The little of Yiddish I know is limited to a handful of ways to subtly insult somebody. That pretty much sums up the language anyway, but being raised as a Jew, I always felt like I should know more of it. My grandparents were fluent, my own parents less so, but all the kids around my age in the family barely spoke a word beyond schlimazel. My great-aunt Etti was about the last person to die who I think really understood the language, and with her death went a certain part of me, one that tied me to a collective history I only realised I missed out on as I got older.
She died when I was twenty-one and had just moved away from my family. You always think that when you go home for the first time you’ll have so much to show for yourself but I doubt it’s ever the case. She died when I’d been gone six months and I had to borrow the money to fly home. My second cousin Abbey, Etti’s daughter, picked me up from the airport. Even though I assumed it would be a big ask for her, apparently no-one else could do it. I felt awful, and the first thing I did was apologise, but she wouldn’t hear it.
‘You expect me to just make you walk?’ she kissed me on the cheek, ‘How’ve you been, gorgeous? It’s good to have you back home. Wish it was in better circumstances.’
I gave her a hug. She told me to put my belt on and shot away from the curb before I could, laughing and midway into a story already. I figured she’d be a lot more upset, but I guess people take death differently. Abbey was always one of my favourite relatives. Since I could remember, she’d treated me like the nephew she didn’t have and was the one who bought me my first drink, who taught me how to drive. And after that, how to argue my way out of a speeding fine.
She was in her mid-forties and had been pretty close to her mother her whole life. She didn’t show it now though. The whole drive to the cemetery she talked about her job, brought me up to date with how our family was, and asked question after question about my new city and my new friends. I’d nearly forgotten why I was there until we drove in.
The cemetery itself was on a hillside next to a highway but you wouldn’t recognise it before you got through the gates. Most cemeteries prefer cremations now and you have to pay a lot to be buried, so it wasn’t until we started driving up past the ceremonial gardens and plaques that the headstones started to appear. The Jewish section was near the top. It wasn’t big. I grew up in a city of two million people and only a few thousand of those were Jews. Outside of shul, I didn’t meet another one until I was at a party in my late teens. He shouted me a drink. I still think about it now.
There was a small chapel for the ceremony beside the graves and I recognised it from my own grandparent’s funerals when I was a kid. A lot of my family were already there and we went to them and sobbed with them and said our hellos. My parents wouldn’t let go of me for at least ten minutes. Normally I would’ve ducked out of it but, in the circumstances, it was appreciated. Etti’s other child, Abbey’s younger brother, Max, hugged me the same way my mother did and was nearly as tearful.
‘I’m so sorry you have to be here for this,’ he said in lieu of ‘Hello’. I told him I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. He barely registered it and cried in my ear. I hugged him back. Although he was only a couple of years younger than Abbey, I never knew him all that well. He was one of those people who had a new career every time you saw them, who found a new religion every year or two, who was always chasing something they couldn’t seem to find. I remember hearing that he’d been quite orthodox as a teenager and even used to go by his Hebrew name, Mordechai. Then in adulthood, he’d taken path after path towards new spiritual outlets and had never really settled on one for long. I still have no idea what he did for work. In short, he was nothing like Abbey who seemingly came out of the womb an atheist, knowing exactly who she was. Sometimes I wondered how they came from the same person.
Etti didn’t have a huge social life and there weren’t a lot of people there. Besides the few family members, I noticed a group of men around the side of the chapel talking with each other that I didn’t recognise. I asked my mother who they were.
‘They’re from the local Chevra Kadisha,’ she told me, ‘You know, for Minyan.’
I didn’t know. My parents were always pretty liberal and after my Bar Mitzvah they left the decision to go to shul up to me. I went twice more: once for a wedding and once for someone else’s Bar Mitzvah.
‘I didn’t think Etti was that orthodox,’ I said.
‘She wasn’t. You want to know how many options there are for Jewish funeral services around here?’ she nodded to the group of men, ‘You’re looking at them.’
She explained that they were there because in orthodoxy, certain occasions required a gathering of ten males. Apparently, I was counted among them. Etti, like all of my grandparents, had immigrated to Australia after the war, and trying to leave so many terrible memories behind her, lost her faith along with her home. Sure, they all raised their children as Jewish as they could, but from a shtetl to a city on the other side of the globe, something is bound to get forgotten in translation. Her husband had been more religious than she was but he died when Abbey and Max were teenagers, and Etti had never really picked up where he left off. But then before she died, Etti had surprised everyone and had specifically asked for a Jewish funeral. She’d made Abbey promise to do it and wouldn’t let her go until she did. Even though it seemed weird to have complete strangers there, I was just happy she was getting what she wanted.
After the rabbi arrived, the doors to the little chapel were opened and we went inside. I realised how little they must’ve used the building. There were only a few rows of seats and the family sat at the front, the Chevra men behind us. Even then, there was a whole row empty at the back. To be honest, I thought Etti had had more people in her life. I’ve always been pretty good with funerals, but looking around at the small group of us, it hit me how few people Etti had left in the world before she died. I started feeling terrible, and it just got worse when the service started. The rabbi introduced himself then read a series of prayers in Hebrew and English; we sat there with her coffin in front of us, looking at the ground. There was a lot of sobbing and sniffing.
When it was time for someone to say a few words about Etti’s life, Max was invited up to read a eulogy he’d written. Being the eldest and by far the closest to her mother, I looked over at Abbey to see why she wasn’t speaking instead. She was looking at her fingernails. She caught my stare and looked back at me and I realised she wasn’t speaking because she wasn’t allowed to. I looked away. Max walked past me on his way up and he looked like a wreck but when he composed himself and started reading, he read pretty well. A lot of facts about Etti’s life surprised me: the different countries she’d lived in before they made it to Australia, the languages she’d spoken, the jobs she’d worked. Not a lot of it sunk in at the time, beyond a feeling that it was strange that someone with such an ostensibly full life could end up dying so far from where she was raised, with so few people to carry her memory on.
The rabbi spoke again and thanked the men from the Chevra Kadisha for being there, and explained that it was a wonderful thing for my great-aunt to have a Minyan present at her funeral. He invited me and the few other men in my family up as pallbearers and, as there weren’t enough of us, one of the strangers in the back joined. I stood next to him and wondered how Etti would have felt to have someone she’d never met taking her to her final rest. We left the chapel with her coffin and walked down the hillside between the gravestones. Every few metres we stopped so the rabbi could read a prayer. There were rocks everywhere in our path that had been blown or washed off the graves and the whole time all I could think about was tripping over and dropping the coffin. I don’t remember hearing anyone except the rabbi but I was told later that Max was wailing and wailing and that Abbey had to support him down the hill.
Once we got to the grave, we put the coffin down on a conveyor belt and watched it lower into the ground. Etti’s name was written on a piece of paper taped to the lid. The rabbi prayed again. As the men in the family, we were asked to take turns shovelling dirt into the grave until the coffin was completely covered. Max stood with the rabbi and recited the Kaddish, mispronouncing most of the words. Abbey stood next to him, watching us work the shovels. She’d obviously been crying but had stopped by then.
To be honest, I felt so conflicted throughout it all that I was nearly sick. On one hand, it felt so right that death should be horrific like that, that mourners should wail, that bodies should be lowered into the earth, that we should trudge over generations of bodies to do it. On the other, it felt almost cruel the way we had to go through it like that. But she wanted it, I remembered, Etti wanted it and asked for it and that had to be enough.
After the men had finished shovelling, one of the Chevra Kadisha offered the shovel to anybody else who wanted to take part. He meant the women. No-one came forward at first. I saw a few of my family turn to look at Abbey, waiting to see if she’d go. She stared at the man for a second and then just looked away and into the sky behind her. He got the picture and put the shovel down. My mother went up and added more dirt to the grave and after her, a few more of my family followed. I tried to make eye contact with Abbey to show her that I got it, that I too thought it was ridiculous. She didn’t look down from the sky for a while and when she did, it was only to the ground anyway. Then after a few minutes, she squeezed Max around the shoulder and slipped into the back of the crowd and out into the open air. No-one went after her.
The service was concluded after that. We walked back up to the chapel and washed our hands in a particular sink in a particular way and then people started saying goodbye to one another. The men from the Chevra Kadisha shook hands with all of the men from our family on their way out. Neither my mother nor any of the other women got more than a nod. I saw Max thanking the rabbi profusely and asking how he could get back involved in the community, telling him that he felt he could do more, that he’d call him and make more of an effort. He wrote down the address of the rabbi’s synagogue and promised he would be there on the next Shabbat. I believed him too. It wasn’t particularly comfortable to see but there was still a reason why he was doing it. Being a Jew isn’t easy to describe at the best of times, and being an atheistic one makes it even harder. All I can say is that, God or no God, Max and I had a kinship with everyone else there that made it impossible to walk away and not feel like you owed them something of yourself. I got that just as much as I got why Abbey couldn’t stand by and be treated any different from him because she was a woman. To her it didn’t make a damn difference what genitals she was born with. She didn’t scream at anyone about it for the same reason that Max gripped that rabbi’s hand like it was the last he’d ever hold.
When most of the family had left, Abbey came back from wherever she’d gone. She had her sunglasses on. She came up and hugged me and said ‘Come on, gorgeous, time to go.’ We walked over to her car and, once we were inside, didn’t talk a lot. She stared down the hill towards Etti’s grave when we drove past it and I saw her knuckles go white on the wheel. She still didn’t say anything. We got out of the cemetery and returned to the highway and I have never been more aware of the silence of a car than I was on that drive.
I thought hard about what to say to her and didn’t say it for a few long minutes.
‘I know that’s not what you would’ve wanted for her,’ I started, ‘and I know it hurts right now and probably will for a while. At least that was what she wanted, though. I think that’s gotta count for something.’
She looked over at me and just smiled wider and wider and didn’t say anything at first.
‘Why exactly do you think she asked for that for that kind of funeral?’ she asked.
‘Honestly, I’ve got no idea,’ I told her. She laughed.
‘Gorgeous, she didn’t believe any of that crap any more than I do. That doesn’t mean she wasn’t a proud Jew, but we both know that wasn’t for her.’
‘Who was it for then?’ I asked, ‘Because there’s no way that was for you.’
‘Really, it was mostly for poor Max’s sake. She thought it would help him grieve properly, give him something to hold on to or something like that. You know Max.’ She waved a hand about to illustrate. ‘No matter what I try to tell the poor guy, he tries everything; he only came back from India a year ago. She used to worry about him a lot but, towards the end, she told me she wasn’t worried anymore. She had this kind of faith that, eventually, he’d come home to his roots.’ She nodded back in the direction of the cemetery. ‘I don’t know why that meant so much to her but I do think she was right about it. And not just because of today. “He’s farblondzhet”, she told me after I promised to give her a Jewish funeral, “he always has been. He’s a good boy but, like the rest of us, he’s just a little farblondzhet.” Know what that means?’
I shook my head.
‘It means lost, misguided. Suits him, right? She said that being as farblondzhet as he was made him even more Jewish than all of us.’
Abbey looked over at me and smiled, and pushed my shoulder. Then she told me something I only realised to be true at the funerals of my own parents, years later.
‘Funerals are for the living, gorgeous. The dead do just fine without them.’