Niftar: How to attend a funeral when there’s an ocean between you

      Even in Canada, I knew there were two ways of saying a person died: מת/meit and נפטר/niftar. In general, religious people use niftar, even when speaking English – it’s the more polite way of saying it, like “passed away.”

      But when my father died, eleven years ago tomorrow, and a taxi came to take me to the airport, I told the driver we were hurrying because I had to get back to Toronto because “abba sheli meit.”

      There are lots of words you use in religious life that aren’t used so much in contemporary Israeli Hebrew, and so I was just taking a stab at the best possible way of saying it.

      But Israel being Israel, the cab driver decided it was time for a grammar lesson. “Niftar. We say he was niftar.”

      Boy, did I know. (And also – is it my imagination, or only in Israel would a cab driver have the chutzpah correct someone who has just told you their father has died minutes before… ?!)

      These days, I have a habit that makes my 14-year-old daughter (“I’m basically 15”) cringe: telling people my life story. I’ll be standing at the meat counter and the person asks where my accent is from, and I say Canada, and she asks me where it’s better to live, and I say here, and we’re off to the races.

      Out comes the life story, to the best of my Hebrew ability, which isn’t much: living as a religious Jew in Canada, constantly swimming upstream, feeling like I had to fight to keep every single chag, every single minhag, every single Shabbos and Yom Tov. Being the only ones on our block to have a sukkah, to send kids to religious day schools, to clean the house for Pesach.

      Even here in the area where we live, the krayot, which is by no means Jerusalem, with its high non-Jewish and non-religious population, we’re still in Israel. And that means (by and large) swimming with the stream, even if the stream isn’t always quite sure which direction it’s supposed to be going in.

      Which is to say – I know the headline promises practical tips, and I’ll get there. But first I have to tell you my life story. Starting with one of the sadder realities of being here in Israel, one of the worst trade-offs: being away when someone dies.

      Unlike that precipitous cab ride 11 years ago, I can’t always hop in a taxi and be in Toronto 12 to 14 hours later, whisking me from the beach in sunny, 25-degree Tel Aviv one day to a snowy graveseide in -10-degree Toronto the next.

      There are some first-degree relatives I pray I will never have to do that for. But others, though precious, that I know I will not make it back for.

      I’ve already missed a few funerals, and I know there will be more. And when my uncle, my mother’s older brother, died in Toronto a few days ago, I knew I wouldn’t be flying back.

      I often wonder about early olim, or really anyone leaving their ancestral home, knowing they might never see their relatives again.

      Or worse.

      My Bubby immigrated to Canada in her late teens, between the wars, and was in touch with her family in Poland for a while. When she met my Zeidy a few years later and married him, she told me, “We sent a wedding picture. We never heard from them again.”

      That’s because Hitler got them, of course.

      But the story on my Zeidy’s side was even more devastating. She told me, “After we got married, his father came from Poland to America, he came on a boat to New York to meet me.”

      She and my Zeidy went to New York, met the father-in-law. Presumably they hung out for a few days, talked about their lives, invited the family to come to Toronto and live nearby. Then my Zeidy’s father got right back on that boat and sailed back to Poland. “He said, ‘In America, even the streets are trayfe,’” my Bubby told me, fifty years later, long after Hitler got him, too, along with almost all my Zeidy’s many siblings but two.

      Mpoint here is that oceans were not things to trifle with in those days. For most people, they were things to be crossed once. End of story. You crossed, if you were lucky, your family crossed with you or followed soon behind. It was a one-way passage very much like birth or death. An entirely different state of existence.

      We tell ourselves that things are not like that today, but I’ve seen that to some extent they are.

      The two remaining siblings my Zeidy had who Hitler couldn’t kill came to Canada after the war. But Canada wasn’t for my uncle. He wanted to live as a Jew and Canada couldn’t cut it. So he came to Israel and lived until his 90s first in Haifa, then Bnei Brak, surrounded by his three sons, dozens of grandchildren, and literally uncountable great-grandchildren.

      His sister stayed in Toronto, but travelled to Israel to see him whenever she could. I don’t know how often she visited. He also came to visit her in Canada. People were constantly going back and forth, travel was easy, and the families stayed connected.

      But over the last two decades of their lives, as these two survivors grew older, there must have come a moment of realization: I am never going to see this beloved sibling, ever again. This is the side of the ocean I will die on, without him/her at my side.

      Fortunately, they still had the phone. At first, long distance calls were precious, but eventually, they got into a nice routine where she’d phone him every single Friday morning. Two survivor siblings in their 90s, with an irrevocable ocean stuck between them.

      Last year, before Rosh Hashanah, I called my Auntie Sally to wish her a shanah tovah, she picked up the phone but started weeping. “I don’t have my brother anymore.” Her daughter-in-law took the phone and explained that her brother in Israel had just died. Auntie Sally herself died a few months later, officially marking the end of my grandparents’ generation.

