When my father found out his cancer had returned, he called a family meeting. Not about the cancer, but about his funeral. He said he wanted Rabbi Eli to do the service.
I was surprised to hear that my father even knew a rabbi. He was hardly religious. But he said that this particular rabbi had once been a stand-up comedian, and he and my mother heard him speak at a local event. He found Rabbi Eli very engaging and wanted him to do his funeral.
Shaken up by Dad’s blunt meeting, my mother, sister and I didn’t ask any questions. But when my father approached his final days, I searched for a Rabbi Eli near Silver Spring, and I called.
Rabbi Eli Fink answered the phone immediately. In the background I could hear children playing. For a former stand-up comic, he didn’t strike me as particularly funny. He was stern and to-the-point. But at the same time, there was kindness in his voice.
He told me he usually didn’t do funeral services, but that he would make an exception for my father. And then he asked if my father would like him to visit. For a second I considered this. But my father was no longer very lucid, and I thought that having a rabbi suddenly appear at his bedside – especially a rabbi he had never formally met – would just scare him, like a signal that a hearse was pulling up outside.
I politely declined, and then added, “He’s never met you before.”
The rabbi sounded surprised. “Aren’t you in my congregation?”
“No. But my dad heard about you. He asked specifically for you to do his service.”
The good rabbi didn’t say anything.
And he was a good rabbi. He called a couple days later to see how my father was doing. Then the day after that, when my father died, one of the first phone calls I made was to the rabbi.
He ministered to me like I was one of his flock and told me that according to Jewish law, the mourning period was not supposed to begin until after the burial, in two or three days. And then he echoed the conflicted emotions that had been running through my head. “Because you’re still in shock. You can’t mourn yet. It hasn’t hit you.”
I had been alternating between bewilderment and guilt over my initial lack of emotion at my father’s death. Weeks later, I would feel crushing sadness to the point where I thought I would never be able to stop crying, but in the beginning, I felt like a sociopath, blithely brewing coffee like nothing had happened the night before. I had had more devastating reactions to girlfriends breaking up with me. Talking to the rabbi made me feel better about my own response.
We discussed the funeral arrangements, and Rabbi Eli seemed surprised to hear my father was being buried in a non-Jewish cemetery. I told him it was because my mother is not Jewish.
The rabbi told me he is not allowed to go into a non-Jewish cemetery. I was slightly taken aback. But a deal’s a deal. “Are you still going to do the service?” He agreed to do it at the funeral home.
After I hung up the phone, I asked my mom if she remembered what Rabbi Eli looked like. She said he was tall with red hair.
The rabbi who met us outside the funeral home was short with black hair, and the long dark beard and traditional clothing that immediately marked him as an Orthodox Jew. He gave me a curt bow instead of a handshake, since Orthodox men do not touch women who are not their wives.
I bowed back, as I came to a sudden realization: I had called the wrong rabbi.
But he was the right rabbi for us.
We gathered in the funeral home: my sister, my Swiss mother with her thick Swiss-German accent, my agnostic lesbian partner, our baby, our Orthodox rabbi and me. Under different circumstances it would have been unlikely for all of us to even be in the same room. But on that day, we were all Orthodox Jews.
Rabbi Eli gently explained to us what Judaism teaches about death. I don’t remember the exact words, but I know it felt incredibly comforting at the time. He guided us through the ancient Jewish mourning ritual of keriah: He solemnly gave us each a piece of black fabric, then went around the room, asking us individually if we accepted Dad’s death. When we said we did, he told us to tear the cloth and pin it on the left side of our chest, over our hearts.
During the eulogy, our little Orthodox rabbi was so short you could barely see him from behind the podium. Yet in his traditional garb, he loomed larger than life.
He might not have been a comedian, but his service was a total home run. Many people came up to me later and told me it was the best memorial they had ever been to. Each of them, it appeared, had been affected not just by the rabbi’s speech, a profound discussion of life and death, but also by his Orthodox appearance.
My father always enjoyed getting to know people from different cultures. He could tell you the life story of the janitor he admired at his office, who had escaped to America on a raft. He knew the names of all the children of Mrs. Lee — the waitress at his favorite Chinese restaurant — and where all of them were going to college. Once he surprised a small college up by the North Pole in Lapland, Finland, by accepting their invitation to come teach a class.
At his funeral, guests hailed from Vietnam, Guatemala, Switzerland, El Salvador, China, Korea, India, Iraq, Pakistan and Iran. We were a group of Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Christians and agnostics. But Rabbi Eli was, at that moment, the rabbi for all of us.
He concluded the service by telling the congregation, if we had a choice between going to a funeral and going to a party, that we should always go to the funeral, because at a funeral you will learn the most about life. Perhaps that was the reason he had decided to do our funeral. I will never know.
After leading all of us through the Hebrew chant of the mourner’s kaddish, the rabbi wheeled my father’s casket out of the funeral home. My mother, sister and I followed behind. The mourning period had officially begun.
Adele Levine lives in Silver Spring and is the author of Run, Don’t Walk: The Curious and Courageous Life Inside Walter Reed Army Medical Center.