction in our religious lives.
I think constantly about the prayer that we say at the end of our private Shemoneh Esrei, that private prayer, at the very end we have these words, and they appear in other places, where we discuss the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash, and there is a very curious juxtaposition. We say “sheyibaneh beis hamikdash,” that the temple should be rebuilt, “bim’heirah b’yameinu,” speedily in our days. And what do we say right afterwards? “V’sein chelkeinu b’sorahsecha”.
And then we pray right afterwards for a portion, for a path in our Torah, in our personal Torah. And it’s a curious juxtaposition. It’s not a juxtaposition of anything historical. It’s not a lashon hara program. It’s not even a kumzitz. What we juxtapose to the lament and the prayer of the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem is actually something very personal. It’s the loss of our personal place, our personal ability to be situated in our religious story. “V’sein chelkeinu b’sorahsecha,” and give us a portion of our Torah.
Some may say that these are unrelated. I refuse to believe that, that we say this right after our prayer for the rebuilding of the temple, because in many ways, what the destruction of the temple symbolizes, and what it did to our very religious consciousness, is it allowed us to feel bereft from the Jewish story itself. It allowed us to have doubt and placelessness in our Torah, the Torah. Not just the one that sits in our Aron Kodesh, in the arcs in synagogue, but the Torah that we carry with us that we struggle with figuring out how it animates our lives. We struggle with figuring out, how does religiosity integrate and address my life where I am right now? And that placelessness that we often feel in our religious lives, in the context of what Torah plays, what religious ideas play in our lives, is as much a product of the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash as any of the other larger historical tragedies.
And anyone who has ever dealt with doubt about where their place is in the larger Jewish story, anybody who has struggled with figuring out, how at all does this story, do the ideas of the Torah that we’ve preserved over thousands of years, how do I integrate that in my life? I feel a sense of loss, I feel a sense of ruthlessness in where these ideas can be manifest in my personal life. It is those very laments that I believe sit at the heart, those very personal laments, sit at the heart of our Tisha B’Av, our mournful experience. That at the very core of this day is not just situating the historical losses. It is not just the way that we place our personal losses in words of song and kumzitz. It is not just programs that have us reflect on what needs to be fixed, whether it’s lashon hara or negativity or anything else, in our lives.
Those are all wonderful. But I think at the very core is that very personal sense of loss that I think is accessible that anybody who’s ever had feelings of doubt and placelessness in their own lives, and particularly in their own religious lives: Where am I in this story? Why don’t I feel that central anchor that tethers me to the larger narrative of the Jewish people? If you’ve ever felt that sense of loss, if you’ve ever felt that detachment from your own story – What narrative am I a part of? How am I contributing to this larger story? – I believe it is those feelings that are at the heart and core of what Tisha B’Av is all about.
Which is why at 18Forty we really decided to focus on stories of loss itself. We’ll have other times to focus on history and peoplehood, which we just did a roundup on, but those larger, collective issues, I really wanted to ground this in very personal stories of loss and how individuals grapple with loss. And what we’ve done is we have three stories, each on different episodes, that relate to loss itself.
And our first story, in a way, is from an extraordinarily dear friend and colleague, Rabbi Josh Grajower, who I work with at NCSY. I have known him since high school. And he has written a great deal about loss. He lost his wife, Dannie Epstein, who I knew as well. Josh, thank God, is remarried to Adina Galbut. I’ve not yet met her, though I’ve only heard absolutely wonderful and lovely things. And I hope, one day, Josh will be kind enough to extend me an invitation to his house, that I’ve now publicly requested on this podcast.
But that’s not what we are talking about today. What we’re talking about today is what it meant that Josh, who was a very central part of many communities – He lived in Boca at the time. His wife was from New Rochelle, Josh is from Riverdale. There were many communities that, to lose somebody who, Dannie and I knew her personally, contributed to this lovely book of memories that they put together after she passed, and she just had this vitality and sharpness towards life that was just absolutely unforgettable and so incredibly remarkable.
And our lives intersected in multiple ways. I really first knew her brother, her brother Eitan, also a dear friend. Rabbi Eitan Epstein was my roommate in Yeshiva. And I really know her entire family. But I think that the reason why I initially gravitated towards this loss, particularly there’s a strangeness to us in a year where so many have been lost, particularly so many great sages, but there was something about this loss, and seeing this loss of somebody in my life that really struck me in ways, and I think it struck a lot of people, for those who knew Dannie, that it really altered the very conception that I had of life itself and what it means to live a life in a full and complete way. And I think Dannie modeled that, and I think Josh, in the process of grieving and mourning, wasn’t just a person who was processing his own loss, but simultaneously through articles, which we discussed and mentioned, served as an educator to others of how to process loss. Which is why I feel so privileged to introduce my conversation with Rabbi Josh Grajower.
I am talking today with someone who I consider a friend. I know him since I was in 10th grade, he was in 9th grade. I’m a grade older than him. And my friend, Josh Grajower, I’m so appreciative that he came today to speak a little bit and help us appreciate what it means to lose someone, and what it means to preserve that memory in your life. Josh, thank you so much for joining today.
