Adaptation and Flexibility for Death and Mourning Customs

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.

Debbie Friedman z”l

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.

Gabrielle Giffords

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 were kind of neutral,” Spencer Gifford said. “We let them decide for themselves. That’s what Gabby did.”

When his daughter was a state senator in 2001, she traveled to Israel for the first time with the American Jewish Committee on a trip that turned out to be life-changing.

“It just cemented the fact that I wanted to spend more time with my own personal, spiritual growth. I felt very committed to Judaism,” she said. “Religion means different things to different people. It provides me with grounding, a better understanding of who I came from.”

Upon returning from Israel, Giffords introduced legislation, which became law, to help protect the claims of Arizonans seeking unpaid benefits under Holocaust-era insurance policies.

On a personal level, she made contact with Rabbi Stephanie Aaron of the Reform Jewish Congregation Chaverim in Tucson, and began a deeper exploration of both her faith and heritage. She already was technically considered Jewish since the Reform movement of Judaism says that the child of one Jewish parent, mother or father, is presumed to be Jewish. (Read more in a profile in the Arizona Daily Star of Giffords.)

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.

“I was raised not to really talk about my religious beliefs,” Giffords said, in an interview with Jewish Woman magazine. “Going to Israel was an experience that made me realize there were lots of people out there who shared my beliefs and values and spoke about them openly.”

She is also among five members of Congress to serve on United States Holocaust Memorial Council.

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.

Resources on Jewish Ethics

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 bat mitzvah, a divorce or a serious illness, it could be a good time to put it all on paper. Your ethics may be Christian or atheist or Buddhist, but passing them down is Jewish–the perfect custom for an interfaith family.

Finally resting

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.

Positive Examples

“I’m a positive person,” my 6-year-old told me. He is! During this month of Elul before Rosh Hashanah, I’m working on being more positive, too. Sometimes it feels good just to point out all the great things Jewish organizations are doing to reach out to people from interfaith families, and all the great things people in interfaith families are doing in the world.

On Wednesday we published a great feature on Jewish healing rituals for interfaith families. Many of the organizations we mentioned wanted further contact with us, and I had a chance to speak with Rabbi Eric Weiss, the director of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. I think I persuaded him to join our network, since he’d like to do more outreach to people in interfaith couples and families, but I wanted to be sure to announce the Healing Center’s Grief and Growing Weekend, because it’s this weekend, September 11-13. If you know someone who just suffered a catastrophic loss, this program is to support them. I liked the way the web page explicitly welcomed non-Jewish participants in the Jewish programming.

Later this week we’re going to run an article by Jeffrey Grover about his experience developing a play on interfaith marriage, but just in case you live in Cleveland and don’t know about Thursday’s performance at the Ratner School of “Both Sides of the Family”, I wanted to give you a heads-up. The cool thing about this program is that the audiences demanded the discussion period after the show, by sticking around in their seats. I’m from Cleveland and I have to tell you, that’s pretty unusual! 

I also wanted to give a shout-out to Matthew Scott, who wrote a story for us about cooking Jewish food in an interfaith relationship. He’s started a new job teaching fourth grade in the Baltimore City Public Schools. Isn’t that cool? I would love to update people on the great things our authors are doing–would you like to hear more about that? I don’t mind a little kvelling in the comments, you know.

Life Lessons From New Israeli Cemetery

This morning, I read a news story about a new cemetery in Kfar Saba, in Israel. The Jerusalem Post article about the cemetery notes that this cemetery will provide options for interfaith couples who want to be buried together. Civil burials have been legal in Israel since 1996, when the Knesset passed an Alternative Burial Law. Until that time, death, like other lifecycle events, was governed by the religious community of the individual. Israel inherited this system from the British Mandate government, which in turn maintained what was in place under Ottoman rule, so for centuries, interfaith couples in the land of Israel couldn’t be buried near one another.

Until recently, the only burial option for interfaith couples (and presumably for anyone whom the Israeli rabbinate didn’t consider Jewish) was to be buried on one of the kibbutzim that shared non-religious cemetery space. The Kfar Saba plots will cost much less than kibbutz burials. Residents in Kfar Saba will pay what everyone in Israel pays to bury relatives in government cemeteries.

According to the article about the cemetery in Haaretz, The society that maintains the cemetery is called Menucha Nechona or “correct rest,” which is resonant with the words of the Jewish memorial prayer, El Malei Rachamim (God, Full of Mercy). The civil cemetery will allow people to have secular burials with such customs as coffins and music at funerals, though these are not allowed in state Jewish funerals, but I don’t see this as an anti-religious effort. The regular burial society of Kfar Saba cooperated with the new group in dedicating some of the burial ground as a traditional Jewish cemetery, and there will be Orthodox burials there in additional to liberal Jewish burials and secular, non-religious ones. Allowing immigrants from other countries burials in a style that they are used to is secondary to the issue of being able to bury families together.

For interfaith families in Israel, this is a step forward. It also provides a model for Jews in the diaspora. The Jewish community is pluralistic, it contains non-Jewish family members and it has to accommodate difference. Our cemeteries should allow for all of that too.

Jewish Mourning in Mexico–A Comedy?

I’ve been meaning for some time to write about my Twitter pal, Rabbi Joshua Kullock, the rabbi of Guadalajara, Mexico. He blogs at Kol Ha-Kehila. If you are looking for Spanish-language resources to share information about Judaism with Spanish-speaking extended family, Rabbi Kullock does a regular online class on the prophet Amos in Spanish, and you can watch the class after it as aired as a recording, though you have to register. (I’m posting this now in part because I finally registered and figured out how to listen to it.)

I thought of Rabbi Kullock when I saw this crazy movie trailer. This is the second movie trailer I’ve seen about a shivah, the Jewish traditional week of mourning after a funeral–but this one is a comedy. Continue reading

Shiva, The Movie

I wonder if this movie, Shiva, about a Jewish family from Morocco mourning for a family member will be released in English? I found the trailer, in Hebrew with French subtitles, on the South Jerusalem blog. I think the trailer is interesting to watch even if you don’t know the languages, but you tell me.

If the movie does come out with English translation or subtitles, it would be great for the people who read www.interfaithfamily.com. We know we get a lot of hits from people who want to know about Jewish mourning practices. An article like the ones that Lula Jones and Valerie Cooper each wrote for us about being a non-Jew at a Jewish funeral for the first time could be helpful. Still, it would be neat to have a high-drama movie like this one that coincidentally illustrates what Jews do during mourning: