New Jew: A Story of Conversion

New Jew: A Story of Conversion

by Sally Srok Friedes


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The New Jew is the story of an unexpected road to conversion, from first invitation to temple, through encounters with rabbis that left her feeling angry and alienated, to the irresistible warmth of Jewish friends and family who drew her in with their exuberance.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781846941894
Publisher: Hunt, John Publishing
Publication date: 03/16/2009
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)

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The New Jew

An Unexpected Conversion
By Sally Srok Friedes

O Books

Copyright © 2008 Sally Srok Friedes
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-84694-189-4

Chapter One


"I don't care when you schedule my next appointment," Bernice dictated to the doctor from her hospital bed. "Except for February 11th. You'll just have to work around that date." The doctor hesitated. "February 11th?"

"That's the day my daughter-in-law is converting to Judaism," she beamed.

Now, one month later, my mother-in-law, my source of unfaltering love, lay dead before me.

I couldn't know that in her death, all the pieces of what brought me to Judaism would come to life. Traditions, rituals, prayer and community ... in their practice I would see that my becoming Jewish was fate, bashert as it is known in Hebrew. Had I not converted to Judaism, I wouldn't have been able to move through Bernice's death and my mourning with acceptance and full consciousness. The mourner's kaddish, the service, the outpouring from friends and family, the shiva-they were all instrumental in my healing. But I couldn't know that, crying into Michael's shoulder at the foot of the hospital bed. All I knew was that my beloved mother-in-law was gone.

* * *

I burst through the swinging door of the ICU wing hours earlier and found my husband standing in the corridor, arms limp by his side, looking stunned. I threw my arms around his neck and pulled away, studying his face.

"Where is she?"

"In the next room."

"How is she?"

"Not good."

Michael led me into the curtained cubicle where Bernice lay motionless, clear tubes suspended from her nose, her arm, the back of her hand. She looked like a marionette laid to rest. I approached her and touched her hand, which felt warm and lifeless all at once. Her balding head, with random wispy tufts of hair, reminded me all too vividly of the torment chemotherapy had wreaked on her body. We stayed with her, Bernice's boyfriend, and Michael's aunt, uncle and cousin joining us, the backdrop of the beeping monitors from beyond the hospital curtain ticking away the minutes of Bernice's life. I so wanted her to come out of the coma, but I had to ask myself, if she had, what would she return to? Her stage four of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma had already robbed us of her effervescence and strength. She had deteriorated rapidly, falling asleep in her chair on our last visit, a table spilling over with pill bottles by her side.

When the doctor declared Bernice's time of death and Michael leaned his head into my shoulder sobbing, when we hugged each other and walked out into the impossible sunlight, unable to fathom how people could be hurrying by and the world could continue when my mother-in-law had just taken her last breath, I wondered: What now?

Bernice wasn't just a cog in our wheel; she was the motor that made the whole machine work. The point person for our family, she coordinated everything from holidays to dinners out, arranging rides, making restaurant and theater reservations, purchasing gifts. At times she was the glue in my marriage. Several years earlier I had decided to separate from Michael, wanting to walk away from the strain in our marriage caused by starting a business together and raising a newborn. It was Bernice who held us together by insisting, "First of all, when people separate they rarely get back together. And, second of all, if you separate, Michael is moving in with me-I'll whip him into shape!"

* * *

We had a funeral to plan. Walking into Bernice's apartment, a space that seemed eerily still without her, Michael said just one thing: "I want Rabbi Sirkman."

His voice, formidable with conviction, took me by surprise. Rabbi Sirkman was the rabbi with whom I had studied avidly for nearly 2 years for my conversion. While I had a close relationship with him, Bernice had met him just once, the day I became Jewish. And Michael had had very few interactions with the rabbi.

"I'll call him right away."

I studied my husband as he reached into the cabinet for the phone book. How does Michael do this? I wondered. Moments ago he requested a rabbi. Now he sat on the sofa, thumbing through the white pages for the funeral home, preparing to call countless friends.

As my husband dialed numbers from his mother's worn address book, I ducked into his childhood bedroom to use the second phone.

"Rabbi, hi." I was relieved to get him on the phone immediately.

"Sally! Hello! How are you?"

"Well, actually, not so good. My mother-in-law died this morning." I bit back the tears, wanting very much to get through the conversation without crying.

"My God, that was fast. I'm sorry. How's Michael?"

"He's, well, everything. He's calling friends and family right now." I thought of my husband in the other room, re-experiencing his mother's death over and over, telling people the news, as I made this one call. "Rabbi, Michael wanted to know if you would conduct the funeral."

