Who’s the Jew? My “Uncle” Al, a teacher of rabbi’s.

Let’s bury this decade. Good Riddence 2010’s

I had a memory of some common realities that have played out several times in my life. In my Chanukah post I mentioned that my fathers best friend, my ‘Uncle’ Al was an orthodox jew who founded two orthodox synagogues on Long Island.

Founding a temple requires faith, vision and a young spirit. Even when he was old and an Elder in those synagogues he always sided with the younger men who wanted to expand and spend money, rather than saying that what they had was ‘good enough’. If the young people wanted it, he would find a way to facilitate. This is how one grows and builds community. He was proud of that.

I come from a long tradition that goes back before any family memory. This is deeply personal and i’m not even sure why i’m publishing it on a public blog about food.

We bury our own.

I bag my own groceries. There is something entitled and disrespectful to those on line behind me, to stand there and oversee a cashier bag my groceries. It just feels so wrong. There is something about unknown, paid gravediggers burying a loved one that seems outrageously disrespectful to me.

When a Jew dies the world stops immediately. There is nothing more important than getting that body in the ground within 24 hours. Sabbath excepted (hypocrisy a must).

The casket must be plain biodegradable wood, no metal hinges or clasps, just pegs. The faster the whole packages decomposes the better.

In the new American style of burial, Schlocky astroturf covers the mound of earth in a feeble attempt to hide what is about to be done. Each mourner puts at least 3 shovelfuls of dirt (earth) in the grave, using the back of the shovel, to show our reluctance to bury the deceased. And then they leave. Staged, Sanitary, Unsatisfying.

There is a “sect” of us that can not abide by this. My father and his best friend “Al” dug a grave in frozen ground in the winter during a gravedigger strike in order to bury Al’s fathers body within the 24 hour period. I have stood in terrible weather by open graves with my father and my immediate family after everyone else was long gone, until that grave was completely filled in. It is the last shovelful of earth that releases the soul. My father refused to leave the grave of a person who he respected enough to go to their funeral “before the job is done”.

He explained only once to me, “This is the final deed you do for your loved one. How can you turn your back and walk away before this last act is finished?” I learned years after dad died that the Talmud speaks of acts you perform for the dead. These are the highest and special mitzvahs (good deeds). These acts are done out of respect, admiration, love and KNOWING that you will never be paid back for them. The Talmud considers these acts the highest form of charity Justice.

The mitzvah, commandment, of Livayat HaMet, the accompanying of the dead to their final burial place, is considered one of the most important of all the mitzvot. Why? Because it is considered to be the only truly selfless act; it is the only “favor” you can do for another without any expectation of the favor being returned. Helping another in their transition from this world to the next is the supreme human obligation. It will happen to us all, yet no one truly understands how this transition takes place. We can only guess, and try our best to help.

I mentioned that my Uncle Al was a teacher of teachers. A teacher of rabbi’s. He was one who held this value and tradition. Its roots may be jewish, but not all jews do this, are aware of this or have ever experienced it. I have non-jewish friends that have participated in this ritual. At funerals you discover who these people are. Their religion is irrelevant, their faith in community and justice is unshakable.

When we buried my Uncle Al, there were hundreds of young, orthodox jews in attendance. All wearing black with specific head coverings. Then there was me in an Armani Suit, sneakers and a bare head. His casket was elevated by this sea of humanity and transported silently hand over hand over head from the hearse to the grave. I had never seen or experienced this before or since. Uncle Al’s son and I took the lead, as we had done this for my father, then my mother and several times before. The Young orthodox Rabbi, instructed us to each put a shovel of dirt in the grave with the back of the shovel. We use the back of the shovel because it makes burying the dead more difficult and time-consuming. It is introspective, and demonstrates reluctance to say goodbye, while doing it anyway.

When that was complete there was still a considerable amount of dirt left. Al’s son, Todd, and I started shoveling in the dirt as fast as we could. The Rabbi got upset and said: “You don’t have to do that.” “STOP”. Todd, the son of the teacher of rabbi’s, ignored him and kept shoveling. The Rabbi said “STOP!, This is not necessary!” When I heard that I got incensed. I said to him: “Rabbi, It is not your place to tell me or anyone else what is not necessary. Why don’t you just watch and learn?” Then I ignored him and kept on shoveling. More of the congregation joined us. We were not going to stop until the job was done. It was our individual and community obligation.

We bury the ones we love in what becomes through that action “hallowed ground.” Strangers – paid gravediggers do not touch that ground while there are friends and family capable of doing that job. It just will not happen. Each shovelful of earth is a mitzvah, it is the final act of love, respect and admiration, of community, that you bestow on a loved one to help them transition from this world to the next. An act that will never be repaid. You do not turn your back and leave. We do what is necessary. It is what we do.

“in a loud voice, that the dead should hear, and the living: ‘Mordecai ben Menahem, all that we have done is for your honor. And if we have not done our task properly, we beg your forgiveness.‘”

This ‘altercation’ has happened to me at several funerals with several rabbi’s. The notion that a rabbi can not learn and can only teach is an anathema. I thought I would go to Al’s temple in the weeks that followed and talk to the rabbi and explain why his behaviour at the funeral was egregious. I also wonder why these orthodox rabbi’s ALWAYS address me – the one who doesn’t look or act like a jew (I don’t even know how to say kaddish – the mourners prayer or wear a headcovering) and not his “flock” who are participating.

I chose not to speak with the rabbi. Let the founder of his temple’s burial be the lesson. I hope that the rabbi learned what was “necessary” for Al’s family and congregation. It is justice that Al’s last act was to teach the rabbi.

I love to teach. In teaching I learn more than my students. I go with an agenda, I teach what I think i’m teaching. Later, when I watch my students I learn they learned things I didn’t know I taught them. To quote one of my dear friends “I’m not sure who gets more out of it, them or me”.


Welcome to the new decade

Categories travel

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