The rabbi was upset. Very upset.
“I don’t have time to talk to someone’s angry daughter. How dare you call a major theological seminary to complain about a rabbi? What have you ever done for the Jewish people? We get calls from little people like you every day. We wish you would just go away.” Then we both gasped and he said, “Oh my God.” It was not in prayer.
I called the seminary a few months after my father’s death to complain about the rabbi who buried him. I had not met him before, but my parents regularly attended the services he conducted at the small retirement community where they lived.
The rabbi embraced my mother and me, pressing his consoling body just a little too closely, then sat down behind the desk in the funeral-parlor office where we met to discuss the service. My mother handed him a list of prayers my father had requested be read at his funeral. The rabbi brushed it away, saying “I have selected the prayers to be read.”
“But this is what Morris wanted at his funeral,” my mother said.
The rabbi held up a small, Cliff’s Notes-type volume. “They are not in my prayerbook.” As we left my parents’ condo, I had suggested my mother bring the family Bible with her. “The rabbi will have one,” she said. “Just in case,” I replied, and now she handed him our Bible. “Use this one.”
My father had a strong personality and a fine singing voice and had helped organize the congregation’s chorus. My mother asked me, as his only child, to deliver the eulogy. The rabbi refused. “I will give the eulogy,” he intoned. Then he turned to me and said, “I am so sorry I did not get to know your parents better, but they were always going off to Flo-ri-da.”
My father made a business trip to Miami once in the 1950s. He brought back small jars filled with jelly and marmalade; I still use them to hold safety pins and paper clips. My mother asked him what Florida was like, and he said, “You wouldn’t enjoy it. There are insects.” She died some years later without ever having been to Florida.
“Rabbi,” we said in unison, “you are talking about someone else. You are going to bury the wrong person.”
In the end, the rabbi gave in. He read the prayers we requested and permitted me to eulogize my father. He also acceded to my request that the congregation rise and recite the Shema together. My eulogy went over well; some people it was a highlight of the service. At the gravesite, the rabbi said to me, “Here I am the star.” I looked at the Star of David on my father’s coffin as it was being lowered into the grave and said, “No, rabbi, he’s the star.”
I told this to the rabbi at the seminary; he would not back down. He was particularly offended when I told him we had recited the Shema and said it was inappropriate at a funeral service. I didn’t comment that it is one of the two Hebrew prayers most of my family and friends knew and that I did not consider it appropriate to recite the blessing over the bread at a funeral.
Many relatives and friends attended the service, as well as neighbors from the retirement community. Some are communal leaders, devoted to the synagogues and Jewish organizations with which they affiliate. I don’t doubt their sincerity and realize I am safer in this unstable world because of their efforts. I know that many communal leaders today are concerned about the erosion of Jewish life in the United States, and I’ve heard lots of reasons why: the lures and snares of America, an emotional detachment from Israel, the poor-to-miserable Jewish education many of us have received. On the other hand, a significant number of my friends are detached from the Jewish community and I have heard their stories, most of them not as bizarre as that of the rabbi at my father’s funeral, but troubling in their own way. With respect, I suggest another reason for this erosion of community: the condescension of some Jewish leaders toward the “little people” who care–and often care deeply–about our religion and our people, but who have other social and moral priorities. There’s a difference between a community and a people, and I think there is a serious gap that divides American Jewish leadership from the great mass of unaffiliated who comprise the American Jewish people. Leaders without followers become increasingly ineffective and a people without effective leaders begins to worship idols. As I recall from Sunday school so many years ago, that’s a lesson that dates back to Sinai.
My mother outlived my father by some years. You will not be surprised to learn that I did not ask a rabbi to officiate at her gravesite service. Instead, I printed an English transliteration of the service from the internet and stumbled over Hebrew words I could barely pronounce. Family and friends made brief remarks. I knew they were not only mourning Aunt Fran, but also their own parents, the stillborn grandson, the little sister who lived only three days. I once heard you’re not supposed to visit other people’s graves when you’re at a burial, but my dad’s Cousin Shep walked a few rows away from my parents’ graves to visit his sister Jean, who died of leukemia back in the 1950s at age 25. No one thought to criticize him. Instead, we all joined hands and recited the Shema. We got it wrong, I’m sure; we’re just little Jews and don’t know much. But to the rabbis and the communal leaders, I say: we’re still Jews and we won’t go away, and I suspect that at the end of the day, it’s the intention of the heart that is the measure of all things.