Oct. 5, 2014

Dear Rabbi Rosin,

Thanks so much for visiting my Mother today. I know you’re really busy with the High Holidays. As in my youth, it’s still the only time everybody shows up, as if God doesn’t notice their non-observance the rest of the year, so you have to make the most of it. I do appreciate the time you spent with Belle, and I hope that she felt better when you left.

Either today or yesterday (sloppy record keeping) is her 96th. What a milestone. I believe her astonishing longevity is mainly genetic. She’s done nothing in the way of diet or exercise, and her father, the immigrant Hymie Schwartz, lived to 82, at a time when life expectancy for men was around 50.

Also, Belle lived by a relentless don’t-depress-me philosophy. Keeping everything superficial and avoiding bad news or unpleasant conversations probably saved her a lot of stress.

But now she faces the end, and she is afraid and lonely. She wants Jewish-flavored comfort, because that’s what she’s used to. I trust that you told her whatever confabulations about God, life, and death that Judaism purveys.

You will have great credibility: She is a weak-minded, incurious woman who has inordinate respect for all authority figures – rabbis, doctors, God, the government, and the experts. Not that she ever cared about Judaism, except to drive me crazy (and to be somewhat less obnoxious to my brother) at the prospect of her son marrying a shiksa. She readily admitted to me, years later, that she doesn’t care about intermarriage anymore. I think she saw how religion breaks up families, and she didn’t want any more of it – that’s my interpretation, anyway.

Belle raised hell over a religion which she didn’t practice. But then my brother’s son and Belle’s niece were allowed to marry non-Jews, no problem. Belle doesn’t realize that according to her cockamamie genetic beliefs, my brother’s whole family is not Jewish, because they all sprung from a gentile womb.

Well, you might argue that Jewish is as Jewish does. But by that criterion, my brother’s family is not Jewish either. Neither is Belle. They don’t observe the Sabbath, the dietary laws, or any of the Torah’s countless commandments. To the Orthodox, they don’t even count as Jews.

I know these things for two reasons. One is that my wife’s father became progressively more Orthodox and inflicted his rigidity on the family. He has since moved to Israel, where he can stand on the rooftops at sunrise to celebrate the day the world was supposedly created. Through her, I got a look at the Jewish enclaves in NY and NJ. I browsed Orthodox websites and found out about tznius (try that in West Chester) and much else. I learned about the vicious insularity and about what happens to people who “go off the derekh.”

The other reason I know what truly observant Jews believe is that I am one of the few secular Jews who has read the Torah, beginning to end (Jewish Publication Society translation). Nobody can tell me what’s in it (though a lot of people think they know). And nobody can whitewash all the gore, violence, and barbarism. Death for disrespecting your parents! Or try Deuteronomy 25:11-12. Do your congregants know what their holy scroll contains?

I self-published a book about what I had found. Belle says she gave it to you, but I don’t think she had the courage.

After a period with Humanist Rabbi Sherwin Wine, I moved to the Chicago area, joined the Humanistic Temple there, and found the rabbi (formerly conservative) to be much too Torah-oriented. Rabbi Wine had taught me the truth about the history of the Jews.

I later left Humanistic Judaism; I felt it was a failed compromise that was drifting backwards.

I have actually abandoned the whole enterprise. My religion is truth, my synagogue is the world, my fellow congregants are all human beings (if only they would stop fighting over religion and realize it).

Which brings me to the central purpose of this letter: to let you know how I plan to behave at Belle’s funeral. Please note that she has agreed to these conditions: I will not pray, stand on cue, or wear any religious garments, including yarmulke, or engage in any religious behavior whatsoever.

Please understand: I do not do this to provoke. Rather, at 71, I simply can no longer fake it to accommodate other people’s comfort level. Your congregants may think this is a big deal, but in truth it is not. They can ignore me – and may well do so.

But they cannot eject me from my mother’s funeral, because Belle agreed to these conditions, and because once again religion will have trumped family, and we cannot let this happen. If they try, I will call them out as hypocrites – religion matters to them three days a year; what devotion! -- and openly dare God to do something about it, if he doesn’t want me there.

