It’s among the most painful challenges: to find the words for the gravestone of someone you love.
But when my grandmother died, I knew: the quotation had to be from Jeremiah: ‘Zacharti lach: I remember the tender kindness of your youth, the love of your bridal days, how you followed me through an unsown land.’
She and my grandfather cherished those words, with their beautiful Rosh Hashanah melody. They captured their love for God and Judaism, but above all their deep affection for each other, his adoration of his beautiful bride Natalie Charlotte, with whom he was married for almost sixty years. They encapsulated, too, their shared destiny, flee Nazism in late mid-life to an unknown, if not unsown, land.
To me those words express tenderness, loyalty, moral courage and the great resilience of Judaism and the human spirit. To explain, I must go down into the depths with their author.
Every year at this season of bein hametsarim, ‘between the troubles’, in the three bleak weeks from the fast of 17 Tammuz when the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem, to Tishah be’ Av, when both Temples were destroyed, I am drawn to Jeremiah.
Jeremiah is the father of everyone killed for telling the truth. God appointed him the ill-fated bearer of warnings ignored. His contemporaries disregarded or despised him, burnt his writings, threw him into the dungeon and eventually stoned him to death.
But the Bible gave us his voice: implacable, tender, angry, lonely, wounded, ‘broken in the brokenness of my people.’ He sits alone, contemplating the troubles to come, then sits with Jerusalem in her aloneness when the Babylonians sack the city. He screams at his people in warning, weeps with them in sorrow, then chastises them once more. He cannot and will not be silent. God’s truth is obligation, compulsion, ‘fire in my bones.’ All around him others are mouthing convenient untruths; his is the burden of the inconvenient truth.
There are ‘truth-tellers’ who despise humankind seemingly proud of saying what’s painful to hear. But the truly great tellers of truths are lovers for humanity. They are our best allies not just in integrity and justice but in survival itself.
Among them are poets, scientists, journalists, lawyers, politicians, ‘ordinary’ people who refuse to see their neighbours wronged. They are united by the indelible conviction that they have to speak out. Some tell truth to power; often futile, sometimes fatal. Others seek people like you and me.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reported over 550 killed in the last decade, many more dead under circumstances not yet clarified, famous among them Jamal Khashoggi of the Washington Post.
There’s nothing new about silencing of truth. I often think of Osip Mandelstam, dead in transit into Stalinist exile.
You gave me my shoe-size in earth with bars around it.
Where did it get you? Nowhere.
You left me my lips, and they shape words, even in silence.
(trans. Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin)
It’s the ancient creed of prophets and poets.
There are plenty of warning voices now: about racism, proto-fascism, the climate emergency. We must not join the pallbearers and bury them in silence. God, teaches the Talmud, is amiti, truthful; God demands the resilient courage of truth.
My grandparents lie in Hoop Lane cemetery where their gravestone stands as part of Judaism’s undying testament against tyranny. I visit them each Tishah be’Av and read those words about faithfulness, our bond with truth and God.