Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Betwixt and Between

“Hamakom yinachem otecha betoch shaarei avelei Zion V’yerushalayim”, is the customary departing words to be said when leaving the home of a mourner, and I thought I would leave the home of this unfortunate mourner having said them. These are powerful century old words, a formula for helping us in our desperate time of need which contextualizes death and mourning. It is a means of connecting new mourners with all the other mourners in the community of Israel, whether they are mourners of today or a thousand years ago; whether they are in America, Israel or Europe; we are all mourners. The loss of a loved one is part of the natural process, and in our community we help compensate for this loss by chanting these words as well as by the recitation of mourners kaddish. It is a formula developed over the centuries by our people to help and aid us get through the loss of loved ones. But on second thought I decided that here, in this particular house of mourning it was out of place. Besides, I felt queasy about uttering these emotionally laden words in the environment that I found myself in.

That was a few weeks ago. Fast forward three weeks. I was invited to the same house, this time for an engagement party. Greeting me at the door were the parents of the chatan. By this time I had almost forgotten that he, the father of the groom was a mourner. He appeared at the door with a bearded face which took me by surprise. Jokingly I commented to him that the three weeks hadn’t yet begun and that he was obviously a bit premature. He had no idea what I was talking about but had an honest rejoinder. He said he was observing shloshim and therefore, didn’t shave. Reflecting quickly back on that evening I was in his home to visit him as a mourner I couldn’t help but chuckle, thinking he was joking. Beside, if he was in shloshim, why was he hosting a party?

He appeared insulted by my callous reaction. Sensing it, I explained that when I entered his house when he was “sitting shiva” it was as lively and festive as the engagement party, something akin to an Irish wake. It had all the markings of a Bar Mitzvah reception, minus the hard alcohol, however there was wine being offered. So I explained to him my difficulty in reading the cues and knowing how to act appropriately. What was most disarming was the fact that no one else felt as I did with the exception of one elderly gentlemen who called me after the visitation and asked me if that was an appropriate Jewish display of mourning.

Had someone asked me as a riddle to guess what kind of background did this person have, I would have guessed a baal teshuvah. I don’t mean to be insulting to B.T.’s but it is conceivable that they have family and perhaps friends who haven’t a clue as to how one is to behave in the Jewish house of mourning. I never would have assumed that this was the home of a chiloni Israeli. Even chilonim understand the basic customs and traditions of a Jewish home. They may not be aware of the finer detailed ritual of the holidays or the synagogue, but I would have assumed that they understood appropriate deportment in the home of a mourner. Especially those Israelis who are middle aged and were raised in “Jewish” homes – that is, parents whose roots were European.

Many will tell me that I can’t have my cake and eat it too. That I shouldn’t expect the non dati Israelis to be versed in traditional Jewish living but at the same time shun religious living. What did I expect? After all, this is what happens to a state where the “zioynim” and the “shmootznikim” have control over the educational institutions. This is what happens when people like Shulamit Aloni were allowed to be the ministers of education. This is what happens when there is no respect for yisrael saba. This is what happens when for decades it is the chilonim who run the country and set the rhythm of living in a secular environment.

Since experiencing this unfortunate conundrum I couldn’t rest. Having mulled it over many times I have come to a different conclusion than the frum naysayers who would first accuse all the chilonim and “ziyonim” for having polluted the mayanot of Torah. I believe that it is because of them we find ourselves in this kind of problem where Israelis, good people, good Jews aren’t familiar with appropriate custom, tradition and Jewish mores of behavior.

Over the decades it has been the frum community who has tried to coerce their secular countrymen into observing halachic standards which they weren’t willing to accept and for good reason. The means they used other than fascistic tactics was the gross perversion of parliamentary and democratic procedure, relying on a weak coalition in order to further their narrow and parochial interests which weren’t in the interests of the state.

Instead of offering alternative approaches of Jewish practice for those not willing to buy into a talibanesque form of Jewish living, they presented a Jewish lifestyle that was rigid, distorted doctrinaire and colorless, ultimately pushing away many secular Israelis interested in a spiritual approach to Jewish living. It was the highroad or no road. There was no possibility of compromise or finding a road that was in between the “ratzui and matzui”, the optimum and the minimum, the betwixt and between. The result isn’t good for anyone, much less the future of the Jewish people whether they be in America or Israel.