Elul: Recommitting to Imperfection

A stone archway carved with the words "Workmen's Circle" marks the entrance to a graveyard. Most of the visible graves have inscriptions in both Yiddish and English.

Elul is a time of reflection. We take account of our year, the highs and lows, and for any harms we’ve caused we begin the process of teshuvah.

Teshuvah is often translated as “repentance,” though it means something closer to “return.” And while we take steps to recognize, desist from, and make reparation for our actions, we also circle back to the place we were — the people we were — this time last year.

Before I rush headlong into the new year, I want to take a moment to revisit the intentions I set last Tishrei when I first started this blog.

I began by discussing the shmita year, now drawing to a close — the last year in our seven-year cycle, when all debts are forgiven and the fields lie fallow. I committed to writing monthly, to not letting the perfect stand in the way of the good, and to sharing the culmination of my thoughts and research gleaned from working on my MFA thesis novel.

All of this, as I should have expected, was easier said than done.

I didn’t lose my perfectionism overnight. I still found it difficult to start and ended up posting toward the end of the month more often than at the beginning — that I’m sharing this on the last day of Elul is a case-in-point.

Lucky for me, the shmita year isn’t about perfection. It’s about relief, about grace — and I found myself growing kinder, more understanding of the time it took for my ideas to ripen. During shmita, we don’t plant new seeds, we only harvest the fruits of what’s already grown. There is, by definition, no rushing things.

Sometimes the procrastination pays off. I started writing this post three weeks ago, before I knew that I’d be participating in the Elul ritual I most wanted to share about.

For centuries, Jewish women in Eastern Europe measured cemeteries and graves with thread. They used the threads to make special neshome likht [soul candles], or in some cases, protection bands worn around the wrists, ankles, or neck. Often carried out by experienced women known as feldmesterins, who were also often paid for their work, feldmestn [cemetery measuring] and kneytlekh leygn [laying wicks] were most commonly performed during Elul, to make soul candles for Yom Kippur. Yet they also turned to the practice at other times when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead seemed to be thinning. Even today, with all of our science, all of our knowledge, ritual technology still anchors us in times of vulnerability.

Excerpt from Annabel Cohen, ‘Gravewalkers’, in Mendola (ed.) Strange Fire: Jewish Voices from the Pandemic (Ben Yehuda, 2021)

I knew about feldmestn from research I’d done in the process of writing my book. It seemed to fit perfectly — one character, Elie, has the power to thin the veil between the living and the dead — and so I incorporated it into a scene in which she and her cousin measure the circumference of an ancestor’s grave with cotton thread to make protective candles with the lengths of wick.

I found out about a group headed to Queens to practice feldmestn through pure serendipity — on a mindless doom scroll through Instagram, the day before the event took place.

Some further serendipities:

  • I’d promised to spend the day making cyanotype prints with my cousin for a craft market, but an overcast and drizzly morning canceled those plans.
  • I arrived to discover that one of the event organizers was Annabel Cohen, the researcher whose writings had provided the background for my fictional scenes.
  • Annie had selected a particular section of the cemetery for us to measure: that belonging to the Worker’s Circle, the Jewish socialist organization with whom I’d connected the previous day for the NYC Labor Day March.
  • Buried in this plot was Morris Rosenfeld, whose Yiddish poem commemorating the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire I’d learned to sing with my Yiddishkayt fellowship cohort this summer.
Don’t look for me where flowers bloom!
You will not find me there, my dear;
At the machines where lives are wasted,
That is where I rest, my dear.

Don’t look for me where birds are singing!
You will not find me there, my dear;
I am a slave, where chains are ringing,
That is where I rest, my dear.

Don’t look for me where fountains play!
You will not find me there, my dear;
Where tears are running, teeth are grinding,
That is where I rest my dear.

But if you love me, truly love me,
Then come and find me there, my dear!
And lift my heart out of the gloom
And make my resting place more sweet.

So there I was, singing the one Yiddish song I knew with a group of twenty strangers, practicing a ritual I’d only engaged with through fiction, with the researcher who’d inspired me… Serendipity doesn’t feel like a strong enough word.

We wrapped Morris Rosenfeld’s grave, as well as the graves of Sholem Aleichem and Vladimir Medem, and measured the circumference of the Workers Circle plot. I’ll be joining the group again in the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to turn those wicks into candles. In the meantime, I carry them in my pocket.

In the spirit of Elul, in recommitment to my intention of sharing without worrying about perfect, I want to share the scene I first wrote over a year ago. Even though what I was trying to write was real magic — fantasy magic — it somehow captures pretty well how I felt tracing the outlines of those graves.

I’ve edited it to remove spoilers, and this probably isn’t its final form, as I’m still working on revisions — but that’s too much preface already.

