A Jewish Funeral.

A Christian at my first Jewish funeral was a confusing and scary experience – but what I learnt helped me to better understand differences and grow as a person living in a multicultural society.

I grew up in a cozy street in Melbourne where all the neighbours knew one another. In fact, the really old neighbours watched my Dad grow up in the 1930s, get married in the 1960s and then have us four kids.  The neighbours then watched us grow up, get married and move away; though we always stayed in touch – they were like family.

One of our older neighbours, Mrs Rockman, passed away and this is the story of my experience at her funeral.

Driving into the cemetery I saw a small, brick chapel, which was surrounded by graves with black granite headstones, engraved in both English and Hebrew languages. My family were gathered out the front of the chapel and my sister, Michelle, jumped down from the concrete foyer to show me an empty parking space.

Michelle told me about the seating arrangements while we made our way toward the gathering.  She whispered, “The men sit on one side of the room and women sit separately, on the other.”

I nodded.  There was no time for small talk and we entered the room. There were about a dozen mourners in there; the men seated to the right and the women to the left.  I scanned twice for the coffin – but it was nowhere to be seen. Signs were permanently secured to the yellow-brick sidewalls, which read: ~Men to Sit Here~ and ~Ladies to Sit Here~.   A central aisle separated men from ladies and I wondered why?  Years later a Jewish friend told me that men and ladies were also separated by a curtain at weddings.

The room was furnished with rows of old, cracked, dark brown, vinyl flip-chairs on metal frames, a small, wooden lectern had a mechanical candle on each front corner, and a red carpet runner lay over cream-coloured carpet.  I pushed my seat down and felt the strong pull of the spring, drawing it back upwards, so I quickly sat down.  The coldness of the room and the strong spring in the seat made me feel unwelcome.

The building felt bitterly cold – there was no heating and no lining on the inside walls.  The bricks glared at us in a cold and harsh manner and the concrete oozed through in untidy, inconsistent blobs and dribbles. It’s as if this room had been stripped of anything but the necessities and I saw none of the usual identifiers that this was a funeral; there were no flowers, holy monuments or photographs.

I wondered if this might be the ante-room; a place to wait before going on to the real funeral room.  But this was a one-room building.  And the Rabbi was standing behind the small wooden lectern waiting.  There were muddy stains near the double doors to the left of the Rabbi.  “They didn’t vacuum,” I whispered to Michelle.  She nodded her agreement, and the Rabbi began.

He spoke in Hebrew and his words flowed like a beautiful song.  The song lulled me and brought a sense of calm to the room.  After speaking in Hebrew, he spoke in English.  His voice was very comforting and I felt at home right away in this unfamiliar environment, which seemed more like a garage than a chapel.

The Rabbai was still singing when the doors near the muddy carpet were suddenly and unexpectedly flung open from the outside, which jolted me from the Rabbi’s song.  The Rabbi fell silent and bowed his head and I would have followed his example, but my burning curiosity forced me to stay alert to the doorway.

A very tall man with a neat, dark blue suit and white shirt was standing there.  His black hat was much taller than the average hat and the brim much wider.  He took a step forward and entered the room, then waved his arms to some other people outside.  I stretched forward, wondering if he’d made a mistake and interrupted Mrs Rockman’s funeral in error.  What stood out even more about this man were his knee-high gumboots; which were covered in yellow, sticky, muddy clay.  Gumboots with his suit looked so extraordinary. And now the red carpet was getting muddy as he strode over to the lectern as if he were the only one in the silent room.

He stood in front of the lectern and waved his arms toward the gaping doorway again. It’s as if he was directing a reversing truck, though there was no truck.  More men appeared.  They wore the clothes of builders or roadworkers and had mud splashed and scraped all over them.  Their hands, shoes, backs, elbows and shoulders bore the mud they’d been digging. And they wheeled a very rickety, shaky, metal trolley to the front of the lectern, with Mrs Rockman’s coffin atop.  The wind had blown the black cloth up on one corner and the plain, unvarnished, undecorated pine box glared out of its covering.

The one wearing a suit and gumboots led the muddy workers out through the side door and we were left in peace, this time with the deceased in the room. Mrs Rockman was late for her own funeral.

The Rabbi had remained completely motionless and silent, with his head bowed for Mrs Rockman’s late and bumpy arrival. Once the workmen left, he resumed the service like a video does after pressing the pause, then play buttons.

He talked of Mrs Rockman’s birth in Poland, her life, achievements and disappointments – and I listened with interest.  Mrs Rockman was the neighbor who knew everything about everybody, but it was only at this moment that I realised we knew very little of her.

