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War and Remembrance

Recalling battles between nations, and between relatives, at a family funeral

Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman
May 24, 2023
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

It was a solemn funeral but not a sad one.

Gus, my father’s oldest brother, had wanted to go. He was 98 and by his preferences, he’d had enough.

My cousin Marsha had told me that the service would be at the graveside, near where Aunt Shirley—her mother and Gus’ wife—had been buried a year and some earlier. Marsha asked my brother Simcha, who’s a rabbi, and me to officiate. I was deeply touched. It would be an honor to eulogize my uncle, one of the “Greatest Generation.”

We arrived at King Solomon Memorial Park in Clifton, New Jersey, on a hot afternoon last August to find an American flag spread over his coffin. Gus had been in the Army Air Corps in WWII. We walked with the flag-draped casket, every few steps saying a verse from Psalms, as is the custom.

He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty

We stopped briefly and continued.

He is my refuge and my fortress; My God, in Him I will trust.

We stopped again.

Surely, He shall deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the perilous pestilence.

Again, we stopped.

He shall cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you shall take refuge.

Another stop.

You shall not be afraid of the terror by night, nor of the arrow that flies by day, nor of the pestilence that walks in darkness, nor of the destruction that lays waste at noonday.

A thousand may fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand; But it shall not come near you for He shall give His angels charge over you.

Gus had been called up in the weeks after Pearl Harbor and saw combat in North Africa at El Alamein; Gus’ plane crashed in 1942 on an airstrip in Tunisia. Miraculously, he survived, though he was laid up in the hospital. His parents would have received word of his injury in action, but he preempted this. He cabled home that he was recuperating from the measles so the parents “shouldn’t be worried” about his brush with death.

When the casket reached the plot, my brother intoned a parable from the Talmud about a man whose ship was wrecked and fell to the ocean waters. Rocked by the seas, to the point of drowning, he grabbed onto a floating daf, a plank, and rode the waves, until he was swept to shore. A man holds on to what he can in the sea of life, my brother said, such was Gus.

Now it was my turn. Is it permitted, I asked aloud, to begin a funeral service with a lullaby? If it’s a Yiddish one, then perhaps. I took out my phone and played “Shlof Mein Yankele” (“Sleep My Yankele”). This was an old Yiddish song in which a mother sings to her infant and dreams of his future success as a scholar and a businessman while he is still in the cradle.

I brought the phone close to my Uncle Freddie—Feivel—the middle brother in my father’s family, 95 years old, handsome, with a perfect, beautiful head. “Dad told me that this was the song you heard when you were kids,” I told him. Freddie held the phone to his ear. “Yes,” he said, “this is the song.” He blinked back a tear. Then he said that all three brothers back in the 1930s shared a room—and when they were very young the same bed—with di bubbe, Hannah Ruth, until she died in 1941.

Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the Lord and on his law he meditates day and night.

The psalmist describes two extremes: a scoffer and a saint. Gus was no scoffer. He did not hang out with sinners, but did he delight in the law of the Lord? No, that wasn’t him.

One day in mid 1942 a mysterious package arrived at the Feuermans’ Bronx apartment. It was Gus’ tallis and tefillin—he had carefully wrapped them in brown paper from the PX. He felt he had no use for them on the front lines of the war. My grandparents, though not especially devout, were devastated. Gus would go the way of godless America, they thought. The tallis and tefillin sat on the table for the duration of the war. It was part pride: He was in combat, fighting Rommel. But it was also part shame: Gus wasn’t davening, which was a shanda.

Was he also expected to keep the religion alive in America while in combat overseas? Such was an unspoken thought in the family. At that moment, my father, then only a 12-year-old boy from PS 82, resolved to become a rabbi. He had to make his parents—mostly his mother—happy. “I have to carry the tradition. Who else will?”

So my father, Chaim, fought for “God.” He was ordained a rabbi and became a religious teacher and the coil that defined his life—his Yiddish, his learning Torah—unspooled onto the American tableau. After serving as a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force in the 1950s, he moved to LA in the ’60s and “fought” for God and Torah. He convinced people to keep Shabbos and keep kosher and formally and intentionally study the word of God. He took a stand against assimilation. Amazingly, wherever he went—California, Atlanta, Montreal—he succeeded.

