Preparing Jewish bodies for burial, an artist finds inspiration

‘I could have painted landscapes,’ says Karen Benioff Friedman. Instead, she’s portraying the rituals around death.

Angels of Mercy Embrace the Dead, 2023, oil on canvasboard.© 2023 Karen Benioff Friedman.

By Stewart Ain

When a Berkeley rabbi in 2004 announced that he wanted to form a chevra kadisha, Hebrew for a group that cares for the dead before burial, an artist in his congregation signed herself up.

Karen Benioff Friedman had a mostly secular upbringing, and hadn’t known much about Jewish burial societies, but she knew she wanted to be a part of one.

“What I found compelling is the idea that we never leave the dead alone,” she said.

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Thresholds: Jewish Rituals of Death and Mourning – Placing the Metah into the Casket, 2019, oil on canvas. © 2023 Karen Benioff Friedman.

Ten years later, while Friedman was studying human anatomy and classical realism at an Oakland art school, she learned of 18th century paintings of Prague’s chevra kadisha. They depicted tahara, the rituals of the burial society.

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Thresholds – Jewish Rituals of Death and Mourning – Tying the Avnet, 2023, oil on canvas. © 2023 Karen Benioff Friedman.

As part of these rituals, bodies are placed in a white shroud before they are lowered into a casket. Coincidentally, Friedman had been painting images of shrouded figures. Seeing the Prague paintings made her think that tahara could be her subject too.

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Tahara, 2021, graphite on paper. © 2023 Karen Benioff Friedman.

“I could have painted landscapes or pets, but this is what really moved me,” said Friedman.

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Taharah: Pouring the Second Bucket, 2017, oil on canvas. © 2023 Karen Benioff Friedman.

Since then, Friedman, now 59, has drawn, painted and etched more than 150 images of tahara, each a window into a ritual so private that many Jews have little idea what it looks like. Those who perform tahara wash the body, and sit by it through the night, reciting prayers and psalms.

In her paintings, gauzy figures, some enveloped in light, attend lovingly to the dead, cradling their heads and pouring water over their bodies. The mood is somber, despite the daubs of bright blue she often uses for the aprons of the women of the chevra kadisha.

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Thresholds, Attending Grandmother’s Passing, 2020, charcoal on paper. © 2023 Karen Benioff Friedman.

Tahara calls for men to care for men and women for women, so Friedman’s subjects are mostly female, because, she said, that is what she knows from her own participation.

Respecting tahara, which means “purification,” Friedman would never try to draw or take photographs of the deceased. But she didn’t work solely from memory either. She hired models to impersonate both the living and the dead. One model did a “pretend tahara while another pretended to be a body that was dressed in a shroud,” she said. She worked from the photographs she took of them.

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Angels of Mercy Embrace The Dead, 2019, charcoal on paper. © 2023 Karen Benioff Friedman.


Friedman paints in oils and makes monotypes, a form of printmaking. All her drawings are in charcoal.

Many of her works depict angels. “One of the main pieces of liturgy we talk about is the one about the angels of mercy who embrace the metah — the female body,” Friedman said. “Angels come up a lot, including standing outside the gates of heaven. I love the concept of the angels.”

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Angel of Death Holding an Infant, 2022, monotype on silk. © 2023 Karen Benioff Friedman.

Ultimately, she said, she wants her works to teach about the mostly hidden work of the chevra kadisha, and its commitment to respect the dead, no matter who has died.

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Shmira (Guarding the Dead), 2019, oil on canvas. © 2023 Karen Benioff Friedman.

“We are all equal in death,” she said. “We all wear the same thing and are buried the same.”

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A Soul, 2023, monotype. © 2023 Karen Benioff Friedman.

An exhibit of Friedman’s work will open on Feb. 5 at  San Francisco’s Sinai Memorial Chapel and run through March 19.

Complete Article HERE!

Pulling the plug

— What does Jewish law say about ‘passive euthanasia?’

In such circumstances, the ventilator becomes a ‘bridge to nowhere’

Jewish bioethicists significantly disagree regarding “passive euthanasia,” which can constitute either the withholding or withdrawing of treatment from the terminally ill.


Tragically, many terminally ill patients can be kept alive yet suffer greatly from their sickness or alternatively remain in a comatose or vegetative state for a long time. One of the critical pieces of technology that allows them to remain alive is a mechanical ventilator (or “breathing machine”) that provides artificial respiration. This invasive treatment keeps a patient oxygenated and the lung structures intact.

