My unwanted adventure


Based on our ages, her long-lived parents and the fact that women tend to live longer than men, my wife should have outlived me by 20 years. Sadly, fate had different plans, and I found myself, suddenly and unexpectedly, a widower. Looking back to the days and weeks following Liz’s passing, I don’t know how I survived my shock and overwhelming depression.

With the passage of time, the shock dissipated and, with the help of many friends, especially compassionate female friends, the depression became more manageable. It was time to embark on something I thought I would never again experience — a re-entry into the dating scene, which I christened “My Unwanted Adventure.”

Finding intellectual, emotional and physical compatibility in a new mate after so many years appeared to be an incredibly daunting task. Even though I’ve worked for what seems like forever to stay in good shape, what would it be like to take off my clothes for the first time with another 60- to 70-year-old? Yikes!

Although I prefer the old-fashioned ways to meet other singles, most of my dates during My Unwanted Adventure have been via the internet, which begs for answers to the following: How do I construct an appealing profile? How do I send out appealing messages to desirable women? For the former, I asked some women friends with lots of common sense to vet my profile. For the latter, I tried to devise catchy openings to my messages. I’m not above employing puns: “When I first read your profile, it was love at first site.” 

The internet social scene is full of surprises. The women I’ve encountered included one who asked me for thousands of dollars on our third meeting; another who told me how her daughter and son-in-law, acting as sleuths, discovered that two men she dated had criminal records they hadn’t divulged; and another who, at the age of 61, was contacted and dated by men in their 30s.

Adding to the continuing adventure, many untruths find their way into online profiles. Lying about one’s age is probably the most common. But I have encountered other quite frequent but unanticipated untruths. One example is a woman’s marital status. The possibilities include widowed, divorced or never married. Surprisingly, some senior-age women who fall into that last category write “divorced” instead, because they fear — probably correctly — that being “never married” in one’s 60s will scare off many men.   

As a longtime college professor, it is in my DNA to try to help people become smarter, or at least better educated. I have thoughts I hope will be helpful to women seeking dates online.

Arguably the single most important items in a woman’s profile are her pictures — we men are visual beings. Simply transferring 20-25 pictures from Facebook to a dating site is not the way to go. I can guarantee that men are not interested in seeing your dogs, cats, children, other relatives and friends, or your flower arrangements. All that we are interested in is you, preferably both a facial close-up and a full body shot. If you fail to provide the latter, then many men will wonder what you are trying to hide. Also, it is well worth your time, and perhaps money, to have professional-looking photos. Casual, sloppy “selfies” do no good and may well do harm. When I see such photos, I wonder if the person taking them is really serious about finding a partner or is just playing (narcissistic) games.

Many profiles begin with a list of meaningless adjectives (e.g., “My friends tell me I’m attractive, kind, trustworthy, happy …”). It makes no difference what your friends may think of you; all that matters is what your prospective date thinks. Rather than mere adjectives, better that the words in your profile focus on a variety of activities you like to engage in, along with some qualities you are looking for in a mate. Should a physical (sexual) component of a relationship be important to you, words along the lines of “I am affectionate and enjoy physical as well as emotional intimacy, and am looking for a like-minded partner” should get your point across.

Reputedly, there are many more widows than widowers in the U.S., with a similar gender imbalance among divorcees. However, women are typically more skilled at building a support and friendship network then are men, who seem to have more need for traditional, exclusive partnering (count me as one). Although some women bemoan the number imbalance, I think the fact that many more senior women than men prefer to remain single goes a long way toward balancing the playing field. This field is one big game and I do not know where My Unwanted Adventure will take me.

Ben Zuckerman is a UCLA astronomer.

Jewish End of Life Music by Rabbi G Rayzel Raphael


Expired And Inspired

Expired And Inspired

Jewish End of Life Music

In 2001, I had a conversation with Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi z”l after my father of blessed memory, Mitchell Robinson z”l left this world. Reb Zalman talked about having a CD of Nichum Aveilim music: songs to comfort the mourner. Although I had been singing and recording for many years, at that time I just wasn’t ready to face a whole recording of an end of life genre of music.

