Mayim MishegaasMayim Mishegaas

Sounding the Shofar, Running From Grief

Mayim's reflections on Rosh Hashanah
By Mayim Bialik     Published on 09/22/2015 at 9:18 AM EST
Rooftop shofar (screencap from "Hallelujah" music video by Judeo for IKAR:
Rooftop shofar (screencap from “Hallelujah” music video by Judeo for IKAR)

Oh, Grief. You thought you had me, didn’t you? For five months since my father passed, you have had me in your clutches. You toyed with me. First you hid in the shadows, and then after three months you had your coming-out party, didn’t you? You thrashed me against the rocks like a teeny tiny boat. You really tore me apart last month, Grief.

Well, I fooled you on Rosh Hashanah, didn’t I? I pulled out my own tricks. I one-upped you, Grief. I ran from you and then I went numb. I got you! Ha!

It didn’t happen consciously. I didn’t plan it. I didn’t even really see it coming.

Grief, I had tricks you didn’t even know about. You see, I planned a big meal. I hosted eight people for Rosh Hashanah dinner. And I did this amidst construction in my living room and kitchen. I didn’t let that stop me because I was on a mission.

Do, do, do. Make things. Cook things. Bake things. Make lists of groceries and buy them and use them. Set the table with plates pulled from boxes from storage – I don’t even have enough plates for the guests I had, but I made it work. I had to. I braided challah until my hands ached. I sliced and diced vegetables and I sautéed and I roasted and I had my boys make name cards for everyone. Everything was perfect.

You couldn’t catch me, Grief. Because I was running fast from you.

Everyone ate and everyone enjoyed. We laughed, and they all laughed and chatted while I cleaned up and did the dishes and hurried everyone out the door. And then I slept and I had my kids with me and I love them so much in their little dress slacks and sneakers and new collared shirts.

And then came the day of Rosh Hashanah, and I pulled out my other trick when I went to shul. I pulled out my trick of numbness. Amidst the sounds of my shofar, I went numb to run from you, Grief.

For the past 26 years (with a few misses because of having just given birth), I have been the Baalat Tekiyah (the “Owner” of the Shofar blast, as it were) for whatever synagogue I have spent Rosh Hashanah in. The shofar is a ceremonial ram’s horn instrument that we use to trumpet in the new year in Judaism. Because I am a trumpet player, blowing shofar comes pretty easily to me, and I get tremendous joy from providing this service for our community. (The religious complexities of being a female shofar blower are for another post, but suffice it to say, I am comfortable with my decision for this year.)

So I sat in synagogue with my ex and our sons and I held my shofar tight. I held it so tight and I waited my turn to blow the blasts that have been sounded for thousands of years. I held it so tight that there was no room for you to slide in there, Grief. You couldn’t touch me.

And then I went numb and I didn’t let you touch me even when you tried. Four times I was called up to the bimah with my mighty shofar, and four times I sounded call, after call, after call, after call.

Tekiyah: the strong simple announcement, typically held for a count of nine; Shevarim-Teruah: three medium-length blasts, followed by no fewer than nine short harsh blasts; Teruah: just nine blasts.

Three times I had to sound Tekiyah Gedolah: one long blast for as long as you can hold it. I tend to hover around 20 seconds, my son tells me.

Every time I lifted that shofar, it was for my father. But not for you, Grief.

Tekiyah, designed to wake people up, was waking them up to my sadness and my pain.

The Shevarim-Teruah was crying, moaning: Was it a woman in labor? Was it a woman who had just lost her child in war? Or was it a daughter who had just lost her father?

Teruah was urgent and angry.

And when I started to feel my lips failing me, I drew on the strength of my core; my stomach was made to support my breath, I knew that. My posture could be improved ever so slightly to support the weight of my breath. I had things to do to support my breath. Death can not take them from me, and Grief, you can not take them from me and I will not let you.

Tekiyah Gedolah, the longest blast, was a test. A challenge. What is left of you now that he has been taken from me and from this earth? What can you do? How long can you do it for? And when the sound would waver as the breath came out of me and I felt my face turn hot and I started to feel like I might pass out, I knew I had to keep it going. I had more in me. I have more in me than you thought, Grief. This year it was close to 30 seconds long. The longest and strongest I have ever blown.

I felt you trying to get to me in the quiet moments in synagogue, Grief. When everyone was singing so happily, so freilach, I knew that wasn’t my joy. Not today. That was theirs and I was left out. You did that to me, Grief. But on Rosh Hashanah, I just went numb and I pushed that all away. The tears came and I wiped them away and I focused on the next blasts. I wasn’t sad. I was not sad. No way. Not me.

Do you see how I ran from you, Grief? I ran so fast.

And then Rosh Hashanah ended. And like a helium balloon, I lost my air. I drifted down from my numb hiding place on the ceiling and I came down through the rafters of my life and my existence and I hovered over the floor, swaying and drifting, lost and lonely.

And then I landed, like a sad deflated balloon. And there is nothing left to lift me up. No chemical reaction can make helium return to me. It would take a brand new tank of gas to get this balloon up again.

I got hit with a wicked cold the day after Rosh Hashanah. Sickest I’ve been in years. Laid low. Sobbing and blubbering about how sick I was and crying for my father as I lay in bed with nothing to do and nowhere to go and no one to hold me named Abba.

You found me, Grief. I knew you would. I tried to hold you off and I succeeded. My busying myself with hosting a meal. And my shofar was so clever and strong and beautiful; “inspired,” the Rabbi told me.

But now I see it. My cries of pain and sadness were you, Grief, weren’t they?

I thought I was hiding and numb and busy but really that’s you too, isn’t it? You’re that, too. I just didn’t know it until now.

You found me, Grief. Just as I have found you. Again and again and again. We are dancing, aren’t we? Who is leading, Grief?

Who is leading?

(This is part of an ongoing series by Mayim Bialik chronicling her journey through the year of mourning following her father’s death in April 2015. For previous pieces in this series,  click here.)

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