The e-mail began, “My beautiful mom died yesterday.”
The rest, all three lines of it, detailed the time, date and location of the memorial service that would be held for Lesley, a lovely woman who succumbed to congestive heart failure last month.
Lesley raised two successful, grounded daughters – one of whom was a close high school friend of mine. I was eager to be there for her.
Still, the memorial was at a church, and a little alarm went off in the back of my head as I drove through the familiar streets of my childhood to get there. It’s the same little warning that sounds whenever I’m invited to a church event. I am not Orthodox, but I do understand why some Orthodox Jews won’t enter churches: I so thoroughly and completely don’t belong in them.
Hubby’s non-Jewish grandma once helped me find a local synagogue at which I could attend High Holy Day services while we visited her in Evansville, Ind. I didn’t know a soul, but everything felt comfortable and familiar – the songs, the prayers, the incessant gossiping of the women behind me – why do I always seem to sit near the shul’s biggest yentas?
Contrast that with Grandma’s funeral many years later at a Baptist church. I knew lots of people there – they are my family! But the rituals surrounding my Grandma-in-law’s death were so foreign to me, I simply didn’t know how to mourn there. Instead, I elected myself babysitter-for-the-day and spent the better part of the (very, very long) service in a separate room entertaining the youngest grandchildren.
I’ve been to several church weddings and baptisms, but it is infinitely easier to make yourself comfortable in a foreign place during a – for lack of a less-Jewish term – simcha. It’s much, much harder to understand and participate in the act of mourning and of memorializing without the familiar tropes: the Kaddish, the internment.
It’s not that I’m in love with the way we mourn as Jews. The tradition of shoveling dirt on the grave is brutal – psychologically necessary, yes, but brutal. The Kaddish itself is strange – it’s a big Valentine to G-d at precisely the moment when you’re angriest at Him. But it’s the way we mourn.
I always figured that my ties to my religion are what made me understand Jewish services more than a non-Jewish ones. Then I went to Lesley’s memorial. It took a Unitarian Universalist to show me what I really appreciate about my own faith.
Two pleasant parishioners from the UU church greeted me at the door, directing me to sign my name in a book. Instead of a ripped ribbon, they handed me a name tag. I stepped inside to find three of my former high schoolmates sitting in a row. One seat remained empty, as though it were saved for me.
Unitarian Universalists are by definition non-dogmatic. No one uttered the word “God” once. No one spoke of Heaven or of Lesley’s soul. Instead, family members read a few of Lesley’s favorite poems. They told stories about her childhood and about her passions. It wasn’t the requisite kind words for the dead – they told real stories. Some were funny. Some were poignant. None would have been out of place at a shiva.
Through the poems and stories and songs, what emerged was a picture not only of a woman who had died, but of the family and community she left behind. It dawned on me that it is much more than the prayers and rituals that I embrace about Jewish funerals. It is precisely this sense of the community coming together that makes our mourning practices comforting to me. No one brought a babka or chopped liver to the UU church, but we all lingered for much longer than our allotted time, reminiscing and supporting each other with real love. I was in a church, yes, but this felt familiar.
Toward the end of the service, the Reverend invited us each to say a silent prayer. I shut my eyes and began the only way I know how…
“Yitgadal ve-yitkadash, Shmei rabbah…”
It wasn’t a prayer Lesley would have known, but the sentiment is something she would have recognized.