In the days following my father’s death on March 11th, I’ve missed more consecutive days of live radio broadcasting than any other time since my show began nearly thirteen years ago. Since I don’t take extended vacations and even manage to broadcast frequently from the road (in Israel, Hawaii, New York, wherever) most of the time, missing five days in a row stands out as a break in tradition and deserves some explanation.
That explanation might also serve to answer the well-meaning questions I’ve received from listeners and friends who’ve generously sent their condolences over the loss of my father.
Since Jews are a tiny minority in the United States, and religious Jews constitute a minority within that minority, it’s worth trying to explain the fundamentals of the seven-day mourning process I’m just concluding.
First, it’s worth noting that Jewish tradition requires prompt burial as a matter of respect. In contrast to the Egyptian civilization that developed next door to ancient Israel, Jews don’t do anything to embalm or preserve or decorate the body. The idea of mummification and elaborate, carved sarcophagi – or the public display of a preserved body, as with Lenin in Red Square – would be anathema to Jews of yesterday or today. We believe that God’s will mandates the natural process of decay, after the soul has left the body. In the Book of Genesis, as part of the banishment of human beings from the Garden of Eden, God declares: ”In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” (3:19).
This means that our laws demand that the departed be returned to the ground (from which he came) as quickly as possible, with delays only for extraordinary circumstances. I heard about my dad’s passing around midnight on last Tuesday night, then managed to get on the plane to Israel at 6.30 the next morning, arriving (with my brother Harry) just before sunset at the Jerusalem hilltop cemetery just as the memorial service began. My father lay before us in a plain, tightly wrapped white shroud, covered with the prayer shawl he had used in synagogue for several decades. There is no coffin – not even the unadorned pine box used by religious Jews elsewhere – in Jerusalem funerals. The ceremony emphasizes bringing the departed directly and quickly into contact with the holy soil of this special place where, in my father’s case, he chose to live the last 19 of his 83 years.