by Joe Gindi, Jewish Studies Teacher

When I was 13 my maternal great-grandmother passed away. Just a year after my bar mitzvah, this was my first contact with Jewish death and mourning as a full-fledged member of the Jewish community. I distinctly remember driving to the funeral home with my mom and my grandmother, watching the matriarch of our family in tears as she processed the grief of her mother’s passing. My mom put her hand on her mother’s shoulder. 

My parents had separated a few years prior, so, taking up my role as the eldest son, I put my hand on my mother’s shoulder to comfort her too.

When we got to the funeral home, I was separated from my family and directed to the side entrance along with the other kohanim. Kohanim, priests, are those Jews who trace their lineage to Aaron, the first High Priest. Though the temple service is not performed today, according to Jewish law and custom those in the priestly lineage still have a number of privileges and prohibitions that apply to them. One of my warmest childhood memories is of being enveloped in my father’s talit (prayer shawl) when he stood in front of the congregation with the other kohanim each week to recite the priestly blessing, a biblical blessing for peace that I now recite to my son every Shabbat. The prohibitions of this priestly status, though, have been less comfortable for me.

In this week’s parashah, we read the verse that prohibits priests’ contact with a corpse. “God said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin, except for the relatives that are closest to him: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother; also for an unmarried sister…” (Leviticus 21:1-3)

The side entrance for Kohanim led to a room that is architecturally a distinct building. This design enables kohanim to participate in a funeral without being in the same building as a corpse, an extension of the law above from Parashat Emor. These mourners watch the funeral through a glass window, and hear the eulogies piped in through speakers. With tears streaming down my face I watched my family in mourning through the glass, unable to comfort them or be comforted by them. 

After some of her male grandchildren delivered moving eulogies, my great-grandmother’s youngest daughter (my great-aunt) got up to speak. A murmur went through the crowd, as a number of the rabbis in attendance got up and left. Only men spoke at funerals in the Syrian Orthodox community in which I grew up. My great aunt’s unplanned remarks caused a stir, but thankfully nobody rose to stop her.

The tensions I felt that day as a young man have shaped so much about my relationship with Judaism, and with the Syrian community in which I was raised. To this day I continue to hold the privilege of receiving my father’s blessing along with the rest of the congregation. And continue to navigate the hierarchies and divisions of Judaism and the Jewish community seeking a connection of family and community. Now, a few decades the wiser, I know just how much richness there is on that journey.