Neither of us wants that little drama. But again: I cannot fake it anymore. So I leave it up to you to help it go smoothly and to prepare the appropriate people when the time comes.

With thanks and best regards,

Alan Perlman

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Comment by Alan Perlman on October 11, 2014 at 1:23pm

Yes, Joan, a lot of pain...thanks for seeing it.  

Two very disheartening rituals for me are buying her Mother's Day and birthday cards.  I have to leaf through dozens that thank Mom for all she did, for her character-building advice, for her emotional support in hard times, for her understanding, for the example she's set with her own life....etc., etc.  Belle was none of these.

There is genuine affection in those cards, but I feel none of it for Belle. (A major irritant is her hypocritical super-superficial religion, which to me is beneath superstition and beneath contempt; doesn't bother my brother so much.)

My brother and I discussed her non-parenting, and his approach is to send humorous cards only.  

But it's true: she made people crazy over a religion which she neither understood nor practiced, and I will not forgive that.

Comment by Joan Denoo on October 10, 2014 at 9:44pm

Michael, how do you feel about your appearance? Do you like the way your hair is cut? Do you feel OK about not shaving before you see your uncle? Do you feel you brush and floss your teeth the way you understand to be appropriate? Are you satisfied with your fruit diet? Does it matter to you what your relatives think about it? 

Who is responsible for your hair, whiskers, teeth, and diet? 

If others are not satisfied, would it be plausible to discuss these issues with them and find a common ground? Is negotiation a possibility? Perhaps a compromise? Or you could give in to their demands. Or you could make decisions for yourself and live with the consequences of their disapproval. Is there anything wrong with living with the consequences of their disapproval? 

Comment by Joan Denoo on October 10, 2014 at 9:34pm

Oh my goodness, I hear a lot of pain in your letter. Probably pain on a lot of people's parts. I respect you for your clarity and honesty. Making this arrangement before the event is a wise and courageous thing to do. 

There have been so many old traditions that changed during your mother's lifetime. I can imagine she experienced rigidity in the former generation and elasticity in the generations that follow her. She sits on the knife edge of cultural transformation and I suspect she is afraid. She may not be able to imagine a world without her anchors. 

However it turns out, I hope you feel calm, confident and peaceful within yourself and can put into perspective any discomfort others may have. You do not exist to make others feel good in these circumstances. The issue boils down to the fact that you and your mother discussed your plans. She knows, now, how you feel, and it won't matter to her after she is dead. 

Comment by Michael Pianko on October 10, 2014 at 8:48pm
My family is also very much into correct appearance. My uncle on this same side of my family will complain in a low, ominous, manner if my hair is not cut right or if I don't shave before I see him. They don't really like me to brush my teeth and floss after I eat, but I can't eat without brushing and flossing after. I suppose I could eat just before I see them. I will be bringing my own tissue in my pocket when I visit my aunt's family, which fortunately is only 3 times a year on average. My mom puts up with my fruit diet so far. The rest of my close relatives can't stand it.
Comment by Alan Perlman on October 10, 2014 at 4:59pm

Spud...Yeah, a lot of ritual and superstition around Jewish burial -- has to be done in 24 hrs., family members must shovel dirt on grave, Kaddish (prayer for the dead, actually a lot of God-ass-kissing) is said many times.  So your point is well taken - doing nothing means refusing a lot of things, including the 7-day mourning period.  Passive, polite non-participation is the key, as far as the service is concerned.

As to what I will say...that makes the occasion doubly difficult.  To say Belle did her best implies a lack of self-awareness and an inherent thoughtlessness; she felt she had to make no effort to be a better parent, instead of the mediocre parent she was, typically coming up with the perfect, nasty remark, at times when I most needed understanding and reassurance.  Way more critical than necessary.  I can't remember any happy times other than family vacations.  She was a distant, hands-off parent.  

My preference would be to let my ultra-conventional brother speak for both of us, as he did at her 85th, a party he threw and paid for. I really have nothing good to say about her. She contributed very little to my life, made me miserable with her religious bigotry, and wouldn't apologize for any of it until I forced her (2013).

Michael...See my comments to Spud.  There's a personal element as well.  I WISH religion were the only problem.  I don't get the toilet paper complaint.  I long ago passed on the Passover reading.  I've mastered the art of subtly turning to the next person with a "you take it" look.

