Building a New Road Out of Stumbling Blocks: A Difficult Taharah “Back Story” By Merle Karasch Gross
[Ed. Note: WARNING – This is not for the faint of heart or the squeamish.
This entry in our blog details some of the aspects of what may occur in what we refer to as a “Difficult Taharah”. Told from the perspective of one event at one Chevrah Kadisha, this speaks to the guiding principle of those who are members of the Chevrah Kadisha that ‘we do the best we can’ in the circumstances. Not infrequently, death is not pristine, and we are faced with unexpected or unusual situations. These events can be disturbing; they are certainly not something to be discussed lightly. I decided to publish this entry which addresses both the difficult Taharah, and the equally difficult decision to speak about it. — JB]
Background on Taharah
Taharah procedure is best conveyed by a CK participant relating their personal experience; anything else is a mere “clinical” explanation of the ritual steps and is little more than a dull iteration of tasks. The sacred aspect isn’t fully conveyed in any of the “manuals” that I’ve read. The word “spiritual” is overused and I choose to shun it. Always tending to our work carefully, it may look as if we’re helping someone get dressed for a special event which, indeed, we are. We wash and comb and pat dry and swath our meitah in fresh new garments. No lipstick and powder, no lace and perfume. Each time we follow the ritual tasks with ease and recite prayers and relevant poems yet we never think of it as being “routine”.
Last November, our Chevrah Kadisha completed an extremely challenging and complex taharah. The funeral director had given me the name of the elderly meitah and that of her daughter but no other details. I was told that death occurred in the hospital after a long illness. “Nothing unusual,” he said. Other than the name of the meitah, there was nothing “usual” about that taharah – our ceremony was imbued with kavod hameit; every act was custom-made.
That night, I wrote the team saying that I was not thanking them for being there though, of course, it was very much like a thank you. It came to mind, but I didn’t use the “spiritual” word. I wanted to say that everybody had been brilliant but that sounded self-flattering. I finally wrote:
“S___ and I encountered a similarly complex meitah two years ago. We were a team of only two and worked for hours to do our best to serve her well. During that long night, we learned a lot of what NOT to do. Today’s taharah proved that knowing the ‘not to do’ is as important as knowing the ‘what to do.’
Today we brought four pairs of hands, four open minds and hearts, willing and determined; we took one step at a time. Your individual support and combined suggestions contributed all that was needed to complete our holy task. Together, we forged a unique and deeply affecting ceremony. We made necessary and appropriate adaptations, and devised creative substitutions that enabled us to complete a taharah full of grace.”
It was meaningful and rewarding to have persisted and succeeded, and I wondered whether our solutions should be shared with others? Would they be helpful or insulting? I thought about describing the details in a useful article for Expired and Inspired but then I thought our “solutions” might offend or be labeled as “Wrong. Wrong, Wrong.” I considered a “skeletal” essay but knew it would lack merit if it lacked detail. I decided to simply trust that future teams will manage to complete the ritual in ways they determine to be most fitting.
Over time, the value of the earlier challenging experience became increasingly clear and led me to recognize the importance of writing about the more recent one. I felt a certain responsibility to set it all down, to describe the actions we devised and the ways we chose to resolve each roadblock. You may see reasons to share this essay or more reasons to remain “mum.” Here is what I have written.
Navigating Uncharted Waters
The tradition of developing minhagim is our inheritance from the hundred generations of women who preceded us in this task. Their legacy affords great latitude to each Chevrah Kadisha in decision-making with regard to both the spoken and procedural content of Tahara. Over the past nine years, our Chevrah has developed its own particular set of customs, our “minhag,” In the course of a single unusual taharah last November, by virtue of our commitment and out of necessity, we added to it.
We were a team of four that day. As founding members of our Chevrah Kadisha, S___and I had worked together uncountable times; it was the sixth taharah for our third member and our final volunteer had participated only once before. Years ago, we discontinued other than “on-the-job” training… experience continues to confirm the truth in the adage to, “Participate in one and lead the next.”
