I wasn’t surprised, but I also wasn’t prepared. After living in Israel for 10 years, you get used to everything being served raw without much subtlety. This is terrorism. This is childbirth. This is the supermarket on Erev Yom Kippur. This is recess in your child’s elementary school. This is the evacuation of a settlement.
And then, this is my mother, dead. Eight months after she moved to Israel, to Zichron Ya’akov, to the same city where she had dated my father more than 62 years before.
The 5’9” woman who towered over me most of my life was now shrunken to the size of a small child, with nothing but a thin, form-fitting shroud wrapped in such a way so that I could make out the shape of her nose, her face, her arms. Like everything else, the Israeli shroud seems to say, Diaspora Jewry’s simple pine box will not do; it glosses over reality. One must face the facts.
And this is my father, wracked with grief, crying and crying out with abandon. I don’t remember him ever crying, but 60 years of being in America, all that learned westernization is wiped away in a cemetery in Israel, and he is finally returning to his Middle Eastern roots. He doesn’t realize that I’ve seen this identical image before, eight years ago, when his brother with the same face, buried his wife, the love of his life, in Petach Tikvah. That brother died seven years later, they say of a broken heart.
Into the earth she goes. Unceremoniously lowered in, cement bag-sized buckets of dirt are thrown in after her.
She died at nine in the morning. The silence in her hospital room the first sign that things were different. The monitors quiet, the sun streaming in, she was lying there as though napping, still warm, or was it the sun? The reaction of the staff was the second sign. Always on the move, never much time to talk or confer, nurses, doctors, orderlies, always a racing streak of white, green, and blue.
Suddenly they appeared. One by one, they stopped, they gave hugs, they cried. For once, they didn’t tell us to leave the room. I guess it didn’t matter anymore. The physical therapist who had helped her with her breathing had tears streaming down her face. Doctors who never had time to talk now came. The beautiful nurse with the perfectly white hijab insisted we keep drinking, forcing cups of water into our hands. And finally, Ra’ad, the Arab nurse who had become our ally and our friend, appeared at 12 and said, you must take your father, you must get ready for the funeral. I promise you, I will not leave her side until the Chevre Kadisha comes to take her. I will not leave her. Rak b’smachot, he added, next time let us meet at a joyous occasion.
And then there was the cemetery. So many people. They had dropped everything, work, family, school, they had driven, taken buses, walked. They had come from Ashdod, Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Ra’anana, with little more than two-hours warning, they arrived on time to witness the shrouded body and the heartbroken husband. Family, friends, many who knew my mom, many who didn’t. My children’s classmates, even 8-year-olds showed up to stand by my youngest daughter.
I wasn’t surprised, but I also wasn’t prepared for how seriously Israelis take the shiva period. A steady stream of people bearing food, stories, large ears for listening, and an ability to stay, stay, stay. Secular men arrived with kippot. Non-religious joined in the constant minyanim. Haredim melded with non-Haredim. It all seemed like a well-orchestrated opera; everyone knows it will be dramatic, and yet everyone knows their part.
Death creates a chasm between the living and the mystery of life. To the mourner, it feels as though that mystery will never be regained, will never be felt again. Israelis, from hard-earned experience, understand this. It seems that as a nation they are determined to carry each mourner back to the other side.
Catriella Freedman is the director of PJ Our Way, a book-based tween engagement program from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation. She and her husband are raising four kids and a dog in Zichron Ya’akov, Israel.