Standing there at the funeral, inwardly I saluted my men in uniform: my dad, my uncle Gus, my uncle Freddie.

I had grown up idolizing men who could fight (I was a shrimp who could barely land a punch). By the time I was 8 years old, I had seen every war movie ever made to that point. How I wanted to fight. How I still want to fight even now—at least in fantasy—to know the taste of battle for a good cause, like Uncle Gus and later Freddie, who served in Korea, but I was too young for Vietnam and in any case, by the time I was in grade school, I knew it wasn’t a just war.

However, that didn’t stop me from tuning in to nightly broadcasts from Walter Cronkite. From age 7 I kept track of troop movements from Quang Tri and Hue—and the casualty counts (were “we” winning or losing?), and the endless interviews with grunts on the ground and the five-star brass like William Westmoreland and Creighton Abrams. To this day, I fall asleep to endless accounts of the battle of Stalingrad on YouTube, and the distinct sound of Huey helicopters even now brings me to a near-religious reverence.

Why, why this fascination—even obsession—with war?

For most of my life, something was missing, incomplete. I didn’t serve. I was in no war. I could not prove myself and I felt as though I did not measure up to men like my uncle. But something was changing inside me at Gus’ funeral service. With my brother there, my cousins, the extended family from every stripe, it was not a hero’s narrative anymore—my uncles going off to war, my father going off to fight for God. There was a collective. Fate, family, culture—they gave us a script or even a few lines to deliver. We responded sometimes with our best, sometimes not. It was a template from which we made decisions, we made war, we married, we had children, we picked religion up, or we put it down.

I continued with the eulogy as we started to lower the casket into the freshly dug grave. Families take a strange arc—what one puts down the other picks up. Gus, who had been a star student in Talmud Torah, put down his tefillin, but my father picked them up. Two brothers, one an Orthodox rabbi, the other assimilated. But perhaps without Gus there would have been no Chaim, and without Chaim, no Gus.

I looked around. The mood of the funeral had changed. It had never been sad, but now it was one of togetherness. People swayed around the burial plot as though in song. My brother was right next to me—my sisters had tuned in by Zoom. We were doing this together, and it felt good. I looked at the crowd of about 50 souls. Unlike 100 years ago, the family was mixed now. Some had intermarried. Jews and gentiles were side by side.

Unknown, gigantic forces like war and religion had tossed us about and shaped us. In the heated August drizzle, on sacred burial grounds, our whole lives had taken on a hallucinatory quality. Not just now, but from the beginning of time. Once we had been a tribe of shepherds, of nomads, who discovered God in the desert and on the mountain. Laws were written, promises were made, betrayals. Embedded within our story was the story of mankind: jealousies, evils, rivalries, wars. Suddenly, between shovels, I was less inside myself, more part of everything and everyone. In the moment, it didn’t matter; this one fought, this one didn’t. This one was old, another young, this one assimilated, this one devout, this one a Jew, the next one a gentile.

The flag had ceremoniously been removed from the coffin. There would be no such honors for me when my time comes, but this was no fault of my own. I hadn’t dodged the draft, but strangely, all my life I felt as if I had. I dreamed of joining the military when I was young, but I was a yeshiva bochur and a rabbi’s son. Technically, it might have been possible for me to keep the Sabbath laws and the pious ways of Orthodoxy, but to enter the army in peacetime would have been a betrayal of my parents and my culture. Yet my fantasies would not be held in check. I was enamored with fighting. I had imagined being my uncle’s contemporary, flying in a Thunderbolt or de Havilland Mosquito, shooting rockets into Rommel’s tanks at Tobruk. What derring-do, what honor!

We had started to perspire. Burial is tough work. The earth was heavy—it had recently rained. As clods of earth filled the grave, I began to wonder that perhaps my preoccupation with war was a deflection, a defense against my father’s “drafting” me into his rabbinical army to be his lieutenant in the fight against assimilation.

