Saturday, January 23, 2010

"Geveret, geveret"

I originally wrote this post approximately two years ago, after the funeral of a dear friend.

What I’m about to write here has percolating in my mind for quite a while. Every time I have attended a funeral—and I have attended entirely too many over the past several years—I have thought to myself: it’s time to write it already. And then I’ve thought: no, I shouldn’t. Funerals are no place for protest, even after the fact. And anyway, who wants to write about funerals?

Today, after my friend Bev’s funeral, I decided that it’s time.

As many of my readers probably know already, in Israel—at least for Jews—there is very little separation between religion and state. If we want our marriages to be legally registered as such, we must either have them performed by the rabbinate or marry abroad. And unless we have made arrangements in advance to be buried in one of the recently-established civil cemeteries, when we die we are buried in the municipal cemetery, which means that the local burial society is in charge.

In the United States, many if not most Jewish burial societies are comprised of community members, people who knew the deceased personally. In some cases people may even designate, before they die, which members of the society they want to prepare them for burial. Here in Israel, burial societies are official agencies, paid by the state. The up-side of this is that every citizen is entitled to free burial in his or her city of residence. The down-side is that the burial society, which operates according to the strictest possible religious custom, decides what shall be done and not done at the ceremony. In practical terms, this means that except for special circumstances, women may not deliver eulogies or participate in the burial.

I have attended at least two funerals where there were “special circumstances”—in other words, where women spoke. In one case, the mourners were a prominent rabbinical family from abroad, and the deceased’s sister gave one of the eulogies. In another, the deceased’s sister-in-law, a well-known public figure and Israel Prize laureate, delivered a eulogy. (Incidentally, when the question of women delivering eulogies at Jewish funerals here went all the way up to the High Court of Justice some years ago, the petitioners cited these two cases as evidence that women should not be barred from speaking at funerals. I admit that I don’t know whether a ruling has been handed down or, if so, what it was.)

On the other hand, I also attended a funeral in which the deceased’s daughter had prepared a eulogy for her father, but when she went toward the podium to speak, the members of the burial society stopped her. Only after intensive negotiations between her brothers and the men of the burial society was she allowed to speak—not from the podium, but from the place where she was standing, and only after the members of the burial society had left the room.

So much for the equal application of custom.

At Bev’s funeral today, one of her co-workers, a woman, delivered a eulogy. Since we arrived a little late, I did not see whether anyone tried to discourage her from doing so. But since she was one of the large delegation from the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, a respected institution here, it is likely that no one intervened, though I can’t say for certain. After her eulogy, she sang excerpts from the Twenty-third Psalm, which was particularly moving. I thought that the members of the burial society might try to silence her because of “kol isha” (an opinion from the Talmud that a woman’s voice is equivalent to nakedness and therefore men should not listen to a woman singing), but they didn’t. They simply left the room until she was done.

The burial was a different story.

As the director of the zoo said during his eulogy, while Bev had no family in Israel, her co-workers at the zoo, where she worked for more than a quarter of a century and to which she gave her heart and soul, were her family. So when one of her long-time co-workers, a woman, stepped forward to take the shovel to fill in the grave, it seemed perfectly appropriate. But the rabbi in charge of the burial thought otherwise, and called out “Geveret, geveret” (“Ma’am” or “Lady”) to stop her. “It’s not the custom,” he said. “You can put a stone on the grave afterwards.” She obediently went back to her place.

I believe that most people want to behave decently, properly, without making waves. I believe that this is particularly true at emotionally-charged events such as funerals, where people especially want to mind their manners and avoid causing offense. I also believe that the members of the burial society understand this and take unfair advantage. So as my friend’s co-worker from the zoo went back to her place, unwilling to cause a disturbance, I stood quietly, seething. When the burial was completed, I walked some distance away from the gathering to have a private word with the rabbi.

Speaking quietly, controlling my tears, I told him: “Rabbi, I think it is very strange that at the end of the burial, you made the customary statement asking forgiveness of my friend, the deceased, for any unintentional slight to her honor. But during the burial, you wouldn’t let her friend help to fill in her grave. I don’t think that would have been a slight to her honor. In fact, I think it would have honored her very much. After all, the woman worked together with her for years, and they were good friends.”

“I respect your position, but I don’t agree with it,” the rabbi answered. “This is minhag Yerushalmi—the custom of Jerusalem—and must never be changed. If we change it even a little, then it will be completely broken, and that must not happen.”

“I disagree,” I told him. “There are religious communities where this is not even a problem. And at the funeral, one of the women spoke and even sang.”

“That is forbidden,” he said.

“Still, it was done and no one stopped her,” I said. “With all respect, Rabbi, this woman was a close friend of mine. If I had been the one to take the shovel, I would have kept right on filling in the grave, custom or no custom.”

“In that case, I wouldn’t have stopped you,” he said. “I wouldn’t have used force or argued with you. But I have a duty to God and to my employer to uphold the local custom as much as I can.”

“I understand your position,” I told him, “but I don’t agree. I can’t see how it would be any dishonor to the deceased to allow her friend to help to cover her grave.”

It was only a few hours later, as I recounted the conversation to a friend, that I realized that the rabbi had given me some important information, whether he intended to or not.

In that case, I wouldn’t have stopped you. I wouldn’t have used force or argued with you....

It was true. I remembered how, at my friend Larry’s burial, a mutual friend of ours, a woman, had taken the shovel to fill in the grave and no one had stopped her. But after she had placed the shovel back on the ground (according to custom, the shovel should not be handed directly from person to person), a member of the burial society had seized it and used it until the end of the burial in order to prevent such a thing from happening again.

Nevertheless, she had done it. She hadn’t asked anyone’s permission or checked to see whether anyone would stop her. This religious woman (the woman at Bev’s funeral was religious as well) had simply acted on her convictions, quietly, firmly and from her heart.

So, right here and now, I am declaring for all to see that when my time comes, any woman who wishes may speak at my funeral and fill in my grave at my burial. Go ahead, sisters. Please. I’m asking it of you. Don’t ask anyone’s permission. If you have something to say, then get right up there, take the microphone and start talking. If a member of the burial society calls out “Geveret, geveret,” then I, as the future guest of honor, give you permission to ignore him. I will not consider it a slight to my honor in the least. Even if all you say is that you hated my guts and you’re glad to see me dead, I don’t care. Do it. Speak. Sing if you want to. If there’s any way I am present, it will make me happy.

And at my burial, guys, once you’re done with the shovel, put it down near the woman next to you—provided that she wants to use it—and don’t budge until she does. And women, while you’re shoveling that earth, if someone calls out “Geveret, geveret” and mentions the local custom, please do me a last favor: ignore him. Don’t shout at him or argue. There’s no need. Just ignore him and continue with your hesed shel emet—your final act of kindness to me.

It’s long past time we had some other local customs at our funerals: customs that acknowledge that women have feelings, that we mourn, and that we, too, need religious outlets for our grief. Of course, I am not advocating using someone else’s funeral as a stage for protest. Nevertheless, since the only way to change a bad custom is through action, then—assuming that I have any friends left alive by the time I go and that these horrible, insensitive customs are still in force when it happens—you are more than welcome to use mine.

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