Rabbi Josh Grajower:
My pleasure. Thank you for having me, David. It’s really an honor. And I’m humbled to be on 18Forty podcast. And I’m shepping nachas and watching you and your career and everything that you’ve done. From a 10th grader in high school playing 1-on-1s in your backyard –
We’re not going to relitigate that now. We could relitigate those early childhood basketball games. Obviously your basketball career blossomed into much more than I thought. Mine turned into… I could blame anti-Semitism, but we’re not going to do that right now. Let’s begin with the notion of losing somebody in your life. You lost someone who I knew as well. You were married to Dannie Epstein. Daniela, that was her Hebrew name.
Rabbi Josh Grajower:
Daniela Sarah, somebody who I also knew quite well. I roomed with her older brother in Yeshiva. And I wanted to begin by asking you about the process of grief. There is a theory known as Kubler-Ross, which talks about these five stages of grief. So in the model of Kubler-Ross, which is written by psychologists, they talk about five stages of grief, beginning with denial, and then anger, and then bargaining, and then depression, and then acceptance, where ultimately, the person who is suffering from a loss is able to say, it’s going to be okay. I may not be able to fight for it, but I can prepare and start piecing the pieces of my life back together. So I wanted to begin by asking you to reflect on your own loss, and maybe tell me a little bit about whether or not this process, this tiered levels of loss, resonates with you.
Rabbi Josh Grajower:
So I think, the categories as categories I guess resonate. I tend not to believe, and I think Kubler-Ross, amongst other authors also talk about that it’s not a linear process per se. It doesn’t follow a flow as simply as from denial to acceptance, but there’s a wave of emotions and there’s a change that certainly happens from different times to different parts. I don’t know if I would have used the word “denial,” but for sure the finality of it in the beginning is really, really, really hard and all almost impossible to understand. And you don’t really think it’s true.
So the word “denial” is assuming that you’re denying that it happened, as opposed to not really believing that it happened. Like thinking you’ll wake up tomorrow and oh, she’s going to be back because it didn’t really happen. So again, for sure, denial – that is denial, thinking that it’s going to happen. But again, I also think that in a certain sense, you can have acceptance very early of knowing that it’s real, but it’s a different way that it functions. So I don’t love the linear side of it. In general, I tell everyone that I speak to, and I’ve spoken to a lot of people who have dealt with their own loss since my own, and I always say feel what you feel. There’s never a right thing to feel at any time. So I guess, for sure, those are all stages, and for sure, those will process it, and for sure, there’s a certain sense of disbelief and denial at the beginning. And I guess at a certain point, in some way, shape, or form, there’s an acceptance. But again, I don’t know that it’s a linear process.
So you mentioned that there’s this impossibility to understand, and it’s no secret, a little bit of what we’re trying to frame is, particularly as we head into Tisha B’Av, we’re trying to understand better what it means to lose something, and what it means to preserve that memory. So I’m wondering if you could elaborate on, I happen to really be drawn to that phrase, “the impossibility of understanding”. In the finality, what it means to lose somebody.
Are you referring to the mystery of death, that there’s somebody crossing over to a world that we have no access to, we don’t really understand what it is? Is it the impossibility of understanding – I always think to myself that you grow up, you never think your life is going to alter and be on a different trajectory – is this really happening to me? Tell me a little bit about what comes to mind when you talk about the impossibility of understanding when it comes to loss.
Rabbi Josh Grajower:
I think it’s all of the above. I think for me, again, at the beginning, Dannie was sick and it was degenerative, it wasn’t a sudden loss. And I should note this, and I meant to say at the very beginning, everyone’s loss is different, and everyone experiences loss differently. So everything that I’m going to say, obviously, is my own experience. I’m no expert. I haven’t studied loss. But I guess what I mean is that Dannie was sick. It was degenerative. I knew she was going to pass away.
And still, even knowing all that, and even seeing it, when it actually happened, it almost, you didn’t really think that it happened. I guess what I mean, the impossibility, it’s impossible to explain it to anyone who’s never experienced it. I can try my best. But the uproot of your whole life, and everything is going to change from that moment forward, that feeling is beyond overwhelming. And it’s just, I guess, the impossible comprehension of it in that beginning stages, and that for me, the first few months, it was too much to even comprehend it. I couldn’t even process it in a real way. It was like, you don’t feel like it’s real because it’s so impossible to believe that that’s what happened.
I think for a lot of people, and tell me if this is true and how you react to this, I mean, I think human beings have a hard time understanding what loss is. It’s the ultimate mystery. Once you’re alive, there’s the mystery of what happened before, and then there’s the mystery of what happens after. And people, in order to make sense with it, and it’s something that you were intimately close with, so a lot of times people, in order to make sense of, people who knew Dannie, or are trying to process the loss, try to become closer in proximity to the person who lost the person. I don’t think it’s quite voyeuristic, but they want to visit, they want to connect to help them process with the loss. Was that something that you noticed, and did it bother you that people, in order to process their own loss want to be close with you to make it more tangible and real?
Rabbi Josh Grajower:
I definitely felt other people’s inability and process of the loss. I definitely felt that. For some people, I think, it was just hard for them in their own way, and I think if this is what you meant by what you said, I definitely felt, and reasonably so, that a lot of people feared it for their own lives. I definitely got a feeling from people that there was a feeling of grief for me and for them and their relationship with Dannie, and also an implicit, unspoken, and maybe what I just sense of fear, of, “Oh my gosh, this could happen to me. By all standards, Dannie was a normal, regular, grew up in the same world as all these people, and all of a sudden she was sick, and all of a sudden she passed away. So I definitely felt that. But in general I had very positive interactions with people, and I felt that people really cared, and I felt that people were very supportive of me. And again, the people that stayed close with me and remained close with me were definitely very strong support team for me at that time.
