THE BLOODLESS COUP
By: Deborah Copaken Kogan
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 which point the Moriah rabbi finally broke down and agreed that the female mourners could accompany the body to the cemetery, so long as we remained hidden in the cars until the grave was three-quarters filled. We were told it had something to do with the possibility of contaminating the corpse with menstrual blood, although try as I might, I was unable to form a mental image of how such a defiling would occur without imagining scenes better suited to fetish porn.
The next morning, during the ride from the funeral home to the cemetery, I was sitting in the back seat with my two eldest children when I realized that I’d neglected to inform them of the whole girls-have-to-hide-in-the-car-until-the-grave’s-3/4-full deal. So I told them.
“What are we, in the stone age?” said my then 15-year-old son. My daughter could barely speak, the look on her face hovering somewhere
between disbelief and the kind of rage for which animal tranquilizers were invented. Then it hit me: here was a girl, or rather a woman by Jewish law, who was born into an era in which she’d never rubbed up against the absurdities of sexism. Never. She’d never been told, as my mother once had, that only the boys in the family could go to medical school. Her right to vote has always been sacrosanct. Her school cannot claim they have no money for girls’ sports. No male superior will ever be able to ask, “Who’s put a pubic hair on my Coke?” without serious repercussions. “But that’s ridiculous!” she said.
“I know,” I said, “It is. But that’s the deal that was struck, so we have to stick to
At the cemetery, framed through the window of our car, a waddle of black-suited men encircled my father-in-law’s grave, first rocking back and forth in prayer then doing the hard manual labor of burial. I tried to distract my daughter from her anger with stories about her grandfather. “Remember the time you were five, and he asked you what your favorite sandwich was, and you said, ‘Proscuitto and brie?’ and then Grandma said, ‘That’s not kosher,’ and you said, ‘What’s kosher?’”
My mother-in-law reminisced about the morning, two decades earlier, when Maurice had belted out the Marseillaise while being wheeled down the hallway for the surgery no one thought he’d survive. My sister-in-law told stories of her father’s imprisonment in plain sight during the Holocaust, how he learned to take communion and say, “Bless me father, for I have sinned,” without sounding like an imposter. I wondered if anyone else was noticing the irony of our own imprisonment, sixty years later, in the back of that car. How complacently we wore the armbands of our gender without ripping them to shreds.
Finally, from our hidden vantage point, the grave appeared to be 3⁄4 full, give or take a sixteenth, so we women—about forty of us, many wearing the modest long skirts and post-matrimonial head-coverings typical of orthodox women—stepped out of the car and started walking toward the mound of earth. Which is when the white bearded rabbi appeared, seemingly out of nowhere.
“What are you doing?” shouted the rabbi, now running toward us, shooing us back in the car, physically blocking all those uteri from getting any nearer to the grave. “This is a disgrace! Get back in the car! Back in the car!” Clearly, no one had told him about the deal. My mother-in-law started to cry. The other women were shocked into silence.
Which is when my daughter, all mini-skirted 4’10” of her, clomped up to the rabbi in her shit-kicker boots and said, “Excuse me, sir, but my grandmother would like to bury her husband. We had a deal. Now, please, move out of the way.”
Without looking back, she pushed her way past the rabbi and marched those boots straight toward the mound of dirt, where she yanked the shovel out of my husband’s hand and thrust it deep into the earth. The rest of us women stood there, immobilized, not knowing how to proceed. Little Norma Rae could ostensibly be forgiven. Yes, she was thirteen, but she looked no older than ten. Her uterus, one presumed—or at least one presumed the rabbi was presuming—wasn’t yet shedding its lining. “Come on!” she shouted, urging us on with her hand.
The rabbi from the cemetery stood his ground. “Get back in the car,” he told us. “This is a DISGRACE!”
My daughter leaned on the shovel, her tiny frame dwarfed by it.
Seeing her standing there, armed for battle amidst that sea of black, I took my mother-in-law’s hand in mine, and we made a wide detour around the rabbi. My sisters- in-law followed. A few seconds later, the entire amoeba of long-skirted women meandered its way toward the grave. Our bloodless coup was complete. We grabbed some shovels and started digging.