I woke up Saturday morning in a funk. In itself, this is nothing unusual. But, over the next few hours, the funk thickened and blackened until, by noon or thereabouts, it had entombed me. It was one of those miasmic, suffocating funks that poisons all of my thoughts while they’re still struggling to get out of my head. You’ll never escape your present circumstances, I was unable to resist thinking. Not this skid row apartment, not this stifling, book-strewn room with its nicotine-stained walls. You will die here.
Luckily, I had a sounding board at the ready, and that sounding board was my fellow Patheos writer Joanne K. McPortland. Joanne and I are like Britain and the U.S., Russia and Serbia, Hobbits and elves (or is it dwaves?). That is, we have a special relationship; if temperament in people can stand comparison to culture in nations, we speak closely related languages and share some core values. After unloading my frustrations in PM — for a blocked writer, the very act of typing can be therapeutic — something occurred to me.
“You know,” I wrote. “My dad died ten years ago today. Do you suppose that could be affecting my mood?”
Joanne justified my confidence by not answering, “Duh.”
As I’ve written before (and will probably have occasion to write again), my father died of an extreme allergic reaction to a bee sting. It’s a death that has always seemed to me as random and bizarre as death by lightning. Nobody could have seen it coming. But two weeks before the event, as we were wrapping up our weekly Sunday call, he told me, “Remember: it says in my will that I want a traditional Jewish funeral.” Since he was approaching his 66th birthday, I assumed he was feeling his age and fishing for reassurance. I reminded him he was in perfect health, and would probably live so long he’d have to bury himself. Looking back, I see now that this tiny foreshadow, along with the strangeness of its manner, surrounds his death with a supernatural charge. It feels both hexed and ordained, its origins both demonic and divine.
At any rate, he got the funeral — the pine box, the linen shroud, the graveside Kaddish. My Texan stepmother, descended from Huguenots, raised in some Protestant denomination I’ve never heard of before or since, made the arrangements. All I did was show up, slice open my shirt (wincing as I did; it was my favorite, a burgundy Kenneth Cole), and spade some dirt back in the grave. Going into deep mourning never occurred to me. Even if I had been bar mitzvah — even if my mother hadn’t been a gentile — I was closing loans on straight commission. In that industry, a pipeline could crumble in a day. The morning after my dad’s death, when I reported to my manager’s office and asked for the next two days off, he glared at me over a sheaf of Good-Faith Estimate forms and demanded, “How close were you?”
But, at least in an extremely half-assed, jury-rigged way, I have observed one Jewish bereavement custom. That custom is the Yahrzeit, or the commemoration of a departed loved one on the anniversary of his death. To indict myself, I do practically none of the things observant Jews are supposed to do. I don’t light a candle, for example. I calculate the date of my father’s death according to the Gregorian calendar, not the Jewish lunar calendar. I do pray, but by force of habit begin my prayers with “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit…”
Though if you were to ask me, I’d certainly be able to tell you the day my old man felt death’s sting, so to speak, I sometimes get halfway through the day itself without making any conscious connection between the date and the event. Unconscious connections are another matter. Saturday’s toxic mood, I’m convinced, was an over-scrupulous response to some internal directive not to spend the day in a state of mindless hilarity. Last year, as evening was falling and the temperature dropping back into the double digits, some mysterious force made me take a long walk well off any of my beaten paths. Only after this force drove me straight through the gates of the nearest cemetery did it occur to me that the dead — one dead person in particular — were crying for my attention.
I can see the logic in marking the anniversary of deaths. In my experience, people remember those anniversaries whether they want to or not, the more acutely if the death was untimely or violent. Both of my mother’s parents died in a house fire on August 20th, 1969. Though she was 25 and had been living on her own for some time, she happened to be visiting that fateful night. She’s often said that apprehension grips her throughout the second half of August, which at least for my purposes is convenient since it means we get to mourn almost in tandem. The end of summer, with overripeness hinting at imminent decay, sets the mood well.
But even by making this innocent (and not very original) observation, that a yearly grief-cleansing does a soul good, I realize I’m straying into dangerous territory. These days, among the faithful, it’s considered the worst kind of moral laziness to promote any religious observance on the basis of some perceived emotional benefit. It represents the kind of self-centeredness Ross Douthat has in mind when he writes that America has become a nation of heretics. Just a few minutes of ‘net-surfing will turn up defenses of praying on the knees, attacks on overlong eulogies or over-exuberant funerals. We’re living in an age of punctilliousness for punctilliousness’ own sake, or at least for identity’s sake. Ecumenism is held in suspicion, if not contempt — just ask the priest in my diocese who was severely disciplined for concelebrating at a wedding mass with a clergyman from another denomination.
