Mourning Jewishly for a parent as a convert
Jewish tradition holds that converts are not obligated to mourn for their biological parents—even though the weight of honoring one’s parents is considered second only to fear of God on the scale of mitzvot. So, when their parents die, Jews-by-choice feel themselves placed into the conundrum of honoring biological parents or honoring the Jewish tradition and values they have embraced.
I knew my father would die; he was approaching his 90s. I wanted to honor him as my biological parent. My experience as a Jewish hospice chaplain enabled me to consider in advance what I could do with the challenge of mourning a biological and much loved father who was not Jewish. I imagined that I might read a psalm at graveside. So I explored with my father his favorite psalms, and I read Psalm 121 —his favorite—in many translations, and to many of my patients, especially the ones with dementia, where reading or singing was all I could do.
I knew I would do keriah, the tearing of a garment upon first news of his death; the first death I attended solo as a hospice chaplain was an elderly Jewish woman at night. Her son who had been staying with her went upstairs when I arrived and came down in a T-shirt, which he proceeded to tear in my presence. He was quite intentional; he wanted a witness. He seemed simultaneously resolved and restrained expressing pent-up emotions in the act of tearing. I also knew there would not be a shiva in my father’s home, yet I would want to be with my family for a few days after the death. My siblings would know what our father’s death meant in a way no friend could know. However, I looked up synagogues that were close to my father’s house, where I could say kaddish after the funeral. I also realized that I could go home and sit some part of shiva with my husband and Jewish community.
I learned of my father’s death while visiting my daughter’s family on the East coast. The phone call that informed me resulted both in my deep groan and tearing the white shirt that I wore. I made arrangements to fly as soon as possible back to the West Coast. I was asked to give the eulogy at his funeral, but I explained to my stepmother that I could not. However, since I had interviewed my father about his life three years before, I offered to draft one that she and my half-sisters, her daughters, could use in whatever way they saw appropriate. My father had a military burial; a brother-in-law who was also Christian led the service. I stood under the tent, my husband at my side. The taps played pierced my heart and the careful precision of the honor guard folding the flag to give to my stepmother gave me some time to collect myself. The funeral director invited the company to leave after the ceremony, but I stepped up to ask if I could start to fill the grave and he agreed. I took a handful of earth and threw it on the casket three times and the tears poured forth anew. My baby brother also stepped forward to join me in this most concrete of rituals.
I cooked for my family, providing a meal of comfort for them, after the graveside service. The memorial service was held at my stepmother’s son-in-law’s church, where the eulogy I drafted was much changed, as it should have been, to shape the story my stepmother and my half-sisters needed. My stepmother cared for my ailing father for three years, with great love and tenderness. She was the person most in need of support. I grieved at the memorial. My husband contacted both our synagogue and my friends to share the information about the three days of shiva I planned to sit. Two of my closest friends, both female rabbis, led the shiva minyanim. They read Psalm 121 in his memory. I felt embraced by my community; I felt my grief was seen. I said kaddish every day for 30 days, wore no makeup, did not cut my hair and appreciated calls and cards in a way that was new to me. A mention of my father would bring tears. Now, six months later, I say kaddish three days a week (once on Shabbat and then an additional two weekdays). I am planning an “unveiling” kind of ceremony at which I will be joined by two sisters and my stepmother.
I chose to honor my biological father in my expression of Jewish rituals. He had many qualities I strive to emulate: the ability to listen and not give advice, love of his family and his wife, respect for all human beings, and patience. When I told my father more than forty five years ago that I was converting to Judaism, he shared with me his deep sadness that he would not see me in heaven. However, in the decade before his death we were able to discuss Bible together (Old Testament according to him). We would read a common passage, I from my Jewish Study Bible and he from his Christian. We enjoyed the process of sharing perspectives. Forty five years ago I chose a different path. I created a Jewish family on the opposite coast, and educated my children in Jewish day schools, preparing for bar and bat mitzvah, Jewish youth groups, a year in Israel. I followed Abraham’s model and left the land of my birth, went forth to a new land, and a new religion and a new “father.” But when my beloved father died, I found that I could both honor him and the values of the Jewish tradition I cherish.
Muriel Dance has just retired from her work as a hospice chaplain at Skirball Hospice, a program of the LA Jewish Home. She is leading a Wise Aging workshop series at Ikar, her congregation in LA. She graduated as a Jewish Chaplain from the Academy for Jewish Religion, California and received Board Certification in January 2013. Previously, Muriel had earned her Ph.D. in English from UC Berkeley, worked as a professor and later a dean in higher education, spent a sabbatical year in Israel at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and chaired the adult education committee at her congregation in Seattle.
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