You were faced with your own mortality at a deli in Encino on a Tuesday evening in January 2020. It is 9,451 days after your saba Zvi died, 7,000 days after your grandma Ronna died, 5,687 days after your grandpa Jerry died, 4,811 days after your aba Uri died, 4,648 days after your savta Helena died, and fifty-seven days before you made your first decision to stay put because of what would, nine days after that, be declared a pandemic, whose death toll, as you finish writing this twenty days later, stands at 33,257.
(Numbers are meaningless when they reach a certain critical mass. You can picture your aba’s face, but only a fraction of the 4,894 days since he died. You’ve seen the faces of some who have died during the pandemic — a gay nurse in New York City, a young Black woman in New Orleans whose picture was going viral on Twitter, a journalist whose obituary was shared in your freelance group. But how can you, or anyone, begin to conjure up the faces of 33,257 people? It’s impossible. Maybe numbers help you to abstract, to glance at and then away from, as a way of coping.)
Mortality faced you as a question, a fitting form when three generations of a Jewish family, plus two guests, sit around a large circular wooden table for a meal.
(You liked the two guests who were there that night, neither of whom you’d ever met before. One, Jon’s friend, you developed a nearly instantaneous crush on: the way she smiled, how she jumped into your family’s easy banter with gusto, her long, curly, dark hair. The other, Peter’s girlfriend — he hasn’t called her that, but cryptic texts he’s sent you indicate this is the case — you liked for her mannerisms, briskness, and chutzpah when she asked, after seeing your tattoos, “So you can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery, right? Or?” Strange, how often you notice desire and death in close proximity. You’ve yet to figure out whether this is due to their essentially existential natures, or whether it says something about you.)
It’s true, tattoos are expressly forbidden in the Torah, and various scholars have weighed in on why and how marking the skin is prohibited. But, as you discover researching this piece of writing, you and the woman who asked you the question have both been duped by the same falsehood. It is a myth that any Jewish law or custom forbids the burial of those with tattoos. In your research, you find frantic queries regarding whether tattoos should be cut from the bodies of the recently dead, accompanied by quietly appalled answers from rabbis who declare that even though the deceased may have sinned in marking themselves, that is no reason to desecrate the holiness and wholeness of their flesh.
But how can you, or anyone, begin to conjure up the faces of 33,257 people? It’s impossible.
You learn, too, that like all myths and rumors, this one did not spring out of thin air: individual communities and cemeteries may choose to ban burials of those people who have violated the prohibition against tattooing.
(The cruelty of exclusion is a human instinct, regardless of how often humans blame gods for it.)
Your aba died when you were sixteen years old, and was not buried in a Jewish cemetery, even though he was, according to his father, your saba Zvi, a kohen—an elevated ancient status that your aba both shared with you, proudly and sheepishly, but also turned away from, along with the rest of his religious customs when he lost his faith years before, to Zvi’s deep disappointment. Selfishly, you are relieved that your father is buried in a cemetery run by a kibbutz, where trees buzz with life in the hot, muggy air, and where the graves are as strange, zany, and unique as the people remembering those interred beneath them. Some are tacky, like the heart-shaped one marked with the Hebrew equivalent of a comic sans font, and others mysterious, like the chessboard with real, oversized pieces on its top. You like this odd place you’ve been to so infrequently much better than the bleak marble-filled Jewish cemeteries run by the Chevra Kadisha, places that fill you with a kind of terror that, you suppose, is tied to your earliest experiences of them, when your saba Zvi died and your father was proven fallible, a man who could cry. It’s hard to believe cemeteries matter much at all, in the grand scheme of your life and all its dead loved ones, especially when you are so far from any of them. Your aba would be the first to say that the dead do not dwell in their bodies anyway.
When your aba was alive, he didn’t want you to get tattooed, to incise marks on your body, but admitted that once you turned eighteen it would be your decision. You had chosen the first tattoo you’d get when you were thirteen, a rose design from the cover of a thick fantasy novel that you read over and over again, its mass-market paperback pages leaking ink onto your fingers, so you’d get up from bed and wonder why your hands were so dirty.
(You got that rose design when you turned eighteen. In the novel, the main character has her entire back tattooed with a far more intricate version of it — a marque, it is called, and it symbolizes a sacred kind of sex work and, for her, the twinning of desire and pain. You learned about desire through her world’s mythology — you didn’t need it to learn about pain — and although you vowed never to tattoo words on yourself, the rose sitting at the top and center of your spine symbolizes, for you, that mythology’s central tenet: Love as thou wilt.)
In Portland, Oregon, the first boy you ever kissed is now a man with pink hair and a husband and they have just had a child with a surrogate, but they’re struggling to take the baby back home to the country where your aba is buried. In New York City, one of your mother’s best friends is mildly ill and her husband is isolated in a hotel room because he is at much higher risk than she is to die if he becomes sick, too. In France, a writer you know on social media has documented the agonizing two weeks of breathlessness and exhaustion as her lungs fought off infection. You and your friends message one another on a daily basis, sharing pictures of your cats, gardens, food, advice about teaching online, and poems.
Your aba would be the first to say that the dead do not dwell in their bodies anyway.
You are faced with your own mortality on a daily basis, which is nothing new, not when you have tangled with the mortality of those you love, grieved for them, and still lived on and in and through that grief to desire another day and another and another. It’s the dread that’s difficult now, the buzzing, hovering grief which might — will — turn sharply painful at any moment, marking you, once again, irrevocably.
(And — because you must remember this, because it is the only way you believe that you have survived before and will again — you will love your way through, marks and all, and tell stories about the ones you have all lost, so they will dwell in language and laughter and memory, regardless of where their mortal bodies are interred.)
The numbers keep climbing. By the end of this twentieth day — an arbitrary metric; people were dying before the pandemic was declared one — the death toll on the World Health Organization’s “Situation Dashboard” is 36,571, and those are only the ones counted, updated into this hastily-designed system. You are texting with a heartbroken friend, her grief long predating this moment. You worry about a student who is still working despite their job being nonessential. You refresh the “Situation Dashboard” again. It doesn’t load. You are telling the truth. You do it again. A third time. Nothing. You cannot hold the numbers in your head. You decide to leave the keyboard, the screen, the words, and go hold someone in the other room, someone who is alive, and who loves you, and who is now.
Ilana Masad is a queer Israeli-American writer and book critic whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, NPR, BuzzFeed, Catapult, StoryQuarterly, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, as well as others. She is the founder and host of The Other Stories podcast and a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she also serves as the assistant nonfiction editor for Prairie Schooner. All My Mother’s Lovers is her debut novel.