Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Not Alone

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-Jewy 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.

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