During the Yamim Noraim/Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we look deeply at ourselves and contemplate many teachings about who we are, how we have behaved and what we need to do to correct our behaviors, mend our relationships with self, with others, with the planet and with the Divine, all of which are connected. We also work with a piece of liturgy that talks about who will die in the coming year and how that will come to be. We contemplate our mortality, our aging and the reality that not everyone present with us today will be here next year because some of us will die between now and then. Our great mystic, prophet and inspired musician Leonard Cohen, z”l, took the words directly from this prayer in his song, “Who by Fire.” He added somethings and took out somethings, but the tone of his song, is exactly the tone of the Yamim Noraim, deep, contemplative, scary, awake and facing who we are and what our end may be.
As Jewish people, we know death intimately, and have never hidden from the fact that life is precious and extremely fleeting. It must be lived well, every day. In Pirkei Avot/The Sayings/Teachings of our Fathers, which is a very pithy book of teachings by the great rabbis from over 2500 years ago, it says:
Do Teshuvah/Return/Repent one day before you die.
So, as we spin around the globe and think about who might be calling on us, at this time, I want to address our brokenness and how to get back to something a little closer to wholeness.
We live in a country called the United States of America. We are certainly not united in many ways and in others we are. Our mainstream culture is obsessed with youth, beauty (as narrowly defined by current social values, which have nothing to do with actual beauty) and health (also narrowly defined and biased). You are beautiful and valued and seen in our culture, if you conform to the aforementioned standards, which are flawed beyond belief.
Additionally we are phobic, fearful and avoid everything to do with aging or death. I’m not talking about all the creams, diets and classes you can take to help you “feel young” or look younger. These are not addressing the beauty of aging, of wrinkles and gray hair and tissues that soften. They don’t address the wisdom developed that should be treasured behind each line on our faces. Very few folks understand that we have abandoned our elders, we have abandoned their bodies, their needs and their wisdom. We do this in multiple ways, but one of the most egregious is the insistence on looking young or not showing your age. In other times and places, our aging was seen and is seen as a sign of our having survived, of our having information and wisdom and offerings to give.
Evelyn Ghoram, by Helen Redman 2001
These women, painted by my mother, were brave and strong. They were not afraid to have their story lines painted and the maps of their sorrows and joys are clearly visible. It is a testament to their courage and strength as powerful women, not afraid of who they were or who they are. My mother, as a feminist artist, has never seen anyone’s lines, bumps, body differences of size, shape, color or texture as anything other than rich fodder for her palette. In this, she is fairly unique, and while there are other artists who may have her love of line, I haven’t seen too many other artists who embrace their aging, and that of others. This doesn’t mean she hasn’t been frustrated by the physical challenges and the emotional and cultural ones, but she doesn’t devalue herself or others based on this. She’s never dyed her hair or taken hormones to make herself look younger or seem younger.
Ellen Kalal, z”l, by Helen Redman 2003
There is no judgment on my part of folks who do this, we should adorn ourselves as we wish and that includes hair color. If hormones are a good idea for you to take, based on your doctor’s directives, then they should be taken. It’s the trying to look attractive all the time, or younger than we are that I am commenting on. It’s a falsehood that serves no one.
When we hide from death and dying and try to outrun their reality we cripple ourselves and those around us from being able to learn from our life experiences, from preparing for our physical end so we can ease that passing for those we love and who love us and from offering/downloading our wisdom to others, the younger generation. If we aren’t seen as valuable or wise, who wants our information? If we don’t prepare for our deaths, when they come, and they will always come, we will not be ready in anyway, physically, emotionally, and most importantly spiritually.
Preparing for the passage to the other side is often seen as the purview of religious folks. We are often seen as intellectually challenged and mentally missing some critical intelligence and/or the ability to be rational or have discernment. We believe in an afterlife, of which there is no “scientific” proof. We think you can prepare for that and we have developed technologies and texts and artwork and teachings around it that are rich, ancient and of tremendous value. I know more about the Jewish teachings than any others, but I have studied how death is seen and looked at across this world and across religions. I don’t need to agree with how other folks see the end to value their own roadmaps of the territory.
I know my Jewish road map very well because I am the Co-Chair of my local Hevra Kadisha (Sacred Society/Burial Society). I have been present for and helped prepare many folks for burial in the over 20 years that I have served in this position. I’ve been preparing for this since I was a little girl. If you look back to the picture at the beginning of this post, you’ll see me at a grave, placing stones or playing with the rocks at my sister’s grave. I used to go to the cemetery, all the time, with my father as a little girl.
When I got older I’d go with my girlfriends Gretchen Reinhardt and Carolyn Powelson, after dance class. We were young, agile, beautiful and not afraid of our graveyard. There was a small creek/stream running through our cemetery. We would fish out the broken headstones, the vandalized headstones from the creek. We would dance among the graves. I’m not sure who began this practice, but it came naturally to us. Gretchen and Carolyn were my dance friends, but they were also part of my Quaker youth group.
What’s relevant here is that we were religious girls, we were part of a community, and for Gretchen and Carolyn, families that had a relationship to Spirit, to Holiness, and to honoring elders. My mother honored elderly folk in the aforementioned visual arts way. My father was a Moroccan man whose elderly father was someone he treasured and maintained a correspondence with that was rich and long. My grandfather Jaimé/Chaim Ha-Cohen, z”l, lived to be 101. His father, my great grandfather, Aaron Ha-Cohen, z”l, lived to be 104 and was the chief rabbi of Tangiers, Morocco. In our families, aging and the elderly were of value.
So, in my young and agile youth, I imbibed the rich milk of caring about and valuing elders and aging. Also, we didn’t own a television until I was older. I was not parked in front of a screen in my youth. Unfortunately, due to COVID 19, and our culture’s love of youth and beauty, this is not going to be the story for many young people. How will they learn the value of elders if they are only shown models who are thin or anorexic and no one with a wrinkle graces their screens unless they are evil hags/witches/old women or nasty old men out to kill them or scare them?
