27 May 2011

Lose Your Head::Get a New One

sally, rico, lu, mitch, steve, sarah, jon
Some rainy afternoon about five years ago I had one of those Walter Benjamin-like cinematic moments driving through a cemetery where I saw myself as a character in my own movie.  The Mekons "Orpheus" was playing on the iPod and as the car rolled past the headstones the band sang "Lose Your Head!"  Rico Bell's accordion playing beneath it all.   "In the water, hear me singing, as my head swirls through the brine:  Lose Your Head!"

No doubt:  the earth at some of these burial plots is quite salty.

Today, however, in the seemingly still heat of a late Friday in May, while laying to rest an eighty-year one year old who had earlier in the week taken his last breath, a brisk and sudden breeze entered the cemetery from God knows where and at the very moment I was attempting to assist the mourners in the labor of covering the casket with rocky clods of earth, my own celestial head, made by hand with threads of browns and blacks and whites and purchased, three years ago, in a small religious bookstore in Jerusalem, tumbled off my head like a wayward, instantly disabled spaceship, and its disk flipped downward into the ground.

Not even the cold, cold ground of a Johnny Cash song but the hot earth, quickened into its summery realm by the threatening sun.  My kippa bounced off the coffin, folded itself in half next to the deceased, and there, with hardly a chance to bid me adieu, was instantly covered by a shovelful of land, like styrofoam popcorn, gentle padding for a gift being sent from one address to another.

I prayed at sunrise on Masada with this kippa; buried dozens; taught and learned underneath its benevolent shade; blessed bread and babies in its shadow of peace and love.  I used to tilt it forward on some days, gangsta, and on others, like a willing and humble supplicant, kick it to the back of the head, feeling, in the rarest of moments, worthy and radiant with awe.

I've welcomed the Shabbat, rejoiced in each Festival, led Seders, and recently, threw it across the room in anger and disgust at myself for losing my temper with my children.  "Lose Your Head" indeed.

There was no time to reflect on this moment.  In fact, I pretended it didn't happen.  And while others across the span kept filling in the hole from their side of the grave, I did my part on my side.  The symmetry was reflection enough.

When the burial was complete, the mourners approached me.  "Rabbi," they asked, "Can you say some prayers at these other graves, where our relatives are buried."  I humbly obliged.  Prayers for a dead mother.  Prayers for dead grandparents.  I could see that the moment was being felt deeply, celebrated, even, in the recognition that we all have when we get to our family plots:  we don't visit enough and time is running out.

Walking toward my car I passed the funeral director.  "I lost my kippa down in the grave," I said, kind of laughing.  "Oh my God," she said, "What does it mean?"

I picked up my 8 year old at school about 90 minutes later and told her what happened.  "I know that store in Jerusalem, Dad.  Let's go get another one this summer."

That's what it means:  Sometimes in life you lose your head; and sometimes, if you're fortunate, you get another chance to get a new one.

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