Next was talk of her entry to ‘paradise’.  The Rabbi explained it is the Jewish belief that every good deed in our lifetime is rewarded after our death.  Each good deed creates an angel who greets us upon our arrival in Paradise.  I conjured up a very crowded image of angels greeting the kind and loving Mrs Rockman.  I’d grown up with her comments about how beautiful my two front teeth looked when I was seven; how skilled I was to climb the biggest tree when I was nine; then worrying about the length of my school dress when I was fourteen; advising me to be careful of boys who drive fast cars when I was 16 and wishing me well at my wedding.  Mrs Rockman’s husband was a dentist and passed away of cancer when I was about 7 years old.  They couldn’t have children, and they escaped the Nazis by migrating to Australia from Poland at the start of WWII.  I’d spent a lifetime with this neighbor who lived simply and cared about everybody but I only found out who she was at her funeral. I vowed not to let this happen again – it made me feel shallow.

We followed the Rabbi outside, slowly weaving our way to Mrs Rockman’s final resting place. Half way there, we stopped and listened to another calming song from the Rabbi.  At first I thought this song was to let Mrs Rockman’s soul know where we were taking her body, but it was just to pass time while waiting for the muddy workmen to finish digging her grave.  After a short wait, the muddy men jumped from the hole, and we turned left to the very freshly dug grave.

Nobody cried and the mood was like it is when strangers meet and chat about the weather.  I looked along the four graves between Mrs Rockman’s site and myself.  Every grave had small piles of quartz stones on the top.  I recognised them from the driveway and the graves averaged about half a dozen stones each.

My sister and I raised our eyebrows at the messy stones and I felt grateful for deciding not to bring my children along.  It is an unspoken rule of my children to play with such enticing displays of nature. They would have seen the grave top as a stage for little stone ladies and men characters.

The muddy men climbed out of the hole and lifted Mrs Rockman’s pine casket from the rusty trolley, literally dropping (or throwing) it down the hole. We all heard Mrs Rockman slide along the pine floor as one end got stuck on the edge of the grave – and then the thud as it slipped down to parallel again.  I gasped at the lack of care, yet the rest of the congregation didn’t seem surprised at all.

Next, the Rabbi opened a small sachet of soil and emptied it onto the coffin. My brother whispered, “I bet that’s soil from Israel” and I nodded, thinking he was clever for figuring that out.  The Rabbi then tossed the empty soil sachet into the grave like a discarded cigarette butt.  My sister and I glanced at each other again with ‘that’ look.

My brother gestured his eyes toward the muddy clay piled at the side of the gravesite.  I hadn’t noticed it or the six shovels standing in the clay.  The Rabbi called upon the men to help fill in the grave.  Always the willing helper, my sister stepped forward and reached for a shovel.  I caught her attention in time to save her from doing the men’s task.  This was just like the seating in the church – men had separate roles to the women.

The first half-dozen shovels of wet mud made drumming noises on the coffin, which sent a shiver up my spine. Mrs Rockman was buried within five minutes. The mourners turned and went to their cars but I was curious and interested in the strange surroundings.  I stayed and asked the Rabbi about the collections of stones on the graves.

His voice carried the same slow and gentle tone that he had while praying.  Gosh it was lovely.  “It’s a sign, to show how often people visit the graves,” he said as his hand made a sweeping gesture at the rows of granite.  He continued to chat and asked my name.

“Susan.” I replied.

“Do you know the meaning of your name?” he asked politely.

“I think it means Lily.”

He nodded, approving of my reply.  Then he had another question for me.  “Are you religious?”

I’m not a strictly religious person and gave a diplomatic reply.  “I was raised a Catholic.”

His questions had a humble sound of apology, as if he was being careful not to offend. “Are you a practising Catholic?” he carefully asked.

I wasn’t sure what to say.  My children are in the catholic schooling system and we occasionally go to church, yet I was sure this wouldn’t be enough to pass as a true and loyal Catholic. My lack of involvement with our local church probably wouldn’t qualify me as a proper practising Catholic and I wondered if God would strike me down with lightning for lying to a Rabbi. But my decision was made, “Yes, I am.”

He shot another question at me.  “When did you do your last confession?”

My daughter’s class made their first Eucharist and confession this year, so my reply wasn’t really a lie.  “In April.”

It started to rain and I stood there getting soaking wet wondering if I might have been struck down with lightning if my lie were any bigger.

