The lure of Jewish traditions

Early in my relationship with my husband, I found it odd how much time Joe spent going to wakes and funerals. There were neighbors he hadn’t seen in decades, great-aunts of friends, and even casual acquaintances with whom he had maybe a handful of conversations.

If there was someone to be mourned, Joe was your go-to guy.

Once our children were old enough to attend such events, I understood the thinking. It was a way to show respect for the dead, offer a funny story or touching tale to the living, and raise one up in honor of those who go before us.

Most Irish wakes also involve a cooler or two in the parking lot. I don’t think I’m breaking any secret code here. It’s practically Irish Catholic doctrine, right up there with “Thou Shalt Always Go to Saturday Afternoon Mass During Football Season.”

After more than 10 years with Joe, I had wakes and funerals down. Or so I thought.

Last week, I got a text from one of my best friends. Her grandmother had passed away, and she was wondering if I wanted to attend (my friend lives in Milwaukee, but the funeral was local). I instantly agreed.

But then it occurred to me. My friend is Jewish. While I have several close Jewish friends, I had never actually attended a Jewish burial. I wasn’t sure what kind of rituals, decorum, and traditions I needed to know in order to prep the kids. With little time to research matters, I opted to wing it.

The service itself was beautiful and the rabbi introduced a host of family members to talk fondly about Grandma. She led a remarkable life, buried three husbands, and traveled the world well into her 70s. I was struck by the Jewish belief that when you die, the first question God asks is:

“Did you taste every fruit that I put on earth?”

Joe and I both were moved by this concept. To live fully, to experience and taste all of life’s great offerings, it was such an empowering message. I turned to Joe at that exact moment, smiling. He took one look and responded:

“We’re not converting. We live in BEVERLY for chrissakes.”

The mourners then moved to the cemetery where everyone took turns with a shovel and helped bury Grandma. At first, my kids were reluctant, but once they saw other children partake, they jumped right in. My friend wandered over and whispered:

“Yup, there is definitely no messing around with ‘refusing to accept death’ when you actually help bury the body, eh?”

I could not agree more. I appreciated the symbolism, the finality, and the community aspect of the practice. Once again, my husband took note and commented:

“Still not converting.”

Since that day, my sons have talked frequently about the service, the burial, and “eating lots of fruit.” They processed the rabbi’s message quite literally. They also asked questions about Judaism as a whole, and I tried my best to answer them. Yet when I got to Hanukkah, their eyes lit up at the thought of eight days’ worth of presents.

“STILL NOT CONVERTING,” Joe shouted from the other room.


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