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Finding Comfort in Jewish Ritual After the Loss of My Catholic Father

I remember very clearly the last time I saw my father alive. He was standing in my doorway saying good-bye after a family dinner celebrating my sister's birthday. Nothing could have prepared me for the next day when I received a phone call early in the morning from my sister-in-law to tell me that Arthur had died in his sleep.

Arthur married my mother when I was six years old. I had no memory of my biological father, who had left my mother, sister and myself several years earlier. My new stepfather, who I always called Arthur, became more than my father; he also became my best friend for more than thirty-eight years.

He was raised in an Italian Catholic home with eight other sisters and brothers. He did not have much formal education, but he worked hard as a restaurant owner. He never believed in going to church but he never discouraged me from attending church every Sunday. More importantly, Arthur was a loving and generous man who was there when I needed him, but who let me be myself and make my own decisions.

When I decided to marry a Jewish man, Barry, and raise our children Jewishly, Arthur embraced my decision and was very happy to participate in our Jewish celebrations. He loved coming to our Passover seders and even joined us occasionally for Shabbat, Sabbath, dinners at our synagogue. When I decided to convert to Judaism after being married for ten years, he was happy for me.

I was devastated when I lost Arthur. I do not think I could have gotten through the first week after his death without my husband. Barry stood by me while I helped my family plan the arrangements for Arthur's wake and funeral. And when my mother asked him to write the eulogy, Barry was honored and accepted the challenge. Barry's eulogy was beautifully written and captured the life of my beloved father.

As was typical of our interfaith marriage, my husband and I understood how to respect the needs of each other's families, whether it was during holiday celebrations or major life-cycle events. For example, every December we would invite all of my family to our Hanukkah celebration, and then we would help my family celebrate Christmas by fully participating in their holiday events. This included family dinners and an afternoon at the country club where my father played Santa Claus. Therefore, it was no surprise to me when Barry stood on the alter at church with four priests and delivered the eulogy for Arthur.

After we buried Arthur, I realized that I needed to connect with my Jewish religion to fully mourn his death. I had been a member of a temple for five years, even though I had converted to Judaism only five months before Arthur's death. I currently was studying with nine other women in an adult B'nai Mitzvah class. I called the temple and learned that the rabbi was on vacation. Our cantor called me back and offered to conduct a memorial service at my home. The next evening the cantor and the members of my B'nai Mitzvah class arrived and, along with other Jewish friends, constituted a minyan, a prayer quorum of ten adult Jews. The Cantor led us in traditional Jewish songs and prayers ending with the mourner's Kaddish, or prayer. I was able to seek solace in prayers of the Jewish language and tradition that had become part of my life. I was also touched by the sense of community that had gathered around me. These wonderful women from my temple brought their words of comfort and enough food to feed my family for weeks. The next day was Friday, and I knew that attending Shabbat services at our temple would also be a source of comfort to me. During the service, I could quietly grieve my loss again but at the same time be with my Jewish community.

Each year I am comforted by knowing that the anniversary of my father's death will be remembered by the temple during a Shabbat service. I look forward to this time of year so that I can remember Arthur's life and death surrounded by my Jewish world.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "holy," a prayer found in Jewish prayer services. There are many versions of the Kaddish, the best known being the Mourner's Kaddish, said by mourners. Hebrew for "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. ("Hazzan" in Hebrew.) Hebrew for "count," it refers to the quorum of ten Jewish adults (in some communities only men are counted; in others both men and women) required to hold a Torah service, recite some communal prayers, and the home-based recitation of the Kaddish. Minyan may also now refer to group that meets for prayer service, similar to a synagogue's congregation or a havurah. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Joyce Schwartz

Joyce Schwartz works with intermarried couples for the Reform movement.

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