The rabbi was quiet for a moment. "Tomorrow is Shabbat, which means the funeral will have to be Sunday." The rabbi visualized his calendar aloud. I knew what he was calculating, having learned in my conversion studies that, in Jewish law, the deceased is to be buried within 24 hours of death, in reverence to both the deceased and the surviving loved ones. A speedy burial ensures the loved one is laid to rest, returned to the earth, allowing the family to begin mourning. When I learned of the tradition, I couldn't imagine the stress, requiring people to travel on such short notice and forcing the family to make funeral arrangements in the span of one day. But now, from the inside of my grief, I could appreciate the wisdom of the tradition. The tasks before us seemed too much to bear-writing an obituary, selecting a casket, preparing a service, organizing a shiva, and so much more. Having the funeral underway in the next day, moving us out of the torment of planning and into the phase of mourning, seemed the most compassionate gift I could have received.

But Bernice's funeral would have to be delayed. She died on a Thursday, the day before the Sabbath. And since, in the Jewish faith, the Sabbath, which begins sundown Friday and concludes Saturday, is considered the most important holiday; nothing is to infringe on the traditions-not even a death.

"Sunday is a tough day ... Susan and I have this family thing. It's important,"

Rabbi Sirkman continued, thinking aloud. I could hear the struggle in his voice. I knew the rabbi's schedule was demanding, constantly pulling him away from his wife and children. Weddings, funerals, hospital and hospice visits, in addition to his daily rabbinic duties, made it difficult to commit to family time. Weekends were rarely his to enjoy; Wednesday was his day off, hardly a day for picnics and family gatherings.

"It's okay. I understand. It's late notice." It seemed foolish, saying such a thing. When is a funeral not spontaneous? I felt guilty asking the rabbi for such a favor. While Michael and I were temple members, Bernice was not. The rabbi could not possibly conduct funeral services for every extended-family member for every congregant. And now I was putting him in the awkward position of having to say no.

"But," he said with audible certainty, "I want to do this for you and Michael. I'll be there. Let me figure out a time and I'll call you back."

When I returned to the living room, Michael's aunt was on the phone with the funeral home. It was the same chapel that held services for Michael's late brother, a 13-year-old child who had lost a battle with Hodgkin's disease, and for his father, who had died of a heart attack. One of the few Jewish funeral homes in Manhattan, Michael knew it was where he wanted Bernice's service. Soon close friends began arriving, bringing bags full of food and helping us compose Bernice's obituary. Finally, exhausted and spent, Michael and I went home to Westchester and awaited his sister's arrival from California. Now we had to tell 4-year-old Harrison that his grandmother had died. Entering our house, the late spring sky a gray shroud, our babysitter greeted us at the door.

"Hi, there!" she said cheerily. "How's your mother?"

"Um," I hesitated. "She's dead."

Her cheerfulness deflated as she expressed her shock and sympathy. I paid her and spied Harrison over her shoulder, playing with a conglomeration of blocks.

"Mommy, where were you?"

Just 4 years old, his intensity sometimes startled me. This moment was no different. Typically conspicuously attached to me, the architecture of his castle or city had momentarily hijacked his attention.

"Remember?" I answered. "I called you. Nana B got sick. Daddy and I were at the hospital." I motioned for Michael to join me on the rug.

"Oh, yeah." Harrison placed a rectangular block across a tall cylindrical one, daring it to fall.



"Remember when I read you that book about the seasons?"

"Which one?"

"The one about the leaves on the trees."

"Oh, yeah." Uncertain the rectangular block would hold, he slid another cylinder under it.

"Well, sweetie. Remember how leaves grow on trees, then grow full and beautiful and the whole tree lights up in green, sometimes with flowers, too?"

"Uh huh."

"And they're beautiful all summer. Then autumn comes and the leaves start to turn brown. Their stems get weak and one by one, they fall off the tree. They die. It's just how nature works."

He removed the rectangular block.

"Sweetie, look at me." I held his hands on my legs and looked straight into his eyes. "Harrison. Nana B's life is like the leaves. And today it was her time to die."

"Noooo!" Harrison wailed, folding his body over, dropping onto my legs. "Not my Nana B! Not my Nana B!" I heard more sobbing then, and saw Michael crying uncontrollably, his shoulders shuddering. "No, Daddy! Not Nana B!" Harrison hugged Michael, and they rocked, sitting over the toppled blocks, crying together.

* * *

I felt comforted the next morning to walk into the familiar setting of Rabbi Sirkman's office, where I had sat for nearly 2 years discussing my Jewish studies. It had always been a safe haven where the outside world dissipated, and today was no different.

"Before we start talking about your mother, I wanted to share this with you."

We sat tight in the sofa across from the rabbi, exhausted from a nearly sleepless night. Michael and I had talked into the early morning hours trying to absorb the day's events and I stayed up late fanatically cleaning the kitchen, not knowing what else to do with my angst until I finally collapsed and wept. The rabbi opened a manila folder and pulled out a card. "Your mother wrote this to me last month, after Sally's conversion. It's a donation to the temple." He read from her note. "She says, 'Thank you for Sally's conversion service. It was a lovely day and I was happy to be a part of it. You'll never know how much this means to me."