      Generations are like that, not dying out evenly, first the grandparents, then the parents. Life isn’t that predictable. My uncle, my mother’s brother, died while I was still young, long before his parents, my grandparents. My father died before Auntie Sally, giving her the honour of being the only person to attend both his bris and his funeral. And my own brother died almost six years ago, while my mother is still one of the youngest and busiest 70-somethings I know.

      When my brother died, I flew across the ocean, another madcap scramble for the airport, another last-minute plane ticket, another surreal transatlantic flight as an onen, the halachic status of an immediate mourner before burial. You have almost no mitzvos except getting the dead person into the ground. There are all kinds of things you don’t “have” to do, like making brachos before you eat – that you find yourself wishing you could. (Ask a rabbi for details, I’m not one!)

      But as I say, when my mother’s brother died a few days ago after an extended illness, I knew I wasn’t going to be there at the funeral. This ocean weighed heavily on me then, the need to be with family, to comfort my mother and my uncle’s life partner, his kids (who aren’t exactly kids, of course, given that they’re all adults with families…).

      In the end, I attended the funeral via my son’s phone and it was lovely. And I decided to share a few practical tips for how to do that without making everybody crazy or bothering the mourners. But I guess there’s so much personal baggage that this turned into mostly a lot of background and not a ton of practical tips.

      So without further ado.

      How to attend a funeral when there’s an ocean between you – a few practical tips:

        • · Pick your contact person at the funeral carefully. Choose somebody who isn’t one of the actual mourners or their spouses or immediate family. They have better things to do. Choose someone young enough to be able to use the technology seamlessly. Choose someone who isn’t likely to get overwrought during the proceedings. A person with a steady hand or a tripod or the good sense to prop the phone up with something is a nice bonus.
        • · Do a practice run, if possible. Whatever tech you’re using (Skype, WhatsApp, Zoom, Google), do a dry run the night before or whenever. If they’re Jewish, you may not have much notice, but try. Just make sure both of you have the tech in place, connect, say hi, and hang up.
        • · Get to the funeral early. This one isn’t entirely in your control, but suggest to your contact person that they get there as early as possible, both to grab a good seat (not front row!), but also to get all the Wifi stuff set up if need be.
        • · Have good bandwidth. If you want video and audio, you’ll need a good connection. The funeral home may well have Wifi these days, so it’s worth asking as long as (see above) you get there a few minutes early.
        • · Talk to the mourners? I’m torn on this one. First, you don’t want to bother them. But second, it may be worth mentioning that the remote person will try to “join” the ceremony remotely. This may offer some degree of comfort, or not. At the very least, if you DO mention it to the mourners, they won’t think your contact person is just playing with their phone, like everybody else probably will be.
        • · Have a backup plan. My son’s connection cut out in the middle of my cousin’s eulogy. Fortunately, he’s a tech-savvy guy with one and a half degrees in digital media, and as soon as he saw what happened, he immediately switched to recording her so I only missed a few seconds. (He WhatsApped the videos to me a few minutes later.) If bandwidth drops, try turning off video for a few minutes. You’ll lose the video but hopefully won’t lose the entire connection so you can still listen in uninterrupted.

        I strongly recommend using Zoom, which I think is free to use its basic features. I used Skype for a long, long time and thought it couldn’t get better than that. But since I used Zoom for the first time, I’ve never gone back. Zoom works on computers, on phones, on tablets, whatever. And it’s just a little app that works unobtrusively in the background, doing what it needs to do with minimal fuss.

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        At the funeral in Toronto, the rabbi didn’t know my uncle, and mostly deferred to the family, letting them speak rather than trying to fill in generic details about my uncle’s life, which I appreciated. During his brief talk, he mentioned the difference between the word meit and the word niftar. And that when we say someone is niftar, we mean that they are free, they can go, because they’ve fulfilled the purpose for which Hashem brought them into this world.

        GZ (12), who’s fluent in Hebrew: “Hmm… that’s interesting, I never thought of it that way.”

        It’s definitely worth thinking about, at any stage of life.

        At any moment, you could be released from this task. So it’s worth making sure at every moment that you are doing what you’re here for. Or at least on track. I’m not saying don’t sleep, but maybe check in with this purpose from time to time to make sure you’re headed in the right direction.

        Sitting here for over an hour watching this funeral, during some of the boring bits, I started thinking about how cold my toes were. You’d be amazed how cold ceramic tiles can get in a ground-floor apartment when there is no central heat.

        And then I realized that the rest of my family were outdoors in the -10 degrees Toronto weather struggling mightily to fill in a great big hole in the ground… and felt guilty and grateful all at once that I could sit down, have a drink, and watch in relative comfort.

        Attending a funeral when there’s an ocean between you is nothing like the real thing. But telling my mother I loved her, seeing my sisters’ chilly faces, watching proudly as my son took on way more than his share of the shovelling, hearing my cousins saying kaddish for the first time at the graveside – I was glad it’s 2020 and grateful I could be there at all.

        May these family members be comforted among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

        Tzivia / צִיבְיָה

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