We entered the Taharah room and prepared it as we always do. Donning gowns, filling buckets, setting out the tachrichim. Ready to begin our “hands-on” work, we positioned ourselves around the table and drew back the sheet to discover that the meitah was sealed in a large zippered plastic bag. There’d been no mention of any unusual condition or special need but what now lay before us was unknown and not covered in any of the manuals.
What we found
The bag was opaque and, through it, we could see some areas that were dark in color. Concerned and wanting to limit contamination, I said I would unzip the bag and asked the others to not touch it at all. Leakage of some sort had caused the dark streaks in several places on the sheet which covered the meitah. We moved the sheet to the very bottom of the bag. She was resting on a sodden blanket, swathed in additional sheets. A pinkish-stained moist cloth covered her face. I suggested that the others might want to turn away. Everyone stood fast and alert as I lifted the cloth. Her mouth was filled with bloody liquid and there had been leakage from her nose as well. Neither her face nor head showed any sign of injury though she’d clearly suffered some sort of hemorrhage.
I’d been told that she died less than 24 hours earlier, after a long illness which was unnamed, unknown. Now her belly was bloated and her lower abdomen was green-tinged, her skin appeared stretched, almost transparent; many pain patches and various lines remained attached. A red tag wired to her big toe warned that “precautions should be taken when handling.” From a prior experience, S____ and I knew that moving her, even slightly, would cause further release of those body fluids.
What to do?
Could we wash and “purify” our fragile meitah without causing further indignity or harm? We knew that she must remain encased. We cut away the blood-soiled sheets and placed them at the bottom of the bag. We removed the lines and patches that could be easily removed. Her toe nail polish was unremovable.
To clean her body, we took the softest cloths we could find and tore them into many small pieces. We dipped the cloths in the buckets filled for the taharah. Beginning at her right shoulder; we wet our cloths so we could wring out just enough water to clear away the blood and we patted her dry as we went.
The traditional pouring of nine kavim was out of the question. When the meitah was clean and fully uncovered for the taharah, cupping our hands, we scooped water from each bucket and did our best to provide an unbroken trickle; down the right, then the left and last, down the middle. “Tahorah hee, tahorah hee, tahorah hee,” we chanted throughout. We dried her gently and covered her with clean white towels to make sure the shrouds would not become soiled, and laid the tachrichim upon her, tying the customary ties. “Alef, Bet, Gimel, Daled.” We covered her face with a small towel and finally placed the veil and bonnet on her.
I went to the aron, sprinkled Jerusalem soil on the sovev and set the gartel crosswise, its ends draping over the sides. We moved her slowly, gently and carefully into the aron. We opened the bag to place the shards and sprinkle the remainder of the soil on her heart and reproductive organs. Without anything being said, we each moved the zipper part of the way until it was fully closed.
The long belt encircled the plastic bag at the place we believed to be her waist. “Alef, Bet, Gimel, Daled,” the prescribed knots were made and arranged. We closed the aron, tidied the room, offered our final words and departed. Everything felt right and we separated feeling grateful to have preserved her dignity and, due to our most unusual actions, we each knew with certainty that we had served her well.
Merle Gross says about herself: I’ve told my children what I would like etched on whatever stone marks my future grave: “She was fun while she lasted” (boldface intended). I know how serious a business Life is, and I don’t want to project an image of me as having been a party-girl, not at all. Simply put, a burial site, for me, is not where my memories of late loved ones reside. I hope that visiting my burial spot won’t feel important to my children—maintaining it? Yes; but visiting it? No. I hope their memories of me will attach to the places we’ve “experienced” together. So, maybe I’m reaching out from the grave to send a sly message, but a valid one, aimed at some passerby of the future. Perhaps someone coming to or leaving a funeral will read those words and understand that the late Me felt she had a gravely important message to convey which is, connect in “real” time with loved ones, and strangers, too. At a funeral, doesn’t every attendee hope that any sour, unpleasant memories will fade soon and be replaced with the treasured ones which, more likely, explain why we’re there?