How would you describe the effect? You spoke about that fear, I was at Dannie’s funeral, and it’s a very different experience being at the funeral as the person who suffered the loss and the people who are coming to connect and comfort. But I know myself, sitting there, you reflect on your own life. You reflect on what it means to be alive, what it means to live a life. And there’s definitely an element of fear, it affects you in different ways. I’m curious how loss has changed your approach, or maybe relationship, with loss itself? Did death become more scary or less scary?
Rabbi Josh Grajower:
It’s an interesting question. I guess I’ll take a step back. Dannie had been diagnosed eight years before she passed away. So I would say the moment from when she had her original diagnosis was certainly life altering in terms of perspective on life. And she was very young, I know. And for her, for me, and I would say for our relationship, it definitely altered the don’t sweat the small stuff mentality, and the realization of what’s important and what’s not important, and it definitely refocused or matured me or made me realize how short life is in that way. And then when she passed away, I would say what I really learned was the feeling of your world altering completely. When I compare the feeling of davening for her to get better versus the feeling of knowing that there was no more hope and it wasn’t going to change, it’s a really different experience.
And whenever there’s that hope, even if it’s a glimmer of hope, you think things are going to get better. And then when she passed away, which is really the end of the mourning process, it was much more of realizing how not in control you are, and realizing that your life can change in an instant. And that feeling definitely sticks with me. And it also sticks with me in how I relate to other people’s loss a lot. I think that I relate to other people’s suffering and other people’s challenges in a completely different way than I ever did beforehand.
And there’s a certain, again, unspoken and sometimes spoken connection that you have with other people who have loss, because you feel like nobody else really gets it. So there definitely is that feeling. And again, the way that I would express it is what I was saying before, that the finality and the fact that you can’t change it. I think that we live in a community, a society, both American and our Jewish community, of, we can always change things. If we just make the right switch – my passport expires tomorrow, but if I find the right Chassidish guy in Times Square, I’ll be able to still get that passport tomorrow. So everything, we tend to think that we’re always in control, and experiencing real loss and seeing firsthand how not in control we are, that was very life altering in my emunah, and I guess in my perspective on life and how I view life events.
So tell me more about that, the effect of loss and the staring in the face of what it means to not be in control, to realize that there are people in this world who are handed a hand of cards that to the naked eye feels like, we’re not going to win this hand, you’re not going to beat this. And to me, I think a lot about the notion that God is never going to send you a test that you cannot pass, which I’ve grappled with and struggled with to even know if that’s true. I’m curious how seeing something that you didn’t ask for, that you davened to prevent, and the staring in the face, life is going to hand me things that are not in my control and not the narrative that I wanted to embrace, how does that affect your relationship to God, religion, and faith?
Rabbi Josh Grajower:
So this again is personal. So again, it’s not projecting onto anybody else. I think I’ve always felt this way. It wasn’t new when Dannie got sick or when Dannie passed away. I’ve always felt that we’re here for a mission, we’re here for a purpose, and we’re here – I said at the levaya, and a lot of people, I actually did not think this was the most important part of the hesped, but I did say in the eulogy for Dannie about, we work for Him, Him capital H, God, he doesn’t work for us. And I really feel that to my core, and I’ve always felt that way. So in terms of my relationship with God, and the idea that belief in God, I never really struggled with that because I really believe in my core that this was part of my mission, and part of my mission was to experience this, and part of that means to really experience those emotions of sadness, if you call it depression, and those deep feelings of loss. And part of that is what I used, it shaped me into who I am today, and that will shape my experiences moving forward, and the relationships that I have, and the parts of me.
So I would say in terms of overall, b’gadol, in the big picture, emunah, belief in God, I never struggled with that. I think there are other pieces, and I give this analogy all the time, which is, there’s a difference between struggling in believing in God and feeling connected in the relationship at a specific moment in time. And I think if you read through sefer Tehillim, Psalms of David Hamelech, of David, you’ll see very clearly that he experienced a lot of emotions. And he said things like “Keili keili lama azavtani?” God, why are you abandoning me? And he felt feelings that were very real feelings of pain and suffering and questioning, why am I dealing with this, why do I have to go through this? But I don’t believe for a moment that David Hamelech, David was struggling with his belief in God. He was saying this really hurts, and it’s emotional, and it’s very hard for me right now.
The same way in any relationship, if there’s a moment of struggle, if a husband and wife are fighting, it doesn’t mean that automatically they want to get divorced. It means they’re fighting and they’re having a bad time and they don’t want to look at each other at this exact moment. But the love, if you ask them at that moment, do they love their spouse, of course they’d say they love their spouse, just right at this moment they’re feeling the pain and the suffering. So I guess that’s how I would describe my relationship with God at that time. And again, even now, there are waves of positive and negative emotions. But for me, it’s never been a question of belief in God in that greater picture.
You wrote a brilliant article that I printed out. I read it at the time. It’s really a must read for anybody who is connected to anybody who even knows, pays a shiva call, those days following death when you are sitting shiva and in active mourning. And you wrote this really wonderful article, this deeply moving article, about how to properly connect to somebody during loss. You wrote about showing up regardless of where you are, how meaningful it was to see people, talk about reading the room and being in the cadence of emotions. You wrote number three, which is obviously the hardest one for me. I thought this was a sub-tweet. Do not ask practical questions. I’m a question-asker. I remember even sitting in your kitchen the last time I saw Dannie. And we like those nitty-gritty, but that’s a fair thing. And the practical questions you said weren’t even about death, it was about where your kid’s going to school, when are you going home, that’s not what you want to talk about.