My family has not yet tried to bully me into religious behavior.  I won't allow it. I will play the hypocrisy card, and they'll have no answer. They have no knowledge of the Judaism they make such a big deal of.  Not one of them knows the difference between the Torah and the Bible.

Thanks for the compliment.  "Bold" is a word associated with my mentor, Rabbi Sherwin Wine (please Google him).  That guy had balls.  Made a lot of Jews mad. Created a true alternative Judaism, without prayer or God.

Coincidentally, diet is a personal statement, an extension of one's personal space into group food consumption.  It can bee seen as a violation of hospitality.  I have been pissed off by kosher Jews bringing food into my house, when all we served was fish, chicken, and veggies.  They finished before I knew about it.  Otherwise, I would have invited them to finish their meal outside on the patio, where it was 6 degrees.

Don't feel bad about asserting your principles.  People like my family have no religious princioles except correct appearance.


Comment by Idaho Spud on October 10, 2014 at 1:10pm

I like your letter Alan.  I can't comment much on it because I don't know enough about Judaism.

It sound like a Jewish funeral has more pomp and ceremony that a Mormon funeral, so there are more areas for people to notice a lack of conformity in a Jewish funeral.  

Comment by Idaho Spud on October 10, 2014 at 11:40am

My mother is 95, the same age as my dad was when he died, so I'll be facing that funeral within the next few years.

I've been thinking about it, but haven't decided what to do.  I would prefer not to attend at all, but probably will.  If I do, and they ask me to say a few words like they did at dad's funeral,  I'll talk about how she did the best for her children that she knew how, and relate some happy times I had with her.  

I will not bow my head during prayers, but will not make a fuss, either during the prayers, or the religious talks by my siblings, and I don't expect anyone else do make a fuss either.

Comment by Michael Pianko on October 9, 2014 at 9:30pm
So far I still go to my family's Passover Seder just to be polite or to avoid feeling too guilty about not seeing my family on the holiday, but so far I am not bold enough to not follow expected protocol - we go around the tables and everybody takes turns reading one or two paragraphs, and it doesn't occur to them to make an exception for me even though I have come out to them as an atheist more than once. We both know that reciting liturgies is a bizarre waste of time. When my grandmother died, they didn't coerce me into reciting the liturgies at the graveside service and shivas I had to go to but they kvetched at me for bringing figs and bananas to my aunt's house. I have been on a fruit diet and swore off typical foods and my aunt's family is reformed and they got their food from a treyf deli. But my aunt't family always finds something to kvetch and threaten me over. My uncle made me swear not to bring any food to his house again, they complained at me for "using too much toilet paper." But you are older and bolder than I am. Seeing your family after a relative dies should be a chance to derive some kind of comfort from talking about the lost person or seeing your family, not just having a detached empty experience where you don't relate with people and just go through the motions the religion says you have to do.
Comment by Alan Perlman on October 9, 2014 at 4:05pm

Spud, If you mean my family's "much more intolerant," I'll have to let you know. Your family was ultimately really nice about it.

1st cousin Brenda is pretty hard-line (threatened to take away med school if her son married outside the faith) and she and husband are true believers.  Some, like Brenda's sister, don't care ("that's Alan").  Brenda's sister's husband is also a skeptic but not as up-front about it as I am.  Mom's brother, Uncle Mike, might get emotional - his pretend, part-time Judaism will not keep him from taking this stuff very seriously for his sister's funeral.

You have handled a number of situations well.  When you finally walk away, you can't even pretend to pray.  I'm so glad your final parting with religion went so well.  

I don't know what the reaction would be if I did a similar treatise on Judaism.  The 3-day-a-year Jews in my family, including many smart people, will suspect I'm right and will be made to uncomfortably question what they've been paying lip service to all these years.

I will have a report for all my godless friends. No funeral is imminent, but that could change.

I just realized how many more funerals I'm going to be attending.  Shit.  To paraphrase Bill Maher, isn't death hard enough without all these religious conflicts and encumbrances?

Comment by Idaho Spud on October 9, 2014 at 11:41am

I'm also interested in reading how it turns-out for you Alan.



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