Jews for a Day

It was the firm belief of the sages that wherever ten Israelites are assembled, either for worship or for the study of the Law, the Divine Presence dwells among them. In rabbinical literature, those who meet for study or prayer in smaller groups, even one who meditates or prays alone, are to be praised. From Wikipedia

Jack was a contentious man, a cranky and childless Jew who married our mother, and inherited a tribe. He married our mother only after they had both been widowed, although they had loved each other for some several years before. A darkly handsome debonair man, he walked with a rolling gait that exuded confidence; a broad smile below his Clark Gable styled mustache was always pointed toward our mother. He left behind a number of passionate love- cards attesting to their commitment, and their patience, many of which had been written during their courting years. During the following 25 years after marriage, a constant thread of conversation revolved around a few major concerns, of which their desire to leave to the grandchildren some educational money “to let them know our values”, was one. They also had made plans, they being especially Jack, who wanted above all to be sure that we had the script down straight enough that there would be no bother for our mother, his one encompassing obsession. He wanted us to know, to the letter, his plans for his death, and how to carry them out.

Often, at family events, he would insist that we repeat the routine of paperwork, the plan, the arrangements for that eventual day. He had been sick with emphysema, worsening for 12 years. Have you ever heard the expression “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”? I do not know where that old cliché came from, but, I do know what happened. God laughed heartily, in rollicking great snorts of glee.

On the 3rd of July, Jack was in the hospital laboring to breathe, diseased with COPD, worsening as the evening wore on. With my husband and Me on either side of him, he first challenged us, uncomprehending who we were, threatening that we would “never work in this hospital again!” as we tried to reposition the air tube in his nose; he pulled on it, determined to remove it completely, tugging it out with agitation. We thought that he did not know what he was doing, but then, within 5 minutes, and before 6 PM, he breathed in and did not breathe out again. As suddenly as that he ceased to live; as undramatically as that, he left. A somber moment of quiet reflection was upon us, and after we stopped holding our own breath, we exhaled and inhaled a few times, in unison, then we looked steadily at one another for quite a long time, until we finally blinked at each other, and said “what now?”

First thoughts were to call the family, to share both relief at the loss of pain for Jack, and sadness, at the loss of Jack himself, our good man, our mothers husband, the only grandfather for so many. Second thoughts were the often repeated plan. We wracked our collective memories. What was next? He had instructed us for years, but now all we could think was – what are we supposed to do, NOW? Our next thought wa s – it's the Friday of a major holiday weekend. Neither Jew nor Gentile will be on duty to arrange this, and even here in a Catholic hospital, everyone who could be spared from ordinary medical routines has already left for their holiday time! Jews have clear, precise burial rituals, but St. Anthony hospital staff came by and wanted their room cleared and cleaned as quickly as possible, with all due respect. The taharah has different rituals. How could he be cleaned and prepared for the Rabbi? And which Rabbi would that be? We began to call. I am sure that ours were among the most bizarre calls received in many synagogues during the next 36 hours, while Jack waited quietly in the hospitals basement, already the first rule broken.

As we made the first calls to arrange the service, the body pick-up and the immediate burial, we found out the first hint of a problem was staring us in the face. It turned out that Jack, with all of his plans and advance notice, had neglected to join a synagogue, a temple. It was Friday evening, the Shabbat, the quiet time. And, it was 4th of July weekend. Really, Jack? Whatever were you thinking?

“Um, excuse me, I, I said. I am calling about the death this evening of my step-father. It was his wish that he be buried in the Jewish tradition, as he has been a practicing Jew all of his life, and, you see, we are not Jewish, so we don't know what that is supposed to look like, nor how to arrange it. We just discovered that he didn't affiliate with a particular synagogue, and as we are all non-Jews, we would like some help. I know that this is a holiday, and that this is the Sabbath, but if you get this message, ...” etc. etc. We called until it became unseemly late, past 9:30 PM.

With some rising panic, late the next day, having left messages at every possible synagogue that we could locate, we had the genius to call a Jewish funeral home, which, in my ignorance, I hadn't known existed. But now, we understand why there are specifically Jewish funeral homes, since those folks know something about how to do this well; even on the Shabbat, even over holiday weekends, people die. They have experience.

Finally, after 5 rings, someone answered. By then, I was blurting out my needs, and my voice had risen an octave, knowing that Jack was still in custody at the Catholic hospital in which he had died, and had now been moved to the basement, another unacceptable step in the rightful process. The rest of the family was with our mother. The man on the phone, gentle of voice, compassionate and full of lore, gave Lew and Me a crash course in Judaism, sufficient enough to get Jack buried. There was a lot we didn't know. And by now, Jack's family was making arrangements for their flights, and we didn't yet have a time or place for services. Jews are meant to be buried within 24 hours, as no embalming is allowed; cremation is frowned upon as well. The funeral director was the answer to the prayers of a confused Catholic/Methodist/Jewish/Unitarian/Baptist/Agnostic bunch. He knew all the right questions, which was the first gift of many kindnesses to come. He asked us where he had gone to temple in his home town; where was his yeshiva, whose counsel had he followed, and what particular bits of Judaic theology had been his. Like so many of us on our spiritual journeys, Jack had been orthodox in childhood, reform in his adulthood, and lax in his advancing years, as well as frugal with his dollars, refusing to spend them on enrollment, or membership, for a temple far from what he thought of as home. After he moved west, he had discarded all services but the one that he now desired. The director found for us within a day, a rabbi who would accept our rather unorthodox group and who agreed to perform the service and to bless the man who refused to be so served while he was alive. We did not ask him his affiliation, I realize. We were too grateful to overturn any apple carts, even kosher ones in the way of progress.

The funeral was delayed for a day to allow his diminished circle of relatives, and other friends to arrive from out of town. He was one of the few survivors of an immigrant family, whose members had gotten as far as the east coast, if they got out at all, from the fires of whichever pogrom was then in vogue. Hitler was only the latest, although one of the most organized. His mother, a small Russian/Polish Jewess, had left her home shtetl walking away under guard, much like the last scene in Fiddler on the Roof, as they leave Anatevka, although, she had said, minus the music, or mood lighting.

The day arrived. We were all taking our places. A few relatives, a few friends, a few co-workers, a bit more family. “We have no ten Jewish men to create a minyan,” said his sister, sadly. We felt sad for her as well, a vibrant and lovely widowed woman who had lost her brother, the next to last remaining member of four siblings. She looked so alone. In the side aisle, she sat next to our mother, yarmulke on her head. Our mother sat with rigid posture, head held up, as was her style, even though this was the second burial of a husband for her. There are no dress rehearsals for these events, just the being there and getting through. Tilting her head to one side, she nodded at her sister-in-law to look at the rows of heads, where the males of the family, the males of the workplace, the stepchildren and the step grandchildren all sat still, with yarmulkes on each head. The sizes mismatched, some wore bobby pins, some appeared more like mushroom caps, others like little black doilies, ready to fly off across the small room. Ann, his sister smiled, pleased. Our disorganized minyan was off the charts, out of structure, no doubt out of scripture as well.

Considering the possibility for errors and mistakes, Jews-for-a-Day went well enough that I know that Jack, even contrary and curmudgeonly Jack, would have been pleased. We left, to sit Shiva only for a few days, before we dispersed. Somehow it all fit, in its oddness, and in its sweet sadness. Jack had left his orders, and we gave them a good shot. I am very sure that God recognizes a good intention. We could honor our mother, and our step father, and their lives together, even if the act was that of dying in a stranger’s tent.

Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam...: Translation: "Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the universe..."