October 6, 2020
by Sondra Baras
My father passed away three weeks ago. He was 94 years old and during his final months, he had sunk into the depths of dementia and no longer recognized me. It had been many months since I had been able to have even the most rudimentary conversation with him. In a way, we had been departing from my father for many months and his death completed a process that had been going on for some time.
For months, I had been intensely involved in my father’s care. My mother was the one actually caring for him on a regular basis, but my siblings and I were constantly visiting, discussing care options, and involved in many ways in the decision-making process. And for all those months, we hardly thought about my father as he had been in his younger, healthier years. That became a dim memory as we became so intensely involved in his present situation. And I asked myself repeatedly during that time what my lasting memory of my father would be. Would it focus on his last years or would those hard years fade into the background and give way to happier times?
As I experienced the mourning process steeped in Jewish custom, I came to realize how brilliant the Jewish traditions of death and mourning really are. And I found my answer to this question. I want to share some of these experiences with you, to give you a sense of what we do and why we do it, but even more importantly, to share my own personal response to this difficult time.
Jewish tradition dictates an immediate burial, preferably the same day, but if that is not possible, then on the day following. My father passed away on Shabbat, and the funeral took place on Sunday morning. Because of Corona restrictions, only immediate family could be at the funeral which created an unusual intimacy. Just my mother, my siblings and our spouses, and our children and their spouses were present. But that was special in its own way, as everyone there loved my father and felt so close to him. He was Daddy and Grandpa to everyone there.
There is no casket in a Jewish funeral. My father was buried in a simple shroud so that his body would have direct contact with the earth from which he had come. “For you are dust and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). There is no embalmment — a person is buried as he died, ready to meet his maker in his most honest state. No makeup, no clothes. No one views the body; his dignity in death, as in life, is honored. He was carried by those who loved him on a simple stretcher. And he was buried in the Land of Israel. The immediate mourners, my mother, my sisters, my brother and I, stood at the gravesite as my sister-in-law tore our shirts as a sign of mourning. Family members helped the grave-diggers cover the grave. Those present then offered condolences to us, with the traditional blessing: May G-d comfort you together with the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
When the simple ceremony was over we went to my home in Karnei Shomron where we all spent the week. This formal mourning period is called Shiva and the mourners sit together in a house, on low chairs, wearing our torn shirts and receiving visitors who come to pay condolence calls. It is considered a huge blessing to visit a mourner. Generally, many come at once without appointments but because of Corona, we had to limit the visits and schedule them carefully. Many phoned instead of visiting for fear of infection.
But it was the shiva experience that enabled me to return to the memory of my father as he had been for most of his life — the loving, strong, and deeply believing man we had all known. As we sat together, we looked at photos and told stories of my father, including stories of his childhood that we had, in turn, heard over the years from older relatives who are no longer with us.
My father was a committed Jew and very active in the Jewish community of Cleveland before moving to Israel more than a decade ago. When we were children, he supported the local Bnei Akiva religious Zionist youth group, ensuring that his children and all our friends had quality activities and meaningful Jewish experiences. He was active in the synagogue, the Jewish school, the Jewish federation. He loved Israel and was always there, ready to help, whenever Israel faced a crisis.
Cleveland was always a very Zionist Jewish community and most of my childhood friends made Aliyah (moved to Israel). And my parents closest friends have all moved to Israel. So many of those who visited us or called during the Shiva, then, were people who had known my father from Cleveland. And they told stories that painted a picture of the active, committed and dedicated father we had all known so well. One of the visitors recalled lovingly how the Bnei Akiva counselors would refer to my father as Uncle Joe because he was always available to them for whatever they needed.
The Kaddish is a prayer recited at every service and it consists of praises to G-d, acknowledging His power over the universe and over all of us. There is a version of this prayer that is said by mourners during the shiva and for the 11 months following the death of a parent. It must be said in a formal prayer quorum so saying it demands commitment — to participate in regular prayer services each day. Mourners see this commitment as a way of honoring their parent’s memory, but actually, it is a declaration on the part of the mourner that despite the grief and the sorrow, and sometimes the anger that accompanies a tragic death, we affirm that G-d is in charge. That in His infinite wisdom, He has taken someone to Him at the right time. It is also an understanding that when someone dies they leave an empty space amongst us and it is that space that we are filling with a heightened sense of G-d’s presence.
These simple traditions, so ancient and yet so timely, brought me enormous comfort as I mourned my father.