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I am the Interfaith Outreach Coordinator at a suburban synagogue and a graduate of the URJ's Schindler Fellowship in Interfaith Family Counseling. I also teach in our synagogue's religious school. Many of our students are from interfaith families and they and their parents come to me with lots of questions: "How do we include our non-Jewish relatives in Jewish lifecycle events?", "Is it appropriate to invite them to celebrate Jewish holidays?" And, of course, "How do we deal with the tension that occurs every December?"
Last year, the mother of one of my students stopped by after class; her father had passed away the day before. Brought up in her parents' Catholic faith, "Heather" had become a Jew-by-choice some years ago. She had fully embraced her new Jewish identity. She learned about Jewish history and traditions. She made a Jewish home and was an active participant in her children's religious education. She had even found a way to bring her non-Jewish and Jewish extended families together on holidays and special occasions. However, this was her first encounter with death and mourning. How could she honor her Catholic father without compromising her Jewish beliefs?
When it comes to lifecycle events, interfaith families are often unsure what to do. Most of the issues fall into two categories: what should we do and what can we do? Death and mourning are no exceptions. What does Judaism say when the loved one who has died wasn't Jewish?
According to his customs, there would be a funeral Mass, followed by burial in a Catholic cemetery. Heather didn't know if as a Jew she could or should go to her father's rites and how she could participate without offending anyone. What about his wake? Could a former Catholic bring her Jewish husband and Jewish children into the church for the Mass?
Jewish tradition has always been emphatic about the importance of showing respect for one's family of origin. There are no prohibitions against attending non-Jewish funerals, wakes and visiting hours. According to Jewish law, accompanying the deceased to the cemetery is one of the highest honors one can bestow on any person, Jew or non-Jew. This is particularly important when one loses a parent. Although we are required to mourn other close relatives, Judaism puts parents in a different category. Parents, who have given their children unconditional love, raised, educated, and transmitted human values to them, and who have established them as functioning and productive human beings, deserve the utmost respect in death, as they do in life.
After Heather's father was buried there were more issues. Could she sit shivah for someone who wasn't Jewish? Should she say Kaddish for the full year as one is obligated to do for a parent? How could she observe the anniversary of his death?
In the Jewish faith, once the burial has taken place attention shifts from honoring the dead to comforting the mourner. Judaism doesn't try to make sense of the loss nor does it try to make the pain go away. All it does is provide a lifeline, a way to get through. The ritual comforts of the Jewish faith are available to anyone shattered by loss. Jews are encouraged to observe these customs for both Jewish and non-Jewish family and friends.
Heather knew that the Jewish mourning process consists of several stages of decreasing intensity; allowing the full expression of grief while discouraging excessive grieving while helping the mourner to gradually return to a normal life. I was familiar with this process having lost my father a few years ago.
After the burial, we sat shivah at my mother's house. Surrounded by family and friends, my only task was to grieve. The company of others softened the blow of being in a place where my father's presence was still so strong.
Once shivah ended, I continued to say Kaddish in my synagogue. At first, I was unaware of anyone else. As the shock of my father's death began to recede, I met others, some of them saying Kaddish like me, others observing a loved one's yarzheit (anniversary of a death), and still others who were just there for the Sabbath morning service. I was embraced by this group and they gave me strength and solace when I needed them.
Heather decided she would mourn for her non-Jewish parent with Jewish rituals. She sat shivah for her father in her own home. Family and friends came by to express their condolences and to take care of anything she needed. She became more and more comfortable going to a synagogue to mourn someone not Jewish. She said Kaddish for the entire year as one is obligated to do for a parent.
When the year was up, both of us realized that there had been a common thread that ran through each phase of mourning. Judaism recognizes that it isn't good to be alone, especially when one is in pain. It was clear that being part of a community was essential to our recovery process. We were surrounded by people when our grief was most intense. In the synagogue, we stood with a supportive and sympathetic group, many of whom had traveled this same path.
Heather was satisfied that she had respectfully mourned her father without compromising her own beliefs. What's more, she could continue to honor his memory by observing his yarzheit and saying Yizkor. She put his name in the memorial book at Yom Kippur. She had a plaque made with his name on it and had it placed on the wall the synagogue among the names of other departed loved ones--Jews and non-Jews alike.
Judaism commands us to choose life over death in every situation. Because we don't know whether there is an afterlife, we are encouraged to make our time on earth count. Even after a terrible loss, we are expected to move forward. Sorrow doesn't distinguish between religions and cultures and losing a loved one is difficult under any circumstances. We can choose how we respond to it-- let sorrow take over our lives or make the effort to heal and move on. The Jewish practices of death and mourning are not about exclusion. They are not about doing things the right way or the wrong way. What they are about is helping anyone who grieves to choose life. This is what our loved ones would want us to do.