The members of Jewish Artists Collective Chicago write about our stories, struggles, experiences, and musings, and how they inspire us to create contemporary Jewish art.

December, the Month of Loss

Art and Text by Berit Engen

December month is here again, sneaking up on me as climate changes confuse my memory. I am looking for snow, white and quiet, as the snow we had on December 6th in 1987. That is when Sinikka (“Little Blue”) was born. She was our first child, and she lived only nine days.

Today it is 33 years ago, and as in past years I hope nature will help me remember. The problem is that there are, except for one split second, no good memories, so I have buried them deep. I feel a physical pain, a reminder of instincts that were forced to be cut off and not allowed to fulfill their purpose.

The experience forced my husband and me to face the dilemma of not being connected to an organized religion in a time of mourning, and therefore having to invent our own rituals.

In 2008 and 2010 I wove this series of ten tapestries called “Kaddish for Sinikka – The Comfort of Rituals.” They tell the story from labor pains and confusion to saying Kaddish, a span of several years.

(Tapestries are woven with linen yarn; all are 9 in tall.) 

?,!,??,!!! . . . ?

When labor pains started three months before my due date, it was clear that something was wrong. In the hospital, no medications could stop the birth.

El Male Rachamim, lamah haRechem Sheli?

Merciful Father, God full of compassion – why my womb?

The translation does not convey the brutal irony of the Hebrew title. Every Hebrew verb, as well as many nouns, are derived from a consonant root which has a specific meaning. The original meaning of the root resh, chet, mem is uncertain, but both ‘womb’ and ‘compassion’ are derived from this root, thus connected in concept.

I Hold Your Little Head in My Helpless, Hopeful Hand

Only once did we get to touch her. Her little head fit into the palm of my hand. From the moment she was born, we just watched her struggle, not knowing whether she would live or die.

Moment and Eternity

We named her Sinikka. I saw her open her eyes only once.
She looked at me with deep, blue eyes for a brief moment that was an eternity.
In the Deceptive Embrace of Soft Black

Months later we learned that Sinikka, a Finnish name, is a diminutive form of ‘blue.’
Even the Trees Wept, When the Angel of Death Passed by That Day in December
Tears from the Heavens on Ashes by the Ocean

We decided to have Sinikka cremated. At my husband’s suggestion, we sat shiva two nights, but without a service, as we were not members of any congregation. We tried to make things meaningful: a friend, a pottery maker, made a blue urn, and we threw the ashes in the La Jolla Cove in San Diego. I think we made gestures of genuine significance, but something did not feel quite right. Strangely, the freedom to “pick and choose” our actions limited our choices and what was available to us.
That Year, When the Snow Fell . . .

With changing light, white snow appears in so many hues of the color blue.

. . . and Every December Thereafter

Every year bare trees and the sense of snow in the air signal the feeling that a dark hole is on its way. As time passes, the sad memories are fading, but they are the only memories we have. I appreciate the Jewish rituals for remembrance; at least we can observe them and make the
observance beautiful in her honor.

Kaddish for Little Blue

When Steve and I a few years later joined a synagogue and time came for her Yahrzeit, I could feel at peace, in spite of the pain. The obligation of saying Kaddish, a ritual that requires a community, and which can be recited anywhere in the world, is powerful, painful, and cleansing. The doubt about throwing the ashes in a big ocean, the agony of contemplating a cemetery not visited, leaving a little grave behind if we moved away—I started to feel consolation in the fact that her memory is in the embrace of a community.