The Rabbi and I stood in the rain talking about Mrs Rockman and how the Jewish people believe in very plain and simple funerals – with no hype or ceremony. He added that they wear very simple, cotton nightdress in the coffin. Everything as simple and natural as possible.  He then injected some small-talk.  He was once in a car accident and now his stomach plays up when eating certain foods. Cold, wet and wanting to walk away, I wondered if God thought this rainy conversation would be a good penance, you know, for my lie about being a good, practising Catholic  – so I stood talking until he decided it was time to walk back to the car park.

Mrs Rockman’s simple ceremony was nothing like any funeral I’d been to in the past but, afterwards, it all made sense.  I liked the no-fuss approach of the Jews.  It showed me that they truly believe the soul is in no way connected to the body after death.  The funeral was for the mourners to reconcile the idea that her soul had, in fact, left her body.  Anything else would have been a performance and I felt ashamed for judging the building, the carpet, the muddy clothes, the rickety trolley ride into the chapel and the very freshly dug grave.

However, I’ll always hope they didn’t mean to toss the coffin in so roughly – accidents happen.

Photo:  MyJewishLearning.com

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Identity: Am I good enough?

Sometimes we dread going to a social situation because we fear we don’t belong. We’re not good enough. Somebody might notice that we don’t belong. Here’s what to do…

Ask yourself, “Who am I?” and see what you come up with.

Many friends respond that they are a mother, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a neighbour, an office worker, and so on. Are these roles enough to convey who you are?

Dig deeper. “WHO ARE you?” Identity is often invisible – it’s something we feel but don’t talk about. It’s difficult to find labels. It’s easier to show who we are than try to explain. Figuring out who you and how you got to be this way are the purposes of my blog today.

Our individual sense of self comes from the social world around us (social constructs). We learn right from wrong based on the social norms that surround us – especially while growing up.  When we are born, we are officially identified as a certain gender on our birth certificate and then that information informs how we are raised in a community that separates gender through clothing, behaviours, actions, family and workplace roles.

In most (if not all) communities, males have more power than females, adults have more power than children, and children have more power than pets. I’m not saying these family roles of power demand submission of any kind – they are simply accepted roles. During the childhood of anybody over 20 years old: girls were guided toward nurturing and caregiving roles and boys were guided toward physically strong or intellectual pursuits.  Often they still are!

Power also appears in race, religion, fashion labels, a ‘better’ make of car, school or neighbourhood.  None of this is a secret, however the way cultural power influences our sense of self and our behaviours is mysterious.

In our comfort zone we achieve a sense of belonging by feeling like we are the same as others – that we belong. If we are led to believe we are different to others we can feel anxious, awkward, want to retreat, feel insignificant, feel socially inferior and lose faith in ourselves as being successful (the list goes on).

However, if you are lucky enough to feel confident in your social world you think nothing of stepping forward, believing you are important and feeling great. You have a sense that you belong and others might even comment that they wish they had the confidence to stride through life like you do.

The comfort that we feel in our social environment is handed to us (or taken away) by others. While growing up we internalize judgments of others like, “Don’t play with those children they go to the public school.” and “She’s so heavy… He’s so ugly…. They are losers… Did you see what she was wearing?!… Their food smells weird… She’s useless… He’s my King… Don’t cause trouble… Respect your elders…”.  We realize from a young age that there are categories of people whose labels prevent them from fitting in.  But, once you understand the driving forces behind your feelings of inadequacy you can make changes.

Recognize that the way you feel about yourself has been placed into your mind by others and magnified by your sense of self as you process what has been told to you (or said about others within your earshot). Recognize this and reverse the damage. Make your way through the ridiculous social world we live in by taking little steps.

  1. Meet a friend at a cafe for a coffee and plan to spend just one hour – your friennd won’t know you’re practising how to be social.
  2. Do you like the clothes they wear?
  3. Could you mirror what they do with their hands while they sit chatting?
  4. Did you take notice of the words do they used in saying hello? Try to remember to ask them the same small talk questions they ask you (How are you? What have you been doing lately?) Then elaborate on their answers.
  5. Do you have answers prepared for when they ask you those common questions?
  6. Are there any hobbies out there you want to start? Google it and join a club, meet people, volunteer, smile, join in, enjoy!
  7. Remember, when you are around children, never make negative comments about another person, religion, culture, race.

THEN you can check in with yourself by asking: “Who am I?”