Tears welled up in my eyes. I nodded, too overcome with emotion to speak. For the last 24 hours, and for endless foreseen days, the emphasis was and would be on Michael's loss. But now, just for this moment, the rabbi acknowledged the love Bernice and I shared.

"Thank you," Michael said, and clutched my hand, looking at me. "It's true, you know. It's true."

I thought about how glad I was to be Jewish, to be sitting next to my husband of the same faith. I was no longer an outsider, going along with Michael's traditions. I was a decision-maker, having an insider's view. Together we were constructing a meaningful eulogy with my mentor.

* * *

"You can go in here." The funeral director escorted us to a small anteroom near the chapel. "People may stop by to see you before the service."

Finally, Sunday morning arrived. Seventy-two hours after Bernice passed away, we would hold her funeral. One by one, family and friends entered the room, all hugging us, expressing their sympathies, the crowd engulfing and separating us. I noticed, in all the condolences extended, not once did I hear, "She's in a better place," something I frequently heard when Catholics talked about the deceased. It always struck me as an odd way to offer comfort during such a painful time. How could anyone find solace in the unknown, when all that is known is the vast void left by the loved one? With no official position on life after death, Reform Judaism believes that heaven is here on earth, which is why we strive to make it a better place. It was one of the tenets of Judaism that drew me in, and I was immensely grateful for it at this moment.

It wasn't long before I became overwhelmed by the density of people, the claustrophobia intensified by the sea of somber clothing. Names escaped me as Bernice's friends embraced me. Mourners weaved through the crowd as they tried to make their way to Michael. I became anxious, wanting the funeral to begin. After about an hour, the director cleared the room, leaving Michael's family and me standing in an empty room, stunned by the instant silence.

The director returned. "We're ready for you. Everyone is seated."

We walked across the hall and stared at the ominous doors before us, intimidating not in stature but in what they held behind them. Propped on an easel was a glamorous studio photo of my mother-in-law in her thirties, sitting on the edge of a settee, her hair tied in a bun and her low-cut black gown draping gracefully to the floor. It was easy to see that her years as an actress never left her. On the table was a portrait taken for her presidency of the National Council of Jewish Women, a more recent photo that captured her radiance.

I felt Michael's tenseness and again bit back tears. I glimpsed the coffin on my left and looked to my right at the crowd.

"Oh, my God," Michael murmured.

"I know," I answered, equally stunned. The chapel, a room with a 300-person capacity, was nearly filled.

As the rabbi walked to the bema, I noticed the lack of flowers and recalled Michael describing this Jewish tradition at his Aunt Molly's funeral.

"Why aren't there any flowers?" I had asked Michael. Why hadn't anyone sent arrangements?

"People never send flowers to a Jewish funeral."

"Why not?"

"Instead of sending flowers, we make contributions to a cause or organization that was meaningful to the person who died."

"What do you mean?"

"It's a way of honoring someone. Flowers are sort of a waste-they die. Contributions don't."

Looking at the closed coffin in front of me, I thought how pleased Bernice would be to have donations made in her honor to the National Council of Jewish Women, the organization where she had volunteered for the last 20 years. It struck me that, even in her death, she would continue to make an impact.

The rabbi opened with the kaddish, the mourner's prayer, and we all read aloud from the brown prayer books that had been distributed at the door.

Yit ga dal v' yit ka dash sh'mei rabbah.

I had heard the kaddish at Friday night services but never found it particularly enchanting. Interested in the meaning, I had sat in the pew of Larchmont Temple, reading the translation, trying to find something in its message that resonated with me, but failed.

Glorified and sanctified be God's great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days ...

Now, sitting next to my husband, looking at the coffin that held my beloved mother-in-law, the message still fell flat. I wasn't much in the mood to praise God, nor express my desire for an abundance of peace from heaven. But, while the words themselves held no value, the hypnotic rhythm of the sentences drummed through me. For the first time in 3 days, I was without distinguishable thoughts. I wasn't thinking about the eeriness of Bernice's absence or metering how Michael was faring. Behind me sat almost 300 people, chanting the kaddish in unison for Bernice, calling out their sadness and their condolences.

Y'hei sh'mei raba m'varach l'alam u'l'almei almahyah.

I became entranced by the prayer. Infused by its serious tone, the roomful of people transformed from individuals in mourning to a cohesive community, and it was heard-we were grieving, and we were united in our sorrow. What I witnessed next was not a lugubrious funeral but a tribute to Bernice, and a healing one at that.

"Tradition teaches," started Rabbi Sirkman, "there are those whose lives are as question marks in the Book of Life, never leaving enough of an impression to discern their impact. If this is so," he looked directly at our row, "then Bernice Friedes can be nothing other than an exclamation point ... for the impression she left is indelible ... it is etched upon every person here today, and countless other souls, I daresay."


Excerpted from The New Jew by Sally Srok Friedes Copyright © 2008 by Sally Srok Friedes. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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