In the fairy tales of my youth, there were old evil hags and nasty old men out to kill one, but there were also wise old folks and elders to heed. I know there are some good models now in the mainstream, but this isn’t enough. We need to embrace aging in our families, in our conversations, in our institutions. We need to talk about dying and the parameters around it. Do the folks we love want to be buried, cremated, transported after they die? What do we want? Where do you want to be buried or scattered. What music do you love and want played at your memorial service?
How do you want to be remembered?
This question is the crux of the matter. Have you lived your life the way you wanted? Have you shared your wisdom with others? Have you found some sense of what might help you be less afraid of this major door you will be going through? Folks have elaborate birth plans and moving plans and career plans, but somehow having a death plan has not become as common. I am saying this with a tinge of humor. Of course very few folks have a death plan, unless they have an illness that is fatal and the time to craft one. Why wait?
We all have a fatal disease whose end is death.
No one gets out alive.
So, let’s work on this as Americans, as Westerners. If you are not part of a religious culture or a tribal one, there are still lots of places for you to go. You don’t have to believe in an afterlife to prepare for your death. You can get your plan together on this side of the line.
In terms of looking at the map of what happens once you leave this earth physically, that is rich food for another post….not to worry, I’ve got lots to say and share and until then, try steeping yourself in the literature or practices of some culture or group who has great wisdom and technology around all of this afterlife territory. We are actually the outliers in not looking at this territory and there is a rich body of work, the world over, to explore. Since you cannot travel easily right now to another country or place, try picking up a book or searching for afterlife beliefs of someone Aboriginal or Cherokee or Jewish or Hindu or Sikh or Buddhist or Ancestor Worshiping or of an African Shaman or any number of other folks’ ideas. Travel in your mind and heart somewhere different and see what resonates for you.
I’ll join you there in that liminal space. I’m also available to help support and work with you. Feel free to reach out to me with your questions about where to start or your fears or ideas.
Hi Ney Ni/I am here. Actually, I’m here now, but I may not be tomorrow.
Been very slowed down for quite some time. Bouts of movement and activity happen in relationship to what needs attending to, but I’m generally not in a rush at all anymore. This has been my preferred setting for self since going away on retreat four years ago. My going to ground has been interrupted by emergencies of either a medical nature or life and death related issues for folks in my family or community.
I no longer have the koach/strength or inclination to be industrious or the way most folks who know me knew me. This puts me at odds with most of the modern world and certainly is a really new way of walking on this earth. I’ve never been fast moving, in terms of walking, running or swimming. Steady as she goes, I can walk a long time, if the pace is slow, same with swimming. I’m super fast when I need to be, addressing an emergency or tending to something time-specific.
What is pulling my attention currently is trying to come to terms with NOT doing and not rushing and not engaging so much with others and the world. This current time of Corona Virus and social distancing has been helpful for me in this regard. I lament the reason for needing to social distance, but having the time to be down has been very helpful. I haven’t wanted to Zoom in groups either. I really don’t want to interact with folks in groups in any format. So, in order to interact or move, I’ve chosen to walk with various friends when I can. We walk responsibly and social distance and go to the Arcata Marsh or in my neighborhood, one on one.
It’s more of a challenge to be on semi-retreat and going to ground in the face of the horrors of the last few weeks. It’s critical to remember that this terrible hatred and violence we are seeing is systematic and very old and entrenched. There’s nothing new here. I saw a video interview with Ava Du Vernay by Ellen Degeneres and I found Ava’s point that the difference in this particular situation with George Floyd’s murder was that the cameras were not just on the victim’s face, but that the multiple videos of coverage showed all the people, the murderer as he was murdering, the bystanders as they were by-standing and the man as he was being murdered and begging for his life. I have not watched any of the footage of him being murdered. I cannot ingest those images, but I do believe in hearing about them and learning about them. I don’t watch rape, murder or beating up of other humans. I have no filter and violence impacts my bones and my heart and my breathing.
My bandwidth has decreased and I’m honoring that.
So, how can I support those who are rising up when I am laying down? I do so in my prayers and in my heart, and by emerging from my silence online for over six months. This situation requires a response. I’m not offline completely and I’m not in my cabin in Ireland far away. I’m just on my own personal retreat recovering from knee surgery in December and navigating this time in my life of connecting and caring for family members that are far away and elderly. I’ve not been silent or unconnected to the folks in my life that need me and with whom I have primary ties and commitments to. This retreat of mine has been about increasing the space in between my interactions with others and letting my being expand and breathe into stillness, quiet, being horizontal and in the dark and watching more movies and shows than I’ve ever done. I believe in the power of story and watching how we tell stories and the stories we tell is something that helps me navigate whatever is going on for me. Lately, I’ve been on a French comedy string of films and am now dreaming in French, which makes me très heureuse/very happy.
And, I’ve been grieving deeply and profoundly several tremendous losses in my life which have truly impacted my joy and natural bounce. I’m not alone in this either, even if I’m curled up in my bed feeling my pain, I know it is connected to the grief of all the people who are losing and have lost loved ones in this time of Covid 19 and due to racism, climate change, greed and fear. Many of us are grieving having a criminal, misogynistic, violent hate-mongering leader in charge of our country. I’ve been grieving this since he was elected and I’m still not recovered and sadly the cost to our planet and to all of our lives has been enormous and it’s not done yet. I think of him as a biblical character, as the pharaoh whose heart was hardened by the Holy One and who was ultimately the precursor to our liberation. May this time of liberation come soon, but if it is still a long way off, I know it will still come.
Folks who support “he who shall not be named,” are still grieving. There is not a single person on this planet who isn’t impacted by all the folks dying alone, without family nearby. When souls leave a body, they need escorts and help and prayers or song and when those aren’t present there’s a time of fear and pain and confusion for those who have died or been murdered. When we also can’t gather to remember or say goodbye, this has a huge cost. So, the suffering of this weighs heavy on us all.
