Friday I went to my first Jewish funeral.
In preparation for this essay, I tried to do some quick online research on Jewish funerals. It only took me a few seconds courtesy of Google to figure out that "some" and "quick" weren't going to happen. There's a lot of info. It's a complex subject. And I don't know a thing, really, about it.
But I did attend, and I can tell you about that. And I can tell you about the woman we honored.
Several months ago I joined the Caring Community of Temple Sinai, and was asked to give congregant Eve Simkover some rides to and from. As it turned out, Eve was quite a character. I picked her up at her large-ish house in Piedmont, and took her to her workplace. She volunteered every day at a store on Grand Avenue, a store that accepts clothes for consignment or as a charitable contribution, prices them and sells them. Eve figured it was a good day if the store did well. The proceeds sent disadvantaged children to school.
She was terribly frail. I would open the rear passenger door for her to store her paperwork when we went, and the clothes she would bring home to price when we came back. It took her several moments to crawl into the car and try to make herself comfortable.
One day she called me outside the Committee to see if I could take her to Kaiser that day. She had managed to book three appointments in one day, she told me proudly. I had envisioned dropping her off and picking her up, but quickly figured out I'd never find her if I did that. So I parked the car and followed her around for the next three hours. She was undergoing treatment for cancer, and received monthly treatments and check-ups. She was still bitter, she told me, as to how she was told of her diagnosis. "He called me on the phone," she told me as she spat out the words. She soon changed doctors.
I hadn't heard from her for the next two months or so, but figured she had enough rides. I was shocked, terribly, when I received the synagogue email announcing her death. Fortunately, my partner suggested we attend her funeral, as she had known Eve and her husband (who died several years earlier) for many years.
I've poured energy into avoiding funerals in the past. I decided I needed to attend this one. And so I did, with some help.
The funeral home is at the end of Piedmont. We parked a block or so from the home itself, recognizing that parking may be difficult closer up. As we walked up, I could see the Jewish headstones on the tiny patch of green grass, many with the Star of David on them, and many dates of birth before 1900. This gravesite has been here a long time.
Rabbi Chester greeted us as we stepped up to sign the book before we entered the smallish chapel. When we sat down the woman in front of me introduced herself to me as the head of my neighborhood's Caring Committee, and we were able to chat briefly about Eve.
Once the service started, Rabbi Chester recounted several tales of Eve, many of which made us laugh, and her sons continued with comments about her life. Throughout the service, I saw several heads bob as grief overcame them, and I reached for the kleenex that had so thoughtfully been provided for us. I think it was no coincidence that Eve's first name was that of my mother, no coincidence in that I felt the connection right away when I met her, and seeing Eve time and time again reminded me of my mother. I was also reminded during the service that, if I had had a similar service for my mother, the grief might not have been less but it certainly would have been shared.
We followed the family out to the grave, and after some words of Hebrew prayer, the rabbi took a shovel and lifted some dirt and dropped it onto the casket, which had already been lowered into the plot. Family members followed suit, and some threw flowers onto the casket as well.
As I understand the tradition, first we bury the dead as quickly as possible. Once that's taken care of, we then take care of the living, the family that's left with the grief. After the funeral, Eve's house would be open to all who wanted to come by to see the family. Our friend Dawn tells us that flowers are never sent to Jewish funerals, but it's a mitzvah to bring food to the family. "Something sweet."
We remembered her, we honored her, we recalled her life. We didn't send her soul to heaven in wails of regret and anguish, as had happened in other funerals I had attended. This service encouraged us to cry in community. I noticed many among us took the opportunity to chat with people they recognized but that they hadn't seen in awhile. It was a social event as well as a duty. And it was certainly a mitzvah.
Thanks, Eve. It was wonderful knowing you if ever so briefly.