"Shabbat Shalom from Bangkok"

'Jewish cap' & ACV :Lessons from Mr. Alfred Baron

By the Grace of G-d

Dear Friend,

On Sunday early morning I received a call from a Thai gentleman saying that his step father Mr. Alfred Baron had passed away.

I met Alfred shortly after his move here in 2007. Al, as he liked to be called, was Jewish and was in his eighties. He had found me via the internet and we had met. We had discussed Jewish burial but he had never committed this desire in writing. I sensed that he simply didn’t want to place a burden on his Thai family by asking them to do something that may be inconvenient for them.

Alfred had passed away on Saturday night and it was less than twenty four hours later at 7:30 AM on Sunday when I got the call.

‘Rabbi, dad asked us to call you when he passes away and have you put on his Jewish cap before the ceremony’ said the young man on the other side of the phone. ‘What kind of ceremony are you doing’? I asked. When I was told it was a Buddhist service culminating in cremation I asked ‘why are you not considering doing a Jewish service and burial’? The son responded that Dad only asked for the rabbi to come to put on the hat….

For a moment I wavered. Should I go to see the deceased and meet the family? They had decided to do a cremation and would probably not agree to change their minds. Yet, I made a very quick calculation that if I did not go to the hospital immediately to meet the family and see the deceased; I certainly was not going to influence a change of decision. If I did go, I may even be successful through G-d’s blessings. Obviously it was my duty, responsibility and holy privilege to go out there and at least try. Google maps navigated me to the hospital and as it was Sunday morning, the ninety minute drive took less than an hour.  

Upon arrival to the hospital I met the wife and step children of the deceased. They greeted me warmly and thanked me for coming out so quickly. I was not a stranger to the family as I had visited Al several times to pray with Tefilin and I had dropped him off a hand baked ‘shmura matzah’ for Pesach. Actually, Al had even attended our daughter’s wedding a few years ago and enjoyed it thoroughly.

The wife held out a kippah with the imprint of ‘Chabad of Thailand’ on it. It was obviously a kippah that I had given him at one of our meetings. ‘Al said that it is very important that you put on this cap before we do the ceremony’ she said. To their surprise I told them that I would certainly not put on the kippah before the burning ceremony. As a matter of fact, in my opinion they must not at all go ahead with the planned cremation.

I explained that if they wanted his soul to be at peace, they should reconsider what they were about to do. Al’s parents, his grandparents as well the rest of his ancestors going back thousands of years, had all been buried. The best thing for the peace and tranquility of a Jewish soul is to be buried I told them. ‘But we have paid the temple for everything already’ they said. I told them that money was not the issue and our community sees burial of fellow Jews as being something of a holy communal responsibility. Thus we bury first and only then do we see how to cover the financial aspect. I told them that I would leave the financial discussion till afterward, but I implored them to please let me do what Alfred’s soul really wants done. Do I have the power to speak to souls? No. But this is a clear directive by G-d in the Torah. Therefore I am sure that this is what Al really wants as this is the Jewish tradition for more than three thousand years.

To my delight the family agreed. A few days later on Wednesday we received the body of Mr. Alfred Baron for burial at the Jewish cemetery in Bangkok.

I now have a deeper level of respect for this elderly friend of mine. He adds a new dimension to the concept of a ‘yiddishe kup’ (‘rosh yehudi’). Al wanted something and found a creative way of getting it. He asked for the rabbi to come to put on his Jewish cap, knowing that his family would agree to that simple request. From our meetings and discussions over the years and from reading my weekly emails, he certainly was familiar with my beliefs and he knew that I truly cared for him. To me it seems that he relied on the fact that once invited to the scene, I would not let him be cremated without trying to convince his family to do the right thing and bring him to burial.

As it turns out, Al has some Jewish children in the states from previous marriages. They are overjoyed that a traditional Jewish burial took place.

Even the Thai family sensed that they made the right choice. They told me how impressed they were with the peace that they felt at our cemetery. It became very clear to them that they had made the right decision.

If you are reading this column and have not yet made the ‘Jewish choice’ for ‘after your 120 years on this earth’, it is high time that you make arrangements. Write it down on a piece of paper. Something simple like ‘I request to be buried in the Jewish tradition in a Jewish cemetery’. Getting two witnesses to sign is even better. If you want help with writing up a proper legal will and leaving legacy gifts to charities and the like, you can feel free to reach out to me. Or if you want to use Al’s successful method, make sure to insist that a rabbi is called (to put on the ‘Jewish hat’ or for any other reason you can come up with) so that we can help ensure that your last wishes are honored.

If you are very much influenced by the major religion of this country, allow me to say this. Even Buddhist monks are fully in agreement that for Jewish people, burial is more peaceful as it is in sync with their age old traditions. It is also not offensive to the relatives and loved ones of the deceased. For a Jew it is therefore the best and most appropriate choice. Even by local standards.

Sadly, a Mr. Marvin Jason Baker who had left me written instructions for Jewish burial passed away a few months ago in his late eighties but no one contacted me upon his death. From what I could gather, he had been living somewhere in Prachuap Khiri Khan and obviously passed away without anyone knowing about his burial wishes. It was only after not hearing from him for a while that I contacted the embassy who told me that he had passed on and been cremated as is common practice when no next of kin is available and no instructions have been given. It is important to let your wishes be known and have this document easily accessible.

May everyone be healthy and well and live for at least as long as Al who passed away well into his ninetieth year. One of Al’s strong convictions was that apple cider vinegar was a powerful agent for good health and longevity. He once tried sending me a big commercial sized vat of Heinz apple cider vinegar but customs did not let it through… May the soul of Alfred the son of Henry be a blessing.

To end on a positive note: when I told my father in law this story he pointed out how relevant this was to this week’s Parsha. We are told that one of the merits that earned the Jewish people their redemption was that even while enslaved in Egypt they kept their Jewish way of dress. This story illustrates how a Kippah ‘a Jewish Cap’ ensured a Jewish burial for a Jew living in a country as far away as Thailand.

With blessings for a SHABBAT SHALOM

Rabbi Yosef Kantor

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