I went to see my husband’s parents one day last week.
I can see how thin my father-in-law had gotten since the last time I dropped by. He is 95, she is 94, and they have live-in caretakers, so they are never alone. With a big family, they have lots of visitors. Nonetheless, they are no spring chickens.
My father-in-law had been in mental decline for several years. His short-term memory has receded. I give him prompts when I call, always starting with my name, which he gratefully parrots back to me.
It feels like he has been on automatic pilot for some time already. A word will bring up the associated repetition of an old story, one of many from his repertoire. He took pride in serving in World War II in Nome, Alaska, as a US Army cartographer. He claimed to have had no idea what that job entailed but quickly figured out that map reading in the bitter, freezing cold beat being a bombardier in the skies over Europe or the Pacific.
Now I see that he struggles for hours just to finish a glass of juice. I help lift the glass, but pulling the liquid up through the straw is also difficult. He is not hungry; he eats practically nothing. He cannot concentrate on his morning prayers. His devoted caretaker, a young woman from the Philippines, knows how to wind his phylacteries around his arm. She helps him put them on.
His open prayer book is marked on the right page, but he rereads the same page and then stops. His caretaker then takes his phylacteries off again and wraps them back into their adorned boxes.
He is not engaged, having said these morning prayers daily for nearly a century. He has no more appetite, neither for food nor apparently for life’s routines.
I hear myself complaining about how hot the apartment feels with the AC off. “Hot?” he rasps. He speaks so low that I can hardly hear him, and I draw my chair closer. I say, “Yes, it’s hot in here.” His eyes glint at me for a second and he asks, “Have you ever been to Nome, Alaska?” We both laugh. He always could deliver a well-timed punch line.
A Jerusalem Day funeral
IRVING ABRAMOWITZ, of blessed memory, passed away in his own bed, surrounded by his wife, Grace, and a good part of his family. He died on May 11, 2021, at nearly 11 p.m. It was a bit late for interment on the same day as death, in accordance with the Jerusalem custom. That was fortunate because there had been street riots in Jerusalem for days.
Like many pious Jews, Irving and his wife, as well as several siblings and his parents, had bought burial plots on the Mount of Olives – the holiest burial site of Jerusalem. Those who are buried there will be privileged to be the first brought back to life after the Messiah arrives on his white donkey at the Golden Gate of the Old City. The salespeople probably never mentioned the riots that happen with some regularity and wreak havoc on the family’s ability to visit the grave site.
The burial society offices did not open until 8 a.m. and once they were reached, the funeral could be set. It was decided that at 1 p.m. mourners would gather for eulogies at the Sanhedria funeral site. A bus was hired for family members to go to the graveside for burial and further psalms. The reserved private tour bus was equipped with reinforced windows to protect from rock-throwing but was not bullet-proof.
It was around 11:30 a.m. and a call was made to check the funeral time. There was still no confirmation that the army and police had given their approvals for the time. They were in full coordination with the authorities as to when the go-ahead would be given for the funeral.
The approval was given at 12:09 p.m. that the eulogies could commence at 1 p.m. A flurry of WhatsApp messages updated relatives and friends.
A time cap for the funeral was set for a total of half an hour because police approval was pending due to the changing situation on the ground – there were still hot spots along the route that we needed to take. The bus was filled with family members; no children could come, and no private cars were to be taken.
Once the bus had climbed to the A-Tur neighborhood on the top ridge of the Mount of Olives, it was met with three fully armed Border Police vehicles, including assault rifles carried by both male and female soldiers.
The police vehicles formed a funeral cortège of sorts – before and after the bus and the blue van (the local version of a hearse) – to form a convoy and bring us to the parking lot in front of the Mount of Olives Intercontinental Hotel, closest to the grave site.
There was no long chain of private cars with respectfully somber-lit headlights closely following a sleek black hearse limousine, which by all accounts likely would have led to his graveside – had he spent his remaining years in Baltimore – closing a life of success and charitable endeavors.
The stunning view of the Temple Mount, as seen from that spot, was breathtaking and swung around wide, even as far as Herodian, where King Herod is said to lie. The rest of the approach was made by foot and thankfully uneventful. Tension remained high until all were returned to the original pickup point for the bus.
Jerusalem Day: Israel at its most beautiful
JERUSALEM DAY shows this city at its most beautiful. Neighborhoods blossom from balconies and gardens. Hot winds have not yet scorched the ground into dusty tans and taupes. The blue-violet haze of jacaranda trees stretches up to meet the cloudless blue skies as if back-lit, so strong is the light as it domes above. By now, the almond trees have shed their petals, the wisteria and lilacs have given way to forsythia and jasmine that waft in the air.
Clusters of yellow loquat weigh down the deep green leaves as they ripen in time for Shavuot, the holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. The seven-day mourning period is cut short to allow for observing the holiday. Hallel is sung in every synagogue. Yahrzeit memorial candles are lit in the memory of people no longer among us.
The early spring cannot suppress the rush through the calendar year. The pomegranate trees are showing coral red blooms of new growth, already teasing us with New Year’s traditional autumn fruit. Nature propels us relentlessly forward to the next season of holiday markers, regardless of our readiness to take them on.
My father-in-law’s shrouded body was lowered into his freshly dug grave, the most precious real estate according to Jewish tradition. Jerusalem custom does not pretty up the burial by using a coffin, neither a simple pine coffin as in Jewish law, nor any coffin at all – no frills.
Experiencing a Jerusalem funeral may be a shock for first-timers. It is stark. There is no Hollywoodized production of a life celebration; there is no musical accompaniment or audio-video display. From a stretcher, his much-shrunken body is lowered into the ground. Then, with little ado, the mourners and the burial society lift the turned earth – each shovelful thump by thump in disorderly clumps – over the memory of him. ❖
The writer is an artist and writer living in Jerusalem. She wrote a medical graphic memoir, Life-Tumbled Shards, in memory of her daughter. She can be reached at email@example.com.