Tag Archives: olam ha zeh

A Woman Awash

My Matrilineal Mothers, My great, great grandmother celebrating her 100th birthday

This picture inspires me, every day. I look at the faces of these Eastern European Jewish women, these warrior women, who endured, or whose progeny endured pogroms, violence, poverty, plagues, the Shoah, and who knows what else. They not only endured it, some of them survived to pray and to make family, connections, friendships, partnerships and eventually me and my children. We are the seedlets from their wombs. I love their strong proud faces, their soft smiles and the looks of endurance, the crags carved into their faces. And, and…none of them are a size four! All of the women pictured here are zaftig, even the birthday girl/woman/crone. These were women of girth and ground. Women who stood their ground and who worked and lived hard. This is my lineage.

Perla Barchilon, age 19 perhaps, she was married to my grandfather Jaimé at the age of 16. He was 20. She had five sons, who lived, and was a painter in Morocco. She’s in my blood as well as my children’s.

I have this Sephardic lineage running through me from the line of my father and his family. That lineage is more exalted and wealthy, and this line comes with art and rich stories. I know more about the men in this lineage. But I knew my grandmother Perla bat Doña Aicha Bendavid v’ Don José Barchilon, zichrona l’vracha, and her artwork is all over my home. My grandfather Chaim or Jaimé Cohen ben Don Aaron Cohen v’ Dona Sol de Ohana, z”l was the patriarch of my life and in their Moroccan home I learned to cook, to appreciate rich colors, smells and the life of warmth and passion that Morocco is. That lineage flows through my blood and I consider myself more Moroccan than any other nationality. My father’s grandfather was the head Rabbi of Tangier.

The Eastern corner/wall of my sanctuary/cave/meditation room, with a painting by Perla bat Aicha, z’l, of a Morrocan street.

Somehow, I’m here/Hi Ney Ni. I hope I make it to 100 and have grandchildren or great grandchildren standing behind me and a giant cake full of candles, like the matriarch above. I’ll be very ready to go at that point, but my death date or pull date, as I like to call it, is in the hands of the Divine. While I’m here on this earth, there’s lots and lots to do. There is also so much information, data, waves of images and messages, emails, texts and Instagram posts, tweets, alerts, podcasts, zoom chats, protests to attend, meals to cook, medicines to make and folks to help die and folks to help heal and…..it goes on.

As Rabbi Tarfon z”l who lived and died in the first century CE says:

You are not obliged to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it; if you have learned much Torah, great shall be your reward, for He who hires you will surely repay you for your toil; yet the requital of the pious is in the future.

from Pirkei Avot a text written down based on oral teachings in the first century B.C.E.

So, I’m not obligated to finish this work, but I am not free to desist from it either. This is not just my mantra, it is the mantra of most of the hardworking, justice seeking, world healing folks I love and connect with. The English translation here is not reflective of the feeling that the Hebrew has or the poetry of the teaching.

The future quoted here is Olam Ha Ba in Hebrew. This translates more closely as The World to Come, which could be tomorrow or in a thousand years. It’s in the hands of the Creator or you, what the World to Come is, it’s a verb form, a world that is coming, it’s not yet here, but it’s on the way. If you are able you can feel it, or sense it. The veil between this world/Olam Ha Zeh and Olam Ha Ba is very thin for some of us.

I long for Olam Ha Ba, sometimes with such an ache in my being that the tears and sobs flow out of me for hours. There’s just too much damn suffering, ugliness, meanness and stupidity down here on this planet for me to bear sometimes. And yet, bear it I must. I cannot bear it though, if I watch the news or listen to the news or imbibe the news in any form currently available.

I’m afraid I’m going to be burned at the stake for admitting that I do not participate in the news cycle. I don’t own a television, I don’t stream CNN live or watch the Trevor Noah Show or listen to NPR or Rachel Maddow or NBC, CBS, BBC, etc… you get my point. I get plenty of news from all of the people in my life who share tidbits with me. I generally know about something big within hours of it happening. Sometimes a day will go by before whatever “news” crisis, on the planet folks are spinning about, circles around and reaches me. I do not let the currents of world events, as reported on by others, who often wish for me to be hooked by their versions of the story, dictate my direction or life.

That being said, there is a trusted source of information that I am completely involved in. That makom/source is my cellular core knowing. This knowing will literally take me down to the ground when there are mass deaths or huge traumas on the planet. I have an internal weather vane that is tuned to certain frequencies. In the last two years, I’ve gone to ground in a huge way, before the news informed the world of these horrors. When Covid hit this world in a big way, I was already in a cave of my own making. I curled up in a ball, like a fox or a bear and I hibernated. I do this when I need to replenish or when the waves of the world hit me like a tsunami.

