Two Cemeteries

Two Cemeteries

I was 17 years old and faced with a tough choice.

This college or that college. Bowdoin College in distant Maine. Or Georgetown University in nearby Washington, DC.

On the one hand, Bowdoin had a tiny Russian program (I wanted to major in Russian and Political Science), but its New England, small-town, cozy snow-frosted quad atmosphere totally played concertos on the piano of my heart.

At Georgetown we would only have to pay half the tuition (my father is a professor at the Medical School), but I worried that little Jenny Freedman would get lost among Georgetown’s 15,000 students.

So the week before I had to make my final choice, I returned to Georgetown to check it out one last time. And two things happened that clinched my decision. The first thing was that a woman at the admissions office was mean to me and made me cry. And the second thing was that I noticed that smack dab in the middle of the campus, right underneath one of the dorms, stood an old cemetery for Jesuit priests. There was no way I wanted to wake up every morning and see a bunch of dead people buried outside my window. Much too creepy…

So I returned home to Baltimore with my decision made.
Yesterday I received an email from a friend in Connecticut. She told me that Hurricane Sandy had blown the leaves off of the trees in the forest behind her new home, and for the first time she discovered that her house overlooks a cemetery which is usually hidden by the forest.

When I read this, my first reaction was the same as my reaction 23 years ago when I chose Bowdoin over Georgetown.

But her reaction to this unusual discovery surprised me. She wrote, “For some reason I find the cemetery eerily beautiful. It reminds me every day to make the most my time.”
This year I turned 40. Which means that I am getting older, JewishMOMs….I feel like I was 30 just a blink ago. Which means that– yikes– 50 and 60 and even 70 are also only a few blinks away.

I know it’s a cliché, but I feel SO MUCH younger than my mom and dad seemed at 40. If I’m 40, shouldn’t I feel more like an authority figure? Shouldn’t I feel wiser? More responsible? If I’m 40, why do I still feel, so often, like I’m still just a kid?

And I also feel morbid about turning 40, much the same way that I did when I shuddered at that Jesuit cemetery at the age of 17. Old age and all that comes with it is only a few decades away. The clock is ticking, ticking, ticking away. And it’s not going to stop, no matter how much I would like it to.

So now is my time to make a choice.

Hitting 40 has blown the leaves off the trees, and what awaits me is finally in clear view. Will I turn away and shudder? Or will I stare at the cemetery straight on, drinking in the precious opportunity of days that are numbered?


  1. Beautiful insight. I can completely identify with your feelings. However, I’m turning 60, not 40. Here’s a lesson I learned in the face of unspeakable tragedy, as a mother, in my 50’s. Some of the finest people in the world do not keep the Sabbath or keep kosher. Of course, some do. Some are not Jewish. Some are even Muslim & Christian. We must treat everyone with kindness & respect. Never judge or speak unkindly. If you think the last decade passed quickly, the next 2 will pass more quickly. I cannot believe I will be 60 next week. SIXTY!!! My parents are in their 80’s! How do THEY feel? I’m creeped out by cemeteries too. But now, with a broken heart, I must see them through different lenses.

  2. i think every time someone has a brush with death it serves as a reminder that our stay on this earth is temporary. popular culture has emphasized the myth that life is all about living, and death has no part in it. but that is not so, life is a cycle with a beginning, middle, and end. as long as we keep that perspective, we can better choose our actions. since i turned 50, i have made a conscious effort to live every day as fully as possible. i try to bring Shalom into my daily life by avoiding conflict and worry.
    i must say, i feel much more relaxed on the inside since i started this new campaign. i highly recommend it to everyone—-and don’t wait for a brush with death to get it started…

  3. Rachael Leah

    It’s funny, when you first mentioned cemeteries I felt warm fuzzy feelings in my heart. I think of cemeteries as… peaceful, connecting, and loving.
    I used to travel with my father to Savannah, GA, his hometown, every couple years or so as a child. We always made a special stop at the large, historic Jewish cemetery there, and I cherish the memories of those visits. My father’s father is buried there, as are his grandparents, great-grandparents, great-aunts and uncles, and all his ancestry dating back to when his family arrived on these shores, in 1895.
    We would walk along the quiet paths, my father pointing at this tombstone, telling my brother and I stories of our relatives, how this great-uncle lived, how that young cousin died.
    It was a time of connection to my family, my heritage, and my father. I felt my own personal sense of belonging, love, and the Mesorah passed down from them to me, as I walked through those stones, davening and touching the lives of my ancestors, and living onward with their legacy.

    • Raechel leah, what a fascinating story you tell! When did your ancestors come to America, and from where? Was there a Jewish community in Savannah so long ago? I would love to hear more….

  4. I will quote Rav Moché Botschko zal:” Véavraham Ba Bayamim;Abraham was old and advanced in days; the two last words seem useless but the Zohar explains that Avraham came with his days, ie for Avraham there was no futility, no lost moment, every moment of his life was full of good deeds, every moment was eternity with Hashem.And today we still have those days of Avraham avinou to our credit; His life is our guideline, our model”(i tried to translate as well as i can!)
    So Chana Jenny may you be zoche to come with all your days and may you live ad mea ve esrim!

  5. Bracha Goetz

    When we look in the mirror and see an aging face, there is always a disconnect – at 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 and even at 120, G-d willing. It doesn’t match with how we feel deep within because the neshama we have inside of us hasn’t aged a bit – it’s still pure and timeless.

    • So true! When I turned 59 last year, I made up my mind to approach 60 with simcha, rather than fear or trepidation. I barely noticed 40 or 50 passing but felt 60 to be an obstacle! Boruch Hashem, I have filled the year and passed my birthday with joy! Our attitude is the only thing we really have control over so being besimcha is an important choice. Mazal tov on your birthday and may your inspiring words help you find peace and joy in the coming months and years.

  6. i’m not sure
    but i think maybe when you know people, actual loved ones, who have passed away and whose bodies now lie in the cemetery, it stops being a scary place

  7. beautiful essay (as always!), Chana Jenny

  8. Debbie Rosalimsky

    When I say “modeh ani” every morning, I always say it while looking outside at the sky and the trees. As I say it, I think to myself how lucky I am to be able to enjoy looking at the beautiful trees and sky from above ground…It gives me a little bit of a jolt and it reminds me that life is soooo precious and that I need to appreciate EVERY moment that I am here!!! It really works for me!!!

  9. Meaningful piece with such worthwhile comments. Thank you.

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