Williamsburg
Hundreds of Orthodox Jews attend a funeral in Brooklyn on April 29, 2020. (Reuven Blau/Twitter via JTA)

After Chasidic funerals caused an uproar in New York last week, we need to pause and look at the importance of mourning in observant communities.

Last Thursday, two days after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted words that many denounced as anti-Semitic, the NYPD gave tickets out to men attending another funeral processional and one Chasidic citizen was arrested for disorderly conduct.

De Blasio’s threatening tweets came after a large funeral for a Chasidic rabbi occurred in Williamsburg, Brooklyn last Tuesday, April 28. The community had obtained permission and support from the local police precinct to host the funeral. It was a warning and an optic nightmare – no wonder community members were upset at De Blasio’s tweet.

It would be easy and intellectually lazy to write off the more insular Chasidic community as anti-science, honing in on a minority of anti-vaxxers or seeing images of the congregants standing less than six feet apart in Brooklyn streets. They are treated like outsiders and primitive people. One needs to watch only One of Us and Unorthodox to see the popular opinion of “those people.” I have been sent pictures of the funeral via Facebook message asking me to explain the behavior of attendees. The implicit phrase was about “you people.” But it’s not the truth.

Not far from Thursday’s funeral in Borough Park, Brooklyn, sits my old pediatrician’s office. My parents have lost more than two dozen friends and relatives to the novel coronavirus in the last month. Because of travel restrictions and social distancing, community members can’t partake in ritual. The loss of each individual compounds, and there is a communal mourning. The largest Jewish community outside Israel is in New York, one of the epicenters of the epidemic. How does one find comfort in these times of mass loss?

Everyday rituals provide comfort and solace. For some, it’s their morning coffee routine with precise grinds to water ration. For others, it’s the art of rolling a cigarette. Important ritualized aspects of traditional observant Jewish life provide guidance and comfort in so-called life cycle events – birth, marriage and eventually the end.

For Chasidim, as well as many Orthodox Jews, a focus on ritual is a focus on breath. It’s an embodied practice. The most embodied practice is using one’s body for something holy. Levaya, the Hebrew word for funeral, comes from the word for escorting or accompanying. The most cathartic experience is physically following the departed. After the funeral service, before heading to the cemetery, people pass the dead and ask for forgiveness. Then the mourning pass the visitors and hear words of consolation.

It is commonplace to attend a funeral that to honor the dead. This act of charity comes out of an obligation and a sense of community. The departed merit a respectful sendoff. It’s often an act of kindness to a stranger, chesed shel emes, a good deed that will not be repaid. Other times, it’s an act of communal support, as someone might attend the gravesite service of a member of their synagogue that they have never interacted with before.

There is a communal sadness associated with death, and ritual provides comfort for the community. Funerals are heavily prescribed in Judaism, a solace for those in a fog of grief. We bury the dead, rip our garments, say the kaddish, and are in forced exile in our homes for seven days. This dual purpose of ritual – comfort and something to do – is a key aspect of shiva. In the midst of great sadness, heavily prescribed activities give the mourner tasks to in their paralyzed state. In a time of self-quarantine for medical reasons, we are in exile in a different setting. We have lost ones who we cannot accompany.

The next time I attend a funeral in person, I will mourn my cousin who died in his mid-fifties and my brother’s neighbor who was a doctor. Communal loss was felt when I recently opened a local newspaper, the Flatbush Jewish Journal, and saw fifty pages of obituaries. I envy my Midwestern classmates who have not lost a single loved one. Every member of the wider Orthodox community feels like family.

As the world at large settles in for the long haul in solitude, we seek methods to cope with the abject loss and loneliness. The attendees are not intellectually prioritizing a ritual over their health. They might rationalize dangerous behavior, and it is somewhat unjustifiable. They might be caught into the idea that they are doing a good deed. At times of loss, we return to our old habits and behaviors. Especially for a traditional community that is more resistant to change.

As we are stuck at home, we should empathize and seek connection with the other, with those who are far away from us physically and culturally. And as I contemplate the problematic images of funeral attendees not socially distancing, I hear the pitter-patter of Yiddish between mothers and their children in the waiting room of my pediatrician three blocks away. Those mothers, too, cared about the community’s health. They wanted to protect their families from harm, just like everyone else.

Eli Reiter is a former Yeshiva teacher and Brooklynite who has written for the NY Times, Washington Post, Slate, and other outlets. He can be reached at elireiter@gmail.com.

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