In ideal situations, the ventilator is meant to serve as a “bridge” to help patients get through a difficult period until they can be removed from this artificial support. However, the ventilator can frequently maintain respiration for a long time even when there is no hope for recovery. In such circumstances, the ventilator becomes a “bridge to nowhere,” raising the question of whether the artificial respiration can be stopped to allow nature to take its course.

In general, Jewish law supports employing palliative measures to reduce suffering, such as those utilized at hospices. This even includes gradually increasing morphine injections as long as one intends to reduce pain and not to hasten a patient’s death. At the same time, Jewish law prohibits suicide or so-called “mercy killings.” For this reason, Israel and many other countries do not permit active euthanasia or even the slightly more moderate model of physician-assisted suicide whereby healthcare professionals provide the necessary tools for the patient to take his own life.

Jewish law on withdrawing or witholding treatment from the terminally ill

However, Jewish bioethicists significantly disagree regarding “passive euthanasia,” which can constitute either the withholding or withdrawing of treatment from the terminally ill. In the 16th century, Rabbi Moshe Isserles codified three major principles regarding the treatment of patients approaching death (goses): (1) One should not cause them to die more slowly; (2) One may not do any action that hastens the death; (3) One may remove something that is merely hindering the soul’s departure. Unfortunately, these principles remain subject to different interpretations. The examples given in the code, including placing salt on the tongue and synagogue keys under the pillow, remain difficult to correspond with modern technologies, to say the least.

 The success of medicine has cast a shadow. (credit: UNSPLASH)
The success of medicine has cast a shadow.

Regarding the withholding of medical treatments, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenburg and others contended that the value of every moment of life remains infinite and absolute. One must therefore administer, even under the most miserable of circumstances, all life-extending interventions, including a ventilator, even if this would be against the patient’s will. The mainstream approach today follows the opinions of rabbis Shlomo Z. Auerbach and Moshe Feinstein, who asserted that one may withhold life-prolonging treatment from terminally ill patients experiencing intense anguish.

Following this line of thought, one may fill out a halachic living will to enable, in cases of terminal illness and suffering, the withholding of life-prolonging treatments, such as resuscitation (DNR) or incubation (DNI). Following the same rationale, one may also choose to withhold the next round of intermittent or cyclical treatments, such as dialysis or chemotherapy, which is deemed as an act of omission. Some decisors assert that basic substances for bodily maintenance, such as oxygen, nutrition, and hydration, can never be withheld. Others, like rabbis Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, Mordechai Willig and Hershel Schachter, deem these items as medical treatments that the patient or their proxies may choose to withhold. The primary goal of care at this stage should be maintaining the comfort of the patient.

When doctors administer a continuous life-prolonging mechanism, like a ventilator, it becomes more difficult to withdraw this treatment. Former Tel Aviv Sephardi chief rabbi Chaim David Halevi classified an artificial respirator as a mere impediment to death that doctors should disable to prevent the inappropriate prolonging of the death process. The more mainstream approach, advocated by rabbis Auerbach and Feinstein, contends that one cannot remove an artificial respirator, as this will directly hasten the patient’s death, even if intubation is no longer deemed medically advisable. One would not, however, need to reconnect the machine if its functioning had to be interrupted anyway to service it or suction the patient.

To prevent prolonging the deaths of intubated patients, two possible solutions may become advisable. Firstly, many decisors will allow extubating if the patient will not die immediately. Some believe that the person would still need to be able to survive for two days. Many others, however, speak of “a number of hours,” or even less, for the patient to remain stable.

Another possible solution was endorsed by rabbis Auerbach, Willig and Shmuel Wosner, who allow the oxygen rate of the ventilator to be carefully lowered to the level found in the normal air which we breathe, provided that the patient can still breathe on his own. Unfortunately, these two solutions aren’t always logistically possible, and as with many issues in Jewish law, not all decisors agree with them.

In 2006, a 59-member committee representing the full spectrum of Israeli ideological worldviews, led by the esteemed Prof. Avraham Steinberg, attempted to form a halachically defensible national policy regarding ventilators and end-of-life care. The Steinberg committee proposed a compromise position that mandated operating all respirators on a timer, thereby allowing it to shut off automatically, should the hospital committee deem this act of omission appropriate given the patient’s condition.

Unfortunately, the Israeli health system has not been able to implement this proposal. In its absence, many families are left without an appropriate solution, while some healthcare providers may take actions that are more questionable under Halacha (or Israeli law). One hopes that the new government will address this issue and provide a suitable solution for this difficult situation.

