South of the River

If you’re nearing your late 20s, it’s likely that a few things have occurred by now. You’ve probably worked at least one ‘real person job.’ When you trip over in the street it’s no longer referred to as ‘falling over’ (implying we can all laugh at you) but ‘having a fall.’ And, inevitably, your grandparents are really really old – or they’ve already checked out.

In 2011 I turned 26 and my grandmother died. Obviously these weren’t a consequential state of affairs but random events occurring within near proximity to one another. In that time I lived in Brunswick; a smashed avocado on rye-infested suburb that sits a world away (or at the very least, a Yarra river away) from the very Jewish suburb of Caulfield, a synagogue and bagel-infested middle class ghetto in the south of Melbourne. Caulfield is the area where I’d peacefully grown up, and then years later fled in the name of independence, rebellion and more atheistic pursuits such as warehouse parties, smoky pub gigs and to spend more time schmoozing with the gentile world.

My parents still live in that house, and at some point throughout the years after I’d moved out it had begun to develop an ‘other people’s house’ smell. This smell means that even though I know where to find the tin of Milo, I now feel an obligation to ask for it (even if I’m already spooning it). This was the house I grew up in – the backdrop for family arguments and gatherings. It’s where we’d buried our first pet; it’s where I’d buried my late-teen cigarettes.

When I found out my grandmother had passed away I went to stay with my parents for a few days. To cross the river, so to speak. From the moment she’d died there was an urgency to get the funeral done and dusted. According to Jewish law it’s respectful to the deceased to hold the funeral as soon as possible after death. A person carks it, and thanks to a team of volunteers akin to a Jewish version of Santa’s little helpers (the chevra kadisha) they scrape ‘em up, and the body is buried as soon as the following day.

When I arrived home mum and dad are seated at the kitchen table surrounded by family and friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen since Alanis and Silverchair posters infiltrated my bedroom walls. On the table are cups of tea and demolished slices of lemon cake.

They are using the good crockery set.

When a death occurs, people step away from their ‘to-do’ lists, from their bank statements, social calendars and their cookie cutter lives. It’s a time to get all pensive and remember that there’s an end, which unescapably gives more meaning to the beginning and the middle. Sitting in that kitchen was like being in an episode of HBO’s Six Feet Under (except no one was stoned and Rachel Griffiths wasn’t getting off with anyone in the next room).

In Judaism, mourners are encouraged to rely on their close-knit community to provide support. And by support I really mean nourishment. This noshing comes in the form of baskets (known as shiva baskets) left at the doorstep of the bereaved, filled with colourful goods: dried fruit, nuts, chocolate covered almonds – the stuff that you might find sitting under a couch after several years. These baskets blocked our doorstep over the coming days and we ate our way through mourning.

Crossing the river to my childhood home is a nostalgic look back in time. Judaism to me now isn’t a religion – I don’t believe in any god or any higher spiritual being. Nor is it political – I am far from a Zionist. Judaism to me is a tradition, one that I associate each of my four grandparents with, even if all four have now checked out.

Cast of Six Feet Under
Six Feet Under – IMDB


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