Here’s my answer (for today):

  • I’m a writer and a sociologist.
  • I’m smart.
  • Healthy.
  • Single, but a little broken.
  • Happy.
  • Sometimes lonely, usually not.
  • I am: mother, sister, daughter, ex wife, tarot card reader.
  • I am a supportive friend.
  • I am a good dancer.
  • I love to laugh.
  • I have been described as quirky – and I like that.
  • I am welcome at social events. (well… I’m not unwelcome!)
  • I have an awesome sense of humour.
  • I let my inner child walk beside me at all times, ready to leap forward and laugh.
  • I have an overdeveloped sense of empathy – which I like.
  • I am sensitive to my surroundings.
  • I am helpful.
  • I’m open and accepting.
  • I am a terrible cook.
  • I am tolerant, which isn’t always a good thing.
  • I am so much more than any words on a page can convey.

Now, begin to ask yourself, “Who am I?”  If you don’t like the answer then it’s okay to change!

Self confidence gives you a confident outlook, making you shine from within. Everybody gravitates towards positive vibes.

The Life Of Sue

If you enjoy reading interesting and sometimes funny Australian stories then you’ve come to the right place. Welcome!

Click a blue hyperlink and have a read.

 

Grief Train.  My personal journey of miscarriage, recovery and the lingering feelings of loss.

Neurology.   My children’s lives were snatched away, changed and given back to them in a package none of us recognised.  Identity isn’t always as fixed as we’d like it to be.

A True War Story.  This story is a peek into a Vietnam Veteran’s personal story.

Torture, arranged marriage and recovery.  Tortured in a prison cell for years, and then free – but never quite free.

Love: A Beautiful Magnet.    This is how love felt for me. I wonder if it’s how love feels for everyone?

Seeking Love: My First Date.  At 48 yrs old I went on the second “first date” of my life.

Finding Love: How To Handle First Dates  First dates – what to expect, what to do.

** Seeking Love: Ten months into dating.  The good looking people I dated were cold hearted so began my search for an ugly person who might have developed a heart of gold.

Seeking Love: Success And Humour.   Some of my great dating experiences and copies of some hilarious dating profiles I’ve seen.

Dating: Stay Exclusive or Spread It Around?  The men who secretly date lots of women at once so they can pick the best of the bunch… if they can give the others up.

Online chat rooms – smoke and mirrors. Ever wondered what happens in online chat rooms?

**The Day I Was On The News!  A totally unpredictable outcome on the day my town was flooded and I tried to help.  I was scarred for years!

**The Dead Guy.     An ungrateful and nasty dead guy who we revived.

The Power of Men.  The invisible cultural messages about the power of men over women.

A Jewish Funeral.  Attending a Jewish funeral that chilled me to the bone.

My Just Desserts.  Childhood story:  The street bully had me cornered and Mum took the bullet for me.

This Is What Rain Does To Me.  Childhood Story:  Memories of a rainstorm during my childhood and the impact it has on me now, when I hear rain.

I am… Nature & Nurture   Childhood story: The variety of role models I was exposed to during my childhood shaped me into the person I am today.

Looking For My Inner Child.   Being childish is okay.

Death and dying.  Saying goodbye to our beautiful Newfoundland dogs.

My Final Letter to My Grandma.    Read at my grandmother’s funeral.

Aunty Joy’s Australian Stories.    Older people have fascinating histories.

Identity: Am I good enough?   Practical tips for getting through life with the confidence to feel as if you belong just as the person you are.

DAS: A Bank Robber, Drug Addict, Ex-Con, Survivor.  The story of survival from neglected and abused child to drug addict, bank robber, prisoner and now survivor.

I lost my best friend of 42 years.  I lost my best friend of 42 years to her mistaken belief that I’d betrayed her. I thought we knew one another as we’d grown up together and had gone through every joy and pitfall of our lives together – I found out we didn’t know one another very well at all.

Cancer   … and the doctor whispered into the phone, “I don’t want to leave the mamogram until Monday, this lump looks more urgent than that – please squeeze her in tomorrow!”

When Bad Things Happen.   Why do shitty things happen to good people?

Violence: A Little Bit Is Not Okay.   Our behaviours and attitudes are passed down to our kids.

Children… excuses, excuses, excuses.  The life of a teacher amongst the inventive excuses of children who just don’t feel like doing their school work.

Word of the day: ‘Purpose’    A challenge to write about the word: ‘Purpose’.

Word Of The Day: “Childhood”  A challenge to write about the word: ‘Childhood’

Daily Prompt: Shiver  A challenge to write about the word:  ‘Shiver’.