The following article first appeared in The Jewish Transcript.
An experience. It happened more than a decade ago, during my final year of rabbinical school, yet I think about it often. Scotch-taped to my dorm room door one morning was a rectangular piece of paper, a black and white photocopy of three pictures, one underneath the other. I, the eldest, was on top. My sister, Sarina, the second in birth order, was next. My brother, Ari, third in birth order, followed.
I recognized the pictures from a gold volume published by Temple Emanuel in Providence, R.I., in the early 1970’s. Included in that gold book, which recorded a popular history of the synagogue, were a few pages about my father, the then current rabbi and his family.
I smiled at my younger self, my sister and my brother as I opened my door. Internally, though, I felt sad. Where was Rafi, our youngest brother? In the gold volume, Rafi’s picture was directly underneath Ari’s. Who hung these pictures on my door? Who cut Rafi out? Why?
In search of an answer, I knocked on my friend and neighbor’s door. He smiled upon seeing me. “Aren’t those pictures great?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, pleased to discover the culprit. “Where did you find them?”
“I was doing some research in the seminary library, and I saw this gold book. I opened it up. And there you were. I thought the pictures were great. I wanted you to have them.”
“They are great. I know the book well,” I said. “But where’s Rafi?”
“I cut him out,” my friend said. “I didn’t want you to be upset.”
My friend meant well. He knew that my youngest brother, Rafi, had died of cancer at 11. He thought that by cutting Rafi out of the sibling line of pictures, he would be protecting me from re-experiencing the pain of Rafi’s death.
So that’s what happens when someone dies, I thought. People are hesitant to mention the dead person’s name aloud, fearful that in reminding the living of their loss, they will cause them undue suffering. I assured my friend that, although Rafi died, he would always be our brother. That to remember him is a positive, not a negative. Yes, we miss him. Yes, when we remember him, we remember the pain of his illness and death. But, we also remember his fun-loving approach to life, his large brown eyes, his smile, his sense of humor, his sweat after a good game of football, his kindness and love.
To this day when someone asks, “How many siblings do you have?” I say: “I have two siblings now, but I had another brother who died of cancer when he was 11.” If I sense that the questioner is uncomfortable, I might even add, “You can ask me about him if you want, it’s good to remember him.” To not speak of him, would mean that his life on this earth did not matter. It mattered. Our relationship mattered. It still matters.
Back to my rabbinical school dorm. Later that afternoon, when I returned to my room, I found a slightly longer rectangular piece of paper Scotch-taped to my door: a black and white photocopy of four pictures. From oldest to youngest. Myself. Sarina. Ari. Rafi. I peeled the pictures off my door, brought them into my room, and hung them on the wall above my desk, so I could watch over them. So they could watch over me.