I was 16 when my father died. I barely remember the funeral, other than I was very self-conscious about how much I should be crying. Was I crying loud enough? It was louder than my sister, but not very many people were crying loudly. Wasn’t that disrespectful?
Afterwards at the shiva, all of my dad’s childhood friends and neighbors who I was meeting for the first time competed over who had the coolest stories to tell me. I pretended to be interested. I was really interested in what my great-grandfather was doing. A 98-year-old man kneeling on the floor in the living room chanting in Hebrew and probably Yiddish. I can still hear it. Sobbing, wailing, rocking back and forth, chanting.
That’s what I wanted to be doing. It seemed like that was the right thing to do in this situation. To be fully expressive, allowing the tears to flow and the voice to crack while wailing through a portal to the divine. I just didn’t know how.
Afterward, I didn’t talk about my dad’s death with anyone, including my mom or sister, for nearly 4 years. At that point I told a few close friends in college. It wasn’t easy, but I didn’t want to hide any longer. It was a slow unfolding, as I became more and more comfortable answering the question, “Where do your parents live?” with “My mom lives in Colorado, and my dad passed away when I was 16.” Before I would just say “Colorado”, as if they were both living. It got more complicated when I was asked what they do for work, but I still figured out ways to not talk about it. It felt forbidden to go there.
It’s not the fault of my teachers or family or guidance counselors or friends that no one tried to bring up my dad. It’s not their fault that they looked away from pain and suffering. We live in a society of disconnect. We all come from ancestral lineages who, at some point, had to look away from pain. While my great grandfather, Abe, was wailing, he was connecting with a long lineage of ancestors waiting to greet my dad on the other side. Ancestors there to support the grieving.
This was a gift to witness. It felt like an ancient ritual that was missing from modern life. This gift from my elder, now an ancestor himself, has led me to look deeper into my ancestry. It led me to question how certain patterns in my life connect back to my ancestral roots. I found that by exploring this ancestry, I was able to find healing from long held grief and past traumas.
Abe was of a generation connected to the old ways and the new. He and his family moved here from Ukraine when he was a child. He was raised knowing the old language, but many of the traditions were lost, hidden. For the Ashkenazi Jews of the Russian Revolution, hiding was a theme. Hiding and fleaing from pogroms was a fact of life. These patterns are passed down in our DNA. They present differently in different individuals. Our own personalities plus environmental influences from our upbringings influence how this need to hide presents.
I wasn’t taught to connect with my ancestors. To look to them for guidance and support. Most of us weren’t. My journey of ancestral connection began with sheer curiosity. I made family trees and I called the oldest living relatives I could find to ask questions about their upbringing and memories of their parents.
“My parents thought that the streets in the US would be paved with gold!” said Rosalee, Abe's sister.
I didn’t get much information about life as an Ashkenazi Jew in Eastern Europe. Their ways, their recipes, prayers, spells and rituals were left behind for the land to hold and remember.
My path towards ancestral connection has been guided by various experiences: moon rituals, power animal journeys, meditation, and chanting to name a few.
One that’s been very present for the past 10 years is connection with plants. The land holds memories; water and plants hold memories. We are formed by the elements of the earth. Our ancestors' memories are held within our blood and bones.
Ashkenazi Herbalism, a book that I’ve read and referenced repeatedly, elaborates on this concept: “When you consider our ancestors’ relationship with plants for healing and sustenance, over thousands of years, it makes sense that our bodies, on a physical level at the very least, would have traces of the essences that contributed so much to our well-being.” These essences or memories are awakened when I connect with plants that I know they used: nutmeg, violets, nettles, elecampane.
Elecampane is a powerful plant. Among their many uses, the root is used in treating respiratory illness and strengthening the lungs. They help to expel mucus from the lungs, while also treating cough and soothing the throat. I used their root in a ritual after my paternal grandfather died. My dad’s dad, and Abe’s son. I spread their chopped up root in my garden and felt as if this connection they have to the lungs, the breath, spurred a gathering of the ancestors, to guide my grandfather to the other side. I finally felt connected and supported by my ancestors.
While I still don’t know the old rituals, I’ve created new ones. They’re powerful and unique and ancestors recognize them even though they’re different.
I have a garden and each year expand the medicinals, focusing on native or naturalized (often ancestral) species. When I plant seeds and see them sprout, I feel my Jewish ancestors' pain being acknowledged, validated. When I harvest leaves and roots I feel immense gratitude for the choices they made. When I’m stirring a pot of elderberry syrup, I feel my wise woman ancestors gently guiding the way. When I sit among the wildflowers, I know I can exhale my grief, and that the earth and ancestors will gladly hold it for me.
At The Well uplifts many approaches to Jewish practice. Our community draws on ancient Jewish wisdom, sometimes adapting longstanding practices to more deeply support the well-being of women and nonbinary people. See this article’s sources below. We believe Torah (sacred teachings) are always unfolding to help answer the needs of the present moment.
Wall Kimmerer, Robin. Braiding Sweetgrass. Milkweed Editions, 2013.
Ma’aseh Toviyyah, ashkenaziherbalism.net
Cohen, Deatra, and Adam Siegel. Ashkenazi Herbalism. North Atlantic Books, 2021.
Wilkins, Jacqui. “Elecampane_Monograph_2022.” Exploratory Herbal Mentorship, 10/25/2022, Xalish Medicines. Class handout.