28 April 2010

Omer 29: Two Different Worlds

Omer Day Twenty-Nine

Today in the back and forth I kept thinking of my Hank Williams gravestone (conceived and rendered by my pal Jon Langford) neatly tucked next to our music collection in our living room.

A grave stone in a living room.

For me it feels right.

"Rabbi Jacob said, 'This world is like a vestibule before the world-to-come: prepare yourself in the vestibule that you may enter the banquet hall.'" (Pirke Avot 4.16.)

Living rooms; vestibules; banquet halls; gravestones.

My conversation with a congregant in the morning was about a reality that we don't talk about adequately enough in the Jewish community--what to do about cemetery policies with such high rates of intermarriage. A large number of our members--like so many other liberal synagogues--are married to someone who is not Jewish. We don't judge that and in fact we welcome them equally and honor their decision to affiliate with the synagogue and raise their children as Jews. But what they don't really talk about is the end-of-life policy that when death occurs, the vast majority of Jewish cemeteries will not allow the burial of a non-Jewish spouse. And rather than confront this policy and work toward a solution, we tend to bury the conversation until it's too late. This leads to sublimated strife, deep-seated resentments, and represents a missed opportunity to create some creative solutions for our communities different set of circumstances from those communities who built the cemeteries here in New York 100-120 years ago.

While it was once a time that Jewish-run burial societies made all the decisions about who was buried where as an internal mechanism for securing one's place in the world-to-come, it's now a completely different operation with big businesses facilitating the move from death to burial (or cremation) and very little to no interaction with locally run Landsmanschaften or Benevolent Societies which were usually linked to either European places of origin for immigrant communities or collective associations formed on these shores.

This particular member was appropriately concerned and could articulate quite well the dilemma: No one wants to really talk about where they'll be buried in general. How much more difficult is the conversation between a Jewish and non-Jewish spouse when they're facing a cemetery policy that won't allow the burial of a non-Jewish body? Seems like a problem calling out for a solution.

It seems clear from the evidence in Torah that non-Jews traveled with the Israelites between Egypt and the Land of Israel; and given the 40 years of wandering, it seems obvious that many people died and required burial along the way without regard for Jewish or non-Jewish plots. It strikes me as a perfect metaphor for our own day, when Jewish families, uniquely configured and making Jewish choices, ought to be afforded the opportunity to be buried together, in death, to honor the Jewish lives those families lived, in life.

After our conversation I went to officiate at the burial of a 92 year old woman who was laid to rest by her 88 year old husband who actually IS the president of his burial society. Once a robust organization that owned nearly a thousand plots and that met regularly to deal with cemetery issues, dole out charitable contributions, and honor the memory of those who came from Europe, the society is now reduced to two individuals, most of the plots are sold and in use, and a profound chapter of American Jewish history is drawing to a close. The next generation and the one after that is surely making different choices about falling in love and getting married. And despite originally coming from two different religious backgrounds, most that I encounter--certainly once they've joined the synagogue--have made Judaism the organizing principle of their communal existence.

But the policy of separate burials remains in place. And what that will do, once people wake up and pay attention, is drive people further from the Jewish cemeteries and more into the non-sectarian cemeteries so that a new history will be written in stone.

Most, sadly, will shrug their shoulders and move on. Lost in the process, however, will be the chance to make it possible for those intermarried couples to from the living room to the vestibule to the banquet together. Instead, they'll be assigned for eternity to "live in two different worlds."

No comments: