Tuesday, October 15, 2002

A Cure for Jewish Lifecycle Dissonance

I attended the funeral of two colleagues' father yesterday. This was not a terror victim. Zvi Kantor was 82 and had been in and out of the hospital for some time with various ailments. But it was still very emotional.

The funeral was held in the Kiryat Shaul cemetery in North Tel Aviv. About 300 people, many from the office (including some of whom had recently been laid off) stood by solemnly, enveloped in an immersive humidity that signaled the last stage of a “hamsin” before the rains come.

I don’t know if I’ve ever been to a true Israeli funeral; most of our friends here are English-speakers and Marla was buried in San Diego. I think what impressed me the most was how natural these things are for Israelis. Everyone just “knew” what to do.

After initial prayers were said, the body was carried to the gravesite. Cemetery officials shoveled dirt into the grave, and members of the community naturally knew to join in. After Kaddish, everyone assembled bent down, it seemed in near-complete unison, to pick up rocks which we placed on the grave before filing slowly past our colleagues to express condolences.

There was none of the awkwardness that accompanies lifecycle events in the non-"frum from birth" Jewish world I lived in outside of Israel. Where the community’s Rabbi would give painstaking instructions and explanations for every act, where the Hebrew words of prayer would be read hesitatingly, where people would anxiously look to their neighbors for clues as to what to do next.

Outside the funeral hall, there was no box of tattered white kippas embroidered with the name of some unfamiliar Bar Mitzvah boy from many years before waiting at the door. The men all had their own and knew to bring them. And this was a mostly Tel Aviv crowd, definitely not religious. Amazing.

Certainly the language makes a difference. I see it with my kids and the way the words just trip off their tongues naturally. Perhaps, also, with all the terror we’ve lived through, people have more experience with funerals.

I think that the real difference, though, has more to do with the fact that the Jewish rituals are the national rituals here. There is no dichotomy between the majority culture and our private Jewish one. The common frame of reference is not funerals from the Sopranos or weddings from Friends.

The same is true throughout the calendar: the national holidays are also the Jewish ones. And when a family member dies, the bereaved automatically get the full seven days of shiva off by law. There’s no tug to return to work early. No need to take vacation days or sick leave to make up the balance. Living in Israel, it seems, might very well be the most effective cure for Jewish lifecycle dissonance.

Zvi Kantor was an amazing individual. He raised his children on four continents: Israel, Latin America, Europe and Australia. He spoke 8 languages, had much of Shakespeare memorized, and lived an observant life up until the end. A true rennaissance man, he had personally-dedicated copies of both "Sridei Esh" by the ultra-orthodox Rabbi Yechiel Weinberg, and "Cholot HaZahav" (Sands of Gold) by ultra-secularist Israeli writer Binyamin Tammuz.

I am glad that I got a chance to honor him by being there for my friends Ossie and Haim. And I am glad that, ironically, in his death, my own faith in why we are here was once again reaffirmed.

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