All people have guardian angels or energetic helpers to welcome them as they cross over. I know this, I don’t believe it, it is firmament for me. I am not like others in this regard. Death to me is a transition and a crossing. It is an end to this form of living, but not any kind of end. I can and do swim in the waters of death more than most folks. I connect with folks who’ve left this earth and ask for their help and receive it. I’ve written about this before, so if you are here for the first time, check out my post More than One.
I have hope for our planet and those beings on it who are angry, suffering, put-down, being killed and hunted or just alone and sad. How and why I have hope is connected to my expanding the space and time between things and to my perspective. I can grieve and have hope. I can be sad and outraged and still walk with kindness and integrity and tenderness. I can look at the long sweep of history and recall that there has never been a time when people with more had power over those with less and that in the long arc of our time on this planet there has been a slow movement towards the good. This doesn’t mean we aren’t in a downward cycle, but like the water wheel, we will rise up again. Unlike the endless cycle of ugly and hopeful, there is another deeper well we can draw from. In that well are all those working for others, loving others, loving the planet, taking to the streets in solidarity, educating us all about racism and privilege. All the comedians, the artists, the educators, the nurses, the sanitation workers, the UPS drivers, the post office clerks, the grocery clerks, the folks who every day do their jobs and offer a smile or just do what needs doing are who we can draw strength and hope from. These folks, us, we are a far greater force than that other force.
I know this, it is not my belief, it is firmament.
Nicole, Paul, and Papa were in the forest above Boulder, very high in the mountains, above three thousand meters, next to the abandoned village of Cariboo. It was a very dense forest, with aspens, firs, cedars, and pines, and with some oak trees here and there. At this altitude the air is rather fresh and goes to one’s head and makes it spin a little when one is walking. Some of the undergrowth was quite wet; the black, soft earth like a sponge after the most recent rains. In these nooks pierced by hot sunbeams grew an abundance of mushrooms that we were looking for. Papa, in the middle, Paul fifteen meters to the left, Nicole fifteen meters to the right, we combed the woods. From time to time, we called out each other’s name so as not to get lost. The name of each mushroom we picked was sung out, and the forest resounded: “Boletus, Chanterelle, Agaric,” … and so on.
Each had their own back pack and their own basket with two compartments: one side for known mushrooms, and the other for those unknown that would be identified later. The afternoon was marvelously limpid, but more and more hot, and it made Nicole wanted to fall asleep. To walk in the forest when one feels like falling asleep is as dangerous as driving a car when we aren’t very awake. I ask you now to try and see Nicole. A little girl of nine years, a little long in the legs, skin very white, covered in freckles, everywhere, everywhere, red hair, and light brown eyes. She was pretty overall, except for two big buck teeth. You guessed it: she had sucked her thumb too much for years.
While walking, Nicole fell asleep. These things happen, one can even fall asleep standing, like Papa when he was a soldier during the war and he was bored during his guard watch. Papa was just screaming to warn the kids: “Careful! Look closely where you are walking! (The gold-miners had dug many holes, pretty much everywhere.) There are mine holes everywhere here!” So, Nicole, asleep, fell into a large black hole. And then, at the bottom of the hole, there was a great pool of cold water, and she suddenly woke up in the process of swimming in the black water. Looking ahead of her she saw a light at the end of a narrow passageway that seemed to lead to the surface. Nicole walks and walks, and it seems to her that the mine’s narrow passageway is five kilometers long. She is cold, and she is worrying about her brother and her father. Finally, she arrives at the surface in a dazzling sunlight and she yells very loudly: “Papa, Paul, I am here, I am not hurt! Where are you?”
But no one answered. Looking around her she sees that there are no longer any trees or any mountains. She is on a beach of fine sand and there is an ocean that pushes waves and foam in front of her feet. She starts to feel very scared. How could she find herself in a place like Casablanca, in Morocco, when she just fell into a hole or a mining tunnel near Cariboo, in Colorado in America? Was she really in Casablanca? A man sitting on his donkey passed in front of her. He resembled a Moroccan and he was wearing a lovely red jellaba. Nicole repeated the only Moroccan words that she knew: “Oujed, Jouj, Tlata…Zouina (One, two, three…pretty). The Moroccan smiled and responded: “H’lal…Derya zouina…Fin ouah Mamak? (May God be with you, beautiful child, where is your mother?)” Nicole smiles without understanding, she didn’t know enough Moroccan. But she thought of one thing, if this was really the beach in Casablanca, it was enough for her to climb up the hill of Anfa and she would find the house of her French grandmother. Walking, walking in the sun, she wondered what happened and if, once again, there wasn’t magic at work. The magic had just begun.
She arrived in front of a gas station exactly like those in America, with a big oval sign, PEPUCON (PETROPURACONCESSIONE/PURE PETROL TO BUY). The gas station attendant was dressed exactly like those in America and it seemed that he was really GEORGES, a friend, the one who sold gas to Papa, almost every day! But it was Georges! “Georges, Georges, I’ve gotten myself lost, I fell in a hole. How can I get back home? It’s so far away, I’ll have to take a plane.” Georges responded: “But, my little girl, you are two steps away from your home. Your father’s house is at the street corner, look: here is Marine street.” Nicole didn’t understand anything at all; but she kept walking anyway. She walked maybe ten meters when she again fell again into a hole. But this time, she didn’t fall into a cold sea, but into a soft meadow of flowering herbs, once again in the forest of Cariboo.
“How strange,” she thought, “I didn’t have shoes like these… what funny boots.” They weren’t boots, they were hoofs, and there were four of them. Nicole was no longer a little girl but a pretty doe. Of course, she was very surprised, but not too scared. Her Papa had already told her many stories about people who were transformed, and those stories all ended very well. “The first thing to do is to get home and reassure Papa and Paul. Paul, who is a bit magical will help me pull myself out of this transformation, and Papa also. He’ll look in his books and he’ll find a fairy or a magician.”
