We weren’t on a date. It was more intimate than that. I was to be her rabbi and she, nearing 100, wanted clergy to perform her funeral.
“At my funeral, I want the rabbi to know me,” Tillie (not her real name) said defiantly. “I don’t want a stranger rabbi.”
Tillie is secular — she doesn’t belong to a synagogue — and I was up for the task, or so I thought. I met her through DOROT, an agency on the Upper West Side committed to alleviating social isolation among seniors.
“That’s rude,” was one of the first things Tillie said to me, with a glare that cut deep. I had glanced at my phone periodically to check the time. Her bluntness caught me off guard, refreshingly.
“You’re not my typical clientele,” I teased Tillie as we were first getting to know each other over two years ago. Tillie was 96 then, six decades between us, and I was very much used to working with millennials in Manhattan, young adults seeking meaning, love and purpose. Here was Tillie on the other side of life, ever mindful of her mortality, defiantly independent, eager to live.
But, of course, death is everywhere these days, these Covid days and nights, the sirens screaming past my apartment on the Upper West Side. Tillie and I don’t meet face-to-face anymore, but we’re still in touch, each in our own way trying to beat back the isolation blues. We talk on the phone and regularly shoot each other emails and links to news stories.
Tillie shared she had first reached out to an Upper East Side synagogue in search of a rabbi, but they told her to call Plaza Memorial Chapel, a funeral home, which would oversee her arrangements. Perturbed, she explained she wasn’t looking for funeral details at the time rather for a community. The rabbi then invited her to a “ladies luncheon,” but she was seeking a rabbinic counselor, not a mah jongg club.
When we first met, Tillie kept to the facts and offered a review of her life.
Raised in the Lower East Side to immigrant parents, her father spoke to her in Yiddish, calling her a “vilde khaye,” a wild animal. A former ballerina turned real estate agent, a college graduate, Tillie liked to claim she was a feminist long before women’s liberation hit in the 1960s.
Before the pandemic, and these days too, we talk politics; her disdain for our president gets a constant airing. We talk about books and films and museums, though she professed that she’d never before opened a Bible.
And so we learned the Book of Ecclesiastes together for months. Little did we know that it would provide such a rich backdrop for today’s cruel calculus of life and death.
“Everything is futile,” the text read, and Tillie was surprised by the book’s subversive nature, its contradictions and raw passions. The charge to enjoy the physical pleasures of the world appealed to her as she looked back in her life, thirsty for more. To every thing, there is a season… a time to dance…
Tillie shared how her husband had come home one day and sifted through her closet. He found a box of letters from Tillie’s lovers and affairs over the years. Tillie left their home that night bloodied and bruised and stayed at a friend’s house. She called herself stupid as she remembered the pain.
“And it wasn’t the first time,” she told me crying. She returned to her husband and stayed with him until he died. A time to break down, and a time to build up…
In Jewish tradition, one might recite a vidui, or confessional, on the death bed. Taken from the High Holiday liturgy of Yom Kippur, this is a prescribed text penitents read. Tillie, though, taught me how her own words, her personal confession, were the required liturgy.
She sees my rainbow kipa (she’s called me “an unorthodox Orthodox rabbi”) and tells me how hard it was for her to come to terms with her son’s sexuality and what it was like raising a little boy who couldn’t see. She called herself biased and bigoted, and explained how she came to love her son despite his blindness, and how proud she was of his career. And mostly, how much she adores her son’s husband, whom she refused to meet at first. A time to rend, and a time to sew…
Before Covid, they would visit her regularly in the city, and they would spend weekends together at their farm upstate. For the time being, she’s living with them, far from the city and its eerie emptiness.
With New York being the epicenter of the pandemic, Tillie says she’s mostly grateful to be away from the city. She’s reveling in the natural world upstate, and she talks about the beautiful trees and flowers around her. She misses the city, especially the opera, and doesn’t feel she can come back anytime soon. She refuses to use FaceTime because, as she says, “I look horrible on it.”
Sitting with Tillie, week after week, month after month, thought of my own bubby, who passed when she was 91, come to mind. She was a brilliant woman who recited Shakespeare’s plays in alphabetical order to soothe her encyclopedic mind. But Bubby never talked about death with me the way Tillie does.
Tillie asks me what happens in the afterlife, and I tell her if anyone tries to answer that question definitively you should run away as fast as you can.
“I don’t run anymore, Avram,” she quips.
We talk about what it means to live on through each other, through our children. Tillie has no grandchildren. She knows the clock is running out, and she craves answers. A time to every purpose under heaven…
Tillie and I have talked many times about the assignment that first brought us together. We’ve reviewed her funeral service, and she’s reminded me how she wants me to sing Yiddish songs. She’s concerned no one will come to the funeral. I’ve asked her if she would want to read what I write before she dies, but she refuses. She said she’d only read this piece if it were published. I think she trusts me now, even if every now and then I glance at my iPhone.
Rabbi Avram Mlotek is director of spiritual life and co-founder of Base Hillel.