Sunday, September 16, 2012

How should I mourn?

As a Jew by Choice, how should I mourn my lapsed Catholic grandmother (z"l)? If I were going home for the funeral, I would have to sit through a Catholic mass that she would have hated and file past her open casket and explain why I want to throw some dirt on her coffin after they've lowered her into the ground. I would also have to explain why, after traveling close to 800 miles to be there, I would be skipping her wake to go to synagogue for Rosh Hashanah. But I am not going home for the funeral, so I won't have to explain these things to anyone. Instead, I am left to wonder how I should mourn (from 800 miles away) my non-Jewish grandma in a Jewish way and how I will mourn others in the (God willing far distant) future.

For answers, I turned to the internet with search terms like: "Jewish convert mourning non-Jewish relatives" and "Jews by Choice in mourning." It was generally unhelpful, with answers ranging from: "Converts shouldn't mourn non-Jews" to "Do what you want" to "You're required to practice the Jewish mourning rituals in full."

If my internet search has taught me anything, it's that how you will mourn is something you should think about before you are thrown into mourning. This is especially true for Jews by Choice. Since there is no consensus among Jewish authorities (even within the same movement) about how a convert should mourn non-Jewish relatives, it seems that we are left to piece together our own Jewish mourning rituals from a mish-mash of conflicting suggestions across the internet. I have posted some of the more helpful links I found below. If you have tips for me and other mourning converts, please leave a comment. Thank you.

Resources for converts in mourning
  • The Rabbinical Assembly's (RA) position on converts mourning non-Jewish relatives is an interesting read, ultimately concluding that we should be required to follow all traditional Jewish mourning practices.
  • Rabbi Gershom Bernard of Northern Hills Synagogue in Cincinnati offers a brief overview of the different schools of thought on this topic, ultimately agreeing with the RA's ruling.
  • Tablet Magazine published this personal reflection from a Reform Jewish convert working out for herself the appropriate ways to mourn and remember her non-Jewish mother.
  • Rabbi Ruth Adar, a Reform rabbi, has addressed this problem multiple times on her blog. With so few resources on this topic, her posts are a welcomed, insightful source of information and guidance.
  • Chabad offers suggestions for converts to mourn non-Jewish family in a "markedly Jewish" way while distinguishing this mourning from mourning the death of a Jew.
  • Anita Diamant, author of Choosing a Jewish Life and other great resources for converts and others hoping to build a Jewish life, has a book about mourning, with an excerpt available here. The excerpt doesn't really provide any answers on how to mourn, but offers a number of thought-provoking questions about the mourning process for converts. If you have the foresight to think about how you will mourn before you are actually mourning, these questions seem like good things to think about. I assume the book actually does answer some of them, since Diamant is usually good about that.