Complete Article HERE!

Jewish law forbids human composting, but for some Jews it’s the way to go

Jewish law forbids human composting, but for some Jews it’s the way to go

Before she died in May 2022, Anne Lang told her daughter Zoe Lang, right, that she wanted her remains composted.

By Stewart Ain

New York could soon become the sixth state to legalize the composting of dead people, a practice prohibited by Jewish law, but one which a small but growing number of American Jews have come to embrace.

Axios has called it “the hot new thing in death care.” For proponents, human composting aligns with an ecological mindset that sees human beings as part of nature, obligated to care for the Earth even after they die.

A shrouded mannequin lies near a composting vessel at Recompose, a Seatte funeral home specializing in human composting in October 2022.

Gov. Kathy Hochul has until Dec. 31 to sign a legalization bill into law. She has not yet tipped her hand on the measure, which passed both houses of the legislature easily. Several Jewish lawmakers voted for it.

Traditional Jewish burial, which calls for plain wood coffins, is considered relatively green. But human composting is touted as one of the greenest options available — there are no coffins to bury or bodies to burn.

Orthodox Jewish rabbis, however, hold that halacha, or Jewish law, clearly forbids human composting, for many of the same reasons it forbids cremation, which has overtaken traditional burial in the U.S. as the most popular option for American families after the death of a relative.

Still, Jews are beginning to consider and choose human composting, and say it can be done in keeping with their Jewish values. Recompose in Seattle is among several companies in states where the process is legal that have composted the bodies of Jewish clients. Some rabbis, from more liberal Jewish traditions, are willing to support the choice.

Rabbi Seth Goldstein of Temple Beth Hatfiloh in Olympia, Washington — the first state, in 2020, to approve human composting — has not yet presided at the funeral of someone who chose to be composted. But some of his congregants have asked about it.

“It is not something I was on the front lines for,” or for cremation either, said Goldstein, who was ordained in the Reconstructionist tradition.

But Goldstein is willing to work with those who favor composting, and said he would figure out ways to incorporate Jewish ritual into the funeral rather than to turn a family away.

“Human composting seems more in line with Jewish practice than cremation in terms of the practices and values that surround it,” he added. “It is something that has a lot of environmental value.”

From dust to dust

Anne Lang

Human composting — also called terramation and natural organic reduction — generally involves placing the deceased in a vessel, which can be cylindrical or boxlike, atop a bed of organic material — wood chips, alfalfa and sawdust are commonly used. The body is often wrapped in a cotton shroud, and air and moisture are pumped in.

Microbes found naturally in the body and the organic material take about two months to decompose it. What remains is about one cubic yard of soil and bones, which are then ground into a powder. Any medical devices or hardware is removed from the soil by hand.

Survivors can scatter the soil in a cemetery, their backyards or in a natural spot special to the deceased.

That’s what Anne Lang wanted.

“When it is my time, I would like to be composted,” she told her daughter Zoe. The Jewish woman from Boulder, who died of lymphoma in May, loved the outdoors and lived in Colorado, which legalized human composting last year.

At her mother’s deathbed, said Zoe Lang, the family said the Mourner’s Kaddish though they are not particularly observant. “It felt like something my mom would do and I wanted to honor her,” she said.

The funeral took place outside, with a view of the Flatiron rock formations. The Natural Funeral, a company not far from Boulder, took care of the composting. Two and a half months later, Anne Lang’s body was soil.

“The company asked if we wanted to pick it up and we chose to have it return to the Earth because that is what my mom would have wanted. So it was brought to a farm that grows flowers and trees,” Zoe Lang said.

The service cost the family between $7,000 and $8,000, and would have cost about $12,000 had they bought a coffin and a burial plot, Zoe Lang said.

It doesn’t bother her that she has no particular place to visit to mourn her mother.

“She is still with us,” Zoe Lang said. “I think she would be thrilled to know she is coming back as a flower or a tree with a beautiful view.”

More human composting businesses are opening as more states allow it. In addition to Washington and Colorado, it’s been legalized in Oregon, Vermont and California.

Washington has at least three such businesses — Recompose, Return Home and Earth, which promises a “carbon neutral alternative to cremation” and allows families to take a portion of the soil created from a body. It sends the rest to a land restoration project on the Olympic Peninsula.


Traditional Jewish burial forbids many common funeral practices that are also rejected by proponents of human composting.

A small box of soil made from human remains sits on a table at the Recompose funeral home in Seattle.

