Tree of Life – Mike Livingston

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The Tree of Life Havurah met on the third floor of B’nai Zion Synagogue, not to be confused with the Traditional Minyan, which met on the second floor, or the Progressive Havurah, which met on the fourth floor, although only on alternate Saturdays.   None of these were to be confused with the synagogue’s main sanctuary, whose rabbi, Aviva Albrecht-Aloni, was a member of Tree of Life but whose job required her to lead the main service eleven months a year.   Since the average age in the main sanctuary was at least 75–one or more people had fainted each of the last six Yom Kippurs–it had been suggested that the havurah simply take over the main service, on the model of the Bolsheviks in 1917 or (less harshly) aging synagogues in other cities; but this had yet to happen and, as the havurah members themselves were getting a bit long in the tooth, probably never would.    

Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, all of the competing services represented a failure of the havurah movement, but each in its own special way.   The Traditional Minyan was in essence reactionary, grudgingly allowing women to participate but otherwise indistinguishable from the orthodox synagogue many of its members eventually moved to.   (One of its wittier participants called it “modern Young Israel.”)   By contrast the Progressive Havurah was so liberal as to approach self-parody.     One Saturday morning, it replaced the entire service with two hours of meditation accompanied by Hindu chanting, and a longtime member was suspended because he failed to mention Bilhah and Zilpah, Abraham’s concubines and the mother of several of his children, in the repetition of the Amidah prayer.   A happier fate attended the group’s new prayer book, including male, female, and new transgender pronouns, which it had marketed to several liberal synagogues.

Tree of Life was somewhere in between: egalitarian in philosophy but with just enough tradition to attract a critical mass of old-timers.   The problem was that this mix didn’t really satisfy anyone, or in any event failed to produce the enthusiasm attending a more radical approach.   Demographics were a further issue.   Relatively few Jews were moving into the neighborhood and those who did tended to be intermarried or simply secular couples, for whom arguments over which closing hymn to recite and whether to eat beans on Passover were at best irrelevant and at worst positively offputting.   This combination of ideological problems and simple inertia caused Tree of Life to decline precipitously in size, to the point where it frequently struggled to have ten people in attendance and those who did attend had to schedule their bathroom breaks so as to avoid losing a minyan.   An outreach committee, designed to attract more members, had to be abandoned when the chair of the committee departed for a competing synagogue. 

 

In the past, Tree of Life had gained strength from life cycle events, principally bar mitzvahs and weddings, the latter of which were celebrated elsewhere but involved a panoply of secondary functions including wedding announcements (aufrufs), anniversaries, and so forth.   With its aging membership the group had lately discovered a new growth industry: funerals.   Immediately upon the announcement of a death in any member’s family, several members sprang into action, organizing home prayers for the shiva mourning period, providing meals to the bereaved family, and (if they were rabbis) offering to conduct the funeral or otherwise to make sympathetic remarks about the deceased after the burial was completed. That most of the deceased were elderly parents of the havurah members, whom many had never met and would likely have loathed if they did, made little difference.   As any anthropologist can tell you, people seek purpose in life, and Tree of Life had one: not its original one, perhaps, but an important and even vital one nonetheless.   Besides, who else would do it?  

Against this background, the approaching death of Morris Fischbein presented a particular challenge.   Rather than a mere relative, Fischbein was an active participant in the havurah, although he had come to it by a rather circuitous route.   Most members joined out of a combination of ideology and a desire for personal fulfillment that a big synagogue couldn’t meet.   Fischbein simply couldn’t get along with anyone else.  Contrarian to a fault, he argued about everything, all the time: the timing of services, the room the group met in, the (usually liberal) content of sermons and other discourses.   His happiest moment came when the weekly Torah portion included the tokhekha, the lengthy curse upon the Israelites if they failed to follow God’s commands, which he read with the enthusiasm of Churchill and Dylan rolled into one.   The members tolerated him despite these eccentricities, and he had at bottom a good heart: but the latter was now failing him and some preparation for his demise was becoming increasingly unavoidable.

