by Ruti Eastman
Recently, a fellow convert and I were chatting about the loss of our parents, and the differences between how we mourn, compared with the traditional structure of Jewish mourning.
As our yearly observance of Shavu’ot has made us all a little more sensitive to the situation of converts to Judaism, it seems a good time to share some fine points of which the general Jewish public may be unaware.
While I have heard of exceptions, neither my friend nor I was permitted to sit shiva in honor of our dear non-Jewish mothers, nor indeed to follow any of the usual steps that are prescribed for moving through the loss of a Jewish parent.
Over my nearly twenty-eight years of being part of this marvelous Jewish nation, I have unfortunately watched many friends as they mourned the death of their parents, siblings, spouses, and tragically even a few of their children. I see that the steps through the mourning process are powerful and filled with deep wisdom: the emotionally-charged tearing of the garment; the prohibitions about mirrors and personal care; the sitting on low stools and talking and crying or doing nothing, as the heart demands; the respectful acceptance of the week of first loss by friends; as well as the month and year of more relaxed steps, such as setting aside activities like listening to live music. Each step is clearly designed to carry the mourner from the deep chasm of heartrending loss back to normal life — whatever constitutes normalcy after the loss of a loved one.
When a convert loses her non-Jewish mother, life is no less ripped from its roots. It doesn’t matter what it says on paper about our parents now being Avraham and Sarah. One of the pillars of the convert’s existence has been toppled. I clearly remember wondering with fascinated awe how birds could continue to fly and sing with Mama no longer in the world…
One of my most precious memories during that painful first week still makes me smile at the subtlety of human understanding. Fred Levi came by on a Friday afternoon to drop something off for our neighbor, who was not at home. As we stood in my living room, Fred asked me how I was feeling, how things were going.
“I have to be honest,” I said, somewhat apologetically, “today has been a bit rough.”
A remarkable thing happened. I watched Fred’s entire being settle into itself. His body language suddenly, quietly said “I have all the time in the world to listen to you.” Of course he hadn’t. It was Erev Shabbat! But he “stood shiva” with me for a few moments, listening to me as I shared some of the pain of losing one of the finest and bravest women I had ever met. While I didn’t take unfair advantage of his kindness, I will always cherish the symbolism of that few minutes. In Fred Levi’s eyes, my loss was as deep as the loss of any “born” Jew.
I am not recommending a change in Jewish policy. I don’t know if it’s necessary, or even advisable; and in any case, that’s not my department. What I hope to do by sharing this story is to remind all of us to ask a mourning convert how it’s going, if they need anything, if they have a story about their dear departed they wish to share. And then I want to remind us all to listen, just as if that Jew were sitting on a low stool, surrounded by loved ones, with a tear in her shirt and a tear in her heart.
Ruti Eastman fell in love with Israel on her first visit, but had to wait 16 years to make aliyah in 2007. She writes about her adventures in Israel, as well as about the family history she wants to capture for her children. She has worked variously as an editor, teacher, artist, radio disc jockey, US army soldier; but her favorite job description is “raises crops of boys.” Ruti writes at Never Ruthless and atKi Yachol Nuchal! Her book of collected essays is due out in 2017.
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