Rabbi Mitchell Delcau’s father died. I went to the funeral this morning. Mitchell Delcau is our temple’s former rabbi, now based in Seattle. He was someone I had once worked hard to find, serving on the temple’s Search Committee. He had declined another offer to accept ours. Last spring, he was told that the temple could no longer afford to keep him on payroll.
For him to come back here, to a mother bereft of him and her daughter-in-law, her grandchildren and now her husband, and to face us all with what feelings I could only imagine, seemed to me a theater-in-the-round I had rather not attend.
Also, academics go to memorials – which are commemorations after the physical fact of death has been got past — more often than to funerals.
My own reluctance had another source as well. If you ask me why there should be an Israel on the face of the earth, my reflexive answer is instant: so there can be a patch of ground where headstones can be placed, bearing Jewish names and stars of David, which won’t be vandalized. Why won’t they be vandalized? Because in Israel there’s a Jewish army to defend the headstones. Personally, I’ve never wanted my Final Vulnerability placed under Jewish auspices in the diaspora.
Yet the funeral home looked to me spacious, dignified and authoritative. A large star of David, made of wood, took up most of the ceiling and stars of David adorned the outer arms of each pew.
I did not discern any awkwardness or doubleness of feeling in the faces of the congregants and temple officials who had decided to attend. We queued up to greet the family.
To Fran, the widow, I could say nothing. We just looked at each other, her eyes pools of grief.
“I hoped to see you again,” Rabbi Delcau said to me. “But not under these circumstances.”
“Because you were here,” I said, “now when people speak of God, they speak as if He’s real. And, when they speak of Israel, they speak as if it’s important.”
The officiating rabbi, along with a younger colleague, gave the comforting impression that they knew something about this man who now lay under a flag-draped coffin.
Rabbi Delcau began by saying he hadn’t planned to speak; he was here to mourn. However, some thoughts came. The thoughts were all new to me.
I had not known that Dennis Delcau was the son of two Holocaust survivors. I hadn’t known that his library of Judaica was extensive and he’d read every book in it. Nor that an especially dog-eared page from Maimonides contained the warning that people tend to take on the mores of their environment, so we should avoid the company of the unrighteous. It’s contagious. Also, one should be honorable. One should hold fast to the truth and not permit oneself to lie.
Dennis Delcau had had a supervisor in Houston who urged him not to tell the boss that he needed to be in synagogue on Yom Kippur. Just call in sick, the supervisor kindly advised. Instead Dennis Delcau told the boss the real reason for his absence. When he came to work the next day, the department had been “reorganized” and he was out of a job.
His next employer seemed determined to drive him away. It’s not clear why he’d hired Delcau at all, except that he had a certain amount of expertise that might be needed. At any rate, he was given the bathroom tiles to scrub. That was his job. He scrubbed them day after day, thoroughly.
In the Delcau family, one was likewise expected to work hard and avoid excuses. If you got a B on your report card instead of an A, you were asked to explain it.
When the Vietnam War broke out, being a family man, he could have got a deferment. But he went, in homage to the country that had offered refuge to his parents, the survivors.
The reunion of Rabbi Delcau with his former congregants could have been fraught with unwelcome layers of complex feeling, floating without anchorage.
Instead, the Rabbi’s openness to the truths of filial piety – out of which all other pieties grow – gave it simplicity.
If a situation is simple,
it’s not that hard to face.