You wrote that quick, quiet visits are okay, which I absolutely loved. If you knew my wife, I want you to share. Tell me stories. And finally, email, don’t call, which is the most practical thing in the world. Dannie passed away three years ago, and this was written about guidance in that moment of shiva. What’s the list you have in your head about connecting to loss many years out? Again, I haven’t lost anybody that dear in my life. Do people know how to connect to you… Again, not in that shiva moment when they’re, it’s easier to write guidelines. What are the ways in which people should be connecting and should not be connecting now three years out?
Rabbi Josh Grajower:
Well, first of all, it was three years ago. I’m happily remarried now. And because I got remarried, interestingly, I think people are more uncomfortable talking to me about Dannie. Which, again, I don’t think has to be the case. I do think, I guess, people at every moment, both right after the loss and the year later and then two years later, I think sometimes they project emotions onto the person who had the loss that aren’t necessarily there. And I guess, similar to the read the room of the shiva, I think that projection is never a good character trait. Never to assume. So I remember getting texts, let’s say, before a holiday saying, “I assume this is a very hard time for you.” So again, I’m not saying whether it was or wasn’t, but I don’t know, I guess personally, I never really liked when people write that. I don’t like when people assume my emotions unless they know my emotions. It could be it’s not our time and you just made it our time, or it could be that it just feels pitying in a certain sense and projecting your feelings onto me.
But I still to this day always like hearing stories about Dannie, learning about her. I think for my kids, it’s obviously extremely important for my three kids to preserve her memory and to keep her memory alive and to have her be a part of their life. And she’s a part of their life regardless if we talk about it or not. But obviously, to really teach them, and to have her memory and who she was be a part of their life I think is extremely important. And I’m always excited when people bring it up or share stories or send me things. I would say I’m always up for that. But to project emotions in any direction, to not talk about her is offensive, and to project overly sad emotions sometimes can be a little bit much when it’s not what I’m feeling in the moment.
In that moment. So, tell me a little bit about preserving memory. And we’ll talk about the analogy more broadly. Maybe we’ll actually ask that right now and then we’ll come back to this. But I deliberately wanted to reach out to people who had experienced loss before Tisha B’Av to focus on what it means to experience loss. Because I think a lot of people really struggle on Tisha B’Av, they’re sitting there, they’re mourning a temple, a Beis HaMikdash that they never saw, they never experienced, and they’re reading these lamentations and kinnos and all these texts, these very beautiful, poetic texts that, Lord knows, I can’t really translate that easily, though it is written in a very difficult way.
And you see people, you look around and they’re trying to feel something. They’re trying to connect to that loss, and not just connect to the loss, but through connecting to the loss preserve the memory of the Beis HaMikdash. So my first question is, do you think the analogy, is there any room, any lessons to be learned from experiencing a personal loss in the way that we reflect and try to cultivate that feeling of mourning about our collective national loss on Tisha B’Av?
Rabbi Josh Grajower:
So for sure. Tisha B’Av happens to be one of the days on the Jewish calendar that I think we often misrepresent, I would say, or focus on the wrong part. Whenever I talk about Tisha B’Av and the mourning that we’re doing, of course, we’re mourning the loss of the temple, the Beis HaMikdash. But to me, it’s not just superficial, but it’s misleading, because what we’re really mourning is the relationship that we had with God in the temple in the Beis HaMikdash. And that’s the loss. The loss isn’t the building. The loss is the relationship that was cultivated through the building of the Beis HaMikdash. So that being the case, I think that we sometimes don’t focus on that, but we really should, because I think, I know I experience, and I have to imagine others do as well, that we don’t always feel that connection to God because we’re in exile, and because we don’t have that direct feeling of connection to God.
And that’s really what we’re mourning on Tisha B’Av. And I think that that has a lot of parallels in personal loss because, again, what you’re mourning is that relationship. That relationship that you had in your life that’s no longer present is really what you’re mourning. You’re mourning the fact that this person who is such a big part of my life is no longer here to experience things together, to build that relationship, to grow through life together, is really what you’re missing. So again, in many ways, I think that’s exactly what the loss of the Beis HaMikdash is.
Again, I know that I’ve never seen it, and I know that I’ve never been to the Beis HaMikdash, but I also know that whatever relationship I have with God is very incomplete and is very fraught with questions and doubts and clouded by a lot of other things. And I believe that that’s because we don’t have the Beis HaMikdash, because we don’t have that connection to God, the national connection to God but also the personal connection to God through that beautiful building, we call it. But it wasn’t really about the building. So I guess that’s what I would say, is that the focus of relationship that’s lacking is not talked about enough on Tisha B’Av, and I think that is the loss. That we were mourning the fact that we don’t feel as connected to God as we should feel or we want to feel.
So on that personal level, because this is where I was going, and I appreciate you framing the analogy that way, do you even find it necessary? How do you remind yourself of the personal loss? You have a family, you have kids who may not even remember in that very stark way growing up when Dannie was here, and I’m wondering how you remind yourself, are there moments, are there rituals that you have to preserve the memory of the loss? And secondly, and I’m putting this in a separate category deliberately because I want to hear if they’re different, is there a way that you preserve her memory? Those times that you had together? I don’t know how you do that, through videos or rituals or whatever it is, what are the ways that a family preserves the idea of somebody that’s no longer with them?
