Culture Clash Begets Funereal Family Drama

By Wendy Belzberg

Published April 04, 2003, issue of April 04, 2003.
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Last month when my mother died I followed her wishes for a funeral with a minimum of fuss and religious ritual. I arranged for a graveside service with a Reform rabbi and requested that only immediate family attend. I was aghast when an Orthodox cousin whom I had not seen in 40 years showed up and proceeded to shovel earth into my mother’s grave. This was a Reform funeral service. What explanation could there be for my cousin to think that he is entitled to behave in such a fashion?

— A grave concern

There is nothing like the conviction of the righteous — no matter what the religion or the cause. Those who are certain of their chosen path to the exclusion — or even consideration — of all others can readily justify their behavior. I would guess that your cousin was certain that his actions were sanctioned.

Shoveling earth on the coffin is a symbol of closure; it is the final acknowledgement that your loved one is not coming back. Myself, I am a believer in this and all other Jewish customs and laws pertaining to death and burial, which seem bold and cathartic. But neither your cousin nor I have any business telling you how to grieve or to mourn. Your mother specified her wishes before she died; it was your duty to execute them as she would have wanted. A word of advice: Next time there is a death in your family, you may want to post a guard at the funeral home. You never know when your meddling cousin may reappear. I can’t help but wonder what mischief he works at weddings.

* * *

I recently learned that my cousin, a young doctor, is getting married. His parents are both Jewish. However, I remember that when he was born, he did not have a brit. He was circumcised, but not by a mohel. What is his status as a Jew? Shall I say something, or just keep quiet?

— Cutting to the chase

You can breathe easy. There is still the same number of Jewish doctors in the world. Jewish status is determined by the mother; if your cousin’s mother is Jewish — even if his father is not — the good doctor is a Jew, even if he’s never set foot in a synagogue. This rule applies to all male children — whether they are circumcised or not.

The issue of religion aside, let me ask this: Unless you are a generation older than your cousin, how do you happen to know about his circumcision? Surely you must have other things on your mind. If you haven’t, you probably ought to broaden your interests and find some.

* * *

I need some advice please. I am 22 years old and my parents still treat me like I am a child. I am dating a man but my parents won’t accept him. What can I do?

— Papa’s little girl

It is possible that where you see Mr. Right, your parents see Ben Stiller in “Meet the Parents.” It is more likely, however, that they are having a hard time accepting that their little girl is little no longer. Either way, I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they have your best interests at heart.

In the catalogue of life’s rocky transitions, child to adult and parent to peer are two of the most difficult. Your parents will continue to pressure you as long as you allow them to. And as long as their approval means more to you than your own happiness, you will be fair game. If you intend to establish a relationship with your parents on equal footing you will have to assert yourself. Now is as good a time as any.

Write to “Ask Wendy” at 954 Lexington Avenue #189, New York, N.Y. 10021 or at wendy@forward.com.






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