Sisterhood Blog

Mourning My Friend and My Dad

By Laura Hodes

Laura Hodes
Sisterhood contributor Laura Hodes’ father.

Last week I attended the funeral of a girl who was my age, 39. Jodi and I grew up together. We lived next door to each other as children, from when I moved into my house right before kindergarten until we left for college. For me she will always be that little girl that I played with for hours on her swing set, trying to break a Guinness Book World record for time spent on a swing. We were inspired by a “Brady Bunch” episode, and we played on the swings until it got dark and our parents called us in.

Jodi’s funeral was right before the days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which are all about remembering and memories. As Dara Horn recently wrote in the New York Times, one of the central prayers in the Hebrew liturgy of the Day of Remembrance describes God as an ideal reader: “You remember all the forgotten things. You open the Book of Memories and it speaks for itself, for each person’s hand has signed it.” As she wrote, both prayer and fiction allow us to recreate, to re-live, to re-animate the past. Remembering is acting like God and, in essence, it is what a writer does. Remembering, or telling stories about our memories, I realized after my friend’s funeral, is the only way we can mourn — and the only way we can comfort mourners.

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Your Stories of Jewish Mourning

By Abigail Jones and Anne Cohen

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.

Libi Astaire

Sacrificing Tradition

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

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Reciting Kaddish, As A Daughter

By Judy Bolton-Fasman

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 — comprised of essays from writers and submissions from readers — will appear on The Sisterhood blog this week. This is the fourth and final post in that series. —Abigail Jones

Judy Bolton-Fasman
Sisterhood writer Judy Bolton-Fasman, second from right, sits with her family in 1965.

The night before my father’s funeral, I found a tattered prayer book from my Yeshiva days. It was small and square, the kind of prayer book I’ve seen women praying with at the kotel. Its filo-thin pages suggested a false modesty that diminishes a woman’s place in the Jewish world. That siddur was also thick with line after line of tiny Hebrew letters. I lay down on my bed and read through the Kaddish prayer for my father, something that was unheard of for a woman to do 50 years ago.

Saying the Kaddish for a loved one used to be an all boys club. No son, no Kaddish — unless you paid a man (yes, there is still such a thing) to recite the Kaddish for the 11 months a child mourns a parent. Recently, there was a case of gender segregation and Kaddish discrimination at an ultra-Orthodox cemetery in Israel. A woman named Rosie Davidian was denied the right to eulogize her father at his funeral. Ms. Davidian took her case to the Knesset to campaign for women to grieve as they see fit. An invitation quickly followed, asking her to read her father’s eulogy on a popular radio show where millions heard her words.

My father was buried on the eve of Rosh Hashanah and I had the honor of eulogizing him. The next day I was part of the overflow crowd — the common folk who didn’t pay for the pricier sanctuary tickets across the hall. One of the rabbis met my eye from the bima. She nodded in sympathy as I said the Kaddish in front of 800 people, so nakedly, so publicly for the first time.

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Three Women and a Burial

By Jane Eisner

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 — comprised of essays from writers and submissions from readers — will appear on The Sisterhood blog this week. This is the third post in that series. —Abigail Jones

Thinkstock

Many of the essays in this moving series about Jewish women and mourning are about exclusion. I have a story about inclusion.

It begins in early February 2005. Just two weeks earlier, our family had celebrated the bar mitzvah of my nephew, the youngest grandchild on that side of my family. My parents were both quite ill by then, but still with us, and our small tribe of relatives gathered close in the way that lingers inside for sometime afterward.

Which is why the call from my cousin was so jarring. I can’t recall the exact words, only the horrifying message: R. was dead.

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Making Peace With ‘Who Shall Die?’

By Gabrielle Birkner

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 — comprised of essays from writers and submissions from readers — will appear on The Sisterhood blog this week. This is the first post in that series. —Abigail Jones

Gabrielle Birkner
The last photo Gabrielle Birkner took with her father, from Rosh Hashanah 2003.

When in the fall of 2003, I stood between my father and stepmother and recited what is, perhaps, the Days of Awe’s most haunting reading, Unetaneh Tokef — better known as the “who shall live and who shall die prayer” — I didn’t give much thought to the meaning of the words as they passed through my lips.

The coming days, the liturgical poem tells us, would determine who among us would live out another year, and who would die and how. Fire, water, sword and wild beast are among the terrifying options read aloud at High Holy Days services. Only repentance, prayer and charity could avert (or temper, depending on your reading) “the severe decree.”

By the time I stood for the prayer the following Rosh Hashanah my father and stepmother were dead. Murdered, during a home invasion, in a manner that the prosecutors called “especially heinous, cruel or depraved.”

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Mourning Trayvon Martin on Tisha B'Av

By Erika Davis

getty images

Shock. Anger. Sadness. Three emotions that I felt acutely this weekend, when a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin. But those three emotions can’t begin to describe the heartache and sorrow I feel. I’ve had a heavy heart these past few days. So heavy that words seem inadequate; I haven’t been able to fully name the feelings that occupy my mind and fill my heart with a heaviness I’ve not experienced. As a black woman living in America, I’ve known since childhood that racism exists, but it seemed — at least I hoped — it was confined to the Civil Rights area or the south. This weekend and this verdict remind me that racism is not dead.

I have been thinking of my nephews, three black boys growing up in a world that, time and time again, tells them that no matter what they accomplish, no matter who they become, no matter how much love and support they receive from their family, they should — and will — be treated with suspicion. I’m thinking of my father, who is raising these boys, and how he probably didn’t expect to have to teach his grandsons the lessons that his father taught him in the 1960s: that they’ll have to be better, smarter and more educated than everyone else; that they should be aware of who they’re talking to and how they’ll be perceived; that they’ll need to watch their backs and “stay out of trouble.”

Like a lot of people, I was naïve. I thought that by electing a black man into the nation’s highest office we had, somehow, moved beyond an America that judges a person based on skin color, gender, sexual orientation, immigrant status or ability. I tricked myself into thinking that I lived in an America where the children I hope to bear will be able to walk down any street in any city and feel safe. I convinced myself that I wouldn’t be denied the same federal rights as straight citizens. I tried to believe that I lived in an America that allowed me, as a woman, to make choices about my own body. I tried to convince myself that we were moving towards a future and making changes that would fully live up to the dream of America that President Obama spoke about in his second inaugural address.

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The Benefits of 'Internet Empathy'

By Gabrielle Birkner

The author and her dad.

Yesterday was the anniversary of my father’s and stepmother’s deaths, which I marked with the lighting of memorial candles, a good cry and, for the fourth consecutive year, a Facebook post. By the end of the day, the post, and accompanying photographs, had garnered more than three-dozen comments and “likes.”

Beth Kissileff, in a Sisterhood post published on the same day, comes out against this sort of virtual outpouring. She writes that those prone to expressing “internet empathy” may be fooled into thinking that “their quota of meting out kindness to another has been fulfilled, that they need not do more.”

It wasn’t my Facebook post that prompted Beth’s piece. Rather, it was the story of little Ayelet Galena, whose battle with a rare bone marrow disease was chronicled online by her parents, and followed closely by thousands around the world — myself included.

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