In 2008, when our Conservative synagogue decided to establish a Chevrah Kadisha, my husband and I volunteered as “charter members”. Barry retired from law practice in 2010, I’d retired from business in 1994, when I sold my women’s clothing manufacturing company. From 1995 until today, I’ve recorded seventy oral history “interviews” as a trained volunteer in the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation Project, and I’ve had several enriching stints as guide and/or discussion facilitator for Facing History and Ourselves, and Chicago Historical Society exhibits.
TASTE OF GAMLIEL
In 2017, Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute are again sponsoring a six-part “Taste of Gamliel” webinar series. This year’s topic is From Here to Eternity: Jewish Views on Sickness and Dying.
Each 90 minute session is presented by a different scholar.
The April 23rd session is being taught by Rabbi Richard Address, well known author, teacher, and host of the Sacred Aging Podcast. www.jewishsacredaging.com. The title of his presentation is: Making Jewish Decisions As Life Ebbs.
Taste of Gamliel Webinars for this year are scheduled on January 22, February 19, March 19, April 23, May 21, and June 25. The instructors this year are: Dr. Dan Fendel, Rabbi Dayle Friedman, Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow, Rabbi Richard Address, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, and Dr. Laurie Zoloth.
This series of Webinar sessions is free, with a suggested minimum donation of $36 for all six sessions. These online sessions begin at 5 PM PDST (GMT-7); 8 PM EDST (GMT-4).
Those registered will be sent the information on how to connect to the sessions, and will also receive information on how to access the recordings of all six sessions.
More info – Call us at 410-733-3700
Click the link to register and for more information. We’ll send you the directions to join the webinar no less than 12 hours before the session.
KAVOD v’NICHUM CONFERENCE
Plan to join us June 18-20, 2017 for the 15th annual Kavod v’Nchum Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference. Register, and make your hotel reservations and travel plans now!
15th Annual North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference At Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, California June 18-20, 2017
Registration is now open. Group discounts are available.
The conference program will include plenaries and workshops focused on Taharah, Shmirah, Chevrah Kadisha organizing, community education, gender issues, cemeteries, text study and more.
The conference is on Sunday from noon until 10pm, on Monday from 7am to 10pm, and on Tuesday from 7am to 1pm. In addition to Sunday brunch, we provide six Kosher meals. There are many direct flights to San Francisco and Oakland, with numerous options for ground transportation to the conference site.
We have negotiated a great hotel rate with Embassy Suites by Hilton. Please don’t wait to make your reservations. We also have home hospitality options. Contact us for information or to request home hospitality. 410-733-3700, email@example.com
GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES
Gamliel Institute will be offering course 2, Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah, online, afternoons/evenings, in the Fall semester starting September 5th, 2017.
The course will meet on twelve Tuesdays (Thursdays in those weeks with Jewish holidays during this course). There will be an orientation session on Monday, September 4th, 2017. Register or contact us for more information.
For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or look at information on the Gamliel Institute at the Kavod v’Nichum website or on the Gamliel.Institute website. Please contact us for information or assistance. firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, or call 410-733-3700, or 925-272-8563.
Donations are always needed and most welcome. Donations support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.
You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD 21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organizations, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.
You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).
If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also be sent an email link to the Expired And Inspired blog each week by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to email@example.com.
RECEIVE NOTICES WHEN THIS BLOG IS UPDATED!
To find a list of other blogs and resources we think you, our reader, may find of interest, click on “About” on the right side of the page.There is a link at the end of that section to read more about us.
SUBMISSIONS ALWAYS WELCOME
If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.firstname.lastname@example.org. We are always interested in original materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, Shomrim, funeral providers, funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.
I lead a schizophrenic professional life. When I work on the weekly paper, I’m a different person than when I work on our website. With...
I remember when I was as a child on Yom Kippur, holding my mother’s hand and squinting at her prayer book: Who shall perish by...