Jewish law, for example, prohibits embalming, a process that many who favor composting consider unnatural and polluting. And it shuns crypts, cement liners and other containers for the body, said Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs at Agudath Israel of America, the nation’s leading ultra-Orthodox umbrella group.

Cremation, which some environmentalists object to for the pollutants it produces, is also forbidden under Jewish law, which requires specific steps after a person dies that include the washing and quick burial of the body. In Orthodox tradition, cremation is a defilement.

But composting is similarly problematic, according to Shafran. “The idea of ‘utilizing’ a body as a growth medium is anathema to the honor due to a vessel that once held a human spirit,” he said.

Or as Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, put it: “Reverence for the dead through proper burial traditions has taken place throughout the generations.” He added: “The idea of grinding the bones is at odds with Jewish law.”

The Conservative movement, which lies between more traditional Orthodox Judaism and the more liberal Reform movement, has not taken a position on human composting, said Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, who leads Ansche Chesed, a Conservative synagogue in Manhattan. But he has studied the issue on its behalf and concluded that making a profit from human composting does not align with Jewish tradition.

“There is a difference between returning [a body] to the Earth — which is the point — and using the soil for a business,” he said.

A tallit atop a vessel that contains the remains of a Jewish person at Return Home, a Washington state funeral home that specializes in human composting.

In general, he continued, dead bodies shouldn’t be used for tangible benefit, even if it’s not strictly commercial. That’s why, he said, “it’s dishonorable to eat fruits or pick flowers growing directly above graves, nourished partly by decomposing human flesh.”

The Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish denomination in the U.S., had no comment on human composting.

Goldstein, the Washington state rabbi who has fielded inquiries about human composting, is a past president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, which he said not taken a position on it.

But even though he’s not an advocate, Goldstein said for some Jews, human composting dovetails nicely with their Jewish environmental values, which call them to be good stewards of the Earth. He advises other rabbis to be prepared for the conversation.

“I have to serve my people,” Goldstein said. “This is not an issue we can shy away from. It is reality and we have to deal with it.”

‘A Last Act of Intimate Kindness’

I had barely seen my brother in decades, but when time was short, he let me in.

By Michelle Friedman

The message I had dreaded for years appeared on my phone: “Looking to find the sister of my patient, Jay Friedman.”

My ensuing phone conversation with the doctor brought ominous news. My 65-year-old brother, Jay, had advanced pancreatic cancer. He and I grew up together in Divine Corners, N.Y., a hamlet in the Catskills, raised by secular Holocaust survivor parents who stumbled into raising chickens. Their histories, coupled with the isolation and poverty of the farm, rendered my father brutal, especially to his only son.

I am the only family member with whom Jay maintained contact for the last three decades. Over that time, we communicated exclusively through email and cards I sent to a post office box. Despite working a quarter century in I.T. for the local school system, my brother did not own a cellphone. His doctor found my number via Google.

Jay was admitted to a fancy Seattle hospital where I called him via the landline next to his bed. His voice sounded weak, plaintive.

“Jay, I’ll come,” I said. “Let me be with you.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “My house is a mess.”

“I can stay in a hotel.”

“I’ll let you know.”

I panicked. I knew the prognosis was dire, but my brother’s lonely life cast an even darker shadow.

The hospital discharged Jay with a bag hanging from his chest to drain bile from his tumor-blocked liver. A few days later the doctor called again. Jay wanted my help.

I caught a flight to Seattle, picked up a rental car and drove around Puget Sound to a town in Kitsap County. Before entering Jay’s house, I muttered an ad hoc prayer for strength. Following the sounds of his weak voice through the maze of papers, boxes and computer parts, I found my brother lying on the couch. The disease had consumed him, leaving his body whittled, skeletal. Only Jay’s voice sounded familiar, a gravelly baritone.

“Thank you for coming,” he said. “I’m sorry I was snappy over the phone.”

The blanket wrapping my brother was full of holes. A brown crust covered his kitchen floor and counters. Jay drank tea with lemon in the one glass he possessed. Not owning a kettle, he boiled water in an old pot.

I brewed tea and baked a piece of chicken. After a few sips of liquid and child-size bites of food, Jay felt full. He slowly climbed the stairs to the single bed in his bedroom. The sheets hadn’t been changed in months. All I found in the closet was a cotton duvet cover that I recognized from the farm where we grew up. The faint smell of the detergent and crisp lines from our mother’s iron told me Jay had never used it.

Retreating to a Best Western hotel two miles away gave me guilty relief. It was no palace, but it was clean and orderly.

