What happened I

Posted on February 2, 2007

I don’t want to whine or complain. I do want to explain. I want to put words to this so I can maybe get through it and leave it behind me.

I am not much better than I was last night but I think I know what happened. The friend I visited who had just lost her father was in a similar horrible position as I was almost three years ago. Father not Jewish, funeral planned for a week or more away, at loose ends and shiva won’t start until after the funeral. What’s a Jewish mourner to do?

I think talking with her brought up so much of what I experienced when my father (alav hashalom) died. Please indulge me while I offer a summary of what happened.

My father died suddenly and unexpectedly from a massive heart attack half a country away. He was alone and outside, working on a piece of machinery. I had talked to him only the day before, planning his and my mom’s visit to see their second grandchild for the first time since birth. My husband, my children and I all had walking pneumonia. The doctor forbade us from flying for at least a week, but my mom said that was okay. Family was scattered all across the country; she planned a memorial service for three weeks away, to give everyone time to arrive.

Three weeks of mourning before the memorial service. All I could think of was Tisha b’Av. There was no actual funeral; he was cremated. Ergo, no way to know when shiva would begin. I couldn’t bear to wait three weeks to begin shiva. There’s a technical term for this, my rabbi said, for the time between knowing about the death and waiting for the funeral. I can’t remember it. I just know it’s a horrible limbo sort of feeling.

I flew out with my children as soon as the doctor allowed. I had been in daily contact with my mom all this time, helping her through losing her life partner of almost half a century. As much as I disliked it, I helped her plan the memorial service that would take place in her church. She asked me to write a eulogy, which I did. I used words from Yizkor toward the end.

When I arrived, I was met with instant hostility. None of this Jewish stuff, my mom warned me. I even had to hide the Magen David necklace that I almost never take off. The children and I stayed with my mother-in-law for several days. I thought maybe it would be a chance for us to bond a bit more. But she was busy with her own life and when we were in the house together, she was more interested in playing with her three dogs and watching TV. I developed severe allergies to literally inches of dog hair on every surface and had to go stay with my mom, a woman who’d been a legitimate threat to my physical person during my childhood and teen years.

Minutes after she picked the children and me up, she lit into me. She would not stand for my “picky” eating habits. If I didn’t want to eat what she had in her house, I could go starve for all she cared. She was in mourning, and was not in the mood to deal with my insistence on keeping kosher. She didn’t want to hear anything that sounded even vaguely like Hebrew. If her Christian prayers weren’t good enough for me, then I should keep my mouth shut. And if she saw my star necklace, she’d rip it off my neck and destroy it.

I had no choice. I had no money, no place to stay. I withdrew into myself and focused on my children. Aunts, uncles, other family were equally hostile and made public derrogatory comments about my being Jewish. Some of it was just ignorance. Some of it was clearly malicious. I wanted more than anything to just fly home. But we weren’t even to the memorial service yet.

My mom and brother and I had to meet with the pastor of the church the morning of the memorial service. He wanted us to hold hands and bow our heads and say a prayer. I refused. He didn’t understand. I was going to tell him the truth. I can’t participate in your prayers because I’m Jewish. I have my own prayers. But my mom interrupted and told him to continue without me. At the end of his prayer, when he made the sign of the cross for all participants, I turned away. I didn’t want a cross.

After we left his office, she said horrible things to me, how I’d humiliated her in front of her pastor, how I was being selfish and ungrateful and maybe it would have been better if I’d never flown out.


  1. Rivka

    Ayelet: there’s a whole other history here I haven’t gone into, which I think explains some of my mom’s behavior. When my maternal grandmother was a child, her mother died. Eventually she was adopted by her paternal grandparents who were not Jewish, and were in fact terribly antisemitic. They baptized her, abuesd her, and essentially brainwashed her with hatred for herself and her heritage.

    Sometimes when she told me stories of her early childhood, she would get very sad and not understand what made her favorite uncle and other family members so evil. I think some of that might have been passed on to my mom. And whether it’s due to religion or personality, accommodating is not in her vocabulary.

    To answer your question, I love her because she’s my mother. I honor that she’s a mother, she gave birth to me, and she did help me survive to adulthood. That honor is required by Jewish law. But would we be friends if that bond didn’t exist? No.

  2. Ayelet

    What a horrible nightmare! Being all alone among hostile people at a time when you yourself were so vulnerable…I shudder for you. What’s interesting to me is that I’ve found in my experience that religious Christians are the most accommodating (in comparison to secular people) when it comes to matters of religious observances. Guess that wasn’t the case with you, huh? Then again, you can’t expect much from “religious” people wh �o can abuse their children. May I ask a personal question? Do you love her? Did you love her? It sounds like you did very much love your father judging from the depth of mourning that you felt when he passed away. Were you ever angry at him for not protecting you from your mom? (Okay, so that was a whole barrage of personal questions. Ignore at will.)

  3. Rivka

    Anon: I couldn’t have made it without therapy. Things are much better with my mom now, but it took a lot of work, a lot of tears, and the intervention of a stranger. It doesn’t make what happened hurt less, but at least it doesn’t continue to this day. I like my counselor, but wish I had the Jewish piece, too.

  4. Anonymous

    I do hope that you are in therapy learning how to deal (or ignore)with all the difficult people in your life.

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