The lights dimmed at STLV last week.
My mother passed away on May 16, ten days shy of her 95th birthday. Upon receiving word, I jumped on the next flight from Tel Aviv to Toronto and will remain here until early June.
Understandably, the podcast and article that were close to being finalized and published were held, and we will issue both later this week. I appreciate your understanding in these exceptional circumstances.
My mom had a good life, in many ways, and significant challenges. One observation she shared with me in recent years, as her cognitive clarity ebbed and flowed, was that she was not built for the time into which she was born; a daughter of immigrant parents, in Depression era Canada, followed by the incomprehensible apocalypse of WWII. The Holocaust.
We spoke about that period often, and how surreal it was for her to live a quite normal life as six million Jews literally burned. She told me about her family gathering around the radio every evening to listen to reports on the BBC about the incomprehensible mass murder of Europe’s Jews. And at the end of the war, I know that she was determined to do something meaningful to try to repair what remained.
My father, a survivor from Romania, was welcomed into my mother’s family home; they were doing their bit to help Jewish refugees adapt to their new country. You can figure out what happened thereafter.
Together, they had four children and, as everyone did in those days, they carried on. Survivors, generally, were treated with contempt, perceived to have gone “like lambs to the slaughter.” No one was particularly interested in hearing about their trauma and there were certainly no psychological or other supports available. It was a very different time.
When my mother passed, it was expected but, as always, heartbreaking.
I assumed responsibility for organizing the funeral from afar. Zoom and the seven hour time difference worked in my favour. Having lived for almost ten years now in Israel, I was unaware of the degree to which I’d become acclimatized to the differences in how Jewish death rituals are performed.
As with most things in Israel, even in death, there is less formality. Jewish law, of course, is followed, but it’s the vibe. Among the secular tribe – to which I belong – people are dressed casually, often in a white shirt. They assemble by the shrouded body in an open-air pavilion and follow as the deceased is wheeled on a primitive, open air cart to the gravesite by a cemetery worker. There are no pallbearers.
Sometimes – it’s really weather dependent in my experience – prayers and tributes are done in the shade of the pavilion. Sometimes not.
Rabbis and cantors perform the barest ceremonial tasks, leaving the eulogizing to family and friends. Those assembled are invited to share, spontaneously. There are often friends and family abroad, listening on cell phones. The deceased is then lowered into their grave, in a shroud only, and those present mingle after with family and others. It’s more relaxed. The stiffness that we tend to affect in North America is just not there.
My mother’s funeral took place on a glorious spring day. The service was graveside, which became a “thing” in Toronto and elsewhere during the COVID period. Before that it was rare. In Israel, all funerals are graveside.
Not until the end, when those attending were asked to stand aside to allow the mourners to pass did all of this hit me. It just felt wrong. And I suggested that we skip that scripted step and mill about. There were so many people I hadn’t seen in decades, and others I had seen a month ago. But I wanted to connect with them and, judging by their response, they appreciated the relaxed approach.
In fact, I received quite a few lovely notes after, saying just that.
My mother left this world with dignity and, as ever, quiet grace. And we are left, bereft but enriched.
May you and your loved ones find consolation with all who mourn in Zion and Jerusalem.
Two ribbons of tears were streaming down my face reading your intimate and moving story of your Mother. May her memory be a blessing.