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My Grandma Harriet died a few weeks ago, at the age of 95. She was beautiful, creative and could expertly apply her lipstick without a mirror. She was my favorite hug. She cooked up the yummiest tuna noodle casseroles and the tastiest matzah ball soup. She lived a long life full of family simchas (celebrations), fancy dinners out with my grandfather and travelling around the world. When I got the call that she passed away, I was sad, but grateful that she lived a long, rich life.
A week later, I found out that my colleague’s wife was tragically killed in a car accident at the age of 37. N was vibrant, involved in the wider Jewish community and the mother of three kids. She was passionate about education and inclusivity. My heart broke when I read the news of her unexpected passing.
Death confounds me. After these losses, my theology was shaken up, once again. Why was my grandmother blessed with a sweet long life when people like N are tragically taken away from us so suddenly? How is it determined: Who shall live and who shall die?
We are moving into the High Holiday season in the Jewish calendar. The Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) are a time of contemplation, reflection and spiritual awakening. The Shofar is sounded to pull us out of our sleepy routines and open our hearts. It is a time to deeply connect with ourselves. And it is a time to face our own mortality. In the “U-netaneh Tokef” prayer, it is sung, “Who shall live on and who shall die.”
As a kid, I was taught that on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), we are either written in the book of Life or the Book of Death. And on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), our fates are sealed. Like many children, I pictured Gd as an old man in the sky, who looked exactly like Moses with a long white beard and a cane. My personified Gd lived above the clouds and wrote two lists each year: those who would live and those who would die. And I worked hard to be my best self so that I wouldn’t be added to that dreaded death list.
I have outgrown my childhood theology. It doesn’t serve me anymore. This simplistic theology that only the good are rewarded with long life contradicts with my understanding of the world.
I don’t know why people die when we do. I don’t understand why my grandmother got to live a long healthy life while N was taken from us too soon. I continue to grapple with death. The answers to this are bigger than me and beyond my comprehension.
What I do know is that the Gd of my understanding provides me comfort in the midst of uncertainty. I can lean on The-Abundant-One when I feel scared, lost and sad. When my grandmother passed away, I felt held by a nurturing presence. I experience Gd working through my community as they surround me and my family with love. When I learned of N’s death, I cried out to the Mystery. It felt unfair and unjust! My heart cracked open and I felt a deep pain. And yet, I experienced a sense of awe at the outpouring of support and strength from the wider community. The way in which she has been memorialized in countless stories is breathtaking. To me, that is Gd.
Today, I understand the “U-netaneh Tokef” prayer to be about surrender. We are not in control. These words are a reminder of the cycle of life and death. How can I honor the ways in which death is always present? What legacies will live on? What old habits will die? This year, as I sing the line, “Who shall live and who shall die,” I will be reminded of my own mortality and how I choose to live my life this year.
My grandmother was a force to be reckoned with. Smart as a whip and made up her own mind about everything. Incredibly independent considering she was married at 19 and never spent a night away from my grandfather in their 72 years together. She had a master’s degree. Traveled the world. Cared deeply about Judaism. All of her strength and character was put to the test when she developed esophageal cancer in her 70s. She moved from Florida to New York for treatment, which no one was particularly hopeful about. People much younger than her rarely beat this type of cancer. She did.
In the year before my grandmother passed at age 91, I explained to her what my new job was at InterfaithFamily, and while I don’t think she fully understood what it is that we do, I think she understood that we help people to live Jewishly. It seems like a simple goal: to help all kinds of people connect with Judaism at all different stages in their lives.
But most often, it’s when someone dies, or someone gets married or is born that people turn to religion. I felt the truth of this over the last week at her funeral and while sitting shiva with my family and friends. Having a rabbi from my family’s synagogue lead us in prayer at our house was unexpectedly comforting.
Just two weeks earlier, in the same house, the same friends were gathered to celebrate my engagement. The Jewish pieces my fiancé and I are fitting together in preparation for our wedding (What should the ketubah say? What will our chuppah be made out of?) are essential parts of the ceremony, for us.