The Process

Several years passed and then other friends, family, and colleagues died. Sometimes their death inspired me to compose a song to honor their passing. On other occasions, a song would come to me based on a traditional teaching that I might use in my pastoral work as a rabbi. Without even realizing it, I was compiling a series of “Jewish songs of comfort”.

I once learned that in an African country when a child is born they bring forth a new song. Looking back now, I see that unfortunately over the years, death has written a number of songs for me as well. Sometimes I look upon death as a mystifying detour taking us places we never imagined we would go. I never really wanted to be called to this work of composing songs for the deathbed and grief. Yet I have to acknowledge the bittersweet edge of creativity, comfort, and memory that my collection of songs have offered me and others.

The Result

          In 2014, after my teacher and mentor Reb Zalman died, I made a commitment to working on a CD of End of Life music called, “May the Angels Carry You – Jewish Songs of Comfort for Death, Dying and Mourning. The title of this CD is the title of a song dedicated to Savina Teuval z’l, a Jewish feminist scholar, as I was privileged to write it after singing at her deathbed.

It is also the title of the book written by my life partner, Dr. Simcha P. Raphael, founding Director of The Daat Institute, for Death, Awareness, Advocacy and Training, which is a short collection of prayers and readings for the deathbed, including the lyrics to the songs on the CD.

Recently, I had the opportunity to teach about this music for a public Jewish death and dying series sponsored by the Daat Institute and The Jewish Relationship Initiative. In teaching my session “Wisdom for the End of Life Journey” I researched other songwriters with a similar type of music that could be used at various stages of the end of life journey: Dying, Death, Taharah, Funeral, Shiva, Shloshim and Yartzeit.

A Resource

I have received many recommendations from my rabbinic colleagues in the Reconstructionist and Renewal movements, and from Chevrah Kaddisha members. Many composers are listed, as this music spans the Jewish movements.

I am providing a link to the song sheet of the many heartfelt offerings from various Jewish songwriters. The list is not complete, but it’s a start. [Link to download END OF LIFE SONG SHEET] What is not listed are, of course, the various wordless niggunim that can be used at any time.

Life endings are always hard, and may be complicated and tragic, but music is the great soother. May this compilation be an assist for you at this holy time.

[Ed. Note: The list that Rabbi Raphael compiled spanned nine pages – far too long to include here. She has provided a link to download the list as a PDF file. If the link does not work, please email me at j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, and I will try to forward it to you. — JB]

Rabbi G Rayzel Raphael

Rabbi G Rayzel Raphael

Rabbi G. Rayzel Raphael is a Reconstructionist Rabbi in the Philadelphia area. She has a private practice, performing life cycle rituals as well as other artistic offerings of her soul. For more information see her website: www.shechinah.com

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TASTE OF GAMLIEL

In 2017, Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute are again sponsoring a six part “Taste of Gamliel” webinar. 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. Taste of Gamliel gives participants a “Taste” of the Gamliel Institute’s web-based series of courses. The Gamliel Institute is the leadership training arm of Kavod v’Nichum. The Gamliel Institute offers five on-line core courses, each 12 weeks in length, that deal with the various aspects of Jewish ritual and actions around sickness, death, funerals, burial and mourning. Participants come from all over the United States, Canada, Central and South America, with Israelis and British students joining us on occasion.

Taste of Gamliel Webinars for this year are scheduled on January 22, February 19, March 19, April 23, May 21, and June 25. Learn from the comfort of your own home or office.

The Taste sessions are done in a webinar format, where the teacher and students can see each other’s live video feeds. The sessions are moderated, participants raise their virtual hands to ask questions, and the moderator calls on and unmutes participants when appropriate. We’ve been teaching using this model for seven years (more than 250 session). We use Zoom, a particularly friendly and easy to use platform.

This series of Webinar sessions is free, with a suggested minimum donation of $36 for all six sessions. Online sessions begin at 5 PM PSST; 8 PM EDST.

