My mother, Beverly Mazaroff Polt, wanted to pass away years ago. She had Parkinson’s disease and many other ailments that robbed her of leading a productive life.
But the Lord had other plans, and for whatever reason, Mom hung on until the coronavirus struck the world — the worst possible time for any Jewish family to be able to plan a proper funeral and shiva.
It almost seemed like a trick of fate. After visiting her every week for 10 years, all of a sudden my siblings and I were not allowed to enter the nursing home where she resided. We were not allowed to visit when the staff observed that she was steadily declining — from old age, not from contracting the coronavirus.
And then she passed away quietly but alone at 3 a.m. on Apr. 8 at age 98½.
Jewish tradition dictates that burials are to take place as soon as possible after a loved one dies. However, such was not the case at this time. The plethora of Jewish funerals during the pandemic made securing the rabbi of choice difficult. In addition to bypassing Shabbat, and the first two days of Passover, our mother’s funeral was delayed by several days.
On April 12, we arrived at Beth El Memorial Park donned in masks ready to partake in prayers, eulogies and other traditions. The governor mandated that only a maximum of 10 people could gather together, spaced a minimum of six feet apart. Coming from a large family, this was going to be hard, limiting the number of family members.
Fortunately, the Jewish funeral home took all health precautions and we were very thankful. The rabbi individually handed each of the adult children (or rather placed on the damp, cold cement) a bag of funeral-related items, including the traditional black ribbon. The torn ribbon symbolizes the grief and anger one experiences at the loss of a loved one. Other contents included sympathy thank-you notes, a yahrzeit candle capable of burning for seven days and a copy of the Mourner’s Kaddish.
At the funeral before the casket is lowered into the ground, Jewish tradition dictates that family members take a shovel full of dirt and place it on top of the casket. Again, such was not the case during this time of the coronavirus. We were given black latex gloves, and each of us gathered handfuls of dirt to place on the casket in lieu of using a communal shovel.
After a Jewish funeral, Jews enter into shiva period when it is customary to visit the home of the bereaved, offer comfort and recite the Mourner’s Kaddish.
This time, there was no shiva. We all returned to our individual homes feeling empty and sad. That night, my nephew organized a “Zoom shiva” for the immediate and extended family. We regaled Mom and Grandma stories, showcased her beautiful art work, and at the conclusion we all stood up to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. Then, we turned off our computers, lit our yahrzeit candles, delved into our inner feelings and went to sleep.
Yet, we were one of the lucky ones. I came to learn that many Jewish families could not even enter their cemetery, as many of them closed down due to this pandemic. Only the gravediggers and funeral workers could bury the deceased.
A Baltimore native who now lives in Howard County, Janis Polt Goldman is a former teacher, a retired nonprofit executive and an occasional freelance writer.