But even though we were both brought up Jewish, we were not born with Jewish knowledge of how to have a Jewish funeral or a Jewish wedding. We needed the rabbi at the cemetery to tell us not to pass the shovel we were using to toss dirt into the grave from one person to another, but to stick it back in the earth first (so as not to pass death), and why to form a path for the immediate family to walk through on their departure from the cemetery (we were supporting my father, uncle and great aunts). While we don’t know all the answers, it is easier for us to find them: We have rabbis and religious family members to turn to with our questions. We had a cousin translate our ketubah into Hebrew.
What if what we needed was not within arm’s length? Where would we turn to find it? Would we even bother?
Creating inclusive Jewish resources for pivotal times in our lives as well as every day that couples with little or no prior religious knowledge can use, and letting people know we have them—and they’re free—is what I think about every day. I also think about my grandmother every day. I don’t think she believed for a second that she would succumb to cancer, and she moved back to Florida after her treatment like nothing had happened. Her natural way of moving through life was to persevere and to be proud of who she was and where she came from. I hope that when you visit this website, you feel welcomed for who you are and supported in finding what you’re looking for.
My mother, Beatrice Case, died one week ago, on March 16, 2014. She was 95 and had been remarkably healthy until just two months ago. She was a much-loved woman, especially by my 97-year-old father with whom she shared 72 years of marriage. My dad says his “secret” for a long and happy marriage is to never go to bed mad and always say “I love you.”
I don’t usually like to talk about my family in connection with my work at InterfaithFamily. But there is something important that I want to share to honor her memory.
My mother’s father was a traditionally observant Jew. My parents were founding members of the Conservative synagogue to which my mother schlepped my older brother and then me to religious school three times a week, a 25-minute drive each way. They made their opposition to intermarriage unmistakable to my brother and me.
In my eulogy I said that in the spring of 1968, when I was a senior in high school, I had started going out with Wendy, who wasn’t Jewish at the time (or for many years later). One day I asked my mom, “what would be so bad if I kept on going out with Wendy?” She said: “Well, you might really like her a lot, and you might go to college and not meet any one you like as much, and then you might get back together with her, and then you might want to get married.” That’s exactly what happened.
I also said in my eulogy that six years later, when I told my parents that I wanted to marry Wendy, they had a choice to make, and they put their love for me and their devotion to their family above anything else. Wendy feels that they came to embrace her as their own daughter.
At shiva the next day a cousin, who visited with my father while the funeral was taking place (he isn’t able to travel), told me that at about the same time as I was giving my eulogy, my father started telling her about exactly the same thing. He said, “Bea and I talked about it. We decided that we didn’t want to turn our backs and lose our son. And look at the wonderful family that we got.”
Also at shiva my mother’s childhood next-door neighbor and friend Elaine was talking to Wendy and said that my mother lived a “charmed” life. Wendy said, “probably the worst thing that happened to her is that Ed married me” and Elaine said, “that’s right.” Wendy said, “if I’m the worse thing that happened to her, I guess she did have a pretty charmed life,” and Elaine readily agreed. Because Wendy and I have been married for almost 40 years. Our daughter and son are happily married to wonderful partners; my mother adored all of them, and the feeling was mutual. My mother got to meet and know three great-grandchildren; the oldest one, who is three, is asking, “where is great-grandma?”
I would like to think that my mother and my father could see into the future the whole little universe of our loving family that would result from their loving embrace. But that embrace made something more than a loving family possible – they opened doors to continuing Jewish life. Wendy and I have been very Jewishly engaged. We can’t know for certain what our children’s families’ long-term relationship to Judaism will be – but our daughter’s wedding was officiated by a rabbi – my parents got to attend – and so was our son’s; each of our grandsons had a bris – my mother got to attend the second one, just last November; and our 8-month old granddaughter currently is a regular attendee with her parents at services at Mishkan in Chicago.
I said in my eulogy that my mother leaves behind the ongoing radiating ripple effect on the world that she and her thousands of interactions have had. She set a great deal of warmth and brightness and loving-kindness in motion. And she set the possibility of an ongoing Jewish future in motion too. I know that for me and my family her memory will always be a blessing.
