A Rabbi's World
A New York Minute
The Nosh Pit
A Rabbi's World
The Nosh Pit
A New York Minute
All She Wrote
On Rosh HaShanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created, who will live and who will die …
From the Rosh HaShanah liturgy
On these summer days in the late autumn of his life, on the mornings when he feels strong enough, Harold Dubow opens a siddur. Waking late in a living room on the edge of Brooklyn’s Midwood neighborhood, he takes some pills, eats a small cereal breakfast and recites Shacharit from a large-print prayerbook he keeps nearby on a small table.
But most days, he doesn’t feel strong enough.
Dubow is 84 and has cancer.
“I’m weak. I’m weak,” he says softly, grimacing. “No koach [strength]. I’m always tired.”
But these days are the days of Elul, the month before Tishrei and the days of judgment, and a Jew’s thoughts turn toward repentance, toward standing before one’s Creator, toward the verdict in the Book of Life that lays open in heaven.
Elul begins with a shofar blast. Each morning in traditional synagogues the baal tekiah, the shofar blower, concludes prayer services by blowing the ram’s horn, a harbinger of the approaching High Holy Days.
On rosh chodesh Elul, the first day of the month, Dubow took one of his favorite shofars, the curving black-and-brown one, that had belonged to his father, out of a plastic bag and brought it to his lips.
Dubow has been a baal tekiah his whole life. Continued on page 22
That rosh chodesh morning he managed a brief blast. Then he put the shofar away. He didn’t have the strength to do more.
Dubow is in hospice.
Since March, he and his wife Adeline have lived with their daughter and son-in-law, Robyn and Eric Frohmann, in Midwood, sleeping on beds set up in the living room. Dubow is under the care of the Metropolitan Jewish Health System’s Jewish Hospice, an 8-year-old program that is “open to persons with advanced illness who have a life expectancy of six months or less as certified by their referring physician.”
Dubow, a Brooklyn native, World War II veteran, retired salesman, and Modern Orthodox Jew who wears a knit blue kipa and has belonged to several Young Israel congregations, does not count his days. He just blesses them. When his regimen of drugs does not leave him drowsy, he says his daily prayers, sometimes by heart, and recites Psalms.
“Davening is very important to him,” Eric Frohmann says.
“It’s the way I was brought up,” Dubow says, closing his eyes to concentrate on a thought, silent for minutes at a time. Sometimes, his family says, he falls asleep in the middle of a sentence.
This day Dubow is sitting on a couch in the Frohmanns’ living room. He’s wearing a light cotton shirt and pants, and slippers. His hair has turned white, but most of it is gone. That’s not from the chemotherapy.
“He had started to go bald on our wedding day” 57 years ago, says Adeline, taking her husband’s hand.
When his breathing becomes shallow, Adeline hands him a tube from an oxygen tank behind his bed and switches it on. When he feels nauseated, she brings him a slice of lemon to suck on.
When he feels a little stronger, he keeps talking. Too weak to walk to shul, Dubow says, he davens on Shabbat and on holidays in minyans his family arranges in the house. He led the bentsching, the blessings after the meal, at their last Passover seder.
His religious beliefs help, he says. “Without emunah [faith], you have nothing.”
His advice to someone in his position: Tehillim. Read some Psalms. “The Psalms have all the answers,” Dubow says.
His religious beliefs are an inspiration, says Rabbi K, a friend of the family who visits regularly to offer moral and spiritual support. While the rabbi agreed to discuss intimate details about Dubow’s spiritual journey, he asked that his full name not be used.
The rabbi says Dubow has accepted his fate: “I think he’s at peace.”
He also says Dubow spends little time discussing mortality.
“I don’t get the impression that he’s fixated on how much time he has left,” the rabbi says. “It’s almost like, ‘Baruch Hashem, yom yom.’ ” Thank God for every day.
The rabbi squeezes Dubow’s hand.
Rabbi K, who has counseled many terminally ill people, led Dubow in reciting the Sh’ma and the Vidui confession prayer, usually done when death is at the door, the first time the two met.
