At 97, my Jewish grandmother was becoming a Buddhist (although, I’m not sure she would have put it that way).
This is what I know:
My grandmother, Florence Pinchak Misurell, was the daughter of Russian Jews who emigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s. Her mother, Molly Pinchak, worked as a seamstress in the New York garment factories and eventually opened her own dry goods store. She became a socialist, a suffragette and an atheist. And although she remained very involved in the Jewish community until the end of her life, sewing clothes to send to the Kibbutzim in Israel, she was a devout “non-believer.”
The story goes that when my mother and father were first dating, Molly sat my father (an Irish Catholic who was having his own crisis of faith) down and grilled him on religion.
“What do you think happens after you die?”
“I don’t know, Mrs. Pinchak” my father replied.
My great grandmother answered her own question, “When you die you they put you in the ground and that’s it!”
This was the atmosphere in which my grandmother was raised. Florence was taught Yiddish and Hebrew. She was educated about Jewish history and culture, and was very much, “Jewish identified.” But she also married my grandfather, an Italian Catholic. She was, what we call now, a “cultural Jew.”
Shortly after my grandparents got married, my grandmother’s father passed away and Molly came to live with them. My great grandmother laid down the law: there would be no practicing of religion in the household. There was a silver frosted synthetic Christmas tree that made an appearance every December, but as a family they never attended church or temple or celebrated religious holidays. There were stories of how my grandfather would leave on Sundays “to go get the paper” and slip into the back row at mass, and how, as teenagers my uncle and my mother would periodically sneak off to church services and synagogue respectively.
But my Grandmother never did sneak off - not until much later. Of course, by the time I discovered this, it was too late ask questions.
My grandmother passed away at the age of 97, after attending Rosh Hashanah services. When she moved to a retirement community she had sought out other Jews, for “social reasons” she said. That night after services, on the way back to her apartment she had a bad fall. She slipped into a coma for 12 hours and was gone the next morning.
It was a good death, she would have said (though heartbreaking for her friends and family). She had often said that she “just wanted it to be quick.” And, I believe, she was happy before she went. I had spoken to her several days before and she was full of gratitude for her life, for her health for her family. She went out at the top of her game- everyone agreed. She had very few physical issues and was as mentally alert as ever.
And she was prepared. There were notes left for us throughout her apartment. Under each piece of jewelry, a description of its origins (“from trip to Israel 1969”). And, perhaps not entirely trusting her children’s knowledge of Judaica, an explanation of Shiva: “It is the Jewish custom to sit Shiva for seven days following the funeral.” And then in parenthesis, “You don’t have to do that for me.”
But there were also signs of a life interrupted. Her shoes waiting for her at the bedside, a calendar filled with activities – French class, Yiddish Conversation, Singing Group, Shakespeare class. The date of her death was circled, with a note: “Rosh Hashanah dinner.” There were phone messages from friends, one of whom had heard of her fall and was calling to see how she was. The second half of the message was addressed to her children in case it was one of them that was picking up the message. And indeed, I thought, they live with this reality everyday, that a dinner companion, or classmate, a lifelong friend, or a spouse of 60 years may not be there the next day.
And then there was the book on her bedside table: It’s Easier Than You Think – The Buddhist Way to Happiness by Sylvia Boorstein. I was not totally surprised. My grandmother was an avid reader, full of curiosity about everything, and I knew that since moving to her retirement community when she was 93 that she had been turned on to meditation. It was more that she had been reading this particular book at this particular time. Another act of preparation? There was a piece of stationary tucked into the pages on which she’d written the following notes:
-Mindfulness - the awareness and acceptance of the present experience.
-See clearly = happiness
-Do not get upset for things beyond our control
-Only choice in life is our attitude about the cards we hold and the finesse with which we play the hand.
-Meditation is a means to wisdom
-Pain is inevitable. Life comes with pain Suffering comes…accept it with wise passionate response.
-It is possible to live happily. Be passionate and awake responsive and involved and care about things.
At the end she had signed her name, Florence P. Misurell, as if she was signing a letter.
To whom it could have be addressed, I do not know. What I know is this:
In the last years of her life, my grandmother seemed more at peace than ever before. There was a lightness to her that I hadn’t seen before. She had told me a story about her introduction to meditation.
Shortly after she started attending Saturday services at her retirement community, she befriended another resident who confessed that he was also there “primarily for social reasons,” but that he had formed a meditation group that met weekly and she was welcome to join. Every Wednesday she would meditate for an hour with the group and every morning she would start the day with some light exercise and a short meditation. “It’s a wonderful thing,” she told me. “I feel so good!”
But I believe her spiritual journey actually began long before. After my grandfather died something had shifted in her. My grandfather was a larger than life character: passionate, argumentative with a childlike sense of mischief and delight. She was generally in the background, supporting and managing his exuberance. But after he died, something grew in her. It was her time. She became the matriarch, the philosopher, the wise sage. She traveled the world, attended classes, organized reunions and became a connector of friends and family. She became the mentor and confident to her grown grandchildren and advocate of gay marriage after two of her grandsons, her nephews and a cousin came out to her. She called me laughing, “Carmen, you’ll never believe it! The whole family is gay!” Somehow in spite of the era in which she was raised, it was as if her heart were just opening more and more. She seemed utterly delighted in the fact that life was so full of unexpected surprises. There was no room for judgment anymore, she just wanted her family to be happy.
She was, I maintain, becoming a Buddhist. When I met her Rabbi at Shiva my suspicions were confirmed. I discovered that she too was a Jew who had dabbled in Eastern teachings. She talked at the funeral about “God” as a place-holder. Aha! A Buddhist in disguise!
Meeting my grandmother’s friends over Shiva, I was astounded by how frank and pragmatic they were about “the next stage.” They are all, in some way, practicing detachment. Some by numbing out and shutting down, but in the case of my grandmother by living from moment to moment with an open heart. By finding joy in everything. Sylvia Boorstein explains it this way:
The Buddha is being chased towards cliff by a tiger, he falls off the cliff but clings to a rope, then a mouse begins to eat the rope…as he is hanging there precariously he notices a strawberry and eats it – exclaiming how delicious!
I don’t know the answer to the question that my great grandmother asked, “Where do you go when you die?” but I’m no longer sure that it matters. I know that my grandmother lives on in my heart and in my imagination. And I know that Buddhism is not overly concerned with the answer this question either, but instead helps us learn how to live and die well by focusing on the present. And I know that this is not just Buddha’s teaching but a lesson taught by teachers of all faiths and no faith, but most of all by our grandparents.