In the morning, the doctor outlined my brother’s stark medical options. Surgery was out. Jay could pursue radiation or chemotherapy, but neither was likely to yield much in terms of quantity or quality of life.

Jay made his choice in seconds — no aggressive medical intervention. The focus shifted to palliative care at home.

He didn’t have much time, weeks. How was I to start a conversation with him about his death? I knew he took pride in his money management and had saved a lot (though I had no idea then how surprisingly much), so that’s where I started.

“Jay, have you thought about what you want to do with your money?”

“Yes, I’ve thought about this a lot. I want to give it to Planned Parenthood.”

“All of it?”


His calm answer startled and pleased me. Throughout our decades of sparse contact, Jay stayed vague when it came to his personal opinions.

“Jay, that’s amazing! How did you come to this decision?”

“There are too many people in the world, and I believe that people should have autonomy over their own bodies.”

I sat in silence thinking about my brother’s autonomy, the little boy overwhelmed by our rageful father, the awkward teenager who wanted to join the Navy to get away but lacked nerve. My practical mind kicked in. “Jay, do you know a lawyer?”

Once again, he surprised me. “Yeah. One of the teachers I know went to law school at night. He’s a good guy.”

Jay had no contact information for the lawyer, but I found him through the school. He answered my text within minutes and got to work preparing the necessary papers.

By the next day, Jay could no longer crawl up and down the stairs and spent most of his time in his bedroom. We moved the mattress to the floor in case he rolled off during the night. I pleaded with hospice to fast-track Jay onto their service, and soon a nurse arrived and taught me how to dose the medication: morphine for pain, Haldol for nausea and Lorazepam for anxiety. Each floated in a medicine-dropper-topped bottle so that liquid relief could be applied to the inside of the patient’s cheek.

Jay’s condition deteriorated quickly, and I no longer retreated to the Best Western. My first night in Jay’s house, I slept downstairs on the sofa. The next night, I worried that I wouldn’t hear his whimpers, so I moved to the floor next to his mattress. My younger brother’s vulnerability pierced me; he was the innocent little boy on the farm who trusted me. I cried, silently.

When he no longer ate or drank, I repurposed a medicine dropper to drip orange juice and seltzer onto his parched lips.

The lawyer met privately with Jay and later told me of his firm wish to be cremated.

A clutch grabbed my heart. Jewish law, which I follow, prohibits cremation. “Can I at least get Jay’s ashes so that I can bury them according to our faith?”

“Yes. I think that will be OK.”

“We haven’t talked about this, but I’m wondering if you are part of a religious tradition?”

“I am. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

His answer bolstered me, given what I was about to request.

“Can I ask you one more favor?”


“When the time comes, I want to do a Jewish ritual washing for Jay. It’s called a tahara. It means purification. I’ll need help; it’s too hard to do alone.”

“Of course. Call me when you need me.”

The days passed in a kind of waking dream. Jay talked on and off, disclosing struggles of all kinds. He liked hearing stories about Divine Corners, how we played in the snow and explored the brook behind the coops. I emptied his drainage bag and changed his adult diapers.

“This is disgusting,” he said.

“I’m fine,” I said. “I’m here for you. There’s nothing else I want to do.”

As our mother did when we had fevers as children, I gave Jay a sponge bath and changed his worn pajamas to a clean set.

Jay quietly slipped away. He told me that his dream was to buy a house on a lake with a few acres of land.

“That’s such a nice idea, Jay,” I said. “I love you.”

“I love you too.”

And then I made a plea I knew people have uttered for millenniums. “Send me a sign, Jay. Please send me a sign from the other side.”

Early Thursday morning I woke up inches from my brother to find him gone. No labored breathing, no death rattle. His skin had cooled, his limbs stiffened.

When the sky was fully lit, I called his friend, and we performed the tahara. We removed Jay’s pajamas, removed the drain and bag, all the while using a clean sheet to keep his frame covered and dignified. I repurposed the battered teapot to pour water over his body, starting with his head and moving to his feet. We toweled him dry, dressed him in long underwear and wrapped him in the duvet cover from our childhood farm. The work felt tender, holy, a last act of intimate kindness.

The mortuary people came and removed Jay’s body. At 6 o’clock I boarded the van for the airport. Only one other person got on, a white-haired woman in a sweater set. I saw that she bid a sorrowful farewell to the man seeing her off. She sat a few rows behind me. Drizzle and traffic caused delays, but our elfin driver navigated the trip and asked us which terminals we needed.

