The author (on his mother’s lap) with the family in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1948.
The author (on his mother’s lap) with the family in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1948.

New memoir: Grieving his mother while the towers were falling

During the best of times, grief is a difficult, lonely, messy process. Losing someone we love shakes our being to the core.

But losing someone we love during the pandemic — due to Covid-19 or any other reason — has only complicated matters. For those observing Jewish mourning rituals, it has meant forgoing the comforting presence of loved ones and friends at burials and shivas. A Zoom funeral doesn’t make up for the lost hugs and the shoulders to cry on.

Yeshaya Douglas Ballon
Yeshaya Douglas Ballon

Yeshaya Douglas Ballon understands this dilemma intimately. Twenty years ago, Ballon, a Jewish spiritual mentor, author and poet, lost his mother, Jean Hymson Ballon, two days before the Sept. 11 attacks. It’s a story that he shares in his new memoir, “Unthinkable Dreams: The Year That Mom Died and the Towers Fell,” which has just been released by Resource Publications.

“It was a surreal experience,” recounted the 74-year-old Ballon, a longtime resident of Palo Alto and retired architect who studied with the Aleph Alliance for Jewish Renewal. “We had been anticipating her death for so many months. We had done whatever planning we could do. As I say in the book, ‘Man plans, and God laughs.’

“So there we were, ready to take care of burying Mom, and mourning Mom, and benefiting from the power of the Jewish tradition. Our rituals are so amazing, and then they were just blown up … Just as the Towers vaporized, so did our plans.”

Unmoored by his mother’s death and the national tragedy, Ballon struggled to understand how to integrate these traumas into his psyche — and to find support in his Jewish community. At a memorial service sponsored by four local synagogues immediately in the wake of 9/11, a fellow worshipper suggested to him “that Mom’s passing is insignificant in the face of the death and destruction rendered by the terrorists,” he recalls in his book. “I offer that my grief is not insignificant, just different.” (My own mother, Betty Nagler Miller, 93, died of a dementia-related illness during the height of the Covid pandemic, and I experienced a similarly well-meaning but thoughtless response from some: “Well, we all suffered losses this year.”)

Ballon was also burdened by logistical issues: How, with the suspension of air travel, would he get to Columbia, South Carolina, to bury his mother in the plot alongside his late father, Rabbi Sidney Ballon, at the Hebrew Benevolent Society Cemetery? How could he halachically begin shiva before his mother’s interment?

These concerns led to an immediate friction, and a subsequent cooling, between him and his older brother, the late Rabbi Jeff Ballon, who arrived at different answers to these questions. Much of the sibling conflict, he reflected, came from their divergent communication styles.

The author’s candor about his relationship with his brother extends to his portrait of his mother. A Southern Jew whose family was spread throughout Kentucky, South Carolina and Georgia, Jean Ballon was a loving wife and mother and talented artist and cook, but she was hardly the model of a prim and proper rebbetzin.

Wisecracking and irreverent, she told Ballon and his siblings when they came of a certain age “that as soon as she saw Dad, she wondered what it would be like to get in the sack with a rabbi,” the author recounts in “Unthinkable Dreams.” Later in the book, Ballon recalls his mother’s advice to a relative who had asked about the laws of kashrut. “It’s more important what comes out of your mouth than what goes into it,” she had said.

As much as his memoir is about the emotional upheaval borne of loss during a catastrophe, Ballon posits that it is also a book about “deep listening … between me and my mother, me and my brother, and me and me.” The author undertook a careful decoding of the words of his ailing mother, who in her final months often spoke in cryptic and opaque language that rendered normal conversation impossible. It took many years of intentional conversations and concerted effort by both of her sons to reconcile in a way that restored meaning to their relationship.

Asked what he imagines his mother and brother would make of the book, Ballon said that his mother would say, “Why are you so serious? Why are you making such a big deal out of all this stuff? You cry much too much. You’re much too sentimental. … In the end, she’d say, ‘That was nice, son. Thank you.’”

His brother, he said, would be more curt and less unequivocal: “Shmegegge, you finally understand me.”

To mark the 20 years since his mother died, Ballon will speak during Shabbat services on Sept. 11 at his synagogue, Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City. More information about his book can be found at

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.