A reader’s story: Uncle Morris dies in New York

But what about a minyan, the minimum quorum of 10 needed for proper Jewish burial?

By
September 9, 2011 15:08
Burial

grave 521. (photo credit: MCT)

A reader of this column shared this story with me but has asked to remain anonymous. Our correspondent – let’s call her Miriam – is a teacher and grandmother who has lived for many years in a small town in Israel. Growing up, she had heard of her Uncle Morris through the tragic, exotic tales told about him at family gatherings. Uncle Morris’s son, born malformed and ill, died young. Uncle Morris and his wife divorced. The son they’d adopted turned to drugs. Uncle Morris moved from Europe to America. Uncle Morris was living somewhere in China.

That was the last they had heard from him.

Then, one winter evening, Miriam’s sister-in-law in Rehovot received an eerie phone call from America. A man was asking to speak to her husband, Miriam’s brother, who had died years earlier. The caller apologized, and identified himself as a representative of the Hebrew Free Burial Society in New York. He was searching for kin of a dead man, and had traced the unusual surname all the way to Israel. She promised that Miriam would call him back.

Jewish surnames aren’t always a straight trail to identification.

Exigencies have forced alterations on many. In my own family, an Ellis Island immigration clerk heard my great-grandparents’ multisyllabic Yiddish-accented name and wrote down “Smith.” A cousin on the other side became “Weinstein” because a passport he had purchased with that name had made possible his flight to the US. In our small town in Connecticut, a visitor from the North knew our local physician. “Carlyle?” asked the visitor. “Up in Maine he was known as Cohen.”

But in this case, the surname trail proved true. A man who shared Miriam’s maiden name had been lying in the morgue in New York City for three weeks.

Uncle Morris.

Miriam told the burial society clerk that she was the man’s niece, and that her father, Uncle Morris’s brother, was alive.

The burial society needed written permission to go ahead with a funeral. Miriam’s nonagenarian father was stunned and shaken that his long-lost brother should have such an ignoble end. He gave his consent for immediate Jewish burial. Miriam dealt with the copious paperwork.

A flurry of faxes crossed the ocean. A rabbi would preside, they were told, that very day. Miriam called cousins in America and entreated them to attend despite the inclement weather.

But what about a minyan, the minimum quorum of 10 needed for proper Jewish burial? Miriam, a devout Jew, was distressed that there would be no minyan.

Why did she care so much? “I’d had very little contact with this uncle, but he was my blood relation,” she says.

“And I thought of my grandparents, who were known throughout Zionist Jewry in Israel and abroad, that their son shouldn’t have a proper Jewish burial.”

By the time she faxed the last consent form, it was 10 p.m., 3 p.m. on the East Coast of the US. Soon it would be dark in America. The funeral would take place soon.

Still, she couldn’t go to sleep, thinking of the funeral in New York without a minyan.

She began by networking, calling everyone she knew with connections in the city.

No one could come up with a solution.

There was an additional problem. The date was December 31. New Yorkers were readying to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Even those who weren’t partying had vacation.

And it was very cold.

Where could she turn? Then her phone rang, startling her.

For no reason she could decipher, a Jerusalemite named Esty, the daughter of her dear friend Aleeza, who had died less than a year earlier, was calling for a friendly chat. In the nine months since the friend had died, Miriam and Esty hadn’t spoken even once. But at 11 p.m., Esty, a busy, working mom herself, had felt a strong compulsion to call her.

Miriam was glad to hear from Esty after so much time, but frankly, she wasn’t in the mood for a friendly chat.

She was feeling the pressure of the minutes ticking away.

Soon it would be too late to find a minyan. Rather than cut Esty off, Miriam revealed her problem. Esty recommended a website that Miriam had never heard of: www.

godaven.com.

As it happens, this week I received a press release about this very website, which is celebrating its 10th birthday.

Created by Dr. Yosi Fishkin, an ophthalmologist and Internet consultant in Bergenfield, New Jersey, godaven.

com provides prayer times and contact information for thousands of minyanim in over 50 countries worldwide.

It’s updated daily. To use the site, you type in a location, and voilà – you find a prayer quorum whether you’re in Virginia or Vietnam. The list includes regular prayer services and temporary ones, like this week’s summer vacation listings for Galtur, Austria, and Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevada. The database can be loaded into your smartphone or GPS.

Uncle Morris’s burial was scheduled for Staten Island.

Miriam checked the database. Seven synagogues were listed. She began dialing. At the first four synagogues, the phones rang and rang, but no one picked up. After all, it was New Year’s Eve. The fifth synagogue listed a cellphone.

A man answered. “We’ll do our best,” promised the stranger on the phone.

That was all she could hope for. She was almost done.

Now she was worried that if 10 religious men showed up, they might clash with the American cousins who weren’t religiously observant. She tried to smooth things over in advance.

She needn’t have worried. On that cold December night, the rabbi dispatched by the burial society bridged the gaps between the men of the minyan and Miriam’s American cousins.

Why had Esty called and provided the missing link? Looking back, she can’t provide a logical answer. Says Miriam, “Aleeza, Esty’s mother, would have been horrified to know that my uncle had been kept in a morgue for three weeks and when he was finally laid to rest, it wouldn’t be with a minyan. Aleeza was a real tzadika [righteous woman].”

Uncle Morris’s life and death were shrouded in mystery, burdened with sorrows. His funeral was so dignified and so moving that one of the American cousins recanted her previous decision to be cremated. When her time comes, she told Miriam, she wants a Jewish funeral, too.

We have entered the Hebrew month of Elul. In this month without holidays, we have time to contemplate deeds past in the hope of improving our behavior and increasing our stock of good deeds as we prepare for the High Holy Days. In the process of personal accounting, we are acutely aware that calculating debits and credits goes beyond our powers of simple arithmetic.

The Hebrew verse from the Song of Songs “ani ledodi v’dodi li,” for which Elul is an acronym, is usually translated, “I am to my beloved as my beloved is to me.” But the Hebrew word “dodi” also means “my uncle.” Sometimes the opportunities to act as ambassadors of Divine good come when least expected.

May we all be inscribed and sealed for a good New Year.

The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the stories of modern Israel, and encourages readers to share their personal stories. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.

The views in her columns are her own.


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