My father, Bennett Sydney Levine, died a week ago Monday, on May 23, 2016.
He died peacefully in his sleep in his home in Modiin, Israel. One of his live-in health care aides, Rolly, found him at 9am. In Israel, usually a person is buried the day he or she dies. Because my brother and I couldn’t get to Israel until Tuesday, we waited until then for the funeral. I am not a particularly religious Jew. I was raised Orthodox but don’t practice or pray that much. I have a lot of pride as a Jew, and I love the land of Israel. My family is Orthodox, over half of it very much so. As we progress through the burial and mourning process, I am re-connecting with things in a different way.
Burials in Israel are different than in America. The Jewish practice is to have the body touch the earth in some way. In America, the law requires a body be buried in a coffin. Jews will make a crack in the bottom of the coffin, so the body is in contact with the earth.
There is no formal viewing. No embalming. No fancy suit or makeup. A simple cotton ceremonial robe, wrapped in a prayer shawl. In Israel there is no coffin either.
When we get to the gravesite, we are told that the custom is for the oldest son to put dirt on the closed eyes of the deceased – this symbolizes the essence or strength of the deceased to the son. Then we will have an opportunity to see him and formally identify him.
My brother agrees to place the dirt. He does this by himself. My mother cannot see my father in this state. My sister and I join my brother with my father laying in state. My brother quickly leaves, having already seen my father, leaving my sister and me. It is a hard moment for us both. I pick up the shawl, and for the last time see my father’s face, sand over his closed eyes.
I say goodbye and leave him with one of the religious caretakers.
There is an open area with a fabric covering, a large stone slab in the middle. My father is carried out and laid out on the slab, wrapped in the shawl. There is a lectern but no microphone. It is unusually overcast for Israel in May, and it’s been raining on and off all morning. Abe, our family friend and Rabbi, is the master of ceremonies. My mother and sister give their eulogies. My brother reads letter from five of his children, and then gives his eulogy.
Mine is the last family speech.