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Catching a glimpse of your rabbi discreetly sneaking out of the room as you begin a eulogy for your grandfather is a little disconcerting.
Two months ago, I lost my first grandparent, my maternal grandfather. We were very close.
As preparations for the funeral began, my mother asked me if I would say a few words at ceremony. I had been expecting this; I’m the oldest grandchild, and the one most easily able to write a speech on deadline (occupational hazard).
Then my mom called again. The rabbi officiating the funeral — an Orthodox Sephardi rabbi in Montreal — was against me speaking. Or rather, he felt uncomfortable with a woman speaking in public.
My initial reaction, I’m a little ashamed to say, was relief. I hate public speaking. My knees get wobbly, my voice cracks, and chills take over. It’s something that I have actively strived to avoid doing for as long as I can remember. But as the words sunk in and my stomach lurched, I knew I would always regret not speaking at my grandfather’s funeral.
I asked my mom to find a way.
Finally, a compromise was reached. I could speak, flanked on either side by my two of my male cousins, if I did it before the prayer and with the rabbi waiting outside.
Let’s be clear: I wasn’t trying to pull a Yentl. I was asking to make a secular eulogy on behalf of my younger cousins and myself. I also wasn’t part of an Orthodox community, where this type of request would have been part of a larger religious context.
Unlike our Ashkenazi counterparts, Sephardic Jews are fairly recent immigrants to Canada. Most, like my family, emigrated from Morocco to Montreal in the early 1970s. As such, nuances in religious observance haven’t really been defined. You either do it right or you don’t do it at all; there is almost no middle ground. As a result, regardless of women being equal to men in everyday life, religious attitudes towards the role of women have stayed fixed in a not-so-distant but very different past.
My grandfather’s funeral wasn’t my first brush with this kind of contradiction. My female cousins on my father’s side had not been allowed to speak at their grandmother’s (my great aunt’s) funeral a couple of years before. Out of respect for tradition, or perhaps to refrain from causing upheaval in the midst of grieving, they decided to save their speech for the end of shiva, held at home rather than at a synagogue. I almost decided to do the same.
But every time I reached for the phone to tell my mom that it was OK — I could speak later, at my grandmother’s house — my grandfather’s face popped into my head. Why, I kept thinking, should I have to show restraint when I had suffered the loss?
My usual reaction to traditions I don’t agree with is to let them slide. If someone believes in something so strongly and I do not, who am I to get in the way?
This time I made a fuss.
I was thrown by how deeply I felt the need to participate. Expressing my emotions doesn’t come easily for me. Grieving means sitting in the corner thinking to myself while resisting the tidal wave of hugs from well-meaning people. But sitting with a blank piece of paper and remembering my relationship with my grandfather — how he would bellow out “That’s my little girl!” to my grandmother every time I rang the doorbell, even though she was only a few steps behind him; how he used to sneak me slabs of chocolate with a kiss and a wink when I was younger, and how no matter what I did or how I did it, he always glowed with pride — it suddenly meant the world to say it out loud.
And at that moment, when I most wanted to be a part of a group, I felt distinctly apart.
My mother, it seems, felt the same way. Three days into sitting shiva, she broke down crying at the mention of the previous evening’s synagogue service, because she and my grandmother were relegated to the back, behind a modesty curtain, cut off from what was happening. “I feel like I’m just going through the motions,” I remember her saying. “My father has died and I feel no connection to this at all.”
I don’t believe that the rabbi was intentionally minimizing my emotional connection with my grandfather (or my mother’s with her own father). Rather, I think it never occurred to him that I would want to — or should — contribute to the ceremony.
Like the High Holidays, funerals are the one time that even Jews who aren’t regularly observant tend to follow the rules. My mother and her brothers made every effort to respect the full week of mourning — for my grandmother, who is still very much alive as well as my grandfather, who would have wanted things done the right way.
But for women, this often means seeing others (men) take charge of something that should be deeply personal and meaningful — a way to help us through our grief rather than emphasizing it.
So when the time came and the rabbi nodded as he walked towards the door, I removed my crumpled, twice folded notes from my purse, squeezed my brother’s hand and headed to the front of the funeral home to say my piece.
My family’s reactions to my speech were perhaps the most interesting. My grandmother, sobbing, took me aside and said that no one else could or should have done it. My mother’s cousins, much more in tune with the Moroccan community than we are, congratulated me on making myself heard.
And for once, as I felt my own cousin’s hand on my back to steady me as the words started to pour out, I had no trouble speaking. It felt right.
Anne Cohen was the Forward’s deputy digital media editor. When she’s not looking for the secret Jewish history of Voodoo in New Orleans, or making lists about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she writes for The Assimilator. She graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism with an M.S. magazine concentration in 2012.
A Woman's Kaddish