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.

The link to register is: http://jewish-funerals.givezooks.com/events/taste-of-gamliel-2017.

On registration, you will receive an automated acknowledgment. Information and technology assistance is available after you register. Those who are registered are sent an email ahead of each webinar with log on instructions and information for the upcoming session, and also receive a message on how to view a recording of each of the sessions.

You can view a recording of the sessions, uploaded after each session, so even if you need to miss one (or more), you can still hear the presentation.

More info – Call us at 410-733-3700

Attend as many of these presentations as are of interest to you. Each session is about 90 minutes in duration. As always, we plan to hold time for questions and discussions at the end of each program.

Again, the entire series is free, but we ask that you consider a donation to help us defray the costs of providing this series. The suggested $36 amount works out to $6 for each session – truly a bargain for the valuable information and extraordinary teachers that present it.

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.

Suggestions for future topics are welcome.

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GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

LOOKING FORWARD:

UPCOMING COURSE

Gamliel Institute will be offering course 4, Nechama [Comfort], online, evenings in the Spring on Tuesdays (and three Thursdays – the day of the week will change in those weeks with Jewish holidays during this course). The date of classes will be from March 28 to June 13 2017. Please note: due to holidays, classes will meet on Thursdays on April 13th, April 20th, and June 1st. There will be an orientation session on Monday, March 27th, 2017.

COURSE PREVIEW

If you are not sure if the Nechama course is for you, plan to attend the Free one-time online PREVIEW of Nechama session planned for Monday evening March 6th, 2017 at 8-9:30 pm EST (5 PST/6 MST/7 CST/9 AST). The instructors will offer highlights from the material that the course covers, and let you know what the course includes. You can RSVP to info@Jewish-Funerals.org.

REGISTRATION

You can register for any Gamliel Institute courses online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.

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. info@jewish-funerals.org or j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or call 410-733-3700, or 925-272-8563.

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KAVOD v’NICHUM CONFERENCE

Plan ahead, hold June 18-20, 2017 for the 15th annual Kavod v’Nchum Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference. Register now, and reserve your hotel room!

15th Annual North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference

At Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, California June 18-20, 2017

REGISTRATION

Registration is now open. Advance prices are good through the end of February. 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.

DATES

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 the Sunday brunch, we provide six Kosher meals as part of your full conference registration. There are many direct flights to San Francisco and Oakland, with numerous options for ground transportation to the conference site.

HOTEL

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, info@jewish-funerals.org.
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DONATIONS:

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/).

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MORE INFORMATION

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 info@jewish-funerals.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 j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at www.jewish-funerals.org, and for information on the Gamliel Institute and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.

 

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Sign up on our Facebook Group page: just search for and LIKE Chevra Kadisha sponsored by Kavod vNichum, or follow our Twitter feed @chevra_kadisha.

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.

Past blog entries can be searched online at the L.A. Jewish Journal. Point your browser to http://www.jewishjournal.com/expiredandinspired/, and scroll down. Along the left of the page you will see a list of ‘Recent Posts” with a “More Posts” link. You can also see the list by month of Expired and Inspired Archives below that, going back to 2014 when the blog started.

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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.blair@jewish-funerals.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.

 

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Accepting the end


The hospice patient, an innovative leader in his profession, was in his last moments of life. His eyes rolled back into his head, and his breath began to catch in his throat. His devoted wife was not ready for him to go. She climbed up onto his bed, grabbed him by the lapels of his pajamas and shook him, screaming “No! Do not leave me!”

The patient’s gaze returned, and, as his wife later described it, she could see through his eyes into eternity. They held each other’s gaze for several minutes, and then his eyes closed for good. He was gone.

The wife told this story at the patient’s funeral, feeling that it captured something important about her beloved. She was pleased. But our ancient rabbis and commentators, I thought to myself, would have been shocked. For them, this is not the proper way to treat someone as they die.

Judaism is very clear about the precious, holy time of transitioning from this world into the next. Known in medical circles as “actively dying,” it is characterized by raspy breathing, slowing vital signs, and a lack of interest in food and water. It can last from a few hours to several days. 