Rabbi Josh Grajower:
So, I don’t know that they’re that different. Again, as I was saying, the loss is really the loss of the relationship, my relationship with Dannie, but a lot of my kid’s relationship with Dannie and what they’re missing out and the steps that they go through and those pieces. So I would say I don’t need reminders about it. Especially with my kids, I feel terrible for them that they don’t have her in their life, and I feel terrible for Dannie that she doesn’t get to see the way that they’re growing up and developing. And I know that that’s something that she shared with me was really hard for to not be able to see the kids as they get older. I don’t think I need reminders about that. It’s a pretty constant reminder. But again, the main way to try and preserve it and to have it be part of their lives is to talk about what she was like, how she would respond in certain circumstances, what were the things that she liked, what was her attitude towards things. I really try and talk to my kids a lot about those things.
They called her Mama. So I would say things like, Mama would have loved that song, or Mama would have done this in this time, or Mama really liked that food, or Mama would love to have seen you play that basketball game and the way that you pass the ball. There’s a milliion and one examples of ways that we do keep her alive, and again, keeping her alive in the sense of embodying, for my kids to embody, and to really have her influence, even if she’s not here to have her influence of her personality onto their existence.
And that’s extraordinarily moving. To me, it’s one of the topics in history that I find most moving and almost haunting, which is alternative history, the notion of thinking about, what if history went differently? And some people look at it as almost science fiction but to me, it’s more of a commentary on your present. And the original alternative history in many ways was actually with the temple itself. It was the idea of, what would have happened if Moses went straight into Israel and built a Beis HaMikdash for the Jewish people? How would history have looked differently if we had something that could never have been destroyed, a question that many commentators bring up. I’m wondering if you could tell me a little bit because, again, I really think, and it sounds like you agree with me, that the struggle of connecting to loss is so difficult. Were there specific memoirs, books that you read that you felt really told the story of what it means to lose someone or something that maybe gave you comfort because the experience was so resonant?
Rabbi Josh Grajower:
So yes, I read a lot of books about grief or people’s experience with grief or memoirs as well. I guess for me at that time, and I think this is something that I think in our community maybe specifically is a struggle, is we don’t give enough space to just not feeling good about things. I think there’s a culture, even if it’s not said in the context of a shiva visit, or it’s not in the context of helping somebody, there’s a big, “kol d’avid rachmana l’tava,” everything Hashem does is for the good. And there’s gam zu l’tovah, also this is for the good. And I want to be as clear as possible. I actually really believe that in my core. It’s not saying that I don’t believe. But at a moment of pain and suffering, I think you need to give room for pain and suffering. And I think you need to let someone experience in its fullest those feelings of, this really hurts and it’s really hard, and let that be. And I think for me, there were a few books, there are two books I recommend all the time. CS Lewis wrote a book when he lost his wife called A Grief Observed, which is probably the most poignant, and it’s not so long, expression of that feeling.
And there’s another book by Megan Devine called It’s Okay That You’re Not Okay, which I recommend a lot also. And for me, and I know I said this a lot, but I think everything is personal and everyone needs to tap into what they’re feeling and what they… For me, I really connected to authors who really gave room and space for the feelings of, it’s okay that you’re not okay, it’s okay that this feels like it’s the hardest thing you’ve ever been through and you’re never going to move on. And I don’t feel that way today. And if that’s comforting to anybody listening, I feel very differently today, but I know that when I talk to people, I very much try in to tap into that, of if you feel right now it’s never going to get better, I tell people that’s totally normal, and something that really makes sense in this time, and it’s something that I definitely experienced.
There’s one book, I think you recommended it to me. It’s not an experience of somebody who lost someone, it is an experience of somebody who passed away. I believe you recommended this to me, The Unwinding of the Miracle, which, again, there’s something about books about loss and grief, they have incredible titles. You can tell the quality of the book just by the title. And the title, I remember when you told me, The Unwinding of the Miracle, and then we could find out that author there –
Rabbi Josh Grajower:
Julie Yip-Williams. And that’s a great book. For someone who experienced loss like myself, I found that it was a little much, honestly. I loved it in the sense of it’s a great book. And she has actually in there, and I was going to recommend that as… Again, for someone who’s dealing with loss, she has there a letter. She had two little girls and she wrote a letter to them. I have reread that letter more than anything that I’ve read during this time of grief. It’s such a powerful letter about the range of emotions that a person feels in life, and of balancing the it’s okay that you’re not okay feeling with the it’s all for the good and going to get better piece. I reread that many, many, many, many times. I would recommend anyone to read it. Even if you don’t read the whole book, you could get that piece online.
It’s haunting. I read it myself. I know exactly where I was. And it made such an impression on me, I know where I was situated when I was reading it. It’s heavy, but reading, for me, it’s kind of like the modern day kinnos, like those lamentations we write about somebody going through in a very modern way and reach out and touch on what it really means to lose somebody or something.
I want to ask you a question. I’m not sure that you’re able to answer this or if it’s even a profound question. I’m not sure. You can decide that. I want to know how modernity and technology have affected loss. There’s something strange about the world that we live in now, and when I say loss, I don’t even mean just death. There’s something very strange about the way our memories and experience of our lives have changed, because we have access to so many cameras and videos and we can preserve people in ways.