It seemed clear that the havurah, and not the main synagogue, would take responsibility for these arrangements. As much as Fischbein disliked Tree of Life’s liberalism, he loathed the synagogue even more.   This was especially true since Rabbi Albrecht-Aloni had taken over two years ago.   “AAA” was everything Fischbein couldn’t deal with: liberal, touchy-feely, and (last but certainly not least) a woman.   From the havurah he expected this kind of thing, but the notion of such a person heading a traditional institution—B’nai Zion was founded in the 1870s—was more than he could stand. At times he seemed unable even to say her name, referring to her simply as “our new rabbi” or “the new person in charge” and adding a grimace to his usual strained countenance.

In contrast to a wedding or bar mitzvah, one never knows precisely when a funeral will take place, and there is a certain indecency in discussing it while the person is still living.   The conversation regarding Morris Fischbein’s demise accordingly took place surreptitiously among the havurah members and (at times) his children, who lived on the other side of the city where they occasionally attended yet another declining synagogue.   (Fischbein’s wife, who disliked the synagogue, havurah, and other Jewish institutions equally, had died several years earlier.)   A consensus emerged that the funeral would be conducted by his children’s rabbi, who had never met him, but that the havurah members would assist him in preparing, and that the latter would also play a role in making the shiva arrangements and scheduling a memorial tribute a few weeks after his death.   A couple of the more forward-looking members began jotting down notes that might serve as the basis for tributes to the not-yet-deceased colleague.     All that remained was for Morris Fischbein to die.

 

The news came on a rainy night in February, and the havurah, like a reserve unit suddenly mobilized, sprang into action.   Jonathan and Beruriah Goldsmith, a middle-aged couple who had never socialized with Fischbein and rolled their eyes whenever he spoke, quickly took over coordinating the funeral with the deceased’s family.   Anat Wasserman, a single woman whose job and other Sunday-to-Thursday activities no one was quite sure of, was assigned the role of providing food trays and home-cooked meals.   Other havurah members called and e-mailed each other to ensure that there would be a minyan for morning and evening services.   All was going to plan until the Goldsmiths received a telephone call, a few hours after the death, from Morris Fischbein’s daughter.

“Mr. Goldsmith?” the call began.   “It’s Clara Fischbein calling.”

“Yes, is there a problem?” Goldsmith responded.   He realized immediately that this was a poor choice of words for someone whose father had just died.

“Not a problem, but a bit of a change.   Apparently my father had a conversation with my brother a couple of days before he died, and he didn’t want the funeral to be at our shul after all.   He didn’t know anyone here, and he thought it should be someplace where he felt more at home.   He thought that somebody from the havurah should speak at the funeral, and”—she hesitated a bit here—“that Rabbi Albrecht-Aloni should conduct it.”

Goldsmith swallowed hard before responding.   Everyone knew that Fischbein had loathed AAA, and indeed would never even have used her title in describing her.   Had he really requested this, or was something else going on?

“Well,” he finally responded. “Of course we should do whatever Morris wanted.   But you know that he and Aviva . .   they weren’t terribly . . . close.”

“It seemed a little strange to me too.   But that was what he wanted, and I don’t see a basis to contradict him.   You know that we’re”—she hesitated a second time—“not necessarily wild about our rabbi, either.”

Goldsmith was not by nature a decisive person, and he had no formal authority, certainly not when somebody else’s funeral was at stake.   The story was odd, but not impossible: perhaps Morris had simply decided to be contrarian one last time.   In any event, Jewish law required that the funeral take place within 24 hours after the death, so there wasn’t much time for an argument.

“I’ll see what I can do.”

It didn’t take long to reach the rabbi, who had just put her older child to sleep and was preparing her talk for Multicultural Shabbat, an event she had been preparing for some time and which she believed to be the first of its kind in the city.     She had done dozens of funerals and—although she didn’t publicize the fact—had developed a computer program which allowed her to write a eulogy for virtually anyone in thirty minutes or less.   (“You could write a eulogy for Stalin,” her husband teased her, although she didn’t think it was especially funny).   But she needed at least a few facts to go on.