This notion isn’t exclusive to Christians, much less to Catholics. A few months ago, I wrote a piece around what turned out to be my mistranslation of a Yiddish word. A reader who called himself Jewish Reactor dragged me out to the woodshed and gave me a good going-over. “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” he lectured me, and went on to compare my understanding of Judaica to a five-year-old’s.
He was certainly right that I’d failed my readers in my most basic duty, that of protecting them from misinformation. But my mistake, impossible to overlook though it must have been, need not, by itself, have triggered that kind of sneering response. (Has any language ever been misused more routinely than Yiddish?) From other things he wrote, I got the sense he had judged me guilty, not only of cultural piracy, but of identity piracy. Not only had I not been properly born into any kind of Jewishness, I had made no very strenuous effort to earn any.
Already half a thrall to the ideal of religion dur et pur, I made him the voice of my conscience. After pulling the piece, I wrote him a cringing letter of apology. I didn’t bother adding that I’d come by my imperfect understanding from Michael Wex’s Born to Kvetch; that would surely have failed to impress him. I also stifled the impulse to conclude with, “Even if you’re right, you were a lot bitchier than you had to be, so as Isaac Bashevis Singer used to say, pog mo hon!” In deferrence to 3,400 years of Mosaic tradition, I decided to steal Fiorello LaGuardia’s line: “I have hardly enough Jewish heritage to boast about.”
It was for all these reasons that I balked at Joanne’s suggestion that I go and buy myself a Yahrzeit candle. “I don’t think Circle K carries them,” I deadpanned. “Virgin of Guadalupe candles are as close as they come.” “It can’t hurt,” she deadpanned back. “She was a nice Jewish/Aztec girl.”
Coming from Joanne, the plan sounded better than it would have coming from anyone else. Though she has confessed in the past to being both a liberal and a feminist, Joanne has evolved in recent months into an orthodox firebrand. When it comes to disavowing old opinions and denouncing earlier selves, she could give Whittaker Chambers a run for his money. If she could see virtue in religious bricolage, then virtue there must be. As paper covers rock, Joanne’s injunction, at least temporarily, smothered Jewish Reactor’s. I flew straightaway to the Mexican dollar store, ready to give two traditions a good, old-fashioned bastardizing.
At least from the point of view of the last 100 years, “old-fashioned” may be just the word for it. In “Split at the Root,” her famous essay on resolving her own bushel of conflicting identities, Adrienne Rich writes of white, gentile, FDR-era Baltimore as though it were the most oppressive society this side of the Belgian Congo. Where Jews were concerned, it left a lot to be desired: restrictive covenants among homeowners, a reluctance to promote Jews too high, no matter how deserving they might be. (African Americans had it even worse.)
But Rich also admits that being Jewish or gentile was more a matter of manners and culture than of dogma. Her father bought a house in an exclusive neighborhood and climbed as high as he did in the Johns Hopkins Medical School faculty not by confessing the Nicene Creed, but by comporting himself as a Southern gentleman. When Rich, despite her gentile mother, her confirmation in the Episcopalian Church and her general unbelief, decided to rebrand herself as Jewish, her spotty bona fides passed muster. Even her husband’s orthodox parents granted her a ghetto pass.
Rich would never have thought to use the term, but she’s describing the up side to Ross Douthat’s bad religion. As much as it permitted people to despise or exclude their neighbor based on his skin color, or his family name, it made inquiring too far into his beliefs — or even rating the rigor of his observance — a mark of bad breeding. Carried downfield a dozen yards or so, these ideas made religous identity porous and mutable. They made my own existence possible. Would my father have married my mother if he thought the act would cut him off from the Jewish people — or even his Jewish family — altogether? Given the manner of his burial, I’m not convinced he would have.
G. K. Chesterton wrote that “the practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe.” If you ask me, he spent too much time hanging around intellectuals. Most of the people I know are still unsure how to see the universe, or else they’re hedging their bets among several views. The universe being as big as it is, that has always sounded to me like a sane approach. If Paul Ryan wants to be a cafeteria Objectivist, leave the man alone. He just wants to have his cake and steward it, too.
So I bought the tacky candle, brought it home and lit the thing, thinking of my father and his life. It occurred to me that Joanne’s throwaway remark contained a great gem of wisdom. The image of a Jewish girl in a red skin and infidel dress seemed a perfect tribute to a man who lived on earth largely as a gentile, but still insisted on going into it as a child of Israel.