Since I lost my father, I have felt grateful for the Jewish way of death

Jonathan Freedland reflects on the kindness of strangers and a religion with an 'AAA rating when it comes to grieving'

October 25, 2018 15:27

In front of me is a pile, both real and virtual, of condolence messages, consoling me on the death of my father, Michael. He died unexpectedly at the start of this month, still working at age 83, in the faraway town of Aberdeen, South Dakota and I’ve barely got started on replying to the letters, emails, cards and tweets that have come my way ever since. But I hope, in time, to respond to every single one.

They are full of tender concern for me and my family, often accompanied by a choice anecdote from my father’s career or from his youth. Many come with wise advice about the business of bereavement, including a line that has stayed with me. “The good thing,” wrote an old friend who lost his own father not long ago, “is that you are in a religion that has got a AAA rating when it comes to grieving.”

He’s right. At each stage of this process and, I’m afraid, it’s one I’ve now been through three times I have felt grateful for the Jewish way of death, full of admiration for the sheer emotional intelligence shown by our ancestors as they established the rites and traditions that guide a Jewish mourner.

The first of these is speed. Judaism demands a swift burial, without delay. Following the deaths of my mother in 2012 and sister in 2014, that meant funerals within a day or two. But because my father died so far from home, we had to wait the best part of a week. It could have been much, much longer – I’ll come back to that but even those six days felt agonisingly long. The family were caught in an emotional no man’s land, stranded between the shock of the loss and the beginning of the grieving process. Every hour seemed to crawl by.

Perhaps people who are not raised with the expectation that a funeral be quick would not have been so troubled by that delay. And yet this seems to me more than mere cultural conditioning. Surely the limbo between a death and a funeral is hard for everyone. Judaism’s insistence that the grieving process needs to begin as soon as possible and that a burial is how it begins fits the shape of the human heart.

The same goes for the shivah. It can be so hard at the time, throwing open your home to friends, relatives and well-wishers, having one conversation after another. But it works as a remarkably effective anaesthetic, soothing some of the pain if only through the power of forced distraction. When the grief would otherwise be at its most immediate, most raw, there is no chance of disappearing into yourself: you are compelled to be with other people, to sit and tell stories about the person whose absence is only just beginning to sink in.

There are rules to guide your behaviour, from not leaving the house to not taking too much care over your appearance. One rabbi explained to me that these are best understood as social obligations that the mourner is permitted to skip. At a time when you might not feel like going out, say, Judaism gives you a cast-iron alibi: you’re not allowed.

And then it ends and the mourner experiences the post-shivah sadness, a deeper sense of loss than had been permitted, or even possible, before, when there were logistics to manage and people all around. Most bereaved people will tell you, those days are the hardest. But here too Jewish tradition has a remedy.

Its name is kaddish. The obligation to say that prayer and not to say it at home alone but in a congregation, compels you back into the world. Those few moments as you incant the age-old words and your words are affirmed by others is unexpectedly healing. As my old friend put it in that note, kaddish is “an ancient form of group therapy.”

These are the traditions of our people and they have guided us for centuries. But I’ve gained comfort too from an aspect of the Jewish community that we perhaps take for granted. In moments of crisis, we help each other.

What I have in mind is the fact that a funeral for my father went ahead within a week. Given the circumstances, it could have taken a month. It’s a long, complicated story but a key role was played by a strictly Orthodox man from Stamford Hill who didn’t know me or my father. His name is Sidney, or Shlome, Sinitsky and, as if from nowhere, he stepped forward to unblock the bureaucracy that would otherwise have held things up. Over the years, helping families in similar situations, he has got to know the coroners and local officials who make the crucial decisions on when burial can go ahead. (It wasn’t relevant for us, but he’s been instrumental in persuading the authorities that a scan can take the place of an invasive autopsy.)

At a moment of maximum pain, when we were in shock and in limbo, someone we had never met performed an act of extraordinary kindness and he did it for no personal reward whatsoever. Mr Sinitsky is a businessman: he does this work simply because he knows it needs to be done.

This month has been full of sorrow. But it has also made me grateful for being born into a tradition and a community that knows how to handle grief, which is, of course, the price we pay for love.

Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for the Guardian

October 25, 2018 15:27

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