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Jewish Journal

A beautiful shiva

by William Goldstein

May 8, 2008 | 6:00 pm

Sylvia Goldstein and sons, from left, Jay, William and Paul in Jerusalem in the early 1990s

My mother, Sylvia Goldstein, Sura Malka bas Yeshiya, passed away on March 11, the fourth of Adar II. She was 92 and had the full use of her mind and wit all of her years.

Sensing that after six months of hospital and rehab, back and forth, Mom was nearing the end of her journey I cleared my schedule and flew east on March 2 to be with her as long as the Master of the Universe would allow.

I arrived in Lakewood, N.J., on Monday March 3, dropped my bags off at the house where I grew up and where Mom hoped to return, and went off to see her at the hospital.

Mom's systems were beginning to fail. The process could be prolonged but not reversed. I was prepared for the worst, or so I thought.

I was fortunate to have two days with Mom, where she still had the strength to speak. So on Monday and Tuesday we said all those things that you want to say to someone you love. She told me how much she loved my brothers and me, she told me she was leaving us and that we should forgive her for not having the strength or will to fight what was coming.

She was comfortable -- not in pain or on drugs. I held her hand for hours. I'd leave the hospital late at night and sleep for a few hours at Mom's house, my house. Tuesday morning, March 11, I got the call to rush over to the hospital, Mom's blood pressure had dropped and the end was near. I rushed over. I was holding her hand as my brother Paul arrived and the nurse came in to tell us that Mom was no longer breathing. I was holding her hand and couldn't even sense the moment when her shallow breathing stopped and she had slipped away.

We moved on to the week of shiva. I've read several books on the subject of the Jewish laws of mourning. I do not claim to understand the wisdom behind much of the halacha concerning mourning, but clearly sitting shiva is a most compassionate and cathartic process for both the mourners and all those who comfort them.

Lakewood is the yeshiva town. Within hours of the funeral our cousins and friends had made all of the food and practical arrangements for the week.

My mother, who used to say she knew more people in the cemetery than those whose souls were still in their bodies, had an incredible number of young friends. For many years now, if I spent a weekend in Lakewood I marveled at how much kindness continually surrounded Mom. Our house is a block from the yeshiva. Through our kitchen and dining room windows, looking across our backyard and between the neighbors' houses, we viewed Beth Medrosh Gevorah. Such proximity I thought, naturally, brought out all the neighbors on Shabbos -- they don't say "Shabbat" in Lakewood -- doing their mitzvot (good deeds).

Every Friday night while their husbands went to shul, young mothers brought their young children to visit with Mrs. Goldstein, who would hold court sitting in her favorite living room chair, or when not really up to it, in her bedroom, regally propped up in bed as she received her visitors. Many would return on Shabbos afternoon. Most of these young mothers were first introduced to my mother when their mothers brought them over to meet Mrs. Goldstein when they were children.

Mom loved them all and they all loved Mom. She knew their birthdays and their children's birthdays and when a match was made. She was constantly sending cards for all occasions to this extended family.

One always learns surprising things about a parent during shiva. I learned that these visitors were not coming every week to do a mitzvah. They were coming every week because they loved my Mom. They loved her wisdom and her wit and sense of humor. They loved her warmth and compassion. Many told me she was their special bubbe. Yes, they loved their own grandparents, but they adored my Mom, they missed her, and some were crying almost as much as we were. How could I not know this?

That first Friday night that Mom was gone, these young women decided to spend the evening studying together and remembering my mother. Their intention is to continue doing this every week.

I loved my Mom, my brothers and cousins loved my Mom, but seeing the effect that Mom had on the nonfamily members who were fortunate enough to know her was stunning and powerful. There are always lessons in life, and I always look for the lesson. In this case, I was reminded that we never quite appreciate our blessings as much as someone with a fresh eye and heart.

At her funeral I acknowledged that I had been blessed at birth with many gifts, among them, my parents and grandparents. I loved my Mom and knew she was an exceptional woman, but not until shiva did I realize how gifted she was and how blessed I was to have her as my mother.

I can only hope that I possess those qualities of my mother that will enable me to make more than a small difference in the lives of the people I am blessed to know.

William Goldstein has composed for film, television and concert halls and is nearing production of a Broadway musical. He was commissioned by The U.S. Army Chorus to compose "Zoch Rainu L'Chaim," published but rarely performed. He has written some nigunnim that are occasionally sung at Beth Jacob. Thirty years ago he was commissioned by the Christian Science Church to compose several pieces, which are performed on a regular basis.

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