It’s a good thing, too, because I needed Judaism to be there for me when grief came home.
There’s really only one time in my 46 years of life so far when I’ve seriously considered not identifying as a Jew. That was when my great-grandparents were disinterred from their burial plots in a Jewish cemetery in Cincinnati, and the funeral director offered to ship the urns containing their cremated remains by UPS to my mother’s doorstep in Maryland.
At the time, in 2007, I was a longtime Hebrew School teacher, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, a decade into making a Jewish home with my husband — mezuzah on the door, ketubah over the bed — and years into a career writing about Judaism and other religious topics.
I knew enough to ask some rabbi friends whether we should convene a beit din, a religious court, to argue that the Jewish legal prohibition against disturbing the remains of the deceased outweighs the prohibition against burying those who chose to be cremated after their deaths. But I also knew that my family would never put ourselves through such an ordeal.
And then, that new, heavy sensation that came with the realization that my family was being erased, unceremoniously kicked out of a Jewish space. I entertained this idea: if the cemetery, which was overseen by a different rabbinic authority from those in charge when my great-grandparents died in the 1960s, had decided that my ancestors’ presence rendered the cemetery’s ground unkosher, then maybe I should decide that Judaism was a group that would no longer get to count me among their numbers.
There’s more to the story than that, of course. But when my rabbi invited me to share a story with the congregation over the High Holy Days entitled “My Jewish Journey,” one of the first things I thought of was that surreal, painful moment. Really? I asked myself. It certainly would be sadly fragile if the anger and hurt of that experience defined my Jewish identity in such a fundamental way.
And it doesn’t — identity is never that simple anyway. But even though there are many stories I could have told to capture “my Jewish journey,“ that was where I landed. In it and through it, that bizarre moment led me through grief in an unexpected way.
I never met my maternal great-grandparents, Harry Ezeikel Bassler and Ethelle Faulkenstein Bassler. But they loom large in my life. Having immigrated from Poland and Hungary at the turn of the 20th century, they were classical Reform Jews. My grandmother and great-uncle were Confirmed, bar and certainly bat mitzvahs not being available to them in the Reform movement of their day. For her Confirmation, my grandmother wore a pastel, floor-length gown and posed for a photo in front of the Greek-style columns at the famous Rockdale Temple in Cincinnati.
My great-grandparents’ new burial plot is in the same cemetery as Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, perhaps the most famous American Reform rabbi and the founder of the Union for Reform Judaism. The Basslers’ Jewish identities were highly boundaried, though. Fiercely proud of their faith, they were also avoidant of anything, like my husband’s and my decision to be lifted in chairs dancing to Hava Nagila at our wedding, that they saw as “shtetl” behaviors. Their losses in the Holocaust were severe — unspeakably devastating. It was only last year, through the genealogical research of a distant cousin I’d never heard of, when I learned the names of some of my family members who were murdered at Auschwitz. According to my grandmother, after her parents left Europe, they only ever spoke six words in Hebrew — the words of the prayer Sh’ma — for the rest of their lives. To them, for reasons we can name as post-traumatic, assimilationist, and 20th century cultural, Judaism was a tradition of morality, not religious practice.
My father had a different yichus, the Yiddish word for family tree. His family was Latvian and Lithuanian, Orthodox, kosher-keeping Yiddish speakers who came to Boston around the same time that my maternal great-grandparents were settling in Cincinnati. I was fortunate to have very close relationships with all my grandparents as well as great aunts and uncles, and I was taught to respect, admire, learn from, and aspire to bring naches, that particular kind of pride, to the generations that had enabled my safe, comfortable, love-filled life.
Maybe that’s why I reacted so strongly to the incident with my great-grandparents and the cemetery, why it emerged as the keystone of “my Jewish journey.” Ancestry, the thread that connects me with ancestors whose names I know and those whose names I do not know, is a foundation of my Jewish identity. I feel protective of them, protective of their dignity, and of their memory. Part of my sense of being a Jew is my inheritance of their Jewish journeys.
Because they — I’m speaking now of the collective “they” of my whole family — suffered in wars, fought in wars, immigrated to this country, built businesses and homes, were able to save money for the future, told their stories, and carried themselves as Jews, in the six words of Sh’ma, in kosher Passover seders, in pastel confirmation gowns, in Yiddishisms, and in countless other, intangible ways. My Jewish journey is a product of theirs, and my parents taught me that I am accountable to that, responsible to acknowledge and appreciate my ancestors — and obligated to make myself worthy of being their distant daughter.
Whenever I’ve attended Conservative or Orthodox Shabbat services in my adult life, I’ve found myself focusing on congregants who wear those beautiful, giant prayer shawls. Have you ever worn one, or watched someone wearing one during services? It’s hard to keep it organized. One shoulder slips off, the fringes stick to your sleeve, it’s a constant activity to reposition and adjust the tallis, to make sure it’s enveloping its wearer in a personal, sacred space.
That struggle has always struck me as a metaphor for the Jewish journey. Jacob wrestled with the angel, everyone wrestles with their talitot, and my family, through phone calls, letters, paperwork, and flights to Cincinnati, wrestled my great-grandparents into a new resting place, a place where they would be welcomed and accepted, a place where they could be enveloped in a personal, sacred space. At their new graveside, we read eulogies and wept over their urns, said kaddish, and added dirt to their graves with our bare hands.
Judaism made space for the whole struggle of that episode, and as my Jewish journey continues, I am trying to heed its call to show up, to learn more, to ask myself what it looks like to be a worthy descendant of my ancestors, and to be the ancestor my son and, God willing, his descendants, deserve. None of it is easy, even for someone like me, whose layers of privilege enable me to go to virtually any lengths to protect the moral, spiritual, and physical gifts I have been given.
This past High Holy Days season fell just days after the end of the traditional year of mourning my family went through in memory of my father, Alan David Lebowitz. What Judaism meant to me during the emotions and practices that sustained me over the year was a “Jewish journey” in and of itself.
And there is a through-line between my great-grandparents’ graves and my father’s, and it is simply this: I’m very grateful to call myself — to be — a Jew, grateful that I made the decision to remain so when the incident with my great-grandparents called my faith into question. Reciting kaddish every Friday night for the past year has been, among other things, 52 opportunities to renew and reaffirm that decision, to count myself among the numbers of the Jewish people — among those who struggle, among those who emerge from struggle, and God willing, among those who can find a place to rest in peace.
Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer in Arlington, Massachusetts. She is coauthor, with Liz Owen, of The Yoga Effect: A Proven Program for Depression and Anxiety