April 10, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

First Came the Rain, Then Came the Tulips

Several years back, my father, a congregational rabbi for the Young Israel of Scarsdale, led a group of men to Israel on a spiritual safari. One excursion, they hiked up a large mountain in the Jordan desert for morning prayers. While the group stood motionless, in silence, mesmerized by the breathtaking landscape, my father inched himself closer to the edge. With his head tilted toward the sky, his arms opened and raised, as if embracing God himself, he broke the stillness of the moment. “I love my wife! Thank you God. I love my wife!” His words rang out, ricocheted off the hills, and echoed miles across the expansive sand. “I love my wife!”

This account, which was a testament to my parents’ 40 year marriage, would speak to another story, not merely of love but of loss. I can recall the storm vividly. The clouds appeared heavy and thick, but not ominous.

On Friday night, April 12, 2008, when the neighborly homes were in a state of tranquil slumber, our childhood home was overcome by a catastrophic fire caused by lightning. Within hours, the house where my three younger siblings and I were raised, where a lifetime of memories had been cultivated, had been engulfed in flames. The fire, possessing a monstrous appetite, consumed everything in its pathways, including my parents. This would forever be remembered as The Shabbat of Darkness.

What was once a house of life, love and holiness, was now one of death and destruction. We didn’t just lose a house, we lost a home and with it, its very foundation—our parents, our protectors, providers and role models. The mere thought of resuming life where our parents had met their death so tragically at the ages of 58 and 59 was unfathomable. All that remained was ruins: Ashes replaced walls; a wooden ramp replaced stairs. Rooms were unrecognizable, a single melted, deformed spoon hinted at where the kitchen once stood.

Only a day later, surrounded by thousands of attendees, with a pale tear-stained sullen face, and swollen blue eyes, I balanced myself on a thin sliver of earth in between the caskets of my father and mother. With my head down and my hands intensely gripping the shovel as I thrust it into earth, my body rotated between the two robotically and passionately—the fear of stopping meant everything would stop, and reality would settle in like the heavy earth that covered my parents coffins. I was an orphan.

Although I was resolute that my mother and father would receive equal heaps of dirt, prayer and tears, it was not that simple. I was mourning my parents as a cohesive unit, my mother and father as individuals, my home, my childhood, my adulthood and my visions of a future with them. Like a pendulum, my grief oscillated between it all. Despite my effort to honor them independently, everything felt congealed together, and hence compromised. Even accompanying my father to houses of mourning since my early childhood, my tiny hand gripping his, had not prepared me for this horror.

Grief, like an emotional tsunami, looms beneath the surface and will present itself unpredictably. Grief, easily triggered, has no timeline, no deadline and no expiration date. It is not confined to a space—it will travel with you to the most remote place. Grief will be your alarm clock in the morning and lull you to sleep at night. An embedded presence, grief is either a gnawing relentless agonizing pain like an open wound or a subtle undertone like a scratch. An instigator, grief will spark questions, which will forever remain unanswered. Perhaps, the most trying of all, grief is the perpetrator of would have, could have, should haves, and it breeds guilt and regret like a merry-go-round of mind tricks.

Our upbringing was grounded in belief in God. Nonetheless, I expected it was inevitable that my faith be impacted. Ironically it had not only been preserved, but in some ways enhanced. Callousness and embitterment did not permeate my being, but rather, resilience. I laughed when crying seemed more natural, I plunged myself into my teaching, sustained even when my emotional tank was on the verge of depletion.

Still, I have not reconciled this tragedy, and the voids remain huge and empty. I yearn for my parents daily, the longing and anguish have not at all abated; perhaps they have grown more prominent. But I have discovered that as strong as my grief is, my grit is that much stronger. While this was a paramount story from my life, I chose to not make this the story of my life.

I remain committed to perpetuating my parents’ memory and legacy as leaders, educators and advisors. I try to embody the lessons that were modeled daily: to instill and inspire rather than to impose, to not merely speak of change, but to be the catalyst of it and to find what is sacred in every experience. To possess compassion, humility and gratitude.

I feel my parents’ presence and influence manifested daily either purposely orchestrated or organic as I did one day while teaching. I found myself mid-sentence gravitating towards the classroom window. To my own disbelief, I extended my head out the window and passionately declared, “I love my students,” from the fourth floor, overlooking the main street of Roosevelt Island.

My impromptu behavior was met with wide eyes, mouths agape, giggles and inquiries: “Did anyone hear you Ms. Rubenstein?” Their entertained responses prompted me to project this proclamation even louder, but a lump in my throat, tears in my eyes, a faint smile and muffled words surfaced.

The lot where our home once stood remained desolate for some time. Amidst the rubble sprouted tulips, my mother’s favorite flower, that my little sister had planted years earlier. Initially, those flowers, in contrast to the backdrop of destruction, felt incongruous, painful. Then, I understood that these tulips peeked through the debris relentlessly and faced the sky seeking sunlight, absorbing its warmth and displaying their determination and beauty.


Shira Rubenstein is a New York City public school teacher of two decades at PS/IS 217. Shira’s last article, “Teaching Is Not Cute At All,” was published in The New York Daily News.

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