Growing a Heart of Wisdom Part 1: The Necessity of Grieving

Clouds over Dubrovnik

Clouds over Dubrovnik

An October morning in Dubrovnik. Clouds have been layering over the perfect blue horizon since sunrise— feathers drifting towards Italy in the west, splatters of white floating north to Slovenia, and small cream puffs piling up like tiny French wedding cakes in the south over Bosnia. Sitting here with two pillows plumped behind my back, I am living one of my childhood dreams, lazing in bed and gazing out at the endless sky.

Another day in Paradise, Paul announces, coming in to tickle my feet so I’ll get out of bed and join him for tea. He’s looking crisp in his khakis and sports jacket, already finished breakfast. I pad into the living room in my pajamas as he’s packing up his computer for a quick stroll to a branch of the University of Zagreb. He’s here for a conference on climate change sponsored by the Norwegian government and an assortment of other governmental agencies, including the European Union. I’m here as the Spouse.

What are you doing today?
No idea, I wave airily. Maybe the beach.

It’s great. I’ve always wanted to be The Spouse (for short shifts). Marvelous open spaces of no plans, cloud gazing, not knowing where I’ll walk or if I’ll even bother to leave our little balcony for the town below. Time out of time. Whereabouts unknown. In the cool of the evening, I dress up a bit and make my way down the 350 stone steps leading to the sea. There’s a kind of esplanade along the water that leads into the immense stones of the Pile Gate. From there it’s an easy walk to meet Paul and his colleagues, academics and media people from across Europe and Africa, at one of the open air restaurants along the water.

But you know how sometimes what is so good at one level, so shining and bright, can have a cold, dark current running at a deeper level? I’m feeling that now. It’s about a war that officially ended in 1995. Paul and I were here seven years after that war when Dubrovnik’s walls were still pock marked with shells from their Serbian neighbors, in the course of the six constituent republics of Yugoslavia tearing themselves apart. We had travelled to Croatia for a peace conference when peace was still shaky and uncertain. And later, as we drove north through the small towns of the Dalmatian Coast into Slovenia, we felt shaken too. Off balance. On the surface, we saw freshly painted houses and repaired roads. But – how to say this? – we felt blood from the killings pooled on the streets. Our eyes saw only bright new beginnings yet our hearts seemed to be shredding apart. We drove with our friend Bernard, a Belgian finance expert not known for his emotionality, but all of us felt this underlying, disorienting grief.

Now, fifteen years later, travel agencies offer special bus trips to Mostar, Montenegro, Ljublijana. In the advertisements, one sees buildings that exploded on the TV news in the 90’s intact as if nothing had ever happened. Most notably, the exquisite arch of Stari Most, the bridge built by Suleiman the Magnificent and intentionally destroyed by the Bosnian Croats, has been fully reconstructed with funds from a coalition of governments. Once again, young men leap from the recovered stone walls into the shocking cold Neretva River in diving competitions four hundred years old.

The people have moved on, I tell myself. Get over it. Leathery-skinned old women in bikinis gossip on the beach, young couples neck under the awnings, and old men smoke and shout at each other over miniscule cups of cappuccino at the roadside cafes. The cars are relatively new and the shelves of the local food stores are well stocked.

I try to figure this out: why I am having such a hard time letting go of the past when all around me the Croatians are going on with their lives?

It’s because I’m a tourist, I think. Just passing through. I haven’t caught up with where things are now because I haven’t grieved the losses that were suffered here.

I didn’t know I needed to.

How do you know what you have to grieve? Surely you can’t grieve every war that shows up on the news, I tell myself. A cruise ship’s horn startles me with loud, mournful blast. It’s calling the passengers to hurry back because the boat will be leaving soon. Again and again the horn blares, long and heavy. Grieving is grieving, it seems to say. Who are you to decide what you should and should not mourn? The soul feels what feels. If you turn away from that, you turn away from yourself, from your humanity.

Where did I get the idea that I shouldn’t mourn? Or only mourn for
certain things and not others? From my family, of course, but not only from them. Our modern culture tends to believe that grieving is something to get over as soon as possible, that it serves no good purpose to feel the ache of losses and grieve for the ways we suffer or cause suffering. The best medicine, we’re told, is to cheer up and move on, as if moving on and grieving were mutually exclusive.