I could barely get out of bed for months, not because I was physically sick, but because the pain of the thousands of people dying in fear and alone was a tidal wave for me. I’m very sensitive, not really the right word, to death, my internal channel is tuned to the other side. When there are mass events of death, I feel it, not because I’m watching the news coverage about it, because I don’t do that, but because I’m just wired that way. I was bone deep tired and unable to rise up. I was sheltering in place before that was actually called for.

So, I went to ground, curled up in my cave/bedroom. I emerged very infrequently to eat an apple or take a bath. My husband had to fend for himself mostly. He’s used to my weird and wild ways. He would lie down next to me and tell me he loved me and ask what he could do, if anything. Mostly, he just accepted me and loved me. He is an Agnostic and doesn’t believe in a Divine Creator and cannot comprehend 98% of what I tell him I am experiencing. Miraculously, he doesn’t need to understand me, or take me apart and make sense of me, to love me. He’s just wired that way, wired to love me and I’m wired to love him and it works, amazingly well.

My mensch and I, photo taken by my Beau-Pere Kenny’s very talented sister Ellen Weissberg Whyte.

When I touch my man or am held by him, all my cells align and take a kind of deep breath. It’s a truly profound experience for me and it still happens to this day, 33 years since we first kissed, I feel the current of wholeness course through my body. It makes my toes curl, my heart race. I am giddy and soothed all at the same time.

There’s nothing subtle or mild about me or how I feel, love, pray, and live. I’m a lot to handle and as the husband of a dear friend of mine once said about me. “Jeez, could you have some f—–g enthusiasm already!” Which I translated as the usual, you’re just TOO MUCH!

And, I am too much, for a lot of folks, which isn’t really important, because I’m used to that now and I’m in really good company…but back to my cave. I didn’t share the depth of what was going on for me with anyone besides my husband. A few folks were worried about me since they weren’t seeing my posts and I was generally absent from so many activities online and elsewhere. Even when I’m in my cave, I still take care of what has to be taken care of, what is mine to take care of, like my parents and my children. Or when someone’s son in my community was murdered and they needed support to get their son’s body washed and prepared for burial, according to Jewish tradition. They needed to witness and lovingly wrap their beloved in a shroud with prayers during Covid. Everybody worries about you and thinks you’re crazy for extending yourself and endangering yourself to make that happen. But, this is exactly the kind of thing that pulls me, like a magnet from underneath the covers or the depths of my sanctuary cave. The call to serve and to do what is mine, not someone else’s to do.

The other call that came in, when I was deep in the depths of the pain of the world, was when George Floyd, z”l, was murdered. It was like an electric shock to my system and I just jumped out of my bed and started cooking and making medicines and cleaning and doing everything I could, in what I like to call Full-On-Nicole fashion. Even though the pain was searing, the call to make kindness alive and to help folks feel heard and seen and loved during this time of trauma and exposition of the true nature of our society, was stronger than the need to be curled up feeling the anguish. For me, the call came in and it came in loud and strong and clear.

George Floyd , zichrono l’vracha, by Marjorie Feldman, framed by Howard Feldman

I didn’t see the death of this man on the news. I felt it in my bones. I am a woman awash with the world’s doings. Life on this planet, the life of this planet is not something I am separated from, none of us are. When there is harm or grace, we all feel it. Whether it is a slight blip in our heart-beat or it takes us down to the ground, or out to our studios, or into the streets, we are all part of the same story.

In my tradition we say a prayer called the Shema, we say it three times a day. It cannot be completely translated. It’s a call to being and a chant and a reminder. The prayer itself is just a few words, but it is followed by a few paragraphs of prayers reminding us that if we adhere to this teaching the rain will fall in its season and the cattle will be happy and all will align, but if we fail to head this call and we worship idols (like the television, entertainment industry, sports games, the stock market or the Kardashians) the rain won’t fall in its season and there will be famine, plague and basically consequences to our NOT taking care of each other and the planet. This is not the Holy One cursing us, this is us cursing ourselves, causing the damage by not heeding the call of the Shema.

Listen, Hear, All you tribe of Israel, all you who wrestle with the Divine, the idea of the Divine, Hear this, all of you who struggle to make the world a place of decency and kindness, who stumble and fall down, who make mistakes, but get back up again, and again, listen you tribe of humans of all colors and religions and creeds and genders,

WE ARE ALL ONE!

We are all One, the Divinity is All One, is all encompassing, is everywhere at all times, holding us, watching us, shepherding us, rooting for us, wailing for us and with us as we stumble and fumble about. The Creator is with us and is through us and is us.