As I prepare for this Yom Kippur, when we stand before the Judge of Truth, open the ledger of our deeds and recite our confessions...
Doing Better in 5779 Ben Shapiro has an interesting assessment that I think applies to all of us in journalism, especially those who must also...
As my 9-year-old son recently prepared to return to school, we knew there would be a couple of boys in his fourth-grade class whom he...
Less than a year ago, I decided it was high time for me to visit Hebron. After all, Hebron is the world’s oldest Jewish city,...
Two years ago, I met Steven, 72, when he walked into the JFS Freda Mohr Center on Fairfax Boulevard asking for help from the Jewish...
I’ve never liked the word “sin.” I prefer the Hebrew translation “khet,” which more or less means a mistake. It’s time we acknowledged how much...
This is the sixth of six weekly columns by Rabbi Zimmerman leading up to Yom Kippur. When our children were little, my husband and I...
On the eve of Yom Kippur, Sept. 17, my friend Roseanne Barr and I will join in a public discussion on repentance and forgiveness at...
Most Israelis spend their post-military stint backpacking, partying, traveling, meeting new people and basically living life with hedonistic abandon. Not Matan Pertman. While vacationing in...
In a study on Israel-Diaspora relations not long ago, a pop quiz was included to test the participants’ knowledge about “the other side.” American Jews...
For many Jews, the Days of Awe are the one time of year to experience prayer services. An essential part of those services is the...
When I first learned how to recite The confessional prayers — Head bowed slightly, tight hand In a fist against my heart With each whispered word —...
Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist One Question, Five Voices: How do we make an atonement that lasts? Miriam Yerushalmi Director of SANE (Soulful Advice for a New...
As an American chef in a foreign service post, I feel that part of my job description is to make fellow expats feel as if,...
The lunch rush is quieting down during a weekday afternoon at Mizlala in Sherman Oaks. The restaurant’s casual, intimate space contrasts with the steady thrum...
Standing in the middle of her Century City penthouse with sweeping views of Los Angeles, Dina Leeds told 40 assembled female community leaders, “We take...
During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Israeli Defense Forces tank commander Ron Weinreich was paralyzed from the waist down after a building collapsed on...
What happens when you merge a 2,000-year-old fortress in the Old City of Jerusalem with some of the hottest minds of the 21st-century Startup Nation? ...
You’re never too young to start changing the world. It’s this thinking that propelled a 27-year-old MIT graduate to co-found Founders Bootcamp for teenagers last...
The 38th annual Chabad “To Life” telethon on Labor Day weekend raised more than $3.6 million for Chabad West Coast, according to Rabbi Simcha Backman,...
Mandy Patinkin won his first Emmy Award 23 years ago for “Chicago Hope,” and has been nominated several times since, including nods in 2013, 2014,...
Beloved by critics and viewers since it premiered on Amazon in November 2017, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” a show about a 1950s housewife-turned-standup comic, exceeded...
William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy “Romeo and Juliet” gains extra emotional and historical resonance in director Shira Dubrovner’s staging at The Group Rep at the Lonny...
On our first trip to Israel, we traveled via Rome to Jerusalem. At the hotel in Rome, we needed to get a converter from the...
Find out what's happening in Los Angeles this week. Events include Paddleboarding Prayer, Hiking, charity, Tashlich and a talk with Roseanne Barr. Friday Sept. 14...
Steven Baum died Aug. 13 at 69. Survived by wife Frieda; daughter Jennie (Gregory) Sloan; sons Jeremy, Michael (Monique), Benjamin; 5 grandchildren; sisters Lorrie (David)...
While the story of Jonah and the Whale is read primarily on Yom Kippur, its lesson of mercy is timeless and applicable all year long....
Steve Greenberg’s cartoon of the week for the September 14, 2018 issue of the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles.
The heart of rock ’n’ roll is still beating in San Diego, where Jonathan A. Abrams is part of the team supplying the pump. A...