I walked slowly up to the entrance to Brú na Bóinne. The Palace of the Boyne. You know it as Newgrange, the Neolithic Irish passage tomb. I looked forward to this visit, nay, pilgrimage for such a long time. Like so many Irish before me, I was entering the passage tomb of my ancestors. Far from my mind were the scrunched eyebrows of my neighbors and their confused questions. “Why would you want to go to Ireland?” “You should be going to Israel.” In that moment, all I cared about was acknowledging my Irish heritage and connecting to a part of my genetics that had been playing second fiddle to my religion for a long time.
The special thing about Brú na Bóinne is that during the winter solstice, a tiny beam of light passes over the lintel at the entrance, across the sloping passage to the center of the tomb and finally rests on an alter in the innermost chamber for approximately 17 minutes, then it slowly retreats. Archaeologists believe that during the winter solstice, the cremated remains of the deceased would be placed upon the alter as sunlight moved into the inner chamber, it collected the souls from the remains and then retreated into the heavens. The ceremony marked the beginning of the year as well as the victory of life over death. This happened every year, 500 years before the pyramids and 1000 years before Stonehenge.
Why was I there? Why wasn’t I in Israel? I’ve long been entranced with this architectural acknowledgement of the solstice and the burial rituals that happened there. Everything about it is very connected, very spiritual, and it was all developed as a way to acknowledge the afterlife before there was a Torah, before there was a Jewish people. To me, visiting that place and feeling pride and kesher (connection), doesn’t conflict with my Jewishness.
More importantly, I went to Brú na Bóinne at a point in my life when I needed to remember the perseverance of life. I had lost my grandfather, and a pregnancy less than a year prior. My visit to Ireland was intended to help me reconnect to my roots as well as recover from two such devastating losses. I couldn’t sit shiva for either death. For a long time I struggled to let go of the burden of grief. I needed a way to end my period of mourning, to store my experiences away in a cherished chamber of my heart and move gracefully into the present.
I entered the chamber and stood next to the stone basin which served as an altar. Total darkness. I felt cold, alone, desperate and sad. Then, a narrow stream of soft yellow light moved deliberately across the floor. It stopped at the altar and I held my breath. I prayed a tiny prayer to Hashem that I should find peace after loss. I prayed that life lost would be remembered with fondness and love. As I exhaled the light slowly retreated until once again I was in total darkness.
Only this wasn’t the darkness of loneliness, spiritual void and grief. This was the darkness of completion, the inky black was all around me, cushioning my senses and keeping me warm.
When I left the chamber, I emerged with a new understanding of the passage of time, freed from the shackles of loss. I emerged with a new connection to history and faith. I emerged as myself, an Irish Jew.
In addition to writing for JN, Tzipi also works as a birth and post partum doula. She currently lives in New Jersey with her husband and daughter. This is the third sentence in this paragraph.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.