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This article was presented as a talk at “Comforting the Bereaved,” a Union for Reform Judaism Northeast Council conference held March 28, 2007, at Temple Shalom of Newton in Newton, Mass., and addressed to employees of Jewish institutions.
Hi, everyone. I’m going to start with a little background. I am 28-year-old Protestant and am married to a Jewish man. Elliot and I started dating almost 10 years ago, and were aware of our interfaith status from the very beginning. We entered our interfaith marriage very consciously, and have discussed many interfaith issues at length. We identify with different faiths, and neither of us plans to convert. We have decided to raise our children as Jews, and we continue to discuss interfaith issues as they arise or come into our consciousness. Of course, every couple navigates these decisions differently--we have yet to find another interfaith couple who sees eye to eye with us on every issue. In fact, we have yet to find any couple who agrees with us on everything. There are often many similarities, but the decisions and compromises each couple reaches are deeply personal and rarely work perfectly for another couple. So, please know that I am speaking for myself and my husband today--but not for every interfaith couple.
Of all the topics interfaith couples could discuss, bereavement is not one that comes up often when you’re in your late 20s and newly married. As I was preparing for today, I asked a few interfaith friends my age about their experiences with death and mourning; I came up with surprisingly little feedback. Many of us can talk at length about planning weddings, including in-laws in the intermarried discussion, raising children, and navigating the major holidays, but mourning is not a topic people my age give much thought to. Still, while Elliot and I have been lucky in many ways and have not suffered any tragic losses, we have each lost two grandparents since we’ve been together. So, I’m going to talk a little bit about our interfaith perspectives on the bereavement rituals of our two faiths, and also the beginnings of our discussion on how we might approach death and mourning between the two of us and within the family we hope to become.
Being in an interfaith relationship has given me the opportunity to take more notice of the rituals I might otherwise have taken for granted. My traditions were just what I did, but I stop and think about the purpose behind Elliot’s traditions and, in turn, I examine my own traditions more closely knowing that they are can be so foreign to him. Sometimes we find each others’ rituals familiar--after all, they both have Judeo-Christian roots--but at other times we are surprised by the points of difference. When my grandmother died four years ago and then Elliot’s grandfather died last fall, I was struck by how important these mourning rituals are. There’s a powerful logic behind them that resonates with me. The repetition, almost the rote nature of these traditions, seems to me to provide solace in a time when learning a new routine or working out logistics might just be too much. There are guidelines, rules even, on what to do, and I was deeply impressed by how well thought out those guidelines were.
Still, while the broad themes are the same in both faiths, the specifics are unique to each. I’ve been particularly struck by the strong parallels between our grieving processes and our families’ cultural styles. Sometimes it’s hard for me to separate my family’s individual culture from our faith; similarly, as Elliot’s family has taught me the most about Judaism, it can be difficult for me to separate them from what it means to be Jewish. Our families are wildly different--mine is reserved, his shows its emotions passionately--and those differences are apparent in the ways we mourn.
When my grandmother died, Elliot and I were both deeply moved. She was the family matriarch, and we were very close. When I was little, she would have me over for sleepovers and pick me up from school. Later, she would invite Elliot and me to her apartment for dinner every couple of months, and fill us in on all the building gossip. She and Elliot were an odd pair--she was old Boston Brahmin and he was a nice Jewish boy, but they were both very fond of each other and she was thrilled when we got engaged. She wasn’t in perfect health, but her death still seemed sudden. Elliot and I were the only two people with her at the hospital when she died, and we both feel very lucky to have been there with her. I stayed home from work the next day, went to work the following day, and attended her funeral on the third day. My whole family--cousins, uncles, estranged spouses, and all--came together for dinner the night before the funeral and shared stories of my grandmother. My father, my uncle, and my cousin gave eulogies at the service, and there was an hour-long reception at the church afterwards. People had lots to say about my grandmother--she was incredibly dynamic--and this collection of rituals provided closure for all of us. It was comforting to see how full the church was of people who had known my grandmother, and it had been moving to have our family come together the night before for our more intimate gathering. Once the reception was over, though, we dusted ourselves off and went about our regular lives.
While the funeral marked the end of the mourning process for my family, it marked the beginning for Elliot’s. When his grandfather died this past fall, the family took many familiar steps in making funeral arrangements and finalizing logistics. We attended an emotional, but quiet burial, and then Elliot’s mother sat shiva. I had been to shivas before--but this was the first that I participated in over the course of several days, and I began to appreciate more of the meaning to the ritual. A mandatory seven-day period of mourning was very powerful. The concept of supporting the bereaved and reminiscing about the deceased wasn’t new, but the duration and explicit focus was. Seven days is a long time. It is too long not to notice that you’ve stopped everything, that people are coming to visit and comfort you, and that you have experienced a loss. This intensity can be hard for someone like me who is used to that hour-long reception. That said, once my mother-in-law stopped sitting shiva, I saw the same kind of closure that I’d seen when my grandmother’s reception had ended. I don’t feel that one way of mourning is better than the other; I think the end result is the same. But the two traditions are very different.
It has been moving for each of us to have our parents participate in each other’s grieving. Elliot’s parents came to my grandfather’s memorial service, which turned out to be very emotional for me, and my father came to shiva for Elliot’s grandfather, which meant a great deal to Elliot. It is heart-warming to see our interfaith connection spread beyond just the two of us to our parents and see them participate in and offer support through each others’ mourning rituals.
Up until this point, Elliot and I have been able to simply follow the default faith and traditions. If one of us were to die tomorrow--before we’ve had any children--we would follow that person’s traditions. But what if I were to die 10 years from now, when we hope to have children and be raising them in the Jewish tradition? How important is it to me to be buried as a Protestant? How important will it be to my husband and children to mourn me as Jews? In the Jewish tradition, everything before the burial is about the dead, but everything after is about the mourners. So, I wonder what that interfaith funeral will be like.
I talked earlier about how the rituals we follow serve as guides to death and mourning, and I certainly question the wisdom of improvising with such well-established traditions and diluting their benefits. And again, every interfaith couple handles these moments differently. So, approach interfaith couples creatively. Know that non-Jews don’t yet know all the words to Kaddish, that shiva may be overwhelming, and that the rituals in general can at first be foreign. Recognize that the importance of these life events presents a lot of challenges to couples with different traditions, but also that the bereavement process is about more than just the rituals themselves--at its essence it is about the comfort those rituals bring.