My Aunt just died. She had been sick, lived to be 88, and had a wonderful marriage of 62 years. One of the sweetest people I ever knew. Her dear husband is 96 and devastated. He is in excellent health and still drives. He keeps remarking, “who lives to be 96?” He bought a car last year and the salesman offered an extended service plan. He looked at his daughter and laughed. He was lucky she was letting him get a car. My uncle is stunned to be alive and well but now without his beloved wife.
Our family is understandably sad and is in mourning. Typically in Judaism there is a funeral and a mourning process called shiva. What is unique about this case is that her husband (my uncle) doesn’t want a funeral or to observe shiva. To provide you with his perspective, he escaped the Holocaust, leaving Vienna for the US. His parents however were killed in a concentration camp. He feels that his parents had no funeral or religion associated with their death and he and my aunt decided long ago that there was no need for any ceremonies for them either.
My side of the family is quite religious and would like to observe shiva, but we completely respect his wishes. I would have gone to a funeral or to see my uncle and cousins but that is not what my uncle wants. My father has decided to sit shiva at his home (in another state). Many of my father’s cousins who knew my aunt will come to the house and tell sweet stories about her. This process will likely help my father and his brother grieve the loss of their sister. My father will say kaddish for a month (a prayer at daily services) and this too will help him grieve.
What I find so beautiful is that Jewish culture supports both wishes and both needs. Everyone grieves in their own way, and I love that Jewish culture provides us with what we need, when we need it. Grief is personal but can be lonely. Judaism provides the constructs for people to move forward at their own pace.
Today’s just not a happy day to be blogging.
On Saturday, while people were hearing news of the Arizona shooting, some of us were saying a mi sheberakh (a traditional Jewish prayer for the sick) for Debbie Friedman, who was quite ill. Then on Sunday, we heard the sad news that Friedman had passed away.
Friedman was best known as a Jewish songwriter, often credited with reinvigorating synagogue music (especially in the Reform movement). Through her music, many people found prayers more accessible and interesting. Friedman could be credited for making Reform Judaism more welcoming to the masses. As BZ wrote on Jewschool, “Her goal was always (as she wrote in the liner notes to Sing Unto God back in 1972) ‘the importance of community involvement in worship’.”
She was among the first to combine Hebrew and English words in liturgical songs. Rabbi Daniel Freeland, Vice President of the Union for Reform Judaism, said in a 2007 tribute video,
The English tells you exactly what the song is about, what the prayer is about, even if you don’t understand the Hebrew. And she was able to get us to feel comfortable singing Hebrew words because she gave us the English language spiritual overlay – which can be translated into any language. It was a very creative spin, and, frankly, Debbie reintroduced English into the American Reform vocabulary in the 1970s, after it had been totally banished.
(You can watch the full video, embedded below.)
Her impact was so huge, a healing service, put together and held on Sunday at the Manhattan JCC, was not only completely full, but was streamed online. Several thousand people tuned in to watch it live, and many thousand more have watched it since (and I’m sure many more will do so over the coming days and weeks). You can view the video here; the service starts around the 16:00 minute mark. Unsurprisingly, the service started with one of Friedman’s tunes, with which everyone sang along. As was said in the service, it shifted from a healing service to become an unofficial memorial instead, with the community acting as shomrim (guards), singing her songs with hopes of guarding her soul. (Word of Friedman’s passing spread shortly before this service was scheduled to start.)
You can read the URJ’s statement, an obituary in the Forward or Memories of Debbie Friedman on Jewschool.com. You can also read through #rememberingdebbie tweets or add your own using the #rememberingdebbie hashtag.
The following video was shown as Debbie Friedman was honored with the Alexander M. Schindler Distinguished Service Award at the 2007 Union for Reform Judaism Biennial Convention:
May her memory be for blessing.
This weekend, tragedy unfolded when a gunman opened fire in front of a grocery store in Tucson, Ariz. Six people were killed and 14 others were wounded, including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords.
Giffords was the youngest woman ever elected to the Arizona state Senate, and then in 2007 became the third Arizona woman ever to serve in Congress. At that time, she also became Arizona’s first Jewish congresswoman. Raised in an interfaith family, Giffords didn’t always identify as Jewish.
[Giffords’ father], Spencer, married outside his faith. Gloria Giffords is a Christian Scientist. The couple say they always encouraged their children to learn about other religions.
