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.