1) There are those who believe that in Jerusalem, the layer between dreams and reality are thinner, as if there's some cosmic connection between that place and a plane that we don't understand. In some people, this manifests as a belief in their own prophecy. Whether you're calling it supernatural, mystical, or collective unconscious, there's something special about the place.
2) My mother, Shulamit, was grandmother to four grandchildren: Gil, Dov, Julia and Ella. She loved them all equally, with all of her heart. But the first one, Gil, was the one who transformed her from "just" our mother into "Savta Shuly."
Now, the story.
While I was in Jerusalem, three weeks after the passing of my mother, these things kept happening to and around me that made me feel her presence: walking down the street in Jerusalem, at the daily minyanim I attended to say kaddish, in erev Shabbat breezes that seemed to blow air straight into my lungs in a way that made me gasp, in angels who appeared in human form to help me when I was crying during services, and in one particular case, in a carton of rugelach.
This year, I could hear the voice of my mother echoing: they're too fattening, why go to the trouble of packing them, we don't need them, don't bother. So the plan was to skip it this year. My family didn't need them, and I could use the space in the suitcase for something else. Thanks, Ema.
But then I ran into some friends on Emek Refaim. (It is a statistical impossibility for me not to run into friends on Emek Refaim.) Their destination: Marzipan bakery, to buy rugelach. You can't fight fate, I figured, and decided to join them. Once in the store, I went to the counter and asked if there was some sort of special plastic box that people used to bring the pastries to America. "Betach! (of course!)," said the counter person. He handed me a plastic box with a fliptop lid that was a bit sturdier than the paper box that most people use to transport their rugelach. And with a smile, he looked at me and said, "HaSavta shel Gil."
I almost dropped the box. I must have heard him wrong. He couldn't possibly have said "Gil's grandmother." That made no sense. I had to ask him to repeat himself. "What did you say?" The same smile came back at me, and he repeated: "HaSavta shel Gil." "Gil's grandmother." Still disbelieving, I asked him what he meant. He explained that there was a local woman who used to come in and buy rugelach to bring to the United States to share with her grandchildren, including one called Gil. So in her honor, they called those plastic fliptop lid containers "HaSavta shel Gil."
To say I was freaked out was an understatement. I couldn't process it. I told the friends whom I had accompanied and they agreed that this story was bizarre. When I later told my friend Lindsay about the story, I burst into tears. "You understand what this means, right Esther? It's your mother giving you a hug on your last day in Jerusalem." And in that moment, I really felt this was true.
Before and since that event, there had been signs. A friend echoing verbatim one of my mother's favorite things about Jerusalem: that Hillel and Shammai Streets are parallel and never meet. A woman claiming I looked familiar, introducing herself as Shulamit, and then vanishing before the end of services. And even back here in unholy L.A., at Friday night services in the midst of a particularly dark moment, when I wondered "how long is this going to last?" a congregant appeared with a Hebrew tattoo circling his right arm: "Gam zeh ya'avor." This too shall pass. My mother said this often, in acceptance of the things she could not change, but with the knowledge that all her pains - and all things, really - are temporary.
I don't know if signs are real. I don't know if they find us to save us when we need them most, or if we manufacture them for ourselves, seeing what we need to see even if it isn't really there. I don't know if an English major, a writer, sees more symbolism in daily things than can possibly be there. But the relativity of meaning demands a personal relationship with each of the things we experience every day. And my experiences during this time, as weird or unlikely or cosmic or kismet or overstated or meaningful or improbable or spiritual or invented or supernatural as they might be, are the tethers that bind me to memories of my mother and to my responsibilities to my present. This new normal lacks her physical presence, but the spiritual connection remains, asserting itself in small and unexpected ways, and inspiring me to move forward, even when it's really difficult to do so.
The voice of God is not in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire, but in these still, small voices within us that speak up and say "this means something." Whether these voices are real or perceived because they're so desperately needed, it may not matter. What matters are the connections that link our pasts to our futures, and how those links inspire us to achieve a relative equilibrium in the new normal.