I have a total of one, maybe two pictures of a great grandparent. Both of them, I think, my sister, just like pilfered and shoplifted from my parent’s house, as children sometimes do. I have a bunch of pictures of my parents and grandparents. But now I’m in this world where I open up my camera and I have video of me tucking my five-year-old son in when he’s one. And again, I’m not even talking about loss of life. I’m talking about loss of experience. There are these constant reminders that you’re able to create for yourself where it feels in one way like a moment is never lost, which is comforting, but also there’s a strangeness to it, to reach out and be able to relive moments that you know are no longer there, especially with video and how many pictures we’re taking. I’m wondering, for you, what role did technology and the way that it’s able to preserve memory change your relationship with loss itself?
Rabbi Josh Grajower:
Again, I actually thought your questions were going to be a little different, and I’m going to answer first the question you asked and then the question you didn’t ask. But I don’t know that it changes the experience of loss, because even if you had 100 hours of video of the person that you lost, they’re still not there. And they’re still not there to experience life with, and they’re still not there to go through the daily motions of experience. So again, you could have a million videos, and it’s not going to change the fact that the person is gone.
I do think what it does do is you’re able to preserve the person and who they were. As opposed to telling over who they were, I think you can see who they were. And I think that for sure, for my kids, again, that’s really powerful. Whenever there’s a video of Dannie, like Google photos that was like six years ago today, this is what happened, and if my kids happened to see something like that, I see their face light up, and that they can really see their mother in a way that’s really powerful.
Again, I think at different ages kids feel different ways about different things sometimes. I have a friend who lost parent when she was I think in her… They had just got married, and she does not like to see pictures or videos of her father because it’s too much. It’s too overwhelming in a certain sense because it’s so real. It’s too much. So again, everyone experiences it differently. So that part is something. What I thought you’re going to say, which I do think is a challenge, is that because we have technology, there’s an ability to distract yourself very easily in a way that 50 years ago, or certainly 150 years ago, you weren’t able to do.
I think that with the exception of Shabbos, it’s very easy to not focus on something. I can say for me, in a very real way, Shabbos was by far and away the hardest time after Dannie passed away for two reasons. One is Shabbos is the most family-centric day of the week, and the Shabbos table, and going to shul, just all those pieces. But also, because Friday night, when I got into bed alone, there was nothing to distract me. And every other night of the week, you can always have some technology that can distract you. So books are good. And I’m a reader. I don’t read as much as you do, David, but I read. But it doesn’t take you into the world of shutting your mind off, for me at least, as strongly as a distraction of a constant screen, a bright screen in your face, and it really makes you sit and face it. And I think that piece of technology actually is a hindrance to real mourning.
And Dr. Norman Blumenthal, who I spoke to a lot in my grief process, he always spoke about that you need to go through the grief. You need to really feel it. And I think technology often allows us an outlet, which is actually not a helpful outlet. When you need to experience it again, sometimes it is helpful. Everything in life is never all good or all bad. But I think that piece is hard.
Yeah. It’s something that I think about and just like to shift back to the idea of how we commemorate and memorialize Tisha B’Av. So, when you’re in camp or in the summertime, so much of the grief experience happens on the big video that you watch where they bring people up on camp. And again for younger kids, I get why that’s necessary. But I sometimes wonder if we’re overly reliant on that external emotional video to be this vicarious mourning rather than, there must be something in your life that is missing, that is not ideal, that is imperfect, that can be a lens through which you find your corner of mourning, instead of staring at a video screen, like you just said.
Rabbi Josh Grajower:
Yeah, for sure.
We’re going to wind down in a little bit. I wanted to ask you about the idea of subsuming grief, all the memories into one day. There’s a very curious, very Jewish idea where so many of our collective national losses, we group together and it’s all subsumed on Tisha B’Av. There are other days of mourning, of course, there are other fast days, but we really made this the day of national mourning.
And I’m curious what your thoughts are on that in comparison to personal loss, that when it comes to personal loss, do you try to create a special day, maybe a yahrzeit or a specific moment, where all of the memories can be ritualized and memorialized in a very specific way? Or when it comes to personal loss, because it’s so real and so tangible, or maybe because it’s a different age group and they’re experiencing something far more intimate in their lives, is it like, no, we don’t make it that big day where everybody’s going to get up and share in that way?
Rabbi Josh Grajower:
So I don’t think in any grief you have the control that you’re describing of, no, I’m just going to leave my grief to this one day a year. I don’t think that’s a possibility. I think we feel things when we feel them. So I just think it’s not reality to think that you can control it to a specific time. And I think, again, similarly, honestly, people who really feel the lack of God in their life feel that on a daily basis. And again, if that’s expressed in the loss of the Beis HaMikdash, then that’s exactly what it is. Because, again, on a daily basis, there are many who have the custom, maybe it’s the law, to say al naros bavel, the chapter of psalms to say before you finish a meal, which is, again, in memory of the loss of Beis HaMikdash. There are a lot of things that we try and do year round. I guess I view Tisha B’Av as, again, similar to a yahrzeit in that, again, it’s the national day of putting all our focus on that. As opposed to just being when it comes, it’s almost like intentionality to it of this is the day that we’re going to make sure that we all give it our focus.
