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Breathing Into Our Rituals

The Unveiling of Sidney Levin

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My extended family gathered together this past weekend to honor my father, Sid, who passed away just under a year ago. There is a tradition in Judaism called the Hakamat Matzayvah: Dedication of the Monument. This is the unveiling or official displaying of the tombstone or, in my father’s case, a memorial bench. It is a ritual that affords the family and loved ones of the deceased a chance to gather for a greater sense of closure and usually happens within a year of the person’s passing.

My folks were married 63 years ago, on Groundhog’s Day, and my mom felt that their anniversary was a lovely opportunity for us to come together for my father’s unveiling.

To me, the pause that this ceremony affords the family is significant. The funeral takes place amid grief, confusion and a host of details that must be attended to and sorted out. It often doesn’t seem real. This regathering allows for both a sense of closure and an opening, as we get to integrate the best of our connection with the one that has left us. 

Originally, I thought this was going to be an informal gathering that involved storytelling and noshing, but then my mother asked me if I would lead something that would resemble a service. My good friend, Rabbi Billy Dreskin, was kind enough to provide me with a structure of readings and prayers for the ceremony.

I had the privilege of leading my father’s funeral service and thought that, together with family and friends, we had come close to paying tribute to my father. Over the year, I’ve sat in his chair, pondered the stack of books that he was reading at his time of his passing, sifted though his closet and was handed down some of his dress shirts. I sat at his desk and studied his lists, handwriting and filing systems. I savored our many interactions and digested the wisdom he shared with me over a lifetime. I’m sure this will continue. So many stories continued to stream in throughout the year. Like many lives, my father’s life was not a portrait but a mural that covered more than one building. This second celebration was the chance to dig deeper.

So there we were. Gathered around him as he was, in spirit, gathered around each of us. As the president of the Chamber of Commerce for Miami and Secretary of Commerce for the State of Florida, my father would have been delighted that the Super Bowl was going to be held a few miles away from the cemetery offering enough time to eat lunch and get to the game on time. As my cousin Larry pointed out, it was the perfect “Chamber of Commerce day.” The weather was warm, the sky was cloudless and perfectly blue.

I began the Unveiling of Sidney Herbert Levin, by acknowledging that it was more of an unmasking. It seemed the proper time to reveal that he really was Zorro! Something he always eluded to, but we could never fully confirm.  Always the avenger for justice, but often masked behind the scenes.

I wore one of my dad’s shirts for the service. I remember him teaching me how to fold a button down shirt. It was a step-by-step process that honored the shirt, those who had created the shirt and the one who would wear it. The process itself created a space for reflection, for dignity. There was also a rhythm to the folding, as in many things he did; an adagio- a slow steady tempo.

Dad often said he wanted to be a conductor and he was. He conducted his orchestra; his family, friends, neighbors, community, employees and associates, with the utmost respect for their talents. He knew how to get the best performance; how to lift the ensemble. He was able to give whatever audience was in front of him, the wonder, fullness and perfection that the music of the moment had to offer.

Each of us who got to be a part of that orchestra are grateful. We are better players and savor the music that is still vibrating in the silence.

During our Unveiling tributes and the prayers that followed, my grandnephew continued to frolic in the grass. He had provided my father with untold joy and now,  at nearly two years old, he provided the most poignant counterpoint to our grief. When we unveiled the bench and began to sing the requested anniversary song: Teddy Bear’s Picnic, my cherubic grandnephew began to drum on the bench. There were benches to either side but his exclusive attention was focused on dad’s marker. He paraded around it and went back to bang joyfully just above the words, “Loved By All” inscribed on the top of the bench. My nephew videoed his son and said it felt like a Fellini film. I sent it to a friend, who said: “Blasphemy! Can’t get enough of it!” It was a cosmic juxtaposition for us.

Afterwards, my dad’s sister, aunt Beverly, hugged me and shared that at her father’s Unveiling, the rabbi said the Kaddish but she remembers the service was cold. So often in the rush of life, rituals can become routine; obligations to be observed mechanically. Unpacking these customs reveal their original intention, which is to provide a means for true connection.

I remember my father and I attending one of the services held for his mother, my beloved Grandma Ida. I was 14 years old. It may have been after the recitation of the 23rd Psalm, that he leaned over to me and whispered that he thought this was the reason for religion. For moments like this, when it was too hard to bear alone; to make sure that you had a community around you and to help honor those that were gone but that you could truly never leave behind.

Sidney Levin was a great business man, a civic leader and family member because he understood that the most valuable thing in life is the music that pulses between us in the moment. Each of us carries and is carried by those we love.  We each have stories, memories and a love that is intravenous and indelible. Rituals of every kind can connect us to the gift that life constantly offers us.

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