Life After Love: Cher & Jewish Mourning Rituals

In October 2013, when I bought my tickets to see Cher’s Dressed to Kill tour, which would be playing down the street from my house in the then-distant future of May 2014, my mother asked with mock hurt in her voice why I hadn’t invited her to see the show with me.

David & his parents, marching with Keshet at Boston Pride in 2009.

David & his parents, marching with Keshet at Boston Pride in 2009.

At the time, I thought it was a bit of a ridiculous request. Although my mother had taken me to my earliest concerts in my pre-teen days, I couldn’t really envision her enjoying a stadium show at age 67. I imagined the show would be unbearably loud for her, and over the last couple of years, her health had slipped, and she just seemed too frail for that kind of environment. Plus, what interest did my mom have in the electronic dance diva that Cher has become in the most recent evolution of her career?

At the same time, I remembered a long-forgotten moment my mother and I had shared when I was in high school.  My mother had been my synagogue’s youth director, and USY was my number one activity, so we spent a lot of time together. While most teenagers might have bristled at having their mothers present in these settings, I never let the presence of my mother get in the way of my teenage shenanigans, whether that meant sneaking out of my room at a convention to surreptitiously hook up, dressing in a costume that was little more than underwear for a trip to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show, or, as I just remembered—playing Cher to my mother’s Sonny Bono for a lip sync contest in the basement of my synagogue. (Our “I Got You Babe” brought the house down. Sadly, this predated the YouTube era, and I’m not even sure if photographs were taken.) This same comfort and closeness served us well in my adulthood, and many of my friends from Keshet remember my parents marching with us in the Pride Parade in matching Keshet t-shirts.

My mom passed away at the end of December, and although she had been in declining health, her death was a shock. Judaism’s mourning rituals provide a gradual plan for coping, setting out an eleven-month process for children who’ve lost a parent that balances the need for solitude and grief with the need to stay connected to community.

One profound way our tradition makes this period distinct is by removing the mourner from “public joy,” meaning someone who has suffered a loss typically avoids parties (including weddings and b’nai mitzvah), theaters and cinemas, and concerts. As with many Jewish customs, there are loopholes, particularly if your line of work requires you to participate in these kinds of events: a wedding photographer, for example, isn’t expected to stop working for the year. As someone who’s semi-professionally involved in the theater, I knew I’d need to figure out what felt right in that arena for me. I gave away some tickets, made an extra effort to ensure that shows I saw were directly related to projects I was working on, and so forth.

The Cher concert was months away. I had time to figure it out. But I knew that I couldn’t miss it—not because I cared so much about Cher, but because it was one of the few things coming up in my life that I had shared with my mom in the last months of hers.

Going to the concert wasn’t the easiest choice I’ve made. My section was filled with women who reminded me of my mother, and the number of times Cher herself mentioned her age—one year older than my mom—kept bringing my mom to the forefront of my mind. But at the same time, enjoying the songs that had been part of the bond between my mother and me reinforced in a visceral way how I remain connected to my mother even though she’s gone. And of course, Cher’s stock in trade is songs about surviving and moving forward despite loss. And even thought I know she meant it in a different way than I heard it that night, Cher helped me believe in life after love.

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Posted on May 27, 2014

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