Nicole had trouble hopping around on four hooves. She had never done that in her entire life. But, she got used to it fairly quickly: it was about jumping while counting by fours. “One, two, three, four,” like when dancing. Pretty soon she no longer needed to count, and she found herself able to run ten times faster than she had with her two legs when she was a little girl. She really liked jumping five or ten meters without any trouble. She thought that it would be easy, with her new doe speed to run all the way there in one fell swoop. It was enough to cut through the forest and go down toward the East, leaving behind her the abandoned village of Cariboo, pass through the town of Nederland and then go down the canyon of the river that would lead her straight into Boulder and to the house of her father or her mother. She set out. All of a sudden, she heard gunshots. It was hunters. So, she had to hide herself until nightfall, so as not to get shot at. As the night fell she heard other noises, other voices, whistles, and then sirens from police cars. She suspected they were looking for her everywhere. A loudspeaker even called: “NICOLE! NICOLE!” But she could not reply. Even though she was human inside, she was a doe and didn’t have human speech. One of the police officers walked in front of her, stopped, and petted her. She didn’t know how to tell him that she was Nicole. Even if he could have understood, he wouldn’t have believed it, because policemen do not believe in magic.
She continued to run and while crossing the village of Nederland a van stopped and a man called “NICOLE, NICOLE jump in the back of the van, I’m going to take you to the home of your father.” It was GEORGES. Now Georges was a magician. He knew all about the transformation of Nicole. Upon arriving at the house of Papa, he opened the door of the van, honked the horn gently, and Paul opened the large gate to the garden, where Nicole came in quickly. Papa was waiting for her also. Everyone was very happy to be finally reunited. Georges, Paul, and Papa brought Nicole into the house and gave her a bowl of milk, some lettuce, and lots of tomatoes (Nicole has always loved tomatoes). Paul said: “Papa, it’s Nicole, I’m sure: look at her coloring, look at her eyes and then look on her neck, she has the same freckles in the form of a half-moon. It’s Nicole, she’s nodding her head “yes,” we must find a way to have her talk. And we have to figure out why she became a doe.”
Nicole put her head on the knees of her Papa who spoke to her gently: “My dear, don’t worry, we will find the counter magic so that you can become again Nicole, the little girl.” Georges said: “we will consult the oracle.” “What is an oracle,” said Paul. “An oracle is when we ask fairies or gods questions—I can only communicate with the L’ENVIROMAGNAT (Environmental Magic of Nature). I have my equipment.” Georges took out a small radio and connected it with a small plug behind the left ear of Nicole, then, he turned some buttons, three little lights of red, white and blue lit up, and he spoke into his microphone. “Hello, Hello, here is Magician 55742 of the ENVIROMAGNAT, Boulder, Colorado, U.S.A. We speak English or French. Oracle, reply to me.” We heard a sweet voice: “ENVIROMAGNAT responds to M. 55742. I can only tell you this. All animal lives taken by men from nature must be returned. The little temporary doe must wait three months and then return another doe to the wild, then she will return to her human form at the age of 9 +3. This transformation is the consequence of the automobile accident that happened last summer in the Sangre De Cristo mountains. The small temporary doe will be able to communicate electronically with her family and with M.55742. Stop and Finish.”
Papa spoke immediately to Nicole: “You heard, you understand? —”Yes, Yes, Papa, you remember the doe that we killed last summer when we were coming back from California, how am I going to have her return to nature? And what are we going to say to mother? And then how am I going to become myself again?”
At this moment, they heard the phone ring, it was Mama: “So, I leave the children for the day with you and Nicole disappears! I should have trusted my intuition; your mountain expeditions have no value for the children.” Papa responds: “Nicole was found, here she is.” “Mama, Mama, I’m O.K., since it is summer vacation, I accepted a contract with the ENVIROMAGNAT to do a film. You know how I’ve always wanted to be a film actress. But, they want me to leave right away.” Mama answered: “give me your father.” There was a long telephone conversation with lots of big words that the children didn’t know. But they understood the end of their conversation: “Fine, fine, alright, but all the arrangements should be confirmed and agreed upon between our lawyers and all the legal charges on your account.”
Everyone was a little distressed by all the events. Georges and Papa spoke for a long time and then arrived at a decision. “Nicole, we are going to send you to Africa, without Paul, where the head of the ENVIROMAGNAT is a great friend of animals—” “Yes, yes” Paul and Nicole cried out at the same time, “Tarzan.”
Two hours later, Nicole, her father, her brother, and George arrived at the airport, where she took a Pan American flight, accompanied by an airline hostess. Over there, Tarzan awaited Nicole. So, during those three months, Nicole was very happy in Tarzan’s jungle. She learned to recognize all sorts of herbs and plants with which she nourished herself. She learned the language of the animals, none of whom did her any harm, even the lions. Tarzan explained to here that the wild animals could not attack her because she had the smell of a little girl, not the smell of a doe, and this protected her. Nicole lived in a beautiful house of branches that Tarzan constructed for her. There was even an elevator, that Tarzan would make work himself, with his superman-like muscles. Once a week, Nicole would call her family to tell them how very happy she was in the school of the ENVIROMAGNAT.
The three months passed too fast and Nicole still didn’t know how she was going to become human again. “Come with me,” said Tarzan, “I have what is needed for your return to human form.” He brought into the house of branches a small sleeping, pretty doe who had just been hurt by mean hunters. Tarzan explained to Nicole that the other small doe was supposed to die, but that Nicole would save her. “Lie down,” he said, “next to her, let yourself fall asleep and when you wake up you will have become once again a little girl.” During Nicole’s sleep, he placed electric wires between her body and the body of the small injured doe. As the electric current passed between Nicole and the doe, the transformation happened. Ten minutes later, she woke up like the sleeping beauty of the woods. She looked at herself with pleasure. She found herself bigger and rounder.
Tarzan explained to her that since animals age three times faster than humans, she was now three years older. The magic of the ENVIROMAGNAT could do many things, but it was powerless to change the laws of nature. Nicole was thrilled. Her teeth had become all strait, because animals don’t have deformed teeth. Tarzan told her that she was very beautiful now. On the other hand, she had become a little magical. She understood the language of the animals. “You understand,” said Tarzan, “now you are part of the world of the fairies and you will live in the imagination of others. The language of the animals is a special gift from the ENVIROMAGNAT. You must use it well during the rest of your life, you might even become, one day, a great scholar. But, you must be discreet with magic powers. Remember all the harm that can be done, even without magic. Now, I’m going to send you back to your home by airplane. I am sorry, but I don’t have a dress for you, but you can dress yourself in these leopard skins. They fit you very well, here is a non-magic credit card with which you can buy all that you want at the airport.”
Before the end of this very day, the new Nicole descended from her plane in Denver where her whole family was waiting for her. Since she appeared so different, the doctors examined her and declared, with great seriousness, that she had a case of “sudden adolescence, because of the climate change.” Doctors always give silly explanations every time that they don’t understand something.
All this story was told by Nicole, in her journal where she wrote all her memories. It’s the reason why her father could write the story of this adventure. If you don’t believe it, you should write to him. Goodbye, until the next time….
My dear friend Reuven died tragically in early August of 2019. His Hebrew name was Reuven Uriah. Born Ronald Moore, he was 61 years old. These are the dry facts, but I want to talk about the wet ones; the ones that make the tears flow and have left so many of us wondering and sad.
I need to talk about how many miraculous events have happened around his death and following his death. These stories are the ones that are a testament to his spirit and to the Holy energy present in everyday folks doing good. His life is also something to honor and speak about. Reuven lived his life humbly and with so much kindness and enthusiasm. He was interested in all things green and growing and all creatures two legged or four legged. He was always into music and loved Jewish people and history. He was full of bouncy energy, like a boy in a man’s body. He was on the spectrum and although he described himself as autistic his brain injuries were also the result of severe beatings from his childhood. These are more wet facts.
Reuven navigated his injuries and his differences with the help of so many folks. Why are some people able to solicit kindness and others not? Reuven’s behavior could be irritating, due to his brain injuries and how they manifested. Nevertheless, he was more interested in helping people than in being helped. He was always singing and dancing and getting folks to enjoy something outside. He would offer to take people on walks in the wilds of Humboldt County, along the cliffs in Trinidad, and in the Redwood Forest. He loved to swim in the ocean, lagoons or rivers. Happiest outdoors, he gamboled about like a mountain goat.
In the Jewish community, he was lucky enough to have a member of Temple Beth El as his landlord for over twenty years. This mensch (good person) gave Reuven a great deal on rent, so that he could live on the pittance he got from being on Social Security Income. Reuven always grew a garden and supplemented his meager food budget with things he could grow. Farmers locally, like Eddie Tanner from Deep Seeded Farm and others helped Reuven as well. He loved Kathy Mullen’s Kneeland Glen Farmstand and many, many others in the local community were generous with him.
Reuven’s own generosity was immense and, even with his very limited resources, he would help anyone, in whatever ways he could. For most of his life he was tremendously physically fit and able. Most folks remember him at a yoga class, dancing on the plaza during farmer’s market or at a local music event, hiking in the redwoods, biking to Trinidad and generally being an example of physical fitness. Mike Reinman and his family were his longtime friends, Osher Zelig Galambos, also a dear companion, and so many others gave Reuven bicycles, food, shoes, clothing, vacations and companionship. Although Reuven was surrounded by folks who loved him, he still felt very alone much of the time.
He was deeply held and loved by two Jewish communities here; the more Orthodox Jewish Community Chabad of Humboldt County and my congregation Temple Beth El. He was also involved in B’Nai Ha Aretz out of Southern Humboldt. Over twenty years ago, I remember driving with him to services in Garberville when I first started wanting to observe where Naomi Steinberg would be offering services. Reuven and I loved the singing, chanting and meditating that was happening there. When Rabbi Naomi became the rabbi at Temple Beth El, Reuven would come with me to services there. He would help me lead services when I was officiating as a Lay Leader. When Chabad came to Humboldt, he began to split his Jewish time between the two communities.
Originally from Flint, Michigan, he grew up poor and battered with his sister Deborah, and brothers Daniel and Joseph. At the age of thirteen he was rescued from this painful home situation when he was offered a full scholarship at a religious boarding school in New York, run by the Chabad community. Reuven felt that being here in Humboldt county, surrounded by nature was part of his healing and integral to his well-being. He loved the fellowship of Chabad that he found here as it linked him to his childhood, the parts that had good memories for him. Reuven was not a traditional guy, he swung across the spectrum in many ways. He loved being able to worship and dance with all people of all sizes, colors, persuasions or religions.
You can hear his unique perspective on life and understand some of who he was by listening to this interview of him done by The Humboldt Lighthouse.
As a volunteer member of Temple Beth El’sHevra Kadisha(Jewish Burial Society) Reuven helped me prepare many Jewish men for traditional burial according to Jewish law. This is not something easily done. It requires tremendous presence, kindness and dedication. He would always say when we were done: “Next time for a Simcha.” A Simcha is a joyful event. When I was leading services at Temple Beth El, he would help me set the tables and make our space beautiful to honor the Sabbath. Creating sacred space with room for laughter and song came easily to him. He was on hand to help build my Sukkah/outdoor sacred structure for the holiday of Sukkoth. He was always there for whatever was needed by me or anyone and it gave him joy to offer.
Losing his physical presence is still something with which I have not come to terms. I keep thinking I see him walking down the road or on his bike. I keep thinking I’ll run into him. But, he’s left our shore for the greater Shore of Heaven, probably late on Saturday afternoon, August 3rd. He was last seen dancing and enjoying himself at the Saturday Farmer’s market in the morning. Someone overheard him say he was planning to go for a walk/swim at College Cove, one of his favorite Humboldt spots. He must have lost his footing while walking, either going down some embankment for a private swim, or just too close to some edge. We will never know where or why he fell, but fall he did and that fall was fatal. He was alone and for many of us, this is the most painful part and certainly everyone’s worst nightmare.
Despite having fallen to his death, along a part of our coastline where folks are not found due to the rocks and tides, Reuven was found. It’s a miracle his body was recovered and how that all unfolded is just one of many miracles surrounding his end of time on this earth. As a Jewish person, miracles are common occurrences. Judaism is full of stories about our teachers, prophets, simple folks and even animals who embody or cross over between this world and the next to bring us closer to Olam Ha Bah/ The World to Come.
Sukkot, a fall Harvest Festival, is a taste of the world to come. There is no door making it open to all who want entry. It is a place of peace and sharing of stories and food and joy.
So, back to the wet story of Reuven’s miraculous water rescuers. There is a local group of kayakers called the Sunday Services group. They ocean kayak on Sunday mornings as their religious service. By chance on Sunday, August 4th, 2019 they headed north towards College Cove. They could have gone a different direction that morning, but they didn’t. They spotted his body in the ocean amidst some rocks in a very hard to get to place. They radioed the Coast Guard and the Sheriff’s Department. The Sheriff asked if they could retrieve the body. These are trained kayakers and they carry ropes and other things for towing someone in the water in case one of them gets injured, or in this situation to rescue a body.
I was crying so much when I heard this story for the first time that some of the details may not be 100 percent spot on. But basically, the kayakers were asked if they could tow Reuven to College Cove beach where a group of search and rescue team folks could meet them. No one knew who the man in the water was at this point. The kayakers were asked to keep him in the water until the team of rescuers could meet them on the beach. This ended up taking two hours. So, the ten kayakers formed a circle around Reuven and guarded/held his body in the ocean waves for two hours, forming a Holy circle of Shomrim (those who guard the body of the dead). This is extraordinary on so many levels. They knew nothing of Reuven’s religion or about Jewish practices, nevertheless he was given the most sacred circle of Holy attendants. They were his first guardians and they performed this kindness among the crashing waves of the ocean at risk to themselves and in a truly magnificent way. Who gets this kind of escort to the other side? Reuven, that’s who!
Due to the diligence of several of Reuven’s friends, who sought these kayakers out, to try and understand what happened to Reuven, we were able to learn of this rescue. This has been important as members of our community have tried to piece together as much of the details as we could to navigate our pain around his ending. Some email excerpts from the kayakers help illustrate how truly incredible finding and retrieving his body so quickly was.
“This morning we did paddle north for the first time since Reuven’s death. We slipped along the shore line where we had delivered Reuven’s body to the Sheriff. At this moment I was struck by the beauty and peacefulness of this place. This for me was significant as from this place he could continue his journey to be reunited with his community.
We then went on to the place we had discovered his body. You should know that this is an area that we are not able to paddle in and explore very often. It can be quite dangerous because of the reefs and the ocean conditions here. How fortunate that we had a calm day for discovering Reuven.” ~ Mike 8/26/19
“I showed Noah the spot where I first noticed something unusual in color, investigated further, and found his friend. Described the orientation of the body and pulling it away from the reef with my paddle. Then how I yelled for Larry and your immediate call to the coastguard and the method of us towing him to college cove. Then we took Noah to college cove and showed him where and how long we waited with the body. Noah is very comfortable in the water and can now take others to the spot. He also can take people to right above the spot on a trail he claims he, Reuven, and others frequented. This area has a good view of the spot without getting close to the cliff edge. Also, when we arrived at Reuven’s location I placed flowers (from Noah) on the water per his wishes. Everything went well and I feel Reuven’s community can now take over…” ~Bruce 8/26/19
Here’s a link to a video by Eddie Arni of the area referenced above.
The local news was full of the story about this unknown man being found. It took the Jewish community a few days to put the pieces together. One of Reuven’s longtime friends, who had been very concerned about his whereabouts, called the police and made a missing person’s report. Then we were told that the body found in the water was Reuven. The local Chabad rabbi Eliyahu Cowen and some of his community went to the coroner’s office to confirm his identity. Another heroic set of events then ensued.
In the Jewish tradition we do many extremely time sensitive practices around death. We do not leave our dead alone from the time of death until the time of burial. We sit shomer. The word shomer means guard. So, we guard the person with our presence. We recite psalms and make sure nothing untoward happens. Then we ritually wash, purify and clothe the person in a shroud and wrap them in a sheet like a cocoon and place them in a plain pine box, or in Israel, just in the ground without the casket. Men prepare men and women prepare women. When we are washing, we always protect the dignity of the person and cover their genitals and breasts. We recite words from the Torah, specifically the Song of Solomon/Song of Songs, exalting each part of the body. Here are some excerpts that we say.
“….Behold, you are beautiful, my love, behold, you are beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats leaping down the slopes of Gilead.
Your neck is like the tower of David, built in rows of stone; on it hang a thousand shields,
His legs are alabaster columns, set on bases of gold. His appearance is like Lebanon, choice as the cedars. 16 His mouth is most sweet, and he is altogether desirable. This is my beloved and this is my friend…”
And, so in this way, the final body experience a person has is this loving honoring of their body. The quotes above are just a few examples. The whole process takes anywhere from two to four hours and requires three or four people. Because Reuven was found and retrieved by the Humboldt County Sheriff’s department, he was at the Coroner’s in Eureka. In order to sit Shiva we had to arrange with them to have folks in their front entrance be able to sit and recite psalms. The local Sheriff and Coroner and all of their staffs were amazingly kind and accommodating. Search and Rescue folks who are usually volunteers also deserve praise for their service.
When the Coroner’s office was closed we set up chairs outside the building. This huge feat was accomplished via Facebook and word of mouth and the organization of this was done by a local doctor from the Chabad community. Rabbi Eli also helped the coroner find Reuven’s next of kin, because Reuven had been part of the Chabad community and they have connections everywhere, so rabbis were called in Flint Michigan to get the phone numbers for Reuven’s sister Deborah who lives in NY. The coroner could not release Reuven’s body to us until permission was granted by his family. It took hours to figure this out and we were all in shock and mourning at the same time. Once Rabbi Eli had spoken with Deborah, a new set of tasks was set in place which had to do with getting a burial plot for Reuven that was kosher by Orthodox Jewish standards.