And again, certainly as the years go on since Dannie has passed away that for sure resonates with me in that way, on a daily basis, of course, she comes up, and, of course, for my kids, it’s very present. But at the same time to have a day where it’s kind of like Dannie’s day, which is the yahrzeit, for sure that makes a lot of sense and it’s kind of a focus in on that loss and on who she was and on all of that. So again, I guess I think that’s how Tisha B’Av also, it’s not so much of controlling your emotions throughout the year as much as having a day of focus on loss, and what that means both in the national and the smaller ways with those smaller losses throughout the years.
Thinking about Tisha B’Av and subsuming all national loss, and in many ways it’s almost inevitable that you wouldn’t have personal loss also come up on that day, I’m wondering if you could share, there are so many very vivid, sometimes almost terrifying descriptions of God and our relationship with religion that come out in very vivid ways throughout the Torah, but specifically in Eicha, Lamentations, that we read on Tisha B’Av. And specifically in those kinnos, those poetic verses, I’m wondering if there are any ones that resonate specifically with your personal experience?
Rabbi Josh Grajower:
So yeah, there definitely are a few. I hate to take the easy way out and choose the first pasuk of Eicha, but it happens to be the very beginning of Eicha resonates a lot with me, literally the first three words are “Eicha yasvha vadad”. The idea of sitting in loneliness and feeling alone is something that very much resonates with me. And even as the pasuk goes on, and in the next pasuk it talks about how you cry, “ein lah menachem mikol ohaveha,” she, the city, has no comforters from all that love her, which implies that there are people who love the city but there’s no comfort in it.
And the sense of that, again, it’s not that other people don’t care, and it’s not that nobody’s trying, it’s that you still feel a really profound sense of loneliness, and feeling like nobody understands and nobody gets it and nobody relates that or nobody’s experiencing it. And there are days and it’s like you’re going through the motions of life but you don’t really feel like you’re present. And that aloneness, and that feeling of, I’m in this world alone, very much resonates with me.
It’s something that I think I feel on Tisha B’Av and something that definitely is the experience of grief and loss. There’s one other which, again, is actually at the very end of the Eicha, which I think some historical context is important before I even say it, which is that Eicha was written right after the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash. So in terms of historical terms, it’s not like it just happened in a certain sense, but Yermiyahu, Jeremiah, when he wrote it, he says, “Lama lah netzach tishkacheinu?” He asked God, why did you forget us forever? And it seems like forever. Again, not to say in historical terms, it has been really short, it just happened. But there’s a feeling, again, of the foreverness of it. There’s a feeling of like, I’m never going to lose this feeling. It’s feeling like when you’re in that moment of pain, how am I ever going to get past this? And that feeling is so overwhelming and consuming. And I think that emotion is meant to be evoked on Tisha B’Av, and it’s meant to feel, if we can, again, that feeling of why is this going on forever in a certain sense, not the emotional side but in the historical side. Now we’re like, yeah, it has been going on forever. It’s been 2,000 years, what’s going on?
But when Yermiyahu wrote it, it just happened. And still he was saying it feels like forever, it feels like this feeling is never going to go away. And that very much resonates with me. Because I know that when I first experienced the loss, I remember feeling like I don’t know how I’m ever going to function a day in my life, I feel like this is never going to change and like, oh my gosh. And now, looking back three years later, and even after, again, I would say a year or so changed, but even more so now, again, there’s still a loss, but it’s a totally different way of feeling about it, especially I’ve been remarried and my life has moved on in a certain sense and gone forward, you feel like you’re never going to get out of that moment. And again, “time heals” is an interesting phrase, but in a certain sense, time heals, in a certain sense there’s the ability to move on. Circling back to the stages of grief, there’s a certain sense of being able to move forward.
I can’t thank you enough, and just, A, your friendship and my friendship with Dannie is something that I’m never going to forget. And really the process and your generosity with others through this process I really think was a turning point for many people, not just in Dannie’s memory but, a turning point in the way people looked at their own lives. She was a very popular person. And there were a lot of people at that funeral, a lot of people who knew her who live really great lives, so to speak, with those air quotes. And everything that she represented and everything that the way that you communicated, and really, almost educated people through the mourning process was one of the most pivotal points in my life in thinking about what it means to be alive and dedicate your life to something, and I know from so many other people are really indebted to your generosity and your guidance, which most people would never have capacity for.
I usually end interviews with sillier questions. We’re obviously not going to do that today. You recommended a few books, but I wanted to know, A, are there other books that you didn’t mention or ideas that can help people connect to loss? And I wanted to add on to that a specific question, which is explaining loss to children, to people who are younger. Normally on Tisha B’Av, younger people, they’ll do stuff in camp. But I’ve often found that the way that we explain ideas to young people, to children has that undiluted authenticity and truth to it of what it is. So I’m curious if there are any other recommendations for our listeners to help them confront and process what it means to lose something.
Rabbi Josh Grajower:
So, I recommended a few books before. The main thing I would actually say is to seek guidance of a therapist. I don’t know how I would have gone through the experience without the help of Dr. Norman Blumenthal, who I speak very openly and publicly and proudly about my many sessions of therapy that I had with him before Dannie passed away and after Dannie passed away. And up until very, very recently, still, therapy is a real blessing. And there are many great therapists. Dr. Blumenthal, for me was a lifesaver and he’s really an expert in trauma and grief, and gave me both the space to feel it, the tools on how to cope with it. And he actually gave me a lot of the language and the guidance on how to take my children through the experience and to try and do the right thing with my kids. I had a really, really strong focus on how to do things right by my children. And I sought his guidance literally every step of the way. I called him my rebbe for many months and years. I still in some ways view him as my rebbe.
