In late August, The Sisterhood launched a series examining the role of women in Jewish mourning traditions. Grieving for a loved one is fiercely personal; doing so as a woman, guided by Jewish laws and rituals, can be comforting or restricting, depending on one’s experience. We asked you, Sisterhood readers, to share your stories. Many people responded. Some women felt marginalized, even alienated, by their limited roles in the mourning process. Others felt invigorated and strengthened, and found deep comfort in community. What resulted was a portrait of Jewish female mourning. This series, which includes essays from writers and submissions from readers, will appear on The Sisterhood blog this week. —Abigail Jones
The following stories from Sisterhood readers are just a sample of the many we received. They have been edited for style and length.
I stand on the other side of the mechitza. I have no desire to do otherwise. So when my father passed away a few years ago, I would have been more than happy to shed my tears out of view and among the company of just other women — steadied by their collective strength, strengthened by the knowledge that afterward they would be there for me, bringing a hot meal and a solacing word.
But it was not to be.
A Reform clergyman was going to officiate at the funeral. I knew what that meant. During the eulogy, he would talk mostly about how my father loved ice cream and poker — which was true, but not the point. A Jewish hesped (eulogy) is a time to speak about the good deeds that the deceased has done — the mitzvos, the charitable causes they believed in and supported, the simple acts of kindness they did in a way that was uniquely their own.
I felt that someone needed to speak about that. So I did give a hesped. But inside — behind my inner mechitza — I was crying, both for my father and our traditions, whose wisdom and beauty have become buried under so many layers of misunderstanding and neglect.
—Libi Astaire, 59 years old
When my grandmother died, I arranged for her to be buried in her mother’s nightgown. No one in my family had known that such a garment existed. I knew, because during the time I got to care for her in the years before she died, she had told me all about it.
I was responsible for my grandmother’s life in many ways, tending to her business and personal affairs because my father and his brother did not. I was also responsible for the arrangements after her death, arranging a traditional burial, complete with a shomer, someone to accompany her body, all the way from Los Angeles to her resting place in Florida.
A grandchild is not obligated to follow Jewish mourning practices (a spouse, child, parent and sibling are the only relatives designated as mourners by Jewish law) and in many ways, traditional Jewish ways of showing allegiance were closed to me in my grief. I wanted to mourn for my grandmother the way Judaism had taught me. Instead, I felt like a second-class griever.
When my grandmother left this world, I was singing to her, a Hebrew poem I learned from my UCLA Hillel years before. She stirred, something shifted in the air, and the next moment, I knew she was gone. I was alone in the room with her tiny body in my arms. I stopped singing.
—Mayim Bialik, 37 years old
In my world, female speakers address female audiences, unless…
That unless happened to me when my uncle died. There was no one to eulogize him. He left no children. His wife wasn’t a public speaker nor were the other next of kin. It’s likely that someone from the funeral home could have cobbled together words of parting but the notion of a send-off by a stranger seemed like an insult to my uncle’s warm, generous soul.
Could I step up to the plate? I asked one of the rabbis in my community, and not someone known for his liberal views.
“Is there any one else to do it?” he asked. No, I replied. “Then go ahead,” he said.
And so I stood in front of the coffin, draped with a black cloth and I told the crowd how upon arrival in Auschwitz my uncle ripped apart his brand new suit rather than give it to the Nazis. I told them how, while a foreman at the camp, he helped his inmates, instructing them to pretend to work so as not to kill themselves through exhaustion. And I told them about his postwar life — how he made it in business but always acceded to any request for charity. My words spilled out to quickly. I had a catch in my throat and there were wet eyes in the crowd. The mystics say that the dead are present at their eulogies. I hope that my uncle was there and I hope he was smiling.