Terry McGrath is a comedian who performs on the Borscht Circuit, at the Florida condos, and in synagogues and Jewish community centers all over the country. He is a graduate of Columbia University. His wife, Ilene, holds a graduate degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary and is ritual chairperson in her synagogue. His brother, Felix, has been a Franciscan priest for 50 years.
The Family Plot
I teach the Intermarriage course at an ElderHostel at Sullivan County Community College in the heart of the "Borscht Belt" in upstate New York. The students themselves are not intermarried. They are people in their 70s and 80s who are concerned with the intermarriages of their children, their grandchildren, and their great-grandchildren. The students had parents who were totally observant Orthodox Jews, many of whom were immigrants. The students then became Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or "Jews in their hearts." But they retained the Jewish roots and many traditions of their parents. (It must be noted that only 35% of Jews are affiliated with a synagogue, which means 65% are not.)
Over time, these students had children, many of whom intermarried. This has opened up a plethora of questions, most of which get discussed in my classes.
The discussions usually start with, "Who performs the intermarriage ceremony?" A rabbi and a priest or minister, an environmental commissioner, a friend with a certificate from a mail order church in Phoenix? Do we wear yarmulkes, and does a glass get broken?
And when children are born, they ask, is there a bris (circumcision) or baptism--or both? (Many of these grandparents started putting aside Hebrew School tuition funds the day the grandchild was born.)
And the social life. If there is a Passover seder, they want to know, does the non-Jewish family attend? And if so, does the Jewish family attend the Easter and Christmas festivities of the other partner's family? And ah, the December dilemma. Grandma Sylvia gives the kids $700 for Hanukkah, and grandma Maureen gives them $800 for Christmas.
Today, 50% of marriages end in divorce. The figure is higher for intermarriages. Remarriage, or having a live-in partner, brings with it the complications of stepchildren, new extended families, etc., as well as more questions for my grandparents/students to raise.
Lately a new issue has become part of our discussions. Burial. Most Jewish cemeteries will only accept Jews for burial. The policies of Catholic cemeteries vary from diocese to diocese: some will allow anyone to purchase a plot, while others will only allow a Catholic to do so. Some require crosses on headstones; others don't. Muslim cemeteries have no restrictions on non-Muslim marriage partners being buried with their Muslim partner in their cemeteries. And we cannot overlook the fact that the number of cremations is on the rise.
The questions my Jewish grandparent/students raise are not really religious in nature. A few fervently believe that Jews must be buried in a Jewish cemetery, but the major concern for most of the students is "the family plot."
In the New York metropolitan area alone there are more than 100 Jewish cemeteries. And in each of those cemeteries there are small plots where the Goldberg, or Blumkin, or Shapiro families are buried. The parents of my students, and in some cases even their grandparents, are buried in these "family plots"--along with uncle Heshey, aunt Lena, cousin Morty, and Harry Weinberg, who wasn't related, but was an honorary uncle.
My students regularly visit the "family plot." They talk to the graves. They wander around the plot, their minds filled with memories and nostalgia. This is a sacred place for them--and not because of religious reasons. (And if there is a "family plot" for the male half of the family, there is also one for the female partner's family.)
To think that their child, even if intermarried, would not be interred in the "family plot" is unthinkable. It is a common Jewish tradition to place a stone on the top of the gravestone when you visit a cemetery as a way of saying someone was here, someone remembers you. My students worry that the grandchildren will visit their parent's graves, and not be able to stop by the grandparent's graves to leave a stone because their parent's graves are not in the same cemetery as the "family plot."
But, given the restrictions imposed by religious cemeteries, should couples be separated at death because of their religious beliefs? Should they be buried in different cemeteries?
These are not fantasies. These are actual concerns that constantly arise in our class discussions. I have no answers. Perhaps there are no answers. But it certainly is an issue that bears serious consideration.
Intermarriage is on the rise. Perhaps in a few generations there will be no such thing as the term "intermarriage," perhaps all marriages will be "inter" something--but the "family plot" will always be there, although it may be a new family that establishes the "plot."
Alev Hashalom, Rest in Peace
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. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals. Hebrew for "covenant," often referring to the ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old ("brit milah" - "covenant of circumcision"). It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit."