Today is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which is a day of sweetness and celebration and eating things with honey, but also the day we blow a really loud ram’s horn and crack open the Book of Life to ask, as of next year, who among us might die by fire or water, who by sword or beast, or who might live out a serene old age.
Tonight my family lit a 24-hour yahrzeit candle to start the commemoration of my brother Aaron Jacobs’s death in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. That year Rosh Hashanah started the night of September 17, and I recall walking into a synagogue where places had been saved for me, Amy and my parents, as though we were representatives of the “who by sword and who by plane” fate that had just befallen Aaron. Ever since then the Jewish High Holidays and this anniversary have been commingled emotionally for me. It becomes a very hard few weeks to get through.
It’s also become my annual ritual of remembering Aaron to write a tribute like this, and try to write a poem inspired by his memory or (more likely) my own experience of remembering him as the years go on. Often this has felt kind of like passing a kidney stone, with my own self-imposed pressure to produce something adding to the looming sense of dread I feel as this day approaches. This year has been different because, in her wisdom and love, Amy got me a gift of a Serene Retreat (TM) with our friend Carrie, who is the writing and editing Sensei to the Stars. I spent a few days in August holed up in an Airbnb in Asheville, NC (Keep it Weird), completely switched off from email, internet and work, communing with some family pictures like the ones pictured here to come up with some poems on the theme of family.
Reader, you won’t believe it but I actually drafted three poems in Asheville, the most in one stretch for a super long time (one is described below). This took my own selfish “artistic” pressure off this anniversary.
Looking at these photos while surrounded by my own family, I have scrambled memories, faintly recalling the tenderness of Aaron as a little kid mixed with his own doting nature as a teen and adult for tender animals and kids. Aaron wasn’t afraid to be affectionate and show his emotions, or to stretch out his arms and flap like a bird across 5th Avenue. If I am a little too huggy now, it may be because I remember awkwardly going in for a handshake with him when we were in our 20s and having him tell me, “I’m giving you a hug.”
One of Aaron’s close friends from growing up would share memories of him with me over the years at the time of this anniversary, including some excerpts from his letters. I treasure these for the insight into Aaron’s voice that is so hard to convey in the absence of video and social media clips. Here are two of these excerpts from when Aaron was 20 or so:
9/13/95: “First of all, this pen sucks. I’m pretty sure it’s because I chew the end off and eventually all my drool gets mixed up with the ink. I know this happens, so while I can’t really control whether I chew the end off and play with the little cap in my mouth, I’m making an effort not to drool into it as much. So, would you expect anything but a paragraph devoted to saliva? I didn’t want to disappoint.”
9/10/96: “I’m enjoying Cozumel [where Aaron taught English after college]. It is, in parts, amazingly beautiful. I watched the sunset the other night and was astounded. Not only was it brilliant, but there were these huge cumulus clouds shooting out in a wedge shape from the point of the sun’s path. At the point itself were a few smoother clouds with intermittent space where the sun shone through. Very peaceful.”
Tragically, this friend of Aaron’s lost their own younger sibling this past month to cancer. I’m struck by how many people must look with dread to the prayer that asks “who by fire, and who by water,” knowing how these elemental fates stand in for so many horrible, random and not-random ways we can pass before our time.
If you are reading this and thinking of Aaron and my family, thank you.
One of the prompts for my poetry about family was Aaron’s Bar Mitzvah program. I was fortunate to have one of my own children become a Bat Mitzvah this year and tried to put myself in Aaron’s place as he prepared. So I read his Torah portion, from the Book of Numbers (1:1-16), which is one of the random springtime passages kids have to read from…in this case, the census that Moses and Aaron were charged by G-d to take of the Twelve Tribes. I can’t imagine what Aaron made of that for his interpretation.
I kept reading and found Numbers 3:4, where it turns out Aaron’s sons, who were rookie priests, offered “strange fire” before the Most High and were consumed by divine fire. I thought, whoa, and looked further into Leviticus 10 where it seems their fire was “strange” because it came at the wrong time, or from the wrong fire, or with the wrong firepan, or they did it together when they should have done it solo…either way, they died, and Moses told Aaron to keep silent, and he did.
Maybe because I was feeling so Serene (TM), I decided to write a ghazal on the strange fire theme, a form that basically invites you to riff on a theme based on a shared end rhyme. I didn’t see the connection to the Binding of Isaac, nor even to my Aaron’s “strange” demise, or to the “who by fire and who by water” theme until I became un-Serene and felt the approach of 9/11. Here it is, my own probably strange offering on this day.
And Nadab and Abihu died before the LORD, when they offered strange fire before the LORD, in the wilderness of Sinai, and they had no children: and Eleazar and Ithamar ministered in the priest’s office in the sight of Aaron their father. (Numbers 3:4)
Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.
Then Moses said to Aaron, “It is what the LORD spoke, saying,
‘By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy,
And before all the people I will be honored.’”
So Aaron, therefore, kept silent. (Leviticus 10:1-3)
First time up, G-d fries Aaron’s sons for “strange fire,”
And Moses says “no tears”. Be cool, strange fire.
The commentaries diverge: tl;dr,
Bad attitude spoils even free-range fire.
Or it could have been a classic teen screwup:
Straight Tabernacle, not that gas range fire!
Eyes down, their cousins took their bodies out
As evidence: these kids were deranged = fire.
As far as OSHA knows, six thousand years
Since last reported death by shift change fire.
Working with the Most High *and* his bro left Aaron
A mixed emoji: 😐/ estranged / 🔥
Remember, this Old Testament Jah, with newbie
Priests: stickler, but He taught the range of fire.
I got a woman says she’s not Jewish but saves
Shabbat match stubs to rearrange some fire.
Matter of fact, wasn’t for her, our temple our home
Wouldn’t have song or light. That’d be some strange fire.
End with a firepan, handle up in sand:
Neither snow nor flood nor beast shall shortchange fire.