“American,” she said, turning mournfully in my direction. “It’s a sad trip. My brother is dying of brain cancer in Florida.”

“United,” I said, and to her: “I just left after taking care of my brother, who died this morning. I hope you get there in time.”

We reached across the aisle and held hands. Jay had made good on his sign.

Complete Article HERE!

Volunteering for a Jewish burial society showed me how to live a more sacred life

The work of a Chevra Kadisha is done without promotion or fanfare, and is solely for the benefit of the deceased

By Hannah Lebovits

The first time I touched a dead body was in a sanitized room inside a Dallas funeral home. I was stationed next to Ana’s toenails, with a small toothpick and a Q-tip. While firmly holding onto her foot, I silently cleaned away any dead skin, dirt or debris that might be found under her nails or between her toes.

Though Ana’s primary residence was several hours from the city, and she was not affiliated with any local synagogues, a burial plot in Dallas had her name on it. In Dallas, Ana’s family requested a Jewish burial service, including a plain, pine coffin and a ritual cleansing. The funeral home alerted the local Chevra Kadisha, the organization that prepares bodies in accordance with Jewish law, to perform the tahara or purification rituals, and, along with four other women, I volunteered.

Jewish death and Jewish life seem vastly different to me since joining the Chevra. Jewish life gets more and more public every day. Last year, an online Jewish organization paid for prime advertisement space in Times Square to fight antisemitism. Netflix offers Jewish experiences on demand, including the nuanced, scripted “Shtisel,” and the unabashed, reality-TV show “My Unorthodox Life.” Meanwhile, on Instagram, TikTok and Twitter, one can find countless accounts dedicated to informing the public about Jewish life and interfaith experiences.

Yet, while Jewish life seems to be increasingly visible, Jewish death rituals remain private, intimate and authentic. Narcissism and self-promotion are left at the entrance to the funeral home. Inside the tahara room, individual opinions, personal comfort and even your schedule are entirely secondary to the needs of the deceased. The experience is calming and comforting specifically because it is not about you. It’s a lesson for all of us who consider ourselves to be representatives of and in service to Jewish life.

If we can take a few moments to disconnect from the noise and selfishness of everyday living and instead focus on accountability — particularly in our interactions with those who may never repay us — we can maintain a certain purity of action in living an authentic Jewish life.

Prior to walking into the tahara room, I helped to prepare the casket. The first thing we realized, upon opening the box, was that there were not enough wood shavings to properly prepare her casket. Ana’s head was to be propped up on a pillow filled with wood shavings, and her body to lie on a sheet covering an arched bed filled with more wood shavings. We laid out the burial shrouds across the aron (casket) and waited for a funeral home manager to find more of this important material, but no additional wood could be found.

We asked her to keep some on hand for the future, set up what we had and hurried into the tahara room, unwilling to make the body wait for even another second.

After cleaning Ana’s nails and checking her body for any open wounds, I picked up a pot full of water. Starting with Ana’s hair, I poured the water from the pot onto her body as another member of the Chevra Kadisha washed her with a simple white linen cloth. We made our way down the right side of her body as another pair of women did the same on the left. Her body was cold to the touch.

Towels covered her body, and we lifted those towels only to reach a specific spot. Once the area was cleaned of any residual dirt or blood, we covered it again. Any bleeding that we had found during the process would be collected and buried in the casket with her.

I watched as her head remained elevated the entire time. Ana could be seen yet she herself could not see, and as such, we kept her face and eyes covered, out of respect.

Before washing Ana, I washed my own hands. In line with the ritual practice, I poured water from a cup onto my right hand, making sure the water spread from my wrist to the ends of my fingers. Then, I did the same for the left hand. I repeated this three times, in silence. After Ana’s body was cleaned, we washed again, replaced our gloves and filled three more buckets with water.

Ideally, Ana’s body would be entirely submerged in a mikvah. However, since that is not feasible in our community, we are required to pour water in a manner that will ensure that the flow does not stop, simulating a complete immersion. Ana’s body was completely uncovered as three women poured the buckets of water over her, beginning with her head and ending with her feet, making sure that the flow from the bucket was continuous. After the three women poured, we all proclaimed Ana’s purity, and one woman read the prayers. We then immediately covered and dried Ana’s body and began to dress her in burial shrouds.

