The soft murmur of prayers filled the room. I could hear voices behind me, in the hallway, and all around me: voices unified in prayer. I could hear the voice of the cantor leading the familiar prayer for peace, and, had I been able to look up, I would have seen a room filled with friends, more people than I had ever seen in my apartment, dozens of people filling the small space, all united with one purpose: not merely to mourn, but to mourn together, as a Jewish community.
Mourning as a Jew was something new to me. My father died very suddenly, on a March afternoon, of a cerebral hemorrhage. At the time, I had been Jewish for less than three years; and although I'd attended Jewish funerals, and had dutifully sat shiva with many fellow congregants, I had always assumed there would be time to figure out how to mourn before the time came. I always thought there would be more time.
But with my father's death came a terrible new reality. Not only was he gone, but he hadn't told anyone what his final wishes were, including for his funeral. Would we hold a Jewish funeral, in which case we would sit shivah for him? Or would he have wanted a funeral Mass in a Catholic church--a religion in which his daughters were raised?
The question was more complex than it seemed. Complicating matters was the fact that my father had been born Jewish and abandoned his religion almost 50 years ago. Only later in life had begun to gravitate back to his heritage. Shortly before he died, my mother asked him if he "wanted to go back"…and while his answer was non-committal, the facts remained: on a number of occasions he was in the front row of my temple's sanctuary when I led Friday night Shabbat services. He and I were planning a trip to Israel when he died.
Ultimately, my mother chose for us--the next thing we knew, we were in the funeral home, arranging the Mass, responding to questions like, "Would you like your father buried with a rosary in his hands?"
This, I felt, was too much to bear. "No," I suddenly exploded. "No rosary."
The nice lady from the funeral home looked at my sister, alarmed.
"My sister's Jewish," Laura explained helpfully.
The woman nodded. It seemed that she'd seen interfaith families before. Plans for a funeral Mass and a wake were made, which only left one question: Amidst all this Catholic ritual, how could I possibly mourn as a Jew?
I knew that I couldn't walk away from the funeral and burial without taking part in some kind of Jewish observance. I had converted to Judaism in part to reclaim a heritage my father had indifferently jettisoned. I also knew that the wake and the funeral Mass would stir up all sorts of uncomfortable feelings for me--not just because we were burying my Jewish father using a Catholic ritual, but also because some of these rituals were--I had to admit this--more familiar to me than the Jewish ones.
And so I ultimately chose to sit shivah. At that point, it was what I needed. A short conversation with my rabbi ensued, in which she assured me that shivah could be tailored to my needs; although some people sat for the whole seven days, I didn't have to. I was relieved: after the actual day of my father's death, and three days of the funeral and the wake, I felt that I had covered a whole lot of ground already. Three days of shivah, culminating in Shabbat, was about what I could handle.
And that was when the members of my temple sprang into action. Before I knew it, an email had gone out to the temple membership. Several hours after the Catholic funeral Mass, after I had returned home, a knock on my apartment door announced the arrival of two Outreach Committee members, laden with cookies and rugelach and a coffee urn big enough to provide beverages for the entire membership. They sat me down with a mug of tea and a plate of cookies and rearranged chairs and tables, spread tablecloths and set out plates.
And then the visitors came. As a new mourner, people assured me that there was no need for me to get up and answer the door. For once, I felt like I didn't have to play social director. Even though I was surrounded by friends, I could sit in silence. Even though I wanted to put on a brave face, I could cry if I needed to. No one asked me for anything. It was a huge relief to sit in the midst of such comfort.
The prayer services took place each night until Shabbat arrived. On that evening, as the sun went down, I did what many rabbis prescribe as a tradition: I took a walk around the block. I breathed in the fresh air, felt the damp March wind in my hair. It was sundown and Shabbat was beginning. One week earlier, almost to the minute, my father had left this world behind. On this newly arrived Shabbat, I was nowhere near close to healing, but at least it was the seventh day, and finally, I could rest.