I love to read about happy events in our local newspapers, particularly our very own Jewish papers. But, true confession, I am also a regular reader of the obituaries. Those I like best are of people nearing 120. As it is said, ad maya v’esrim!
Until 1951, I had not experienced mourning. Then, when I was 12, my Aunt Irene, 48, my father’s sister, succumbed to cancer in our four-family house on Aldine Street in Newark.
In that generation, no one ever said the word cancer. And if they did, foolishly, by mistake, if they disregarded the ayin ha’ra, also known as the kanuhura, the evil eye, and tempted it, that word always came out as a whisper, in a dramatic undertone. As someone who has personally donated two breasts to the cause of sharing that diagnosis, several decades later, at least I didn’t have to whisper. That was the only positive thing about having cancer, by the way!
Irene had come from her home in Brooklyn to stay with her sister Edna and family. Her husband, Sidney, was unable to take care of her, and my stalwart Aunt Edna, the middle of Dad’s three sisters, was the family caretaker and overall executive director of Mishpochat Litwak. Our gatherings were always at Edna’s and she spent her life doing ma’asim tovim, righteous deeds, for all of us. It was inevitable that when tragedy was in the wings, Edna would be the one in charge, with never any intention of being paid back for her sacrifices.
But Edna didn’t know what I know now, that her own lifeline was not going to be very long either. We all just assumed that Edna would be the family rock forever. Not to be! Edna herself was buried just nine years after Irene, at age 57. Until that very moment when she abruptly fell down dead in her kitchen, Edna never let anyone fall down.
Irene’s obituary was never published in the Jewish News or in any New Jersey paper. She had no ties to Newark and had never lived there. She did, however, die there, but that just didn’t count for a local obituary. There are rules, you know!
Once the dam unfortunately was opened, there was a flood of deaths, as can always be expected from life. One day Zayda entered Beth Israel Hospital and shortly thereafter died of some undefined malady, which for lack of a better diagnosis was called pneumonia. He was 87 and I was 17. He had barely survived Irene’s death, but luckily for him, was gone before Edna’s passing. As a local resident who had built houses in the city, houses that still stand to this day, 95 years later, he was a force to be reckoned with. His obituary was published, as was Edna’s, a Newark resident and former president of the Henrietta Szold Chapter of Hadassah. They each got coverage in the Jewish News and the Newark Evening News.
Two of my friends also died in that same period, during my late teenage years. These were not merely deaths, but tragedies.
My dear and close friend Marilyn, who lived a few short blocks from me on Clinton Place, near the intersection of Renner Avenue, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma when she was a teenager. In those days it was a given that she would not survive that illness, which today is quite curable. Her desperate and distraught parents showered her with everything they possibly could until the inevitable. Her Sweet Sixteen party was at the famous Newarker Restaurant, at Newark Airport. It was lavish, but who amongst us could enjoy it? Not her parents. Not Marilyn. At 17, she was given a brand-new gleaming red convertible for her birthday. She barely had a chance to drive it before she lost her battle with the disease.
I remember being with her in late December 1956, a few months before the end. She had a blind date for New Years Eve and we discussed what she would wear. She had two lovely new dresses, one a flashy bold red that strikingly complemented her mantle of thick jet-black hair. I told her that dress got my vote. As long as I live I will never forget her response, “I’m saving that for something special.” Sadly, she did. That special occasion turned out to be her funeral.
Marilyn’s obituary was published in the Jewish News and the Newark Evening News as well.
And then, when I was a junior in college, my friend Beverly was one of 10 students and one professor who were killed when a truck slammed into their chartered bus, returning to Trenton State College from Manhattan. Bev had sent me a postcard where her excitement leapt off the page. She was a theater buff, bigtime. A group from her school was going to Broadway to see the hit play “JB,” a contemporary retelling of the story of Job. In a tragic ironic storm, little did she know that her own life would sadly mirror the life of Job. And of course it was even more devastating to the parents who survived her. The Jewish News published the obituary of the magnificent young woman who had graduated from Weequahic High School with me in the class of 1957. The entire horrible event was widely covered in the Newark Evening News.
As the years flew by, death became more and more familiar. Family. Friends. Acquaintances. Many eventually were added to the listings in the Jewish News. And I became a habitual reader of those obituaries. Morbid, yes. Educational, yes. Entire lives, indeed Jewish lives, condensed into brief biographical notices. Their education, their status, their marriages, and those of their children. And the directions of their lives. Most were also printed in the Newark Evening News, which probably should have printed its own obituary. It, too, is dead.
The secular world includes other kinds of newspapers. The dailies like the Newark Star-Ledger differ in stature from the prestigious papers. Dailies print the obituaries of everyman! Even the homeless. But only very august papers like the Washington Post and the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, papers so impressed by their own sense of importance that the deaths of local people, people whom these editors decide have not made a giant mark upon the world, are not important enough to print. (The Times will print paid obits, proving that in the end, money can buy importance.)
As for those considered to be VIPS, these papers, somewhat ghoulishly, write their obits long in advance. The papers actually have filed reports saved for the pre-dead. The pre-dead are the famous, or infamous, who are still alive. All the papers do when the grim reaper arrives is fill in the missing holes — the date, cause of death, and other assorted hot-off-the-press information. Then the pre-dead are moved from that strangely named category into print. Naturally, and it is surely naturally, all of the pre-dead eventually will have their categories changed.
Might it be dissonant to search a paper’s computers and see an obit, knowing that the deceased is actually walking around on this planet, oblivious to premature declarations of the end of his life? It’s quite possible that the published obituary could, erroneously, precede the transition, which it recently did for one renowned (I never had heard of him, but no big deal, there are lots of people I’ve never heard of) entertainment personality. He truly did die the following day, perhaps because he didn’t want the media to be accused of publishing fake news. Oops.
Thus, we are all on the treadmill called life, like it or not. So, here’s a wish for smachot and joy to fill all our days! We can forget the NY Times, the WaPo, and the WSJ and share our listings, our good news, our accomplishments, and celebrations, in our very own New Jersey Jewish News and Jewish Standard. Amen!
Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was!