The Bloodless Coup

A loved one’s burial provokes a cultural collision.

  1. My teenage daughter showed up to my orthodox Jewish father-in-law’s funeral in a striped mini-skirt and shit-kicker boots. It couldn’t be helped. The black dress I’d bought her two years earlier as my young father lay dying no longer fit, while Maurice, my 95-year-old father-in-law, was here one minute, gone the next, which left no time to shop.

    Jews being Jews, especially orthodox Jews being orthodox Jews, Maurice’s body had to be buried within 24 hours, in a plot he’d reserved from a sect called Moriah—spelled M-O-R-I-A-H but pronounced as in “How do you solve a problem like…?” The Moriah used to run an orthodox shul on the Upper West Side above Zabar’s, which my father-in-law joined after a decade spent hiding from Nazis. He purchased the plot almost immediately after arriving in America because while Hitler was dead, you never knew with Nazis.

    Hours after Maurice took his final breath, a Moriah representative contacted my mother-in-law to remind her that women, as per their misinterpretation of Halachic law, would not be allowed at the gravesite. This was not wholly unexpected news to the grieving widow, but it was also, under the circumstances, not the most welcome news either. Her current rabbi—who like the majority of Jews, even the most orthodox, believes that shoveling dirt onto the deceased provides a necessary first step in the mourning process—was called upon to try to broker a better deal. The negotiations between the two sides lasted well into the night, at wh...