As a Jewish Renewal and Reform Jewish woman, this is not a requirement of mine nor of my community, but it was for the Chabad community. Since they also loved and claimed Reuven and had the resources to purchase a plot quickly, they started that process. At first we thought we’d have to send Reuven to the Bay Area, but this didn’t really sit well with all of us who knew and loved him. This was his home, his beloved home. He was not a city guy, he was a country man, a wild earth loving man. So, Rabbi Eli and his community set up a fund and raised enough money to buy ten plots at the Trinidad Cemetery. These plots then had to be roped off and consecrated as Jewish land according to very specific rules. All of this took place in the course of two days, which would take most folks weeks to get done.
Jewish tradition mandates burial within 24 hours of death, which we could not do, because of laws around bodies found not in the care of a doctor when they died. The need for all the local agencies to complete their investigations so Reuven’s body could get taken to a mortuary where we could prepare him for burial was just one part of this process. Then, without ever having done so before, Rabbi Eli and two other men from the Orthodox Jewish Community lovingly prepared Reuven’s body for burial. Temple Beth El provided the casket and shroud for Reuven, who had no money or family to pay for the cost of his burial and funeral needs. Chabad created a fund to cover costs as well and between our two communities coming together in his honor and memory, he was lovingly and traditionally cared for. The same woman who had arranged around the clock sitting shomer while Reuven was at the Coroner’s office coordinated it for us at the Ayres Family mortuary where we prepared Reuven for his final physical journey.
He was found Sunday morning August 4th. He was identified positively on Tuesday by our community. He was released by the coroner on Wednesday late afternoon. He was prepared for burial on Thursday and his burial was in Trinidad on Friday August 8th at 3 p.m. We cannot and do not deal with death on the Sabbath. So, getting him buried before the Sabbath began on Friday evening, August 9th was critical.
There were over 150 folks at his burial service led by Rabbi Eliyahu Cowen. It felt right to put Reuven to rest in the sun at the top of the Trinidad Cemetery. We then could begin to grieve and mourn, having dealt with the very intense details around his dying and getting him laid to rest. Rabbi Eli talked about how we were “tucking him into the earth he loved.” He gave a beautiful eulogy.
What’s critical here is that the Holy One hides these folks, even from themselves. It is thought that it is only because of these 36 humans that the world continues to spin. If we are kind to them, things improve on planet earth. If we are cruel to them or harm them, this is not good for us or the planet.
Because Reuven’s burial happened right before Shabbat those of us who are observant all had to rush home to make Shabbat. See my blog post: Shabbat Structre, Simply Divine Spiritual Technology) for more of an understanding of how the Sabbath is observed. Before leaving the cemetery, we let folks know that a memorial would be held on the following Tuesday at the Arcata Vet’s Hall and that all were welcome. Again, this was organized quickly by the Chabad community and enabled folks from all over, who loved Reuven and were not Jewish necessarily, to come and pay homage to him.
Our Rabbi Naomi Steinberg also organized a series of memorial events for the Sheloshim (30 days) from death observations. We traditionally sit shiva which means we mourn for seven days from the time of burial in the home of the mourners. Since Reuven’s next of kin were very far away, different members of the community hosted dinners or times during the first seven days and the Tuesday memorial was one of those. It was at this event that so many disparate groups of folks came together to honor his life and memory. This is where the kayakers were told to come to learn about the man they’d rescued. It’s also where I heard their story for the first time. Their truly spectacular kindness and efforts on behalf of an unknown body floating among the rocks and waves of Humboldt County is a testament to their goodness and the miracles surrounding Reuven.
It’s taken me three months to write this piece and to navigate my tremendous grief. I’m still sad every day. At the Sheloshim observances we did a joint Chabad and Temple Beth El clean-up/pick-up trash in Sequoia park as a way of honoring Reuven’s memory. Being outdoors and doing good were ways to not only remember Reuven but make our sadness for his loss into something positive for the earth. This is also a traditional Jewish practice around death, to donate your time or money to a cause that would have been supported by the deceased. We also had a final coming together back at Temple Beth El where folks could share again, or for the first time, their memories of Reuven. And this was followed by a potluck meal, which Reuven would have thoroughly enjoyed.
As I sat in services for Yom Kippur and we read the names of all our beloveds who have died during the Yiskor/Memorial service. I cried again for the loss of this man from my life and the lives of all our communities and from his siblings’ lives. I still feel his presence and continue to beseech him to act on our behalf and help us take better care of each other and this earth in danger. If anyone can make miracles happen from across the bridge between this world and the next one, it is my dear beloved brother Reuven. In his absence, we all of us who love him, or who are moved by this story, must commit anew to being kinder to each other and more flexible with one another’s differences and finally to skip and cavort and laugh and honor and protect the earth, and all her creatures, as if she was our most beloved dance partner. As Reuven would insist,
“Next time for a Simcha!”
May you be comforted among all those who mourn and let us say Amen.
This article was originally published over two weeks in the Mad River Union.
I’ve been weepy the last two days and I just figured out why. My body and heart are always ahead of my mind and brain. In Hebrew the word Lev means Heart and also Mind. So, my heart/mind was knowing something that my brain hadn’t figured out yet. I woke up with pain behind my eyes and a headache, yesterday. It was pretty early in the morning, but my husband woke up to hold me. I know when I have that kind of pain it is because I need to cry. I didn’t know why, but the why wasn’t important. So, he held me and I sobbed and released, still not sure what my tears were for or about.