When I came of age, militarism had been all but phased out. The draft was long gone and America was not called to war in the same way it once was. The new love that America was giving birth to—sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll—was bad for a Jew of my background, in the sense that it would make you un-Jewish, assimilated. We embraced America, but rejected its popular ethos of social and sexual “liberation.” The conflict was never confronted head-on, but instead cleverly used as a wall to preserve our insularity, our shtetl of the mind. A rabbi and, by extension, a rabbi’s son were supposed to “fight” against this “monstrous” tide that would make us lose our way, to turn from God. Rather than yield to my father’s unconscious demands, I craved a real war where I could hear the buzz of gunfire, artillery, P-47 Thunderbolt fighter aircraft!

My reverie was interrupted when my cousin Marsha—Gus’ daughter—came to my side. “I have the tefillin with me,” she whispered. I looked at her: What could she be talking about? Marsha, of whom my father despaired (she married a gentile!), has tefillin? “The tefillin,” she said, “from 1942. Could I bury them with my father?”

I couldn’t believe it. The tefillin were real after all, not just a hallucination, an apocryphal tale that was handed down as a prop to burnish family legend.

I understood her sentiment; she meant no disrespect. But I told her that it was not a Jewish custom to bury tefillin—they belong to the living, a reflection of the face of the living God in us. Marsha understood. Her father had put them down; he did not throw them out. For all of the assimilation, they were sacred to him, and now to everyone.

The moist clay earth was finally packed in and together we recited the graveside Kaddish. This special Kaddish makes reference to a future utopia promised by God—v’yatzmach purkaneh v’karev m’shiche—a messianic utopia when all wrongs shall be made right, wars will end, the dead will be brought back to life, and Jerusalem will be rebuilt and the Temple restored.

Everyone said “amen” and people began to talk earnestly. Family members had years to catch up on. Suddenly, people were talking. There had been a rift in the family—a mild one, but a rift nonetheless. It was over religion, over intermarriage. Cousins had intermarried. My father’s rabbinical rectitude was a source of intense pride in the family but it also imposed a heavy, one might say even unnatural decorum. Was it religion that brought us together now or in death had we finally found a Jewish god we could all live with?

My father loved an old Yiddish song he said they sang in the 1930s and ’40s—“Eizehu Mekoiman”—a pining for the days of the Temple of old where we once again happily bring sacrifices on the altar, a restored intimacy with the Ebershter.

With my father, I didn’t know whether his pining for nostalgia—a messianic utopian future or idyllic past—was a painkiller or if he simply found a spot of joy within himself to share with me. Perhaps it was his way to both be with me and at the same time bring me to a God you can’t really be with in any normal human sense, but yet to whom we owe our very lives and to whom we owe a death.

How could a normal person pine for an old world God and His Temple?

Freud famously held that religion was an illusion, a hallucination that needed to be replaced, and the sooner the better. Yet one of his successors, the thinker/analyst Wilfred Bion had a different idea. He saw the capacity to hallucinate as one of the most spectacular abilities of mankind. In the hands of normal people, he argued, illusions and even hallucinations were not merely painkillers, but rather a way to transmit and repair pieces of a wounded self to a community of souls.

The psalmist speaks in religious speculation and imagines us in God’s care. Nevertheless, the human being yearns not just for God but for himself—to know what is inside us. Bion, who was a tank commander in WWI, said this is the main reason we fight: to get to know ourselves, to clarify what is on our minds.

I began to wonder whether a funeral itself was some kind of hallucination, sort of what the analyst Michael Eigen calls a double arrow between life and death. A funeral by a peculiar alchemy turns death into life and life into death through broad sweeps of psyche and soul contained in Psalms and eulogy. Somehow, I was at peace now with my “war” hangups. I had responded to the invitations life sent me—war had never been on the menu for me.

The family thinned out, got in their cars, and headed home. Just a few remained now in the August heat. We exchanged tearful hugs, memories, and made promises.

It had become something of a trance, a dream, terribly poignant, but not terrible at all. When my brother and I began to shovel in the earth, everyone, young and old, joined in with a life force, not merely a gesture. And in the heat, we finished the job as though we were doing something virtuous, even restorative: The body was being repatriated to the earth from where it came; a kindness.

Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman, a psychotherapist in New Jersey, is director of The New Center for Advanced Psychotherapy Studies. He is also author of the Yiddish novel Yankel and Leah.