This is not my most cheerful post but it has a bittersweet ending. Israel prides itself in offering its citizens religious freedom. To its credit, is also safeguards the sites holy to Jews, Christians, and Moslems, in Jerusalem and elsewhere around the country.
But there are strings attached. In Israel there’s no separation of State and Church (Oops!, Synagogue). The Halacha, Jewish law, dictates the three main cycles of life: birth (circumcision of the male newborn), marriage (who can marry and how), and ultimately, death (burial rituals).
Death – not a lively subject. But it’s been a heated topic in Israel for decades, more so since the early 90s when over a million Russian and Ukrainian Jews immigrated to Israel. They now make up 1 in 6 Jews in Israel. Many hardcore Israelis, mostly the observant and the orthodox, question the Russians’ Jewish purity. The old-timers suspect tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of Russians are not 100% Jewish, but rather 1/2, 1/4, or 1/8 – the result of intermarriages with goyim (gentiles). These non-Jews simply hitched a ride to Israel to escape from the former Soviet Bloc, to enjoy subsidized housing, employment opportunities, pension, and the warm Mediterranean sun. Twenty years later, the Russians assimilated into Israeli society although they still retain their own delicatessen, bakeries, theaters, newspapers, radio and TV stations. (Much like the Russian Jews in New York a century ago). Many settled in Israeli cities and towns; they married, raised children and grandchildren, and then, some died.
This is where it gets sticky. Hevra Kadisha, Israel’s religious burial society, buries only Jews in Jewish-only cemeteries. It’s an exclusive club. And some want in. There are thousands of cases where a Jewish-Russian husband, for instance, wishes to bury his deceased wife, a non-Jew, in the cemetery – but can’t.
Kadisha follows the centuries-old burial rites: cleanse the body from any impurities, immerse or rinse with water from head to toe, dress it in white shrouds – a white linen garment, inform the community of the death by posting bills, arrange for the reciting of the Kadish, the memorial, and the headstone.
It’s a humane service. And a business that employs thousands.
The body is buried outside the cemetery walls. An outcast.
This practice offends the surviving spouse and family. The husband, Jewish, gets buried in one place, the wife, elsewhere, sometimes miles away.
Anger mixed with pain sounds like this: “We were together in life. Why can’t we be together in death?”
This logic and need to stay together led Yoel Razvozov, a young Russian-Israeli Member of Parliament, to propose legislation that will enable to set aside “civilian” plots inside the traditional, Orthodox cemetery.
Kadisha, worried it might lose its grip, is not happy.
This hot-potato is not going to die anytime soon.
It seems anytime the Orthodox want to explain away why things are the way they are, they reach for the Bible and cite the scriptures.
Well, here’s one for tolerance, for acceptance of the stranger within, for having compassion, from the Book of Ruth:
Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
What do you think?
Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.
He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com
or at BN.com