Up From the Ashes: A Family Story Unearthed

By Holly Lebowitz Rossi

Published January 30, 2008, issue of February 01, 2008.
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I never had the religious identity crisis that strikes so many Jewish adolescents and young adults. Never, that is, until last year, when my great-grandparents were disinterred from their graves and summarily dismissed from a Jewish cemetery.

The saga started when my great-uncle Bobby died in March, just before his 88th birthday. His will stated that he wanted to be cremated and buried in a Cincinnati Jewish cemetery next to his parents, who were also cremated when they died in the early 1960s.

But when my mother called the cemetery (Uncle Bobby had no children, so it fell to Mom to settle his affairs), she was told that Jewish law forbids cremation, so Uncle Bobby couldn’t be buried in the plot he had bought. Moreover, the manager had been unaware of my great-grandparents’ cremated remains in his cemetery. So he told Mom, after conferring with both the rabbi and president of the Conservative congregation that owns the cemetery, that it would be best if my great-grandparents were immediately disinterred and removed from the premises.

In other words, my mother was told by a Jewish authority to expect her beloved grandparents’ remains to be shipped to her doorstep, four decades after their deaths. Quasi-“Seinfeld”-ian on one hand; profoundly unfunny on the other.

For me, it was a weighty spiritual disappointment. Jewish law is something I certainly respect, have studied and see as the anchor of my people’s survival. But what was I to make of the blaming implication that my relatives no longer count as part of the Jewish community because they violated the law against cremation?

The coldness with which my family was posthumously held accountable to laws that they hadn’t considered important during their lifetimes (and that someone at the cemetery hadn’t been a stickler for, either, when my great-grandparents initially were allowed to be buried there) brought me to a thought that shocked me when I finally said it out loud: If my relatives no longer count as fully Jewish because they violated this law, then I don’t want to be Jewish, either.

After all, my Jewish ancestry isn’t some abstract group of people who stood at Mount Sinai — it’s this precise group of people, these Cincinnati coat makers whom I never met but whose stories I’ve internalized, and whose carefully guarded prayer shawl I proudly wore at my bat mitzvah. If they were being shown the door by the tribe, I would be right behind them.

But of course it isn’t that simple, and they were being kicked out of a grave, not stripped of their Jewish identities. Plus, no matter how much I might grapple with what it means to me, I am forever and always a Jew.

But, like Jacob, I’m wrestling with God, frustrated by why God makes it so hard to be Jewish. At the same time, I struggle with why traditional Jewish teaching has always felt relevant to someone like me — someone who eats nonkosher food, drives on the Sabbath and has violated umpteen other of God’s commandments in my life. What right do I have to take comfort in the idea of a God who entered into a sacred covenant with my people, when I’m not holding up my side of the bargain?

I’m hardly alone in asking these questions in my early 30s, though the apex of religious identity crises more often hits college students who are encountering new ideas for the first time, or young professionals whose newfound adult lives don’t square with their religious upbringings.

But I think the cremation debacle brought up all these religious identity questions because we never need our faith more than when we think about death. Feeling part of a religious community means feeling like, at some cosmic level, you’re doing the right thing with your life and that someone, Someone, approves of your existence. Whether preparing for your own death or coping with a loved one’s, it’s comforting to think of the totality of life as a partnership carried out under the watchful eye of a loving authority figure, one who watches out for you as you do your best to honor Him.

That’s why it hurts when someone points a finger at you, or at loved ones who aren’t even here to defend themselves, and says, “You broke the rules.” Some branches of Judaism believe that when a Jew violates a commandment, he or she delays the coming of the messiah that much longer. I can’t imagine why my great-grandparents or Uncle Bobby — all of whom cared about social justice and identified so strongly as Jews — should have such responsibility and blame put on their shoulders, especially while we who are left to mourn them (or, in my great-grandparents’ case, re-mourn them) are trying to honor their good legacies.

Again, though, the reality of Jewish life shouldn’t be so starkly stated. There are nuances to every story, and, just as in American jurisprudence, subtle complexities to every Jewish law. But to me, the bottom line to the process of thinking through any Jewish question is always that our faith’s legalism should never beget hubris. I don’t know how serious a violation my relatives’ cremation was, because I can’t truly know God’s mind. I do know, though, that the Jewish faith I was taught tells me always to err on the side of family, on the side of love. Besides, as a rabbi to whom I turned for advice put it, “We really don’t know anything about what the afterlife is, so we have to let it go on faith that God is God, and what happens at the end of life is something that’s in God’s hands.”

And so, on a rainy day last summer, I gathered with my parents, sister and husband at another Jewish cemetery in Cincinnati, this one governed by the more progressive Reform movement, to put my great-grandparents and great-uncle into God’s hands. Mom hugged each urn before it was placed in a vault and then lowered into the ground. We read eulogies Mom had written about the family members we were laying to rest. With our bare hands, we placed dirt in the graves and said Kaddish.

Then we said goodbye, with all the honor and dignity that I know my family deserves. I believe God knows they deserve it, too.

Holly Lebowitz Rossi lives in Arlington, Mass.

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