This call to Listen, to Hear, which implies you are directing yourself towards something perhaps not always loud or obvious, something that requires your active attention; this is something that I cannot ignore. I’ve always been a being who feels the blood trickle down my leg when the person next to me falls down and the skin on their leg cracks open, I get this in my body, it’s not an idea in my head, it literally fills my head and body like a gong sounding through my whole being.

I am awash in the feelings of this world and often of the next world as well. Sometimes folks who’ve crossed over are looking for support or help, especially if they died suddenly or violently, or they just have something they need to communicate before they move on to their next bathing of light, where they can be awash in the Creator’s love for them. Sometimes folks here on this earth are in so much pain it leaps out of their bodies and finds its way to me.

So, crazy as this makes me look and sound to those of you in the world who cannot see the dead moving through the room, like a waft of steam rising from a tea cup, or who don’t recognize the connections between things as being all part of some giant and unwinding narrative we are players in, I am very much affirming, again and again, that I am a woman awash in all of this.

Why do I need to assert this? There are many reasons, but the strongest call right now has to do with wanting to witness for folks that you can be fully awake, aware, and open, and also closed, quiet and taking care of yourself. There is no one way to serve. Maybe you need to go to ground, take a sabbatical or a break or just crawl under the covers for a week or months. It doesn’t necessarily mean you are depressed or mentally ill. It might just mean you are a human feeling the throbbing heart of our times and needing to be with all of what that is. Or maybe you do better going to a rally or a protest or writing hundreds of postcards or keeping track of all the lies and stories on the screens so that you can be a witness to what is actually being said. As long as it doesn’t poison you and make you forget how to enjoy the buds on the trees or the way the Holy One paints the sky each night, or the smile of your beloved, or just that we’re all in this together, imbibe away.

We’re most of us in good, good, really good company. We all have work to do that is uniquely ours. I hope you find your way through and into the places you need to be in and that you notice when your engagement with the “news” takes you away from loving, living and giving.

The real news is this, we are here on this earth for an eye-blink, even if we live to be a hundred years old, and while we are here, we have a task to continue working on, the work of making the world a better reflection of the love, kindness, intelligence, justice, harmony and Oneness it was meant to be and it is becoming, even if we cannot see its emergence yet.

My Mother’s mother Isabelle, bat Minnie, zichronah livracha, May her Memory be for a Blessing, my mother Helen Redman and little baby me. The mothers’ blessings passing through me back to the original Mother of us All, a long line and an amazing legacy of women successfully giving birth and surviving to make it to this moment and this time. I’m so grateful to all those who have come before me. May I live up to my lineage.

Jubilee Part Five: Encountering Death Consciously

Singing the Bones by Helen Redman, 1993
Singing the Bones by Helen Redman, 1993

When it is my time, the Holy One will take me. I’d like the folks left behind here to know that I am not gone when that happens. In my tradition there is a teaching that the only thing you can take with you to the other side are your mitzvot. I use the translation of this word here as deeds of loving kindness or rightness. So, if my deeds of goodness follow me and come with me, I should do a lot of them! It’s not a reason to engage with mitzvot, but rather a consequence of living my life as if I was already in Heaven, a place where kindness and beauty reign. There is plenty of Hell here on this planet. I have never been afraid of going to such a realm, I just want the suffering on this planet to be done. So, I orient towards Heaven on earth, bringing beauty, goodness, love, warmth, comfort and delight into this time and place. My need to walk this particular path is coded in my core. I feel pulled and guided by that force constantly.

Taking a retreat from engagement with the folks I love and who I just know and encounter on a daily basis is a radical step. I am interested in a specific kind of departure from the norm. I want to explore leaving this world consciously. If I dip into the absence/death-well, while I am still living, I get to practice to navigate territory that is very uncomfortable for all of us. This choice, on my part, about why I need to do this is so complex. I am not talking about taking my life. I have never felt inclined to do so and I doubt I ever will. Looking at death in depth and consciously, is different from venerating it or reaching towards it.

If I were Hindu, I would just say I was going to spend some time with the Goddess Kali and that would make sense to folks who were steeped in that tradition. Buddhist practitioners engage in years of contemplation and “practice” around death. There are complex meditations that involve envisioning your death, the death of those you love and death in general. In the modern secular world, we have a fascination with vampires, zombies and ghosts. But engaging with those ideas as entertainment or story-line is very different than looking at the reality of death head on.

I’ve been looking at it literally with my head on (using my mind and body to be present around death) all of my life. Over fifteen years ago, when a dear friend became ill with cancer, her final wish was that our community endeavor to bury her according to Jewish tradition. This meant engaging in study around traditional Jewish practices and creating a Hevra Kadisha locally. Hevra Kadisha translates literally as Sacred or Holy Community/Society, most folks think of it as the Jewish Burial Society.

