Death Phobic and Youth Centric, a VERY BAD Combination

My father Jacques/Jacob ben Perla v’ Chaim Ha Cohen, z”l/zichrono livrakha, with me, somewhere between one and two years old. We are at the Columbia Cemetery in Boulder, visiting my sister Paula bat Helen v’ Jacob, z”l, 1965 or 1966.

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.

My father took me to Quakers for religious instruction as a young girl when I begged him to take me to church where people believed in a Holy One. Never mind that both my parents were Jewish! I loved the Boulder Quaker meeting and you can read more about my time with the Quaker community in my piece called Quaking for the Divine: https://open-heart-open-hands.com/2014/07/23/quaking-for-the-divine-and-jubilee-part-two/

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.

The Other Side of Birth by Helen Redman, 1994

Poulet au Citron et Tarragon Lemon Tarragon Chicken

  1. One free–range chicken, or several boneless chicken breasts. The chicken should ideally brine for one to two days. See Let’s Talk Salt post for instructions: https://open-heart-open-hands.com/2014/03/05/lets-talk-salt/
  2. 1–2 lemons
  3. olive oil
  4. curry powder
  5. tarragon (fresh is best, but dried is okay)
  6. tamari/or salt
  7. several potatoes, sliced in half
  8. 1–2 onions sliced into four quarters each
  9. yams cut into thick rounds or quarters
  10. whole Shitake mushrooms
  11. fennel bulb cut into wedges
  12. carrots or other veggies can be substituted or included, all vegetables should be chopped into large sections, not fine little pieces.

Prepare/Brine Chicken and then wash surfaces with bleach water or very hot water and soap, afterwards that came in contact with the chicken. Preheat the oven to 375°–400 for a whole chicken.

In a large casserole dish or cast iron pan, place the potatoes and onions (or other veggies) in the bottom of the pan underneath and around the chicken. Put one of the onion quarters inside the chicken cavity. Squeeze lemon juice over the chicken and place one of the lemon halves inside the cavity, then sprinkle with olive oil and tamari or salt (if you didn’t brine the chicken, no salt is necessary if you brined your chicken in saltwater), curry powder and tarragon. Do a healthy amount of each and spread the herbs around the chicken to insure coverage of the whole bird. Place in the oven and cook for 45 minutes–1.5 hours depending on the size of your chicken. Brush the chicken with the juices that escape three or four times during the cooking.  Serve with rice and blanched veggies and a salad.

For breasts, don’t put any vegetables under the chicken, just cook the chicken breasts. Put the herbs/lemon, oil and tamari on both sides of the breasts . It’s better to marinate breasts if you can in this sauce for at least an hour or many hours, but you can make it without marinating as well. You should have some extra sauces leftover in the pan from this once cooked, just place in the oven, whether you’ve marinated or not. Cook in the oven at 375° for 20 minutes to 1/2 hour. You should turn the breasts once about halfway through cooking time. Do not cover.

Asian Cabbage Salad with Cilantro, Black Sesame Seeds,Ginger, Peanut Butter and a few other ingredients!

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Detail of the finished very lively, colorful and delicious salad

Ingredients: Always use organic for everything or locally sourced from your area

  1. one to two Asian cabbages (Sliced very thinly)
  2. about two inches of fresh ginger, peeled and grated or chopped very fine
  3. 1/4 cup toasted sesame oil
  4. 1/4 rice wine vinegar
  5. splash of Mirin (Japanese Rice Wine), if you don’t have this ingredient or can’t find it, this marinade will still be good. I use Mirin in many recipes, and it’s got a great flavor. You can often find it in the alcohol section of your market or in the Asian Food Area (if your store has one).
  6. one tablespoon peanut butter (you can also use fresh roasted peanuts for a crunchy flavor and texture addition).
  7. 1/4 cup toasted black sesame seeds or white, but the black ones look much prettier
  8. a bunch of cilantro chopped finely
  9. five to six Shiso leaves chopped finely (this is a harder ingredient to find). I grow my own and love this flavor. It’s unlikely you will have this, but you may find a dried variety. I’ve never used it dry though, so I couldn’t tell you how much to use.
  10. juice of one to two limes or lemons
  11. one to two tablespoons of tamari