“I try to do it as a matter of policy,” the rabbi says. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
Vidui appeared to give Dubow, as it gives many people with a guarded prognosis, a sense of comfort, Rabbi K says.
“Vidui helps patients deal with those [often overwhelming, end-of-life] issues, coming to terms with finality,” he says.
In recent weeks Dubow has been hospitalized for a few days after a fall, undergone a cataract operation and had root canal surgery.
He’s still fighting for life.
“You can’t take anything for granted,” Dubow says. “When you’re ill, you have to have bitachon [trust].”
Is he afraid of what he is facing?
“No, no,” Dubow says.
“I have never asked God ‘Why?’ ” he says. “That’s life.”
Three years ago, at the end of Sukkot in Midwood, he felt a twinge while carrying a suitcase down the stairs.
“You know, this hurts my arm,” he remarked.
Back in Florida, he went to his doctor. The diagnosis: bone cancer. It spread to his lungs.
Dubow underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
“We expected this to go on for the next 20 years,” Adeline says.
Earlier this year Dubow’s physicians told him they had run out of treatment options. He entered hospice, which offers palliative care against the pain.
A nurse from Jewish Hospice comes to the Frohmann home daily.
The Jewish Hospice, part of a movement that followed Rabbi Maurice Lamm’s establishment of the National Institute for Jewish Hospice in 1985, offers a variety of services, including physician visits, pastoral support, physical therapy and nutritional counseling, and halachic advisement.
While the Jewish Hospice maintains a 14-bed facility at the Metropolitan Jewish Geriatric Center in Borough Park for acute or crisis care, most of the Jewish Hospice’s patients are treated at home, with their families, in familiar settings.
“Hospice is not about death,” says Dr. David Taylor, the Jewish Hospice’s medical director. “It’s about life, it’s about living life to the fullest.”
Eric Frohmann shows a visitor a plastic drug organizer with four compartments for each day of the week, which keeps his father-in-law alert and functioning. More medication, in brown plastic vials, is kept in a crammed shoebox.
“This is just an example of the medicine a typical hospice patient gets,” Frohmann says.
On good days, Dubow reads. On very good days, he visits his brother on Long Island.
Dubow says he’s trying to lead a “normal life.”
The impending High Holy Days focus his thoughts on life and death.
“It has to be there,” Rabbi K says. “It’s in all of us. Anyone who’s dying feels the awe of judgment every day. I see the awe.
“It’s not always explicated,” not discussed at length, the rabbi says. “It’s often implied. There’s a great deal of teshuvah or getting one’s self together, of doing what they always did but doing it better. People will say Vidui. People will connect with friends they have been out of touch with.”
Dubow, a quiet man, rarely verbalizes his feelings, Rabbi K says. “I don’t think he needs a reminder.”
Come the High Holy Days, the terminally ill prepare for the inevitable but look forward to celebrating again next year, Taylor says.
“It’s not denial,” he says. “There’s always hope. Maybe there will be another Rosh HaShanah or Yom Kippur.”
Dubow plans to pray at home in Midwood, “God willing,” on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur this year, rather than in shul.
“At this stage of the game, no,” he says.
When visitors come, Dubow offers them the usual greetings for “a good year, good health.”
The other day, he asked his wife to hand him his shofar bag. He took out his favorite, protected by a paper towel, and blew into it. He managed a short but sweet sound. Then he put it back in the bag.
On Rosh HaShanah, as usual, he will try to blow the shofar again, Dubow says. And he hopes to wear his kittel, the simple white linen cloak, a sign of purity that a Jewish man wears under the chupah, at a seder, and on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Others also wrap it around the physical body while one’s soul stands before God on that eternal Day of Judgment.
The choice of when Dubow will next wear that holy garment is in God’s hands, not his. He’ll don it on Rosh HaShanah, “God willing, if I’m still around.” He leaves unsaid the alternative.
“If I’m not around,” Dubow says, “I’ll wear it …”
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