The service of a Hevra Kadisha is done anonymously and involves preparing a person for burial according to ancient beautiful Jewish practices from Torah. In my 49 years on this planet I’ve gone from fishing for gravestones in a stream (see Jubilee Part Four) to gently preparing those who have died to enter the earth.

We enter a river of blessings in this process as well as doing the heavy lifting, purifying and cleaning. I do this work with four or five other people mostly in silence with only specific prayers recited as we engage in the various tasks. We bathe and cleanse and lovingly robe folks in simple linen garments modeled along the lines of the High Priest from the Torah. We wrap them tight in a shroud, like a cocoon and place them in plain wooden boxes. We place broken shards of pottery over their eyes and mouth to signify that their soul has broken free of its physical vessel. We lovingly praise and honor their physical bodies as the homes of their souls and we ask forgiveness if anything we do while preparing them wasn’t done properly. This service is considered a mitzvah/commandment/obligation that is of the highest order. In my community, we do this for free. In all Jewish communities, if you do this work, you are actually doing it for the person who has died, and they cannot thank you or pay you, which is why it is considered to be a very special mitzvah.

My service with the Hevra Kadisha has brought me in contact with death in real time and with real humans whose bodies I have engaged with. I have also had the privilege of being present with folks as they were dying and on their journey across the “River Jordan.”

The Other Side of Birth by Helen Redman, 1994
The Other Side of Birth by Helen Redman, 1994

Intrinsic to my need to go on retreat is a concept called L’Shem Shamayim: for the sake/name of Heaven. Underneath my desire for stillness is a strong and always flowing current of connection with the Divine. I need to see what it is that the next phase of my life is supposed to be oriented around and towards. I need to find out what I can do for or in the name of L’Shem Shamayim and for the world to come/Olam Ha-Ba. This idea of a world to come can be interpreted to mean tomorrow or the world we create, not just the world on the other side of life, but that is also part of its meaning. So, taking time away to explore through prayer, through meditation, through engagement with solitude and nature and through active study are all ways for me to connect to Olam Ha-Ba.

In this world, which we call, Olam Ha-Zeh, I am also taking time away to get still and see what unfolds in a place that is less stimulating and full of others and their needs. I am often seen as the “spiritual” one in my family, in a group or gathering. I do not like this, when it separates me from others and makes me seem or look different. While I am happy to be seen as a woman engaged with Torah, with Holiness, I do not want to be the placeholder for Holiness in other peoples’ lives. I want everyone to engage and have relationship with what is Kadosh/Sacred/Holy to them.

I also don’t want connection to a spiritual reality to be seen as something that can only be done in a big way. Folks who are quieter or less obvious and vocal are just as capable of connection with the Divine as I am. There is no singular or right way to connect or be engaged with spiritual practice. Although there are tried and true and well-researched and practiced spiritual technologies and teachers that can improve our ability to connect and experience Holiness or Deep Mystery.

“The root k-d-sh occurs nineteen times in Parashat BeHukotai, the last reading from the book of Leviticus, in which there are altogether 152 occurrences of this root. The Torah nowhere defines the concept of kedushah, what we might call in English “holiness” or “sanctity.” Nevertheless, the use of this root has developed extensively, so that today we speak of making kiddush on the wine, or of reciting the kaddish and the kedushah in the synagogue service, or of marrying a woman through kiddushin (the ring ceremony), and we behave as if we understand the concept of being kadosh (holy) which is present in each of these actions. We tend to forget that holy is a divine (transcendental) concept, and therefore, like the concept of G-d, is above human comprehension.”-Dov Landau

As a Jewish woman, as a mother, as a wife, as a sister, as a grandmother, as a friend, and as a daughter, taking a year off from my family and friends is a very intense thing to do. It will be a death of sorts. This is time of absence and death-like being away from those I love is a risk I am willing and need to take. I do so knowing that while it will be hard for those who love me and who I love, it can also be a blessing and an opportunity. Getting up close to and intimate with absence and death or separation is a very hard thing for most of us to do. Taking this path consciously, for me, and hopefully for those who will miss me, is a way to flow into and explore THE RIVER of space and time, beyond our physical bodies and all their coverings and ways and means. I’m looking intently towards and across that mysterious “River Jordon.” I have no desire to cross over yet—but I am very curious about the territory.

to be continued…..

~byline from the original piece published in the Mad River Union on August 13, 2014:

Nicole peeks across and around all kinds of corners, rivers and edges wherever she abides and she endeavors to speak of this as she walks along the way. Sometimes, she can be found in her home in Bayside, but you are just as likely to encounter her swimming at Big Lagoon or meandering along the aisles of your local health-food store.