“You know, Morris was a very . . . a very decent man,” she told Goldsmith, “but we didn’t know each other terribly well.   Is there someone I can get a few details from?”

“I’ll arrange a meeting with his family,” Goldsmiith replied.

“That should do it.”

The meeting, as is often the case, turned out to be a ten-minute session in a side room at the funeral parlor, forty minutes before the service began.   It mattered little, as the rabbi used her standard, “pillar-of-the-community” draft and merely had to fill in a few dates and places.   What she hadn’t counted on was that, in the 4,000- year history of the Jewish people, this was to be the first funeral crashed by a real-life heckler.

Harvey Guttenmacher had for several years been Morris Fischbein’s sidekick at the havurah, and was perhaps the only member more crotchety than he was.   Unable to stand the group’s leftward drift, he had stopped coming several years earlier, when he proceeded to join an even more liberal synagogue where he acted even more obstructionist.   While Fischbein had become more moderate during his illness and approaching death, Guttenmacher was very much alive, and decidedly not with the program.   He read about the death in the morning paper and decided to attend.

The morning was cold and rainy, as if befitting the deceased’s disposition, and the funeral parlor was busy, so things proceeded briskly.   There were a few prayers and then remarks by Fischbein’s daughter, a family friend, and another member of the havurah, who emphasized the departed’s commitment to the State of Israel and his charitable work.     A couple of additional readings followed and then it was time for Albrecht-Aloni’s eulogy.

Aware of the incongruity of the situation, the rabbi began with a rather clumsy joke about how this was her first oration that Morris wouldn’t be able to walk out on.   She then proceeded to give a speech that would have been worthy of her best, lifelong friend.   Morris—she referred to him exclusively by his first name—had a lifelong commitment to the Jewish people that was extraordinary even for his generation.   He was decades ahead of his time in supporting equality for women and a career for his daughter.   He was tolerant of diversity and stood by the havurah notwithstanding political differences. He was especially committed to the younger generation of the Jewish people and their future in Israel and America.

“He hated the synagogue!” a voice called out in an audible stage whisper from the back of the room.

The rabbi continued her oration, proceeding to an anecdote about Fischbein’s concern for Jewish children.

“He hated the rabbi!” Guttenmacher, now even louder, continued.

Albrecht-Aloni pressed on, with a moving description of the departed’s family.

“He hated liberals!”

At this point Beruriah, the more assertive of the Goldsmith couple, stood up and simply stared Guttenmacher down.   Whether she had some special power over him, or whether he had simply exhausted his performance, was unclear.   One way or another, he sat down and departed quickly after the funeral, and the rest of the event went more or less as planned.

 

A few nights later the members of the havurah gathered in the Goldsmith’s home for the final night of the shiva mourning period.   (It had been decided to sit four nights at his daughter’s house and the final three nights at the havurah.)   There were trays of smoked fish and other traditional foods, together with tofu casseroles and similar dishes prepared by the havurah members, few of which would ever be eaten.   The rabbi, who had attended dozens of such occasions, was there and the conversation turned–perhaps inevitably–to the events of a few days earlier.

“You know,” someone volunteered,   “I don’t really think that Morris hated you, and I don’t even think he hated the synagogue.   I think he had a problem with, well, people, and you just happened to be one of them.”

The rabbi raced her mind for an anecdote, a hasidic tale, that would be appropriate in the circumstances.   She thought of inventing one—an uninvited guest showing up at some great scholar’s funeral—but it seemed somehow disrespectful.   So she smiled softly and said: “It wasn’t the easiest $300 I ever made.”

And suddenly, inexplicably, everyone was smiling.   Morris Fischbein had had precisely the funeral he would have wanted, and the havurah had been there to provide it.   Somewhere in heaven he was frowning on them, and that was what he would have wanted, too.  The future of the Jewish people could wait for another day.  

 

 

Mike is 55+ years of age and teaches Law School in Philadelphia.   In the past few years he has begun writing poems, short stories and a brief novel, together with storytelling at The Moth and other venues.   His story, “Visiting Day,” was published by the Jewish Literary Journal.

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