Before falling asleep last night I thought, I need to check about the Jewish date for my father’s Yahrzeit. This is the day we mark once a year on the anniversary of a person’s death. The calendar for us is a combination Lunar and Solar calendar, so it is different than the Gregorian one used by most folks in this country. I knew that we stop saying Kaddish in the eleventh month from the death and since it was May 9th and my father died June 18/19th of 2018, I figured I better check. The Orthodox website run by Chabad.org is where I go when I need to calculate Hebrew birthdays or deathdays. They have a very easy interface and give you the dates for ten years out if you want.
So, I went to their site and plugged in my dad’s information and here’s what I got:
The date of passing for this person was on:
Monday, June 18, 2018 – Tammuz 6, 5778
Observe the upcoming Yahrtzeit on:
Tuesday, July 9, 2019 – 6 Tammuz, 5779
Yahrtzeit observances begin on Monday evening.
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Kaddish is recited until mincha on the afternoon of:
Friday, May 10, 2019 – Iyar 5 5779
About the kaddish end date:
>Kaddish is recited for eleven months from the date of passing. Even if the interment took place a number of days after death, the 11 months are still counted from the date of passing. However, if the burial was postponed for two or more weeks after death, kaddish should be recited until the end of 11 months counting from the date of the burial.
I burst into tears upon seeing the Friday, May 10, 2019 date as the last time to say Kaddish for my father on a daily basis. I haven’t been saying Kaddish everyday for him for the last eleven months, but that didn’t matter. I have been thinking about him and saying the Kaddish whenever I was in a Jewish setting with a Minyan (ten Jewish folks or any ten loving folks will work for me).
I wasn’t, I am not ready to stop grieving my father. And, of course I don’t need to stop grieving him, but this marker hit me hard and I realized again with waves of tears that I am still very, very sad and missing my father every day. Grief is just not a one time thing you feel and are done with. I have been living it and reeling from it for the last eleven months very intensely. So, in the morning, this morning I again asked my husband for his loving arms and I cried some more and shared stories with him about my father.
I had big plans for tonight’s Shabbat dinner. I was going to cook Iranian Eggplant and make Raita and create a sort of pre-30th Anniversary vegetarian feast for my husband. Instead, after my energy/chiropractic/sound treatment with Sarah Griffith and my healing MAT (Muscle Activation Training) with Jazz and then shopping to get groceries, I found myself in a puddle of tears once I got home, barely able to get the groceries up the steps, for emotional, not physical reasons.
No fancy dinner tonight. I finished setting up the altar for my father, pictured above and I’ll make a simple salad and asparagus for dinner. I’ll cook tomorrow, if I feel up to it. Today is about grieving and being sad and surrendering to my sadness, honoring that eleven lunar months have passed since my father was in a body. I don’t have to recite the mourner’s prayer for him everyday any more. Instead, I move into the wisdom of the Jewish practices of saying this prayer for him on the anniversary of his death, and three times more a year during the Yiskor service. So, four times a year, I’ll say this prayer for him, until I’m no longer able for the rest of my life.
Standing up when the Rabbi asks: “Is there anyone observing a Yahrzeit or in the first year of mourning, please stand,” has been a very powerful thing for me. I’ve cried every time I was asked for the name of who I am remembering, not expecting to each time. But, the tears, the body/mind/heart knowing cannot be denied or stopped. I have no desire to change that.
At Passover this year, I was in San Diego at my mother and beau-père’s home. When we got to the teaching and questions about why is this night different from all other nights, something strong came through for me. We ask “why on all other nights do we not even dip our greens/vegetables once, but on this night we dip twice?” This refers to dipping parsley in salt water and charoset into horseradish, so two dippings, double dipping that is encouraged. I was inspired to get honest with my parents about something very hard and sad for me, and so I gave them access to my feelings by introducing the subject through this idea of double dipping.
I shared that usually we all avoid our feelings and on Pesach/Passover, we are being asked very clearly NOT to do that. If we think of the salt water as our tears and ourselves as the thing that needs to dip into them, we can see that our first dip is just a small foray into the emotional realm. Oh, there’s my feeling, yes, I know you’re there, that’s enough. We have that choice, most of the time, to stop ourselves from actually deeply feeling the sadness, grief, joy, fear or whatever emotion we are just lightly touching/dipping into. But, if we have the time or are able and have the support to immerse completely into our emotions, to really double dip, then something transformational and intense happens and we are no longer on the outside looking in, we are fully immersed.
So, this is the territory of emotional work, of grieving. It’s a place, where if we are healthy, we can have some agency and choice. I can’t live in this immersed in pain place all the time. Nothing would get done. It’s also not fair to my friends, family and community because I’m really not able to be present for others when I’m fully immersed in my emotional territory. My husband likes to say that I’m due and can take all the time I want. This is just one of the many things I adore about him. My middle son Issac, upon hearing about some of my sadness a few months back, said: “Mom, you’ve done so much for us, for so many people, if you take the next thirty years off to do whatever you want, that won’t even come close to covering it.” Both these men in my life are deep wells of grounding and tenderness in my life. I’m so very blessed by there understanding of my emotional double dipping.
To be fair, neither one of them likes it when I’m sad, but they don’t push me or aren’t upset by my sadness. I don’t feel as if they’ll topple or be hurt by my pain and grief. I trust their own steady grounding.
The thing about family is that it’s not perfect or fair. Some members are better able to be around and take care of each other than others. Some parts of my family can hold my emotional double dipping better than others. This doesn’t mean the folks who aren’t able to do that don’t have gifts for me and aren’t available in other extremely helpful and important ways. My family is a messy, complex, messed-up and deeply caring for each other family. I think probably, this is true of most families.
As, I let myself be sad today and grieve the passing and end of day to day interactions and laughter and shared toast in the morning over coffee moments with my father, I’m so grateful for all the members of my family still here for me to cherish and honor and love and be loved by.
If I were to put up all the pictures of my sisters, my many G!dchildren, my bonus brothers and sisters and all my friends and community who actually are also behind what makes me smile, this blog post would never be finished. So, to all of you, not pictured here, please know, deep in your bones that you are in my heart/mind/Lev always and enable me to double dip, to triple dip and to just be all around drippy as well as silly and whole.