Yesterday I got a strong dose of this medicine.

Steps to synagogue

Steps to synagogue

I’d found my way in the Old City to Zudioska ulica, Jew’s Street, on one of the alleyways leading off the Stradun, the main promenade. Getting directions in a pizza shop, I arrived at #5, an old house with a sign announcing Sinagoga, 15 kuna. Mounting the steep stairs to the second floor, I gave my kuna to a bored looking young man who handed me a ticket.

“What time are Shabbat services this week?” I asked, thinking I’d like to come and sing the prayers in Hebrew with Croatians.
“No services,” he said.
“No services?”
“Only on High Holidays.”

I wanted to make some contact with him. (Hey, hello. Are you Jewish? What’s it like living here? I’m Jewish too. I grew up in New Jersey.)
I figured that was way too over friendly American and tried for something more neutral.
“How large is the Jewish community?”
“Forty-five.”
“So no rabbi?”
“No rabbi,” he replied in the same flat voice. And finally, to get rid of me, “Go up to the synagogue first then come down to the museum on this floor.”

Everything is so smooth in Dubrovnik, worn with age like the medieval paving stones on the promenade and the satin banisters in the churches. The wooden stairs going up to the third storey synagogue are smooth, and so is the railing I hold as I climb the final stairs to the women’s section at the very top of the house. Looking down, I can see the central bimah, elevated, with hanging brass oil lamps above it. Around the sides, high dark wooden seats are built into the walls. The guidebook tells me that in 1652 this house was turned into a synagogue, about a hundred years after the Dubrovnik Republic “allowed Jews to settle within the city ramparts.”

I sit for awhile in the women’s section and then descend to the main floor, wandering around and touching the cool dark wood. I wonder what to do in this sad, empty shell of a synagogue with no people who worship here. Where did everybody go? And how come the city of Dubrovnik has made such a big deal of preserving this house? A red headed woman with tortoise shell eyeglasses interrupts my musings with her flash camera, ignoring a sign with a slash line across a camera. I head downstairs to the museum.

Two very old Torahs lie open in a glass cabinet. A sign says that they date from the 13th to the 17th centuries and “bear witness to Dubrovnik’s Jewish community throughout six centuries of history.” I’m a bit shocked to see these venerable Torahs displayed as if they were commodities and not portals to a living faith. (I get just as upset at anthropology museums that fill their cabinets with ceremonial feather fans and sacred medicine pipes.)

I want to take whoever immured these Torahs and shake them till their heads rattle. Instead I sigh and move on to the next exhibit. Suddenly what has happened here breaks in on me. I’m looking at a yellow arm band with a black star of David printed on it. The next exhibit is the order for confiscation of Jewish books, and after that the order for confiscation of Jewish property, and then the deportation order for all Jews from the city of Dubrovnik. I’m crying now and the red haired lady with the camera has come in and is hugging me. Telling me it is okay and there is no point in crying and I should stop. Look, she says, I see it this way. The synagogue is still here. We’re still here. You have to let the past go.

She leaves but I can’t seem to stop crying. There is no place to sit down so I put on my sunglasses and go out past the kid who is taking tickets. Take care, he says, not in a monotone. I go outside and sit on the stone steps and I’m still crying when a white haired man with a plummy British accent comes over and tells me we must move on. You have to let it go, he says. Not unkindly. Just sure that what he is telling me is something I need to hear. Then he pats me on the shoulder and walks away.

I keep crying on the stone steps outside the second oldest synagogue in Europe for as long as I need to. A good long time. Not only for my people but for the Croatian people and the Serbs and the Bosnians, for the Muslim women who were raped in the concentration camps and for the Roma and the men who raped them, and for the children who will carry the marks of these wars and most likely pass them on to their children. I’m crying for all of us and the wars we make on each other because as Biff says in Death of a Salesman, Attention must be paid. And as he doesn’t say but I would add, because we must grieve whatever comes to us as a sorrow. We have to let our tears flow so that we don’t become so calloused that we lose touch with our raw and beautiful hearts, with the core of what it means to be human.

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  1. Lela Faye Rich says:

    I am weeping. Thank you.

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