When my father died, my mother looked at him and said to me: “Where do you think he has gone?” She didn’t expect me to provide an answer. She asked because she didn’t think that there was one.
Mum wasn’t a great believer in the supernatural. I don’t think Dad was either, although he was less open about it. So, now, a few days after my mother died, there isn’t much of a comfort in the notion that “she has gone to join your father.” Mum was a scientist who, I think, would regard that as an interesting hypothesis with a low probability of corroboration.
When I was organising my Dad’s stone-setting, I discussed a long quote in Hebrew that we were contemplating. It wasn’t very practical.
“We can always do a shorter one,” I said. “I think Dad would have wanted some Hebrew.” Mum gave a half-smile and a little shrug.
So perhaps what I am now about to say may seem odd: one of the most precious things that my parents left to their children is religion.
It’s not absolutely the most precious thing. That would be my incredible siblings and their lovely families. In that sense, I suppose that Mum and Dad are indeed eternally joined together. But high among the gifts (to use Jonathan Freedland’s word) is Judaism.
On the first night sitting shiva, my sister recalled a conversation with my mother. Tamara was seeking advice and inspiration for a speech she was giving at a synagogue dinner (she is Joint Chair of New North London). Mum suggested reflecting upon the value of joining things.
When you ask people to join something, she said, people always think about what you might ask of them — time, money, commitment. But you always get so much more than you give.
That was certainly her experience. All of her adult life, for instance, she was a member of B’nai B’rith.
Through it she met my Dad, she developed a network of friends who lasted a lifetime and, in her last years when she couldn’t get out so much any more (like Old Mr Grace in Are You Being Served?, she would have wanted me to add) members of First Unity Lodge came to her. They were a light in her life, really they were.
Belonging is the heart of Judaism.
Last week, the rabbis of the different communities we belong to (my parents were members of Hendon Reform, my brother Alyth, I belong to Pinner and Northwood Liberal and my sister is Masorti, of course) each officiated at one night of prayers, and we were joined by many of the members of these congregations.
How wonderful to be able to share our loss and our memories with so many people who felt a sense of kinship with us through our common belonging. How wonderful to be led in prayer by remarkable community leaders who feel a sense of attachment to our families.
And along with belonging there was ritual and tradition. How comforting is it, when you feel quite lost, to know what you must do next, to be told, effectively, how to put one foot in front of the other at a time when that act seems really difficult.
My father found the origin of these rituals fascinating and became a proper scholar of them.
I certainly see why he believed that they contain wisdom and that study might yield their secrets. But the great thing about Judaism is that while such study may be of value it isn’t the essence. Judaism can hold you up even when you are least able to think. As I was this week.
As in death, so it was in life. What binds our family together is love, but what brings us all together physically, so often, is religious observance.
Shabbat (most importantly), Passover, Rosh Hashanah, breaking the fast, or the more scarce but special bar- and batmitzvahs.
On these occasions. Judaism doesn’t require of us that we share a view of God, or indeed even that we have one. It requires only that we belong, that we practice, that we reflect on the meaning of the practice, and that we pass the precious tradition to our children so that they, too, can enjoy the gift.
And so we will.
Daniel Finkelstein is Associate Editor of The Times