The Jewish Poem That Helped Me Grieve

After my grandfather died, "2AM, and the Rabbinical Students Stand in Their Bathrobes" was exactly what I needed.

If I were to add up all the time I had spent with my gido (grandfather in Egyptian Arabic), it would probably accumulate to less than a year. The Atlantic Ocean and thousands of kilometers stood between us, and in my brief visits back to the homeland, his presence was fleeting. Always caught up at work in a different city or trying to catch up on rest during the few days he was back home, his presence loomed at the door but never really stepped in.

Growing up, during the summers spent back home in Alexandria, all my cousins and I would cluster  by the door on Friday afternoon, waiting for him to arrive with promised bags of candy before the family dinner that evening. To us, he was the bearer of gifts, someone you spent your life waiting for.

When we lost him to COVID-19 in early 2021, I wondered: How do you grieve for someone you only knew through summer vacations and rare Facetime sessions, yet who occupied so much space in your heart? How do I grieve for someone whose name I carried in mine, whose personality I inherited, yet who nevertheless stayed an enigma to me? My gido was both family and stranger, someone I wanted to know more than I actually knew him.

Until recently, the answer was that I did not allow myself to grieve.

2020 had already been a year of personal, spiritual strife, a year when I desperately tried to hold on to familial religious beliefs that had stopped serving me when I was 15. Heaven and hell were at the core of every conversation in my family home, and the conversation around my gido’s death was no outlier. Every expression of loss was countered with the imperative to pray for his afterlife, ignoring the very real and present reality of human grief. The emphasis on the afterlife as a heaven/hell dichotomy was a source of great anxiety for me.

Still, I tried to deal with my gido’s passing using my already-failing spiritual belief system. But everywhere I turned, I felt that my grief had no place. The stress piled up: Not only was I his grandson who he barely saw, but I also felt spiritually deficient in my need to grieve.

Was I truly meant to simply move on from the hole he left in my life because he had “moved on to a better world”?

Like with many other questions in life, I decided to handle this by pretending my grief never existed; I spent an entire year acting like the passing of my gido had not shaken my world and made me question beliefs and traditions. I had long since turned to other things in my life when the moment that unlocked everything for me occurred.

I first heard Yehoshua November’s poem, “2AM, and the Rabbinical Students Stand in Their Bathrobes” in January 2022 — by then well on my way through my Jewish conversion — on the Poetry Unbound podcast. The title’s explicitly Jewish reference had intrigued me,  but it was upon reaching the fourth line that the magnitude of the poem truly struck me:

[…]Soon, it will be determined
the youngest student in the building
pulled the basement alarm
after learning, over the dormitory pay phone
his parents, back in Baltimore, intend to end
their nineteen year marriage before Passover.

I felt like November had stood in my room, held a mirror up to me and asked, “Have you pulled your alarm?”

That is what the outward expression of grief and sadness is: a fire alarm pulled in the middle of the night. It is a call to be found when the world shatters around us and the solid realities of life no longer appear so. One must act as if it were an emergency, because that is what it is. It is a crisis on so many levels, one that radiates outwards into our lives, toppling everything. A crisis of death or of grief becomes a religious crisis, which can become a personality crisis, and so on and so forth.

The distance portrayed in November’s poem spoke to me; the call from all the way back in Baltimore carried in it the resonance of the phone call I received as I stepped out for work early in 2021. The sense of displacement from the tragedy accentuates the calamity. Even if you could have fixed it, you cannot; you’re too far away.

The importance of sadness and grief are what drive the final lines of November’s poem forward:

And because the yeshiva caters to souls
but also bodies,
the early morning mysticism class
on why the Divine Presence cannot dwell
amongst those plagued by sadness
has been cancelled.

The cancellation of the class is not only an acknowledgment of the need for sadness to take place, but also a questioning of the very subject that the class aims to teach. Grief and sadness are both mercies — they are essential emotions we need to access in order to find resolution and peace in life. Casting them in a negative light, and implying that feeling them means you lack strength in your religious convictions,  serves no one well — and creates more problems than the one it seeks to fix.

Unbeknownst to me, that was exactly what I needed to hear. I needed someone to tell me to cancel that class in my life — that no matter the distance I felt from my grandfather, no matter my spiritual status, I needed to sound the alarm. That was the only way forward.

After encountering November’s poem, I have started to see sadness and grief, and all their outward expressions, as blessings. It is a blessing that I can sound the alarm and ask for my loved ones to gather around me. It is a blessing to love someone so much that their loss shakes the very pillars of your world.

Benyamin Rumi

Benyamin Rumi (he/him/his) is a third year student studying Linguistics and Religious Studies. He’s passionate about poetry and em dashes, hates prescriptive grammar and has spent his entire summer listening to “Lover, Lover, Lover” by Leonard Cohen.

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