Growing a Heart of Wisdom Part 2: Calling the Ancestors

Clouds over Frankfurt

Clouds over Frankfurt

Settling into my window seat on a short flight from Amsterdam to Frankfurt, I end up deep in conversation with a man in horn rims sitting next to me. I’d intended to hide behind the pages of the Herald Tribune but couldn’t resist his open, almost eager face. He’s Greek, he told me, a music professor fresh from teaching in Brooklyn and on his way to Frankfurt to learn how to conduct an orchestra. He tells me his name, Nichos something, and asks for mine. Sherry, I say.

“What about your last name,” he asks. “I am very interested in names. I make a kind of study of them.”

I tell him that my last name doesn’t mean anything to me. My parents changed our name when I was twelve. I think they wanted something that sounded more American.

“Same with me,” he says, “no link either. My father changed our name when he lived in Austria so he would fit in better, wouldn’t sound so Greek.”

In the way of strangers who tell each other intimate things, I find myself talking to Nichos about the list of names I read last month on a wall in Dubrovnik. “I was wandering through an old synagogue,” I tell him, “wondering where everyone had gone. Then I walked downstairs and found a scroll with names.”

I describe how two vines covered with thorns curled down the scroll, and at the bottom, under the dates 1941-1944, a small sign read, Died in the Holocaust. I don’t tell him how I couldn’t stop crying. But because he leans forward to hear my words over the plane’s roar and his eyes are kind, I say that I wanted to read the names out loud, to recite them like a prayer or a blessing.
I don’t mention that last part about the prayer either. I’m trying to monitor the intimacy a little, not just blurt out my whole inner process to a guy I don’t even know.

“Names are important,” he says. “Sometimes I go to old cemeteries when I’m in Greece to recite the names carved into the headstones.”

I like to go to cemeteries too. I’ve been doing it since my thirties when I started to notice the intense chatter in my mind and long for silence. And if the cemetery is Jewish and no one is around, I chant prayers for the ancestors, a bit like Nichos reciting the names. It just feels companionable, but not something I want to discuss with a stranger at 60,000 feet. There seems to be nothing left to say so I turn to gazing out at the vast fields of clouds.

“Sometimes names have to be hidden.”

Nichos says this easily, breaking the silence as if we’d continued talking all the while. And then he tells me a story that he heard from his mother when he was a small boy in Delphi.

The story is about the island of Zakynthos at the time of the Nazi occupation in 1943. “Almost as soon as the army marched onto the island,” he told me, “the commander demanded a list of all the Jews living on the island.”

“That’s what happened in Dubrovnik, too,” I say. “The Nazis were obsessed with sending Jews to the death camps in Poland.”
“Yes, but in this case the Mayor said he’d need several days to put a list together. In the meantime, he and the Bishop sent word to the people of the island and within days, all 275 Jews were safely hidden in rural mountain villages. And every one of them survived the occupation.”

“But what about the Nazi commandant?  He must have insisted on getting that list of names.”

“Oh yes. The Mayor and the Bishop got together on that. They handed the list over to the commandant a week later. It had only two names on it— Mayor Lucas Karrer and Bishop Chrysostomos.”

*     *     *

It’s been about a month now and Nichos’ story, together with the list of names I saw in the Dubrovnik synagogue, seem to have formed themselves into koan that won’t go away.
I’m not even sure of the question, except that there is something haunting about Nichos reciting the names on headstones and his story about Zakynthos and my wanting to chant the names on the scroll as if they were words in a prayer. There seems to be something I need to engage with that I keep passing over, something about calling the names.

Scroll of those who died in the Holocaust

Scroll of those who died in the Holocaust

I have what I suppose you could call a clue. It’s a photograph I took on the day I left Dubrovnik, on a quick trip I made to the Old City to take another look at the scroll. When I got to the synagogue, I felt an almost irresistible impulse to pull the scroll off the wall, bundle it up in velvet wrappings and run with it out the door and into the street, clutching it to my chest as if it were a sacred Torah and I were its rescuer. Fortunately, some shred of sanity prevailed and I rummaged through my backpack for my cell phone and merely snapped a (forbidden) photo. Then, a little shaken, I hurried down the stairs into the Adriatic sunshine to pick up Paul and catch a cab to the airport.

Once I got home, I kept bringing the photo up on my computer screen to peer at it, as if it held some answer to the question I didn’t know how to ask. Last week I started to wonder about the Hebrew writing on either side of the scroll. It looked like it must be from Torah passages. Yesterday I emailed my nephew, a rabbi in L.A., to find out.

“The Hebrew is just the names on the scroll written out and placed as if they were in a Torah to give them more sanctity,” he wrote back. “Hope that is helpful.”

Oh. I blew up the photo on the computer screen and looked at it more closely. And then slowly, without thinking about it, I began sounding out the Hebrew letters one by one, the names stumbling out with my halting pronunciation, the way I read prayers as a child. I never learned to read smoothly without the vowel markings, so as I read the names from the Hebrew letters, I had to go back and forth to the Latin alphabet to get them right. I did this stubbornly, wanting the feel the names in my mouth taking their form out of the Hebrew letters: Salamon Baruh.  Mosi Tolentino.  Rafael Tolentino. Josef Berner…  I called the names of the ones who were taken away.

Depth charges seemed to be setting themselves off inside my body like distant resonating links beyond time and space.

Names as prayers. Names as blessings. Saying the names from a sanctity seemed to be opening the koan that had lodged itself inside me.

I remembered how, in the Zen Center where I lived for several years, we would wake every morning to the sound of the great iron bell and file into the dharma room to call the names of our teacher and his teacher through our lineage of awakened masters tracing our connection back to the Buddha. A rabbi I know, Leah Novick, does this in her own way. She recites the names of the women who have guided and loved her, beginning with her own mother and grandmothers, and continuing on in a great circle of interconnection to her aunties and friends and her own teachers throughout her lifetime.

Joanna Macy, the Buddhist teacher and activist, calls the names of her lineage like this: Horned Owl, Grey Wolf, Seal, Raccoon, Tiger, Great Sequoia. She does this not only as an affirmation of the web of life, she says, but to o so she can bear to feel her grief and her love for the ones who have disappeared from the Earth and so she can find the courage to speak out for the sake of the children yet to come.

As I approach 70, I want to join those resonating links of connection. I want to take my place as a lineage carrier, calling the names on the Dubrovnik scroll, and those of the Mayor and the Bishop of Zakynthos and the names they kept secret and remembering all those who hid their names or changed their names and all those women whose names have been forgotten. I want those names not just to resonate but to reverberate so that their sounds do not end abruptly. I want them to continue, to reach beyond the boundaries of time to the unlimited, the unbounded, ringing through the world we have now into the world to come and the limitless mystery that is our true name.

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With boundless gratitude to webmaster Alla Gringaus (email: who not only designed and built this site but has been the most inspiring of teachers in her meticulous and gracious guidance into the mysteries of the internet. And, also, a special thanks to Heather Preston, whose work on the cover of Ripening Time inspired the artistic theme of my site