We find more about Gifford’s Jewish heritage in the Forward:
Giffords’ Jewish roots run deep. As the Forward reported back in 2006, her paternal grandfather, the son of a Lithuanian rabbi, was born Akiba Hornstein. He changed his name, first to Gifford Hornstien and later to Gifford Giffords, apparently to shield himself from anti-Semitism out West.
We wish her an easy and fast recovery, while her husband says, “There is little that we can do but pray for those who are struggling,” Giffords included.
Our condolences go out to the families and friends of the victims: Christina Taylor Greene, 9; Dorothy Morris, 76; John Roll, 63, U.S. District Judge; Phyllis Scheck, 79; Dorwin Stoddard, 76; and Gabe Zimmerman, 30, director of community outreach for Giffords. May their memories be for blessing.
I’m gearing up to teach at Havurat Shalom‘s Tikkun Lel Shavuot–I’m planning to do a class on the Jewish Spirituality Resource Guide. I wound up writing a lot about how Jewish ethics fit into Jewish spirituality. You can have a lot more discussion of ethical than spiritual questions in a class setting, I find.
The Jewish Publication Society has created a new website to accompany their new series of books on Jewish responses to contemporary ethical issues, Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices. The site includes a blog with some awfully high-powered writers (presumably excerpted from the series) a apparently permanently open chat window for discussing the issues, and forum with some incendiary starting questions. Hot stuff!
The second thing is a book review of Susan Handelman’s Fragments of Redemption by my friend Adina Levin. Why a book review? Because it contains a lucid and easy to understand discussion of Walter Benjamin. That’s not something you come across every day.
The third thing is a website that helps people write ethical wills, called www.ethicalwill.com. Writing an ethical wills is a Jewish cultural custom that anyone can adopt–the practice of putting on paper the moral legacy you’d like your children, grandchildren and students to have from you. What do you think are the most important insights you’ve learned in your life? If you are having a major lifecycle event, like a wedding, a bar or
I first saw the New York Daily News story reprinted on an Orthodox Jewish website, VosIzNeias. The news was, a New York state court determined that the non-Jewish widow of Jamie Herskowitz, Debra Eirand-Herskowitz, has permission to exhume and move her husband’s remains to the cemetery at the local church in Tuxedo, N.Y., after a three-year legal battle.
Apparently, when Mr. Herskowitz died, Eirand-Herskowitz gave permission to her mother-in-law for her husband to be buried at the family plot at the Mount Carmel Cemetery, not realizing she herself would not be able to be buried beside him because she is not Jewish. She later felt deceived and hurt by her in-laws because they did not inform her of the rules of traditional Jewish cemeteries.
Though Mr. Herskowitz, well-known in New York for his role as the concessionaire at Yankee Stadium, had discussed his burial plans informally with both his wife and his mother, he had not established his plans for burial in writing. According to the court proceedings, both parties–the widow and the mother–believed they knew Mr. Herskowitz’s wishes. In the end the court decided that the close marital relationship made it more likely that Eirand-Herskowitz knew what her husband had wanted.
Reading the court proceedings disturbed me. Much of the testimony was devoted to establishing the religious observance of Mr. Herskowitz. In order to show that he would not have minded being buried near a church, Eirand-Herskovitz discussed their observance of Christmas and Easter, mentioning that they had a Christmas tree in their home. Mr. Herskowitz’s mother, who lived in California and hadn’t had much contact with the couple over their 19 years of marriage, asserted that Jewishness was important to her son because when he went Carmel Cemetery with her to visit his father’s grave, he would take out a prayer book, put on a yarmulke, and say a prayer. It doesn’t seem to me that either having a Christmas tree or wearing a yarmulke and saying a prayer at a gravesite establish how important it was to an individual to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, or next to his spouse in a non-Jewish cemetery.
It’s a basic difficulty all interfaith couples face in death. If the Jewish partner wants to be buried next to his spouse, in most Jewish cemeteries he cannot. A few Jewish cemeteries have created sections where interfaith couples may be buried together, but most have not. To avoid this kind of sad family conflict at the worst possible time–when someone dies–talk with your family about what you want, and put it in writing. We have a discussion packet on this issue that will help you get started talking with your spouse.