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“The Moment” At An Orthodox Funeral

From the folks who brought you the Six-Word Memoir (there’s going to be a Jewish one!) comes The Moment: Wild, Poignant, Life-Changing Stories from 125 Writers and Artists Famous & Obscure (Harper Perennial).  This excerpt from Deborah Copaken Kogan’s story about scene at an Orthodox funeral is one of the many stories from folks ranging from Jennifer Egan to Dave Eggers available now.

My teenage daughter showed up to my orthodox Jewish father-in-law’s funeral in a striped mini-skirt and a pair of shit-kicker boots. It couldn’t be helped. The black dress I’d bought her two years earlier as my young father lay dying no longer fit, while Maurice, my ninety-five-year-old father-in-law, was here one minute, gone the next, which left no time to shop.

Jews being Jews, especially orthodox Jews being orthodox Jews, Maurice’s body had to be buried within twenty-four hours, in a plot he’d reserved from a sect called Moriah, pronounced as in “How do you solve a problem like . . . ?”: an apt question for this story. The Moriah used to run an orthodox shul on Manhattan’s Upper West Side just above Zabar’s, which my father-in-law joined after a decade spent hiding from Nazis. He purchased the plot soon after arriving in America because while Hitler was dead, you never knew with Nazis.

Hours after Maurice took his final breath, a Moriah representa- tive contacted my mother-in-law to remind her that women, as per their misinterpretation of Halachic law, would not be allowed at the gravesite. This was not wholly unexpected news to the grieving widow, but it was also, under the circumstances, not the most welcome news either. Her current rabbi—who like the majority of Jews, even the most orthodox, believes that shoveling dirt onto the deceased provides a necessary first step in the mourning process—was called upon to try to broker a better deal. The negotiations between the two sides lasted well into the night, at which point the Moriah rabbi finally broke down and agreed that the female mourners could ac- company the body to the cemetery, so long as we remained hidden in the cars until the grave was three-quarters filled. I was told it had something to do with the possibility of contaminating the corpse with menstrual blood, although try as I might, I was unable to form a mental image of how such a defiling would occur without imagining scenes better suited to fetish porn.

The next morning, during the ride from the funeral home to the cemetery, I was sitting in the back seat with my two older children when I realized that I’d neglected to inform them of the whole girls- have-to-hide-in-the-car-until-the-grave’s-three-quarters-full deal. So I told them.

“What are we, in the stone age?” said my fifteen-year-old son.

My daughter could barely speak, the look on her face hover- ing somewhere between disbelief and the kind of rage for which ani- mal tranquilizers were invented. Then it hit me: Here was a girl, or rather a woman, by Jewish law, who had never, in her thirteen years, rubbed up against the absurdities of sexism. She’d never been told, as my mother once had, that only the boys in the family could go to medical school. Her right to vote has always been sacrosanct. Her school cannot claim they have no money for girls’ sports. “But that’s ridiculous!” she said.

“I know it is, sweetie,” I said, “but that’s the deal that was struck, so we have to stick to it.”

At the cemetery, framed through the window of our car, a waddle of black-suited men encircled my father-in-law’s grave, first rocking back and forth in prayer then doing the hard manual labor of burial. I tried to distract my daughter from her anger with stories about her grandfather. “Remember the time you were five, and he asked you what your favorite sandwich was, and you said, ‘Proscu- itto and brie?’ and then Bonmaman said, ‘That’s not kosher,’ and you said, ‘What’s kosher?’”

My mother-in-law reminisced about the morning, two de- cades earlier, when Maurice had belted out “The Marseillaise” while being wheeled down the hallway for the surgery no one thought he’d survive. My sister-in-law told stories of her father’s imprisonment in plain sight during the Holocaust, how he learned to take communion and say, “Bless me father, for I have sinned,” without sounding like an imposter. I wondered if anyone else in that car noticed the irony of our own imprisonment, sixty years later, in the back of that car. How complacently we wore the armbands of our gender without ripping them to shreds.

Finally, from our hidden vantage point, the grave appeared to be three-fourths full (give or take a sixteenth), so we women— about forty of us, many wearing the modest long skirts and post- matrimonial head-coverings typical of orthodox women—stepped out of the car and started walking toward the mound of earth. Which was when the black-hatted, white-bearded rabbi appeared, seemingly out of nowhere.

“What are you doing?” shouted the rabbi, now running to- ward us, shooing us back in the car, physically blocking all those uteri from getting any nearer to the grave. “This is a disgrace! Get back in the car! Back in the car!” Clearly, no one had told him about the deal. My mother-in-law started to cry. The other women were shocked into silence.

Which is when my daughter, all mini-skirted 4’10” of her, clomped up to the rabbi in her boots and said, “Excuse me, sir, but my grandmother would like to bury her husband. We had a deal. Now, please, move out of my way.”

Without looking back, she pushed her way past the rabbi and marched those boots straight toward the mound of dirt, where she yanked the shovel out of my husband’s hand and thrust it deep into the earth. The rest of us women stood there, immobilized, not know- ing how to proceed. Little Norma Rae could possibly be forgiven. Yes, she was thirteen, but she looked no older than ten. Her uterus, one presumed—or at least one presumed the rabbi was presuming— wasn’t yet shedding its lining. “Come on!” she shouted, urging us on with her hand.

The rabbi from the cemetery stood his ground. “This is a dis- grace!” he kept saying. “Get back in the cars!”

My daughter leaned on the shovel, her tiny frame dwarfed by it.

Seeing her standing there, armed for battle amidst that sea of black, I took my mother-in-law’s hand in mine, and we made a wide detour around the rabbi. My sisters-in-law followed. A few seconds later, the entire amoeba of long-skirted women meandered its way to- ward the grave where, our bloodless coup thus complete, we grabbed some shovels and started digging.

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