One of my clearest childhood memories is of seeing my dad cry on Yom Hazikaron. We were at an outdoor memorial ceremony hosted by my shul. The ceremony was ending, we were singing Hatikvah, and when I looked up at my dad, I was shocked to see that his eyes were wet. He caught me staring and gave me a sheepish smile.
He doesn’t cry a lot, but my dad loves Israel deeply and wholeheartedly. Since that day, I have noticed that he cries almost any time Hatikvah plays, and not only when we are honoring Israel’s fallen. Having worked in the Israeli government for six years, my father is very aware of Israel’s flaws. At the same time, he is a proud Israeli citizen and was a driving force behind my family’s Aliyah in 2000 during the second intifada.
My father was raised Roman Catholic, but left the church at a young age. When he and my mother (a non-observant Jew) started discussing marriage, they began to explore what raising children would look like in a Jewish household — something that was crucial to my mom. They attended classes at a local synagogue where my parents were drawn to the Conservative stream of Judaism because of the constant tension in this stream between observance and faith and modern, liberal values. My father was drawn to the culture of argument and ability to ask questions in Judaism. He converted before I was born.
When I was younger, I thought that his conversion was for my mother. A necessary technical step taken in order to be able to marry her. I now know that my mother exposed my father to a religion with which he fell in love. And so my sister and I grew up in an observant Conservative Jewish household. I can remember coming downstairs in the mornings to find my dad wrapping tefillin. We kept Shabbat and Kashrut and went to Shul every Saturday. My dad and mom were both the authorities on Judaism in my life.
My father loves being Jewish. He has made sacrifices for Israel first as a young Oleh and more recently as the father of a lone soldier. And yet, in the eyes of the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel my dad is not really Jewish.
I don’t remember exactly when my dad first started talking about being buried at sea, but I do remember why. Because my dad’s conversion to Judaism was a Reform conversion at a Conservative mikveh (with an Orthodox mohel — love that American spirit of interbranch cooperation), it was not accepted by the Chief Rabbinate. Among other limitations to his rights, this meant that he could not be buried in most Jewish cemeteries. At first, he found a cemetery in Beersheva that he could be buried in, and then he decided he would rather be buried at Sea.
I wonder a lot about how my dad must have felt not being considered Jewish in the same way as his wife and daughters. What was it like to think that his final resting place could not be with his wife and love of his life? This after going through a long conversion process and, together with her, raising my sister and I as Jews. He was a full and equal partner in building the Jewish home I grew up in, and in “making” my sister and I Jewish. Suddenly, after moving to Israel, a choice made by both of my parents, but that was heavily influenced by my dad’s wish to live in the Jewish State, he was not Jewish enough for Israel’s Chief Rabbis. Only after doing the thing that is most encouraged in Zionist, Jewish circles and striving to fulfill what he saw as an important part of his Jewish obligation, did he find himself on the outside.
The motive for my dad’s choice isn’t clear to me but it also feels like an appropriate response to the Chief Rabbinate. A clear reflection of the absurdity of the restrictions he is facing. It is a beautiful protest. A refusal to participate in the warped system we are all forced to navigate at life’s most important moments.
The Chief Rabbinate controls birth, marriage, conversion, death. They control who can participate in the activities surrounding life’s crossroads and how they can participate. They have been known to prevent women from saying Kaddish over their children and converts from being married in the eyes of the state. They have near total control of the system, but as my father taught me, we don’t have to be a part of their system. Participation is complacency, and we must find other ways.
My father loves the water. I don’t know if the choice to be buried at sea was in protest, or if the idea of a cool, blue eternity just seemed better than being separated from his family in his final resting place.