My cousin’s concern about my propensity for doing the right thing – the reason for him lending me Maurice Lamm’s The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning way back in January 2000 – was, I would like to believe, not as well-founded as it was well-meaning. Insofar as it related to my timely returning of other people’s property, however, there was certainly some justification for his doubt: the book – lent for fear that my somewhat cavalier approach to Orthodox practice might cost my just-deceased father his place in the World to Come – was still in my possession in August 2013.
But, since dusting down the volume last month on the passing of my dear mother (may her memory be for a blessing), it has struck me that the otherwise fine and comprehensive work suffers from several important omissions, not least of which is a complete failure to address how one should deal with loss in modern Israel, because, while losing a loved one is always difficult, losing one here comes with all kinds of unexpected hardships. So, if Rabbi Lamm will forgive my chutzpah . . .
melchy on mourning, rule I: Do not, under any circumstances, allow your nearest and dearest to take his or her last breath late on a Friday morning – it just causes such an unnecessary, Erev Shabbos palaver . . .
Following futile efforts to extract anything more from the ward sister – imagine a Russian, utterly unendearing version of Hattie Jacques, who had clearly honed her family liaison skills in one of Brezhnev’s (far) eastern correctional facilities – than “she died,” I was summarily dispatched to the hospital on-duty rabbi to discuss burial.
“You should bury her now,” advised the kindly-looking chossid, in his late sixties, following a nervous glance at his watch. It was almost midday. “The cemetery is about to close.”
“But no one will be there,” I replied, with more than a hint of panic, “not her friends, not family . . . no one!” That was certainly not the send-off I had imagined for my very special mum (nor the one, I think, that she would have wished for herself).
“Well, it is up to you.”
“So . . . do I have to bury her now, or don’t I?”
“But do I have to?” I repeated, more forcefully this time, still wary – in spite of my rather less than positive experience, from Holders Hill Road, of Jews with beards – of going against religious wisdom in such a matter.
“It is up to you.”
With the conversation fast turning into a Marx Brothers routine and the rabbi clearly itching to lock up his Portakabin for Shabbos (and even relieved, perhaps, that I was leaning towards a Sunday burial), I took a filial decision: that if the rabbi hadn’t, Hasmo-style, yanked my negligible sideburns and forced me into burying my mother that very afternoon, there was clearly some discretion in the matter . . . so, Sunday noon it was!
melchy on mourning, rule II: Keep a large stick by the shiva house door . . .
When, immediately upon reaching the end of the line of well-wishers, I was approached, graveside, by the two schlemiels proffering the monumental masonry equivalent of the Argos Catalogue, I made short work of them and thought no more of it.
But when another matzeiva (headstone) salesman knocked on the shiva house door the following morning, I was simply too disbelieving to come out with anything that I would subsequently be proud of. And it was still a one-off, I reassured myself – sharp practice by a monumental mason with enough chutzpah to get ahead of the pack.
With the second and third visits that week, however, I was reminded of just where I was living: a country where, so sadly, almost anything goes.
“It’s just business,” an English-raised cousin attempted to placate me.
Living here clearly changes us, too.
melchy on mourning, rule III: Come up with a reason better than death as to why you wish to cancel service contracts . . .
The shiva passed without incident. And I don’t think I managed to offend anyone this time around, unlike at my father’s, in 2000, when, to an unmistakably smartarse “Do you know who we are?”, I replied “Yes, you are the shiva cousins!”
Since then, however, I have had to deal with the God-awful companies that supplied my mother with TV, telephony and Internet for the last six and a half years.
I began with the Internet service provider, 012 Smile (though Frown has always seemed a more fitting epithet). And, after days of trying, I finally got through to a human being (or so I thought) . . .
“I want to cancel my mother’s Internet subscription,” I informed the customer service representative. “She passed away, unfortunately, on the second of August.”
“But why do you want to cancel?” enquired Jacqueline.
“Do I really need to explain?”
“It’s a pity,” said Jacqueline, clearly on a roll, “I can give you three months free!”
“Did you hear what I just told you? My mother died.”
“Please stay on the line,” the hapless, tactless Jacqueline replied, the shekel finally having dropped, returning some twenty seconds later with a clearly heartfelt “We, of course, share in your sorrow . . .”
Its Irena actually seemed to grasp – first time, too – why my mother would no longer be requiring telephone, Internet, or even television services, though I did receive three follow-up calls that same day, all beginning “I understand that you want to leave us . . . do you mind me asking why?”
HOT are so very thoughtful: even if there was a minuscule chance of a customer having a last-minute change of heart (or going back to them in the future), they obliterate it with a timely reminder as to exactly why you decided to get shot of the bastards in the first place!
melchy on mourning, rule IV: Avoid kaddish wars . . .
There does not seem to be a shul in this entire country – or an Orthodox one, at least (“It’s always the frum ones,” the Legendary Ivan Marks would often lament) – where one can recite kaddish without being drowned out by some arrogant tosser (Ashkenazi) or nutter (Sephardi) who appears persuaded that his departed relative was so much more special than everybody else’s that his duty in mourning is to cantillate over them all.
I have as yet resisted (though only just) the temptation to compete with said tossers/nutters and, the stronger one still, to just bash them over the bonce with my new hardback Koren (see below). But, oh, how I long for the civilisation of the United Synagogue!
melchy on mourning, rule V: Don’t be a cynic . . .
I attended shul three times a day during shloshim (the first thirty days of mourning). But how many times, and in how many ways, can one say “God is great” in a single day and still maintain a semblance of interest?! I would just sit there incredulous most of the time, staring at the intelligent-looking people around me, wondering just how they could all seemingly be so into this.
My continued fiddling under the table, however, with my new Galaxy S4 – before jumping up, like a Yok-in-the-box, to recite kaddish (I hope it still counted) – was starting to get noticed, so I purchased the Koren Siddur in an attempt to keep my brain at least partially active during proceedings. Before, that is, that I became sceptical about even that . . .
“Translation by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks,” I scoffed to myself, “who are they trying to kid?!” And I attempted to envisage Johnny Oxbridge sitting there through the long NW8 nights with his Thesaurus and a small, though perfectly presented, plate of cucumber sarnies (Grodzinski’s white, lightly buttered, sliced into quarters . . . am I right, Elaine?!)
I am a once-a-dayer these days. I say kaddish once. And I even strive for a little kavonoh. That feels right for me. After all, isn’t that what it is all about?!
.וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן . . .