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The Role of Faith in the Mourning Process for Those Raised in Interfaith Homes

April 8, 2011

For someone raised in an interfaith household, it may not always be easy to look for guidance. The gentle echoes of cathedral walls may be calming, while a synagogue's pavilion might provide more warmth and intimacy. In a time of mourning, this search for solitude can become increasingly difficult. One question that often comes to mind is, "Where should someone who was brought up by parents with two different faiths turn to for guidance?" Still, others may be wondering, "What is the place of faith in the mourning process?" In truth, there's no wrong answer.

When I first moved to New York City, after the passing of my mother, I found myself exploring my new surroundings as much as possible. On sunny days in June, I would walk up 15th street, from 4th Ave in Park Slope, to the edge of Prospect Park. From there, I would turn north towards Grand Army Plaza, passing the famous Park Slope pavilion and the Jewish Children's Museum on my way. On other days, I would find myself hiding from the rain or overcast weather in the many record stores, museums and cafes of the East Village. Many of these walks were taken alone, with only my thoughts and reflections to tend to.

Eventually I began to realize that in my own way I was finding solitude and peace, away from the hustle and bustle of everyday. These outings were my own time to find faith in myself and ultimately learn how to grieve. Faith was in my surroundings.

When a person is mourning, no matter what their upbringing, there is no wrong way to grieve. Above all, let this notion be a benchmark for how to care for yourself or others in the seemingly endless plight of loss. The most important thing to do is emote, in whichever way is most comforting. Once someone that is grieving allows themself to feel whatever it is they may be experiencing, then he or she can approach the sometimes daunting task of discerning faith's role in the mourning process.

The following is a list of places centered on Jewish culture where one can hope to find solitude and comfort, as I did, amidst the bustle of New York City:

  1. The Lower East Side:

    The Lower East Side is located on what used to be the farm land of Tom Delancey. His name is still remembered as Delancey Street. Nearby, Orchard Street is named for the farmer's famous orchards that survived until nearly two hundred years ago, when the land was turned into a bustling market and trading community. Since then, the Lower East Side has been home to Germans, Irish and, notably, the Jews who gradually became a crucial part of the industrious population of New York City's merchants in the 19th and 20th centuries.

    One can take a historic walk down Hester and Essex Streets. These two streets were once main thoroughfares in a thriving Jewish community. A few Jewish delicatessens and other businesses still survive in the area. Apart from business, Second Ave. was once known as the "Yiddish Broadway."
     
  2. Sanctuaries

    The Lower East Side is famous for some of the oldest synagogues, not just in New York, but in the entire country. The Eldridge Street and Meseritz Synagogues are two of the like, gorgeously ornate and resting peacefully amongst the thriving neighborhood.
     
  3. Walking Tours

    For those seeking more information on the neighborhood, Lower East New York offers several different ways to reconnect with the area. Lower East Side NY offers a comprehensive tour, starting from Katz's Deli every Sunday, April through November, that is free and open to the public.

    For an alternative, claustrophobes and those looking to avoid crowds can check out Lower East Side NY's podcasts with chapters of information ranging from Eldridge Street Synagogue, to clothes and shopping, to the history of the Delancey farm and the Lower East Side's birth.

    Every last Sunday, April through October, ELS LES tours provide a guided walking tour of artists' spaces and galleries. Meet at the Lower East Side Visitor Center, 54 Orchard (between Grand and Hester). Free and open to the public.
     
  4. Museums

    The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, located at 97 Orchard Street, should be a peaceful staple for anyone who finds New York history fascinating. Some of Lower Manhattan's most inspiring buildings are amongst the East Village and Lower East Side's stalwart pre-war tenements. When I visit these beautiful buildings, I find it comforting to know that they were once home to many of the Jewish immigrants of the 19th century who helped transform a fledgling farming and merchant town into a thriving economy.

    On a larger scale, the Center for Jewish History can be a rewarding alternative to the crowded Ellis Island or Statue of Liberty for the many who wish to retrace their ancestors' steps into the New World. The same can be done at the Center for Jewish History, located on 15th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, where every month, visitors have access to art exhibitions, films, concert, lectures and other programs. At the heart of it all, the Lillian Goldman Reading Room provides individual work stations with lighting, free computer use and wifi allowing access to family history databases, roots research guides and many more tools.

    In addition to being a museum, the Center for Jewish History is also home to many societies including the American Historical Jewish Society, American Sephardi Federation, Leo Baeck Institute, Yeshiva University Museum, and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
     
  5. Prospect Park and Green-Wood Cemetery

    No New York quest for reflection will be complete without visiting both Prospect Park and the nearby Green-Wood Cemetery. Both attractions play out like a silent time machine, revealing a tranquil glimpse of what the land in and around New York looked like just over a hundred years ago. Lush foliage, rolling hills and translucent lakes are replete in Prospect Park and all along the edges of Brooklyn neighborhoods Park Slope, Prospect Heights and Flatbush. Other points of interest in the park include the widely used Picnic House, Prospect Park Zoo, Prospect Park Lake, several baseball fields, free outdoor concerts and a jogging/biking path around the perimeter.

    Less than a 15 minute walk away, one can find the mammoth Green-Wood Cemetery, opened in 1838. Unlike Prospect Park, which is modeled after Central Park, Green-Wood Cemetery lies on land that remains untouched since it was used as a major battle ground in the Revolutionary War. Many come to pay their respects or even just clear their minds while wandering through the cemetery hills and pathways. An on-site chapel, built in 1911 by Warren and Wetmore (designers of Grand Central Station), is open to the public and hosts regular services of many different faiths. Among the many famous deceased that lay within the cemetery gates — notably Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), composer and conductor — a nest of parrots that escaped a flight to JKF in the 1960s that also calls the cemetery home.
     

Whether you're in New York or not, similar spaces can be found in many communities. Many of the places I sought out connected me to my ancestry, helped me find my own spiritual footing, or gave me the quiet space I needed to work through my grieving. Explore, let your mind wander and find those spaces that work for you.

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." A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino.
Dan Bindschedler

Dan Bindschedler currently lives in Portland, Oregon. He is a musician and freelance writer. In 2015, he will release Water Dreams, an album of dark, abstract piano and cello songs with singer-songwriter Robin Bacior. He is also working on a collection of travel-essays titled Walk.

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