Melting-Pot Dharma has been in a simmering phase as I took a long road trip over the Christmas holiday and now prepare for my seven-day retreat with Lama Surya Das. While on a break from daily blogging, I wanted to post something for the new year, always a time for reflection. But what to post? So much can be said this year about the world around us and the world within us.
The answer came from a young man’s cookie fortune and an old woman’s blue tattoo.
Many of you know that my son Thomas, 29, died seven months ago when he fell from his skateboard going down a steep hill in Charlottesville, Virginia, on his way home from drinking with friends. He was self-assured enough to ignore his friends’ pleas to share a taxi home, and to tackle that hill again, which had injured him badly once before. Behind his urban cool exterior, though, was a kind inner core that I’m sure would have preferred not to inflict grief on his friends and family.
The police gave my wife and me the few personal effects Thomas had on him when he died — his iPhone, earbuds, keys, wallet — in addition to his long board, which now resides at his favorite bistro. Three weeks after he died, I figured I might as well take the cash from his wallet, and as I did I found this one keepsake carefully placed:
I posted that photo on Facebook but totally forgot about it until Facebook yesterday sent me my most popular photos of the year. Thank you, Facebook, for the right kind of new year’s message. It has been a hurtful year for many around the world, and we need to be reminded of the cure.
Dina Jacobson, who died in 2014 at the age of 92, also had a stubborn self-assured streak, and she did her best to heal hurt with love. The Jewish concentration camp survivor had one of those blue tattooed serial numbers on her arm, the kind that I wrote about in a blog post in November. I learned about her thanks to two singer-songwriters.
After reading my blog post, my good friend Andrew McKnight told me about Joe Crookston, who writes and performs songs based on the true stories he hears from others. One of his songs, called Blue Tattoo, is about Dina.
One striking characteristic of Dina’s was her devotion to living with love and observing her Jewish faith despite her rejection of God. “How could there be a God?” asked the woman who saw babies tossed into pits to die and who saw one woman dragged by her hair to the gas chamber for singing the solemn Kol Nidre prayer. A spiritual leader in her congregation once said of Dina: “She doesn’t believe in God, and God understands.”
Dina did attend the synagogue every Saturday and rose to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. Observant Jews generally say that prayer once a year, on the anniversary of the death of a loved one. Dina said it every week for the six million killed by the Nazis.
And, until almost her death, Dina accepted the request of a local history teacher in New York State to speak to his classes about the holocaust, and she did so with honesty and love.
After Andrew told me about Joe and his song, I found Joe’s website, where I ordered a DVD of a documentary about Dina’s life and Joe’s song. I watched it last night, after being reminded yesterday morning about Thomas’s fortune. If you’d like to watch the DVD, you can buy it here.
Dina got married and had a daughter in a displaced person’s camp after the war. The family moved to New York State, and Joe’s song is his imagined conversation between Dina and her 4-year-old soon after they arrived and settled in. It speaks to me especially because I was born into a Jewish family in a Jewish neighborhood of Philadelphia in 1946, and from the age of four I was aware of the blue tattoos I saw around me and what they meant.
Some months ago, I decided that my next tattoo will be serial numbers on my forearm, as a statement of solidarity with all victims of genocide. But I didn’t know what numbers to use. After watching the documentary, I’ve decided to use Dina’s, 82779.
I hope Joe’s song speaks to you, too. And I hope that in 2016 we all spread the healing grace of love. There’s no better way to honor the spirit of Dina, and Thomas, and all those who have left us.
Copyright 2015 © Mel Harkrader Pine