Combine in a small bowl or jar the sesame oil, vinegar, mirin, lime juice, tamari and ginger and mix well or shake up in the jar. Add the peanut butter and make sure it gets dissolved or blended in well. Put the chopped cabbage, chopped cilantro, chopped Shiso leaf and the toasted sesame seeds in a large bowl and mix well, then pour the dressing over this and toss well. This salad is good the next day. The flavors are a marinade for the cabbage, so it will get less crunchy as time goes by. You can garnish with fresh roasted peanuts or more cilantro. You can also experiment if you don’t have all of these ingredients and just do some combination. Enjoy!

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Japanese Shiso leaf growing on my deck, next to Mexican Tarragon

 

Maren’s Summer Bean Salad

Maren Summer Bean Salad
Summer Bean Salad with Neukom Family Farms Heirloom tomatoes

I learned this easy simple recipe from my beloved Mother in Love Maren Frank. She and I don’t like the terms “mother-in-law, daughter-in-law.” They often have negative connotations and the relationship the two of us have is one of loving kindness, shared values and supporting each other in our differences. Much like a good bean salad, the different ingredients make a great combination of flavors. I’m a spicy pepper and she’s a good tomato, or perhaps she’s a nice sharp white onion and I’m the ripe tomato. I’ll let you decide!

Ingredients: Combine all of the ingredients below in a nice glass bowl and mix gently with a spoon and then refrigerate until you are ready to eat. This dish is better served at room temperature, in my opinion, so you can always take it out 1/2 hour before your meal or make it before you are about to eat.

  1. One large 16 oz can of good organic garbanzo beans, my brand preference is Westbrae. If you have time and want to make garbanzo beans from scratch, that’s always better, but this salad is good with canned beans and much quicker to make this way
  2. Three to four good tomatoes, this time of year, I’m getting mine from Neukom Family Farms and they are incredible. Slice up the tomatoes into small squarish pieces
  3. One white onion, chopped very fine
  4. Three to five garlic cloves, pressed or chopped very fine. Remember to always take out the center part of each clove
  5. Sliced black olives, 1/2 a can or more depending on how much you are making
  6. Fresh oregano and flat leaf parsley (you can use dried oregano if you don’t have fresh, but don’t use dried parsley). Chop up finely
  7. Salt and Pepper to taste. Maren prefers white pepper, so when she is here I use white pepper, but when she isn’t visiting I use black pepper. This salad will taste different depending on which pepper you use.
  8. 1/4 cup good organic red wine vinegar or white wine vinegar or sherry vinegar or some combination of these.
  9. 1/2 cup or less of good organic virgin olive oil, don’t use cheap stuff for this, the salad needs a really good olive oil.
  10. 1/4 cup or so of pickled sliced banana peppers (these are not spicy, similar to pepperoncinis, but less piquant). My husband doesn’t like this ingredient so sometimes I leave it out, but otherwise, I think it is essential and love the little tang it gives this summer salad.

You can eat this plain or throw it over a green salad. It’s a great dish to bring to a potluck, although nobody is having those right now with Covid-19. This recipe is probably the quickest recipe in my repertoire. It takes fifteen minutes to make and if you let it sit for a half hour before serving the flavors are perfectly blended, but you can eat it right away too. It’s wonderful and keeps for two or three days in the fridge.

Thank you Maren! Enjoy!

May 14, 1986 Family Wedding
May 14, 1989 Family Wedding of Nicole and Kevin. Maren (my brand new Mother-in-Love) is in the blue dress next to me. Maren is next to her son Andrew with my brand new husband Kevin. I’m in the front row center holding Issac, my mother Helen Redman, my brother Paul Barchilon, and my Aunt Ellen Weissberg Whyte, in black. Behind me, in glasses,  are my Uncle Roger Weissberg and my Beau-Pere Kenny Weissberg (I don’t like the word step-father either). The French Beau Pere is softer and literally translates to handsome father. Not pictured, but still present at this wedding, were Kathryn Taylor, Shira and my father Jacques. He was probably reading her a fairy tale so this picture could get taken.