by Eliana Ramage
On the morning of Sandy Hook, as twenty-six lives were ending in Newtown, Connecticut, my husband and I walked a visiting Israeli high school group on a tour of Salem, Massachusetts, 170 miles north. We led 26 teenagers through a memorial for the 20 men and women killed during the Salem Witch Trials in 1692. I stopped at each name and climbed up on a low stone wall, raising my voice to tell stories of the dead. Bridget Bishop, Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Good, Susannah Martin…I told of their spouses and their children protecting them, and even accusing them. We walked down the line, reading names carved into stone and remembering.
They say Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit” every night. I think of that sometimes, of sitting in the dark background of some club, maybe Grey Dawn or the Brooklyn Elks, glasses clinking against tables as every last one of us taps our feet to “Lady Sings the Blues,” “The Man I Love,” “Crazy He Calls Me”. Notes bouncing back and forth, Billie shouting out such joy above us in the smoky dark. And then.
We walked down the line, reading names carved into stone and remembering.
And then it would all fall away, leave us alone with just the sad eyes of a tired woman and so many innocents swaying in the leaves. Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/ Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. Lewis Allan wrote that. It wasn’t his name but he called himself Lewis and Allan after his stillborn twins. Lewis wrote for his babies and Billie sang for all those men in trees. I like to think that it was a trade: We’ll give you jazz, but don’t you ever forget our boys.
Nine months before Sandy Hook, I married my husband in the small Southern synagogue of my childhood. His family and friends came down from New Jersey in vans of bickering children, frozen kosher hotdogs, and silly hats they later whipped out during the festivities. We stood under the prayer shawl his parents were married under twenty-six years before, pinned to four wooden poles supported by our brothers, which had been painted blue on the previous Sabbath day by my Christian father and uncle. My husband wore a rented tuxedo to make me happy, and he pressed ashes to his forehead lest we forget the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE. In remembrance, we stomped a new glass wine cup into so many broken pieces, and then left the synagogue for dinner and dancing.
I have no memory of the Temple and still struggle to grasp its importance, but the rabbis knew that would happen someday. And so we are asked to fast, to wear ashes, to break glasses, to care.
My older brother Avram turned thirteen on September 12, 2001, becoming a man in a world made dark in his last hours of childhood. My parents and grandmother stayed up late that night, sitting in the dark to the television’s constant replaying of the lost towers.
My brothers and I didn’t understand. I said to Dad, “But don’t planes crash all the time?” Mom said to Avram, “Avi, it’s your day. But it’s not.” Noah, little boy still, sat on the kitchen counter and watched the yellow memorial candle in the bottom of our sink make those deep metal sides glow.
Every year we light a yellow yizkor light for my grandfather on the anniversary of his 1977 passing. We never knew him, but his candle flickers all through the night and we keep it in the sink to guard the house from its open flame.
We only lit one for that September’s three thousand. That many candles would burn us down.
The day after Sandy Hook, my husband and I walked to synagogue in Salem. There was a boy becoming a bar mitzvah that morning. He read from the Torah, and we pelted him with candy and sang. An old man put the boy on his shoulders and carried him into the circle of men who wrapped their arms around each other and danced in his honor.
When the energy had died down, the rabbi asked for silence.
“David,” he said. “This is your day. But it’s not.” He spoke of the children who were taken from us, the teacher who hid her students in a bathroom and the little boy who told his friends that it was going to be okay, that he knew karate.
He said that David had spent months practicing for this day, had spent years learning how to read in Hebrew and pray to God in preparation to become a man, but that we cannot celebrate without remembering.
A few weeks later, my husband and I took a late honeymoon, boarding a plane to Turkey and a bus to Georgia, stopping for a day in the border town of Batume. Our driver did not speak much English, but he told us three things: “Georgia good,” “Hotel Prime is most cheap,” and “I have one small boy, one small girl.”
We found the synagogue in Batume, a large white building beautiful in its simplicity. An elderly woman unlocked the door, and without a common word understood between us we followed her inside. Here it all was, white and open in the early-morning sun. The room followed the formula of most Orthodox synagogues—women’s section, men’s section, place to read, place to keep the Torah. Yet in the very back, towards the corner, was a little table that I did not recognize, slightly tilted on a broken leg.
I came closer. Twenty-six tea lights, burned down to their tin shells. One tiny American flag, tightly secured to half-staff with wide and imperfect hand stitches of red thread. I asked the woman what the display was, first in English, then Hebrew, but there was no answer. She only stared down at twenty-six empty candle holders.