Local traditions vary across places as different leaders (the “Rosha”) will follow specific customs they’ve been taught and have found to work. The practices followed by our Chevra include specific outlined rituals, local traditions and tikkunim, or “perfections.” A tikkun is a practice that assists in the performance of the ritual and serves as a reminder to the members of the Chevra that they must treat the body — which once held the soul and is now in transition — with the utmost respect.

One tikkun our Chevra keeps is placing a sign with the deceased’s Hebrew name in the tahara room, so that there is no time lost waiting to recall the name as we say the prayers. While dressing Ana, we turned the garments slightly inside out so that Ana’s body would not have to be moved more than necessary as we pulled them up her body — another tikkun we performed.

Complete Article HERE!

Sitting shiva and los nueve días

— The parallels between Jewish and Latino Catholic mourning

The Latin American practice of los nueve días is in many ways almost identical to that of shiva.

By Amanda Rozon

When I told my father I’d be writing about the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva, he nodded with a clever smile, as if he was about to let me in on an exclusive piece of information.

“We do that too, you know,” he said. “We” being Dominicans.

As it turns out, Jews aren’t the only group that practices consecutive days of prayer and mourning after a death.

Catholics in many Latin American countries, prominently including Mexico and the Dominican Republic, practice los nueve días or novenario — nine days of mourning, named for nove, the Latin word for nine. It’s a practice in many ways almost identical to that of shiva — the Hebrew word for seven — the Jewish custom of mourning a death communally for seven days.

And like many who follow the traditions of shiva, many who practice novenario have plenty of opinions about how to observe the custom correctly.

My father, for one, holds deep resentments toward those who take los nueve días as an opportunity to party. He would not describe himself as spiritual or religious in any way, but he believes the dead should be respected. And if you show up to a novenario for fun and festivities, in his opinion, then you’d better have just stayed home.

Sharon Rose Goldtzvik, who wrote about shiva for the Forward this year, shared a similar reflection from her mother on sitting shiva. “We are not there for the food. We are not there to catch up with our friends. We are there for a specific purpose: to comfort the mourners,” she wrote.

That last part, my father said, is, in his experience, lost on some.

As Jews do, Catholic Latinos start the mourning process the moment the dead are buried. But when someone is buried varies between the two religions.

Jewish law holds that the dead should be buried no more than 24 hours after death, although today, the strictness with which that mandate is observed varies by denomination. So a shiva might and often does begin shortly after death. But because the Catholic church prefers that the deceased’s body be present for the funeral mass, their burial may take days.

For the nine days that follow that burial, things look very similar to shiva.

Family and loved ones gather at the deceased’s home to offer support, both spiritual and material. The long hours are spent remembering the dead, praying, sharing stories and lamenting the loss.

If the mourners are more well off, you show up empty-handed, bringing only emotional support. If the family has little money to spend on refreshments, everyone pitches in.

Members of Joaquina Chavez’s family in 2018 Puebla, Mexico, holding a final prayer for two deceased relatives.

Joaquina Chavez, who immigrated from Puebla, Mexico, to the United States as a teen in the late 1970s and now lives in Woodside, Queens, New York, says los nueve días is especially precious for Mexicans living away from their home country, since many families transport the deceased back to Mexico to be buried. The long period of communal mourning following that burial gives them an opportunity to come together with family members and friends whom they haven’t seen in years, sometimes decades.

“It’s also a time when people in my town forget about politics and issues and congregate and just pray for the family and the dead together,” she said, speaking in Spanish.

One key difference between shiva and los nueve días: While Jews often literally sit shiva — using low stools or pillows to symbolize feeling low in their grief and to be close to the departed — in a crucial part of the mourning ritual, Latino Catholics walk.

On the first day of mourning, a cross is erected next to an altar in the family home that the family will carry to the deceased’s final resting place on the last day, symbolizing the long journey the departed will take to divinity, and their family’s efforts to help get them there.

An altar decorated with pictures and offerings for the departed that remained erect in Chavez’s home for the nine days following the passing of her sister and brother-in-law.

In the nine days leading up to that final passage, ofrendas, or offerings, are also placed at the base of that altar, to be cleared up when the period ends. These can be small gifts one wishes to send off with the deceased — rosaries in vivid colors, fresh flowers and fruit to brighten up an otherwise dreary occasion.

Finally, for those who practice novenario, the mourning period always ends in a feast. In the Dominican Republic, a cow is traditionally killed to feed a crowd. By this point, word has spread across the town, and all are welcome. Whether you knew the deceased or not, no one is turned away.

