I Remember You Well

I wanted a Walk-In rabbi. I was on West 24th Street in New York City. My mother was dying in Cleveland (“I can’t believe she’ll be alive in two weeks,” the hospice nurse had told me in a frank telephone conversation). My plane to Israel was to leave Newark Airport at 10:30 PM. I needed consolation, support and prayer. So I walked over to a synagogue on West 23rd  , hoping I’d find a rabbi sitting at his desk in his book-lined office, waiting for walk-ins. 

The door to Emunat Yisrael was locked.  An advertisement in the display window invited the public to a Purim Party, despite the July 12th heat. I needed a rabbinic source to assure me it was alright to return to Israel, rather than cancel my flight and fly to Cleveland. After a two week visit in the States, I wanted to go home – to Israel, not to a vigil for my mother. I thought of a woman I knew in Jerusalem who had sat with her dying mother for six months in Chicago and tried not to feel guilty. Hopefully, a rabbi would reiterate what the hospice nurse had told me: Whatever decision you make, Judy, will be the right one.

On the way to the synagogue I had passed a store front advertising walk-ins for a Psychic Adviser, a reader of palms, stars and Tarot cards. I resisted the temptation to walk in, but after the closed synagogue, I walked back and rang the bell, not as opposed to idolatry as the Hebrew prophets. Nobody answered.

My last option for solace was the public library on the other side of  West 23rd. I assumed I could use a computer there to email my Jerusalem rabbi, give him a heads-up about my impending need for organized mourning. On the way to the library I noticed a sign on the side of the street I had just left: The Chelsea Hotel. “I remember you well at the Chelsea Hotel,” I sang to myself . Other lines from that beautiful Leonard Cohen song – “I need you, I don’t need you, I need you, I don’t need you …” – filled me with yet more sadness and conflict.

The computer at the public library was only for NYC library card holders, so I left and crossed over to The Chelsea Hotel. A Jew with a knitted kippa walked by. I wanted to share with him my pre-mourning dilemma, but restrained myself. Rather, I asked if he was involved in the building operation—scaffold, workmen, noise. “Yes,” he said, “I’m the developer.” We chatted under the scaffold. His name was Michael.  Just to show him I was not some sad drunk roaming the streets of New York with my silly Kodak, I asked if he knew Bruce Ratner. He whipped out an iphone from his pants pocket and showed me a picture of Ratner’s latest building, Beekman Tower, a 76-story skyscraper opposite City Hall Plaza in Lower Manhattan, designed, no less, by Frank Gehry. It lorded over the surrounding buildings, one of which was Michael’s.

I told Michael I went to Shaker Heights High School with Bruce. I probably did this in an effort to raise my status in his eyes, though at the same time assuming this Michael didn’t give a shit who I was or where I went to high school. To him I was just a melancholy lady interrupting his work.  I asked for his last name and a card, but he declined. “Some of the current tenants are not so happy with the new management,” he said. Turns out Michael was not only the developer, but also the owner of The Chelsea Hotel. This information made me feel better than I had felt all day and slightly closer to Leonard Cohen and the ‘60’s, when my mother and I were young.    

Michael was busy, said Shalom and I walked on, past Chelsea Guitars, where a man wearing a black and white bandana on his head told me I could see a larger version of the bowdlerized “Creation of Adam” on the corner of 8th Avenue.

Next door at Emunat Yisrael  a 20-something Jew with a white shirt and black kippa was hanging around the door. I asked if he was the rabbi. He smiled and said no. He had been hired a few weeks ago as a community outreach worker to revive the old place. “If I lived in New York,” I told him, “I’d come to his congregation. But alas, I live in the land of the Jews and am in search of a walk-in rabbi.”  He smiled as if I might be one of those deranged women you see on the streets of New York. I walked on. When I passed the storefront of the Psychic Adviser, I noticed an obese woman in a lime tea shirt sitting on a stool in the little room, no bigger than the window at sidewalk level. She was bent over, like a green gorilla playing with her toenails. Was this the reader or the cleaning lady? Though she could have told me in detail what the future held by reading the stars, my palms or her cards, I didn’t want to find out. It would have been an insult to my dying mother, a woman, once beautiful, with elegant taste and fine clothes, before her descent into the final stages of Alzheimer’s.

I walked back to West 24th, thinking of Bruce Ratner and his skyscraper. How could it be that we went to the same high school, danced at the same parties on the shores of Lake Erie, sometimes even with each other, and that he thought big and high, while I thought small and deep. Granted, he was born into a family of developers, but still. Why didn’t more of Shaker Heights rub off on me?

I knew my mother would be happy if she knew I was doing what I do best- walking, observing, asking questions, talking to strangers, standing in wonder and amazement at the colorful world, musing on the past like a cow chewing its cud, writing. She would probably think I was on an assignment for The New Yorker, just as she had thought in 2004 that I was a speaker at the Florida Suncoast Writers’ Conference, rather than a mere participant. She thought big for me, especially as her disease progressed. Yes, surely I was a skyscraper on assignment for Harper’s or Vanity Fair,  rather than a small woman documenting the randomness of the world on a short walk between 2 and 3 PM on July 12, 2012,  unsuccessful in my mission, yet feeling, somehow, better at the end of the journey than at its beginning. All in an attempt to live with myself.

I sought Life, pursued it, not viciously, but quietly on a city street. For the first time, I sensed a glimpse of the rightness of the Kaddish, a prayer I would be saying soon, the psychological accuracy of its glorification of the Everlasting Living God, repeated as a mantra against oblivion at the time of Death.

About Judy Labensohn

I'm a writer and teacher of writing.
This entry was posted in Identity, Uncategorized, Walking and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to I Remember You Well

  1. estherhecht says:

    My heart is with you. This piece touched me deeply and reminded me that in somewhat similar circumstances I, infidel that I am, also sought the support of a walk-in rabbi while far from home.


  2. Frances Oppenheimer says:

    Judy, dear, how wonderfully you write. You always touch me. And we used to sing together too. One day, write about our singing. Frances


  3. Annael says:

    Judy, this piece is so beautiful and moving. And you are an amazing woman, keep thinking deep.


  4. I have always found New York a city of consolation – and you describe just how it does that. Lovely Judy. Best to you always!


  5. Laura Sutta says:

    Dearest Judy,
    This brought tears to my ears. You do write beautifully (as always) and your contrast of Shaker Heights/Bruce Ratner with you–Judy Stonehill and Israel was gorgeous. Are condolences in order?
    Love you,


  6. Jane A says:

    So much for Bruce Ratner– never helped me much either 🙂 I’d rather be thinking small and deep in any event. Hope you followed your heart and returned home, with Rabbi approval or not :). I’ve got you and your mom in my morning prayers, love, jane


  7. Judy Dvorak Gray says:

    You are much more than “a small woman documenting the randomness of the world” — you are a sensitive, incredibly articulate woman documenting the emotions and feelings of all of us who have – or had– to deal with the pain of parting from an aging parent. I know what a difficult time this is for you, but I’m glad you chose to come home to your family, friends and community for support. Hope to see you soon, Judy G.


  8. Sarita Perel says:

    small and deep is what I prefer. Glad you came back to be near your family and friends where we can all be a drop-in Rabbi for you.
    love, Sarita


  9. this is wonderful. What is happening with your mother? Dying is like being born. You’re never quite sure when it will happen though the time span o birth is certainly shorter. Best


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