Chava takes the loose end of the wick, spinning it out billowing from the ball in Elie’s hands. She kisses it, then touches it to Perl’s name. Elie looks down at the white thread, then the herbs struggling to sprout through the gravel. There’s a small patch of them behind the tomb, butter-yellow flowers of mullein, pale-veined leaves of plantain. Life that sprouts amid death, Chava had called it. But Elie’s power takes her to dark, winding caverns where nothing grows at all. 

Taking Elie’s hand in her own, Chava presses the wick in their fingers to the carven letters of Perl’s name. 

Elie flinches back. The stone burns beneath her fingertips. Not just sun-warmed, it hums with static shiver that sends a shock up Elie’s arm. Chava catches her fingers and holds them firm, seeming not to notice.

“There aren’t any words for this ritual, except the ones in your heart. Picture her. Imagine her. Sing to her if you like. Or else just ask what you’d like as you weave a shroud around her resting place. This cord is the tether that ties you back through the generations. Mother to mother, daughter to daughter. Seven times you’ll wrap her tomb in the reminder of all that connects you, each embrace a reason why she should stir herself to your aid. Think of her, and pray.”

A breeze lifts a curl from Elie’s neck and toys with it. 

Self-consciously, she pulls the cord taut from where Chava holds it anchored, hooks it around the tomb’s first corner. Bright white against the sandstone, it looks slight, frail.

“Think of her,” Chava whispers.

But no image comes, only the door, locked tight. And behind it, the specter of a spirit who had sensed her presence, who might still be waiting on the other side.

Eyes shut, she tries to focus instead on the feel of the cord in her hands. Smooth, soft, unraveling like velvet between her fingertips. From her right, the cord spools down, but not long enough to tangle her steps. Gravel crunches beneath her feet with each pace. Tentative, lest she collide with a gravestone and scrape her shin to match Chava’s, yet she feels nothing, as if the sea of stones has parted to make way.

As she rounds the last corner and returns to Chava, a hand falls gentle on her shoulder. Elie opens her eyes, startled.

Chava’s gaze is too kind, too understanding. She feels the tension quivering Elie’s frame, sees the gates closed behind her eyes. Taking the skein from her gently, Chava winds it up before passing it back. “We’ll start again.”

Elie breathes deep to steady herself. “Alright.”

“Open yourself to it, Elie. Not all the way. Just a crack, just wide enough to let your voice through. And listen.”

Elie closes her eyes. The sun is warm on her skin, her eyelids, turning her vision glowing pink. The breeze tickles the hair on her neck. A crow calls for its mate.

This time, when the door appears in her mind, she turns the lock, opens it the tiniest crack. Easing back into her breath, she steps away. Still on the right side, still safe. But faint, far away, a clamor trickles in through the gap. Elie’s instincts tell her to run, slam the door, but instead she crawls closer, settles herself beside it. Like a child, listening through the walls of her bedroom to the music of voices from the party next-door.

In this world, in her body, she paces steps around the walled-in grave. Her fingers trace the line of the cord. At each corner, a turn. Four and she passes Chava’s encouraging warmth.

The voices don’t know she’s there, not at first. There’s nothing individual, just a sense of their presence, echoes of their lives reverberating forever, tied to this soil, this earth. Curious, Elie straightens, easing open just a further crack. Tentatively she unveils the barest hint of her presence. No words, only her intention. With her heart, she asks. For them to see her, recognize her, guard and shelter her as one of their own.

A flicker of awareness meets her there. Perl? It has no voice, no name, but it receives her. Slowly, Elie feels the pool of awareness spread, radiating outward, a strengthening glow. Warm. They feel her there, taking the measurement of their lives, of hers, of all the years and centuries between. They hum, satisfied.

When Elie ties off the cord, snips it, winds it back, she does so with the sense that she will never again be truly alone. 

Back at her apartment, Chava sets a tall, narrow metal can on the stove. She pulls down a tin pan from a high shelf and tips out chips of golden wax. As they melt, they perfume the kitchen with the scent of honey.

They cut the wick into lengths, eighteen of them, dip tapers in the wax to burn while Elie sleeps. Hung to dry, glossy gold turning matte, Chava regards them for a minute, then pulls a jar from her shelves. On a sheet of newsprint, she tips out dried leaves. The wax is still soft enough that when she rolls them, the herbs sink in halfway and stick. They crumble under the gentle weight, fragrant. Bitter masked beneath sweet.

My blog is going to look different in the coming year. I’m not sure I’ll write as consistently on the themes of each month, though I enjoyed the ways it made me more aware of the waxing and waning of the moon and the opportunities it provided to reflect. I hope to share a bit more of my academic writing — my thoughts on genre, the place of fantasy within Judaism and Judaism within fantasy.

Whatever it turns out to be, thank you all for sticking with me. 

Have a happy and sweet New Year.

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