But my main advice, actually, is not a book. It’s to get help of a therapist, or specifically, if you can, a therapist who has experience in trauma, someone who really knows this area. Because it’s not just about sharing your feelings and having someone who could talk it through with you, it’s also getting a person who can really guide you through. Especially someone who’s experiencing loss with children, with family members and how to deal with it, that would be my number one recommendation is to get help in that way.
Before we close, and we can end here if you don’t want to talk more about this, but it piqued my curiosity, obviously, as a lover of language. Can you tell me a little bit, what is the language of loss? What does that mean? What are the words and the framing? What is the language of communicating loss?
Rabbi Josh Grajower:
So again, part of it were things that once I say it, you may be like, oh, that sounds obvious, but in the time I didn’t know. So for example, one of the things Dr. Blumenthal taught me before, again, when Dannie was still sick and hadn’t passed away but we knew it was coming, never tell your kids anything like it’s going to be okay, or really not to focus on hope in a certain sense was a very difficult thing because you want to tell your children, mommy’s going to be okay, it’s all going to work out.
That was one of the important language things of not giving false hope, and not teaching your children that there’s hope when there isn’t hope was one of the very powerful things, I think. Again, my children, specifically, were very young. But after she passed away, not focusing on mashiach, and that mommy is in shamayim, because that can be very confusing for little children. And if she’s in shamayim, why is she not going down from shamayim, and those pieces.
There’s a lot of language, again, specifically with children, but how you talk about what happened in a certain sense, there’s a science to it. And it’s not just shoot from the hip, there’s a real science how to involve which children to bring to the funeral, which not to bring to the funeral, do you bring them to the funeral, do you not? I guess for me, it was a lot of guidance in terms of how to go about those pieces of both, I guess, preparing them for what was going to happen, and after the loss of what emotions to communicate, how to talk about feeling sad and how to talk about all those things.
There’s a lot of language that people who are experts can really teach you. And that’s what I learned. I learned that as much as I like to think of myself as a thoughtful person who would say the right thing, you don’t always know. And these are unchartered waters in your life. There are people who do know and who have done this for a long time and have helped a lot of people. And it’s really imperative to get their help.
Josh, I cannot thank you enough for your words today and for your friendship. Thank you so much.
Rabbi Josh Grajower:
Thank you, David
The idea that Josh shared about a language of loss, that there is a language through which we are able to both recognize and process loss, is something that for me stands at the heart of the Jewish experience and what makes Tisha B’Av such a special and powerful day. And I really think that where Jews shine is the way that we approach mourning and the preservation of memory. And figuring out, what is the language, what is your language of loss, is something that will always stay with me. And I think it’s a question worth considering on your own.
I debated whether or not to share the letter that Josh and I referenced in the middle of our conversation. It is from the book The Unwinding of the Miracle by Julie Yip-Williams, which she wrote before she passed, and was published posthumously with an epilogue from her husband. It’s a memoir of life, death, and everything that comes after. I would really urge our listeners, if you have not read it already, you can find it online. You don’t have to buy the book, though I think you should, because it’s that powerful of a testimony of what it means to confront and process the ultimate loss that is death. But find that letter that she writes to her daughters. I’m not even sure if I read it now, I could get through it. But allow me to share with you a little part of the letter that I found incredibly moving when she addresses her daughters knowing that they were going to grow up without a mother.
She writes, “My sweet babies, I do not have the answer to the question of why, at least not now and not in this life. But I do know that there’s incredible value in pain and suffering. If you allow yourself to experience it, to cry, to feel sorrow, and grief, to hurt, walk through the fire, and you will emerge on the other end whole and stronger, I promise. You will ultimately find truth and beauty and wisdom and peace. You will understand that nothing lasts forever, not pain or joy. You will understand that joy cannot exist without sadness. Relief cannot exist without pain. Compassion cannot exist without cruelty. Courage cannot exist without fear. Hope cannot exist without despair. Wisdom cannot exist without suffering. Gratitude cannot exist without deprivation. Paradoxes abound in this life. Living is an exercise in navigating within them.”
And this is something that she returns to over and over again in this letter, that notion of living with that paradox of what human life and human experience is all about. Later on, she writes, “You will feel alone and lonely and yet understand that you are not alone. It is true that we walk this life alone because we feel what we feel singularly, and each of us makes our own choices. But it is possible to reach out and find those like you, and in doing so you will not feel so lonely. This is another one of life’s paradoxes that you will learn to navigate.” The letter is incredibly moving and I would urge everybody to find it and read it. It’s really always an appropriate time to connect with loss and what loss means and ultimately discover, each for ourselves in that most personal way, that language of loss.
So thank you so much for listening. And if you enjoyed this episode or any episode, please subscribe, rate, review. Tell your friends about it. It really helps us reach new listeners and continue putting out great content. If you’d like to learn more about this topic or any of the other ones we’ve covered in the past, be sure to check out 18Forty.org. That’s the number 1-8 followed by the word “forty,” F-O-R-T-Y.org, 18Forty.org. You’ll also find videos, articles, and recommended readings. Thank you so much for listening and stay curious, my friends.