Despite my father’s caution against a festive novernario, he was moved to tears describing the scene of those in his small hometown between two mountains, many of whom had little money for food, sitting around a fire pit and eating together — lending strength in numbers to help a family grieve.

In Mexico, the feast is also part of the ritual, although it can look different. In her experience, Chavez said, at gatherings before the final feast, the table is laid with “tostados, tamales, tacos, something small to offer.” But on the last day, she said “we make their” — the departed’s — “favorite meal to share with everyone.” In these last crucial steps, the transfer from the hands of loved ones to the hands of God is marked.

In both mourning traditions, this time of communal mourning can give a grieving family the strength to go back to work and to their daily lives. By leaning on each other, they share the burden of loss so it is not too heavy on any one person, they believe, leaving both the soul of the deceased and the spirit of the living intact.

In sum, it’s a way to tell one another that they’re not alone.

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You’re not religious, and you’re in mourning.

Here’s how to make Jewish rituals work for you.

Some advice: “Find the memory you’d like to bring to the occasion.”

By Lauren Hakimi

Sit shiva for seven days. Spend another 30 in sheloshim — a secondary mourning period — and say the Mourner’s Kaddish for a year. Between all of its mourning rituals, Judaism offers plenty of structure to mourners, which can offer comfort and a structured space in which to grieve.

But as many rituals as there are, there are even more ways to make them one’s own.

“There’s so many ways that grief and mourning are aligned from person to person, and it is so unique and personal,” said Naomi Less, an associate director at Lab/Shul, a New York Jewish community that welcomes members who don’t believe in God. With a significant number of people who identify as Jewish also identifying as not religiously observant, that adaptability in ritual has begun to prove key to ensuring that age-old rituals stay relevant — and that even the nonreligious find comfort in spaces where those rituals are observed.

“Your own experience of grief is wildly different for each loss,” Less said.

Even with religion taken out of the equation, it can be hard to negotiate your own grief along other people’s ways of grieving. When different approaches to religion come into play, especially within a family or communal group all mourning the same loss, it can be particularly tricky.

A recent study from the Pew Research Center found that about a quarter of Jews do not identify with the Jewish religion, meaning they consider themselves culturally and ethnically Jewish, but may also identify as atheists or agnostic. That number gets higher for Jews under the age of 50, with four of every 10 Jews aged 18-29 identifying as nonreligious.

The need for common practices for handling family divides is therefore increasing. To cope with this challenge, Less suggests adding practices that feel right, rather than subtracting ones that don’t.

“If they’re doing a more traditional funeral service, maybe there’s a piece of poetry you can bring in, maybe there’s a song as people are entering the space that evokes a memory,” she said.

That approach can help make sure there’s room in mourning rituals for everyone.

Rabbi Tzemah Yoreh of the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Manhattan, which also welcomes secular Jews, offers similar advice.

“Find the reading, find the piece, find the memory that you’d like to bring to the occasion,” Yoreh said. For example, many of the secular mourners he works with like to recite the Torah passage that begins, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.”

When there’s real disagreement within families over how to observe mourning rituals for a loved one, it can be helpful to bring in a rabbi or someone else who can mediate. “Sometimes it’s helpful to have somebody to sit with you to talk about these things, because the emotions are running so high,” Less said. “It’s just nice to have somebody sit with you, actively listen, share back, and try to find commonalities for families.”

When the pandemic hit, Lab/Shul, where Less works, compiled a guide to mourning for its congregants, consistent with its emphasis on artistic expression.

The guide, which is available online, is largely geared toward adapting traditions for social distancing. But it also offers ways to mix up traditions that might be more palatable to those who aren’t religious, such as making a playlist of songs the loved one liked or volunteering to honor their memory.

“It’s kind of a glossary of Jewish mourning and the cycles of mourning,” Less said. “And then it offers different kinds of ideas for creative ways to make it your own, ways to make it more personal.”

Lab/Shul also offers a weekly virtual Kaddish call that usually attracts about 20 people. She says it has been a meaningful way for mourners from all walks of Jewish life to create community.

“These folks who came because they heard about this call are now wanting to connect in person,” Less said. “There are groups that have connected in different parts of the country because folks call in from everywhere.”

For people who want to say Kaddish but don’t believe in God, the synagogue also offers alternatives to the prayer in English that use nonreligious language.

Of course, there’s no one set of customs that all secular Jews will want to follow when it comes to mourning.

“Secular Jews tend to be individualistic and are not seeking those unifying rituals, necessarily,” Yoreh said. For them, resisting structure might be part of the point.

Complete Article HERE!