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
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
Jewish surnames aren’t always a straight trail to
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.
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.
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.
thought of my grandparents, who were known throughout Zionist Jewry in Israel
and abroad, that their son shouldn’t have a proper Jewish burial.”
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
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
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
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.
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,
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
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
A man answered. “We’ll do our best,” promised the stranger on
That was all she could hope for. She was almost
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
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