Judaism has a name for this important stage of life: goses (rhymes with “no less”). As it says in the Talmud (Shabbat 151b), when someone is a goses, they are like a candle whose flame is flickering — if you reach out to touch it, you may put it out. 

So many people today die in hospital rooms, surrounded by beeping machines, yammering televisions, and teams of medical professionals that flood in to administer electric shocks and break bones. This all flies in the face of what Judaism says God wants us to be doing for the dying patient. 

Of course, there are times when modern medical interventions are appropriate to “save” a patient from death, but suffice it to say there are times when it can do no one any good. It is in the latter situation, when the end of life is nigh, that Jewish teachings want caregivers to adopt a very specific attitude: Keep at the forefront of your mind the idea that any action could either hasten or delay death, so it should not be taken. This is a time for self-restraint. Be tender and quiet, and let the death follow its natural trajectory. Let go, so that the patient can as well. 

The rules of goses, and how I suggest the Jewish families I work with observe them (when they are open to them), are as follows:

• Minimize sound. Turn off machines and televisions. Speak quietly. Play only quiet, gentle music or sing sweetly to the patient.

• Minimize touch. Gentle kisses and strokes are fine, as is dabbing the patient’s mouth with a wet sponge to keep it moist. But do not shake, jab, squeeze or move them. Don’t call 911 and rush them to the emergency room, nor rush them home from the hospital (lest they die in the ambulance). Don’t even change their pillow or their diaper — unless you are confident that it is an impediment to comfort and ease that needs to be removed.

• Do nothing bracing. Do not wipe the patient with a wet washcloth or put an ice cube in their mouth. Do not squeeze or pinch them, such as with a blood pressure cuff or an IV needle. It is clear that they are dying; it is not necessary to track each step of it on a medical chart. Hospice nurses should be amenable once you explain that this is a religious preference. But if the patient is in a hospital, it may take stationing someone in the room to negotiate and actively refuse interruptions to the patient’s peace.

• Speak gently. Offer words of reassurance. Do not order the patient not to die, nor to die today. Tell them everything is fine with you, and that they are safe, and that death will be the right thing for them to do, when they are ready to do it. All is well.

I have known people who held on long after they should have died — for months — even though they were being tortured by their health condition. It seemed they were fulfilling a demand, telegraphed to them by their families, not to leave. It’s just not a fair thing to ask.

Dying is not inconceivable or bizarre. We have made it a taboo in our culture, but dying is just as normal and normative as having sex, giving birth or even going to the bathroom. It is something we need to relax and let our bodies do. We need not fear it. It will come when the time is right, and then it will be up to everyone to face it with respect, and let it unfold with grace.

The Talmud (Ketubot 104a) tells the story of Rabbi Judah, who was dying and in pain, but who was so beloved by the community that the rabbis declared a public fast and offered prayers, day and night, to keep him among the living. His housekeeper saw his suffering, however, and interceded. She threw a jar off the roof, and the praying rabbis paused in unison. In the silence, the rabbi died. 

The story is told in praise of the housekeeper. The commotion and pleading of the rabbis was in its own way torture to Rabbi Judah’s soul. It just needed some peace and quiet so it could move on.

The rabbis of old may have had it easy, believing as they did that even reaching out and closing the eyes of a goses could be punished in the afterlife as murder. Today, it takes real bravery to contain one’s inclination to interfere.

Perhaps remembering the rules of goses, and the needs of the soul to return to That From Which We Came, can help give us this strength.

Rabbi Avivah W. Erlick is a board-certified health care chaplain working in home hospice and institutional settings. She owns a referral agency for clergy in private practice (lacommunitychaplaincy.com), and is a provider of creative Jewish after-death ritual (sacred-waters.com). 

Facing mortality at Yom Kippur


Regardless of our race, religion, gender or age, we all have something in common: We’re all going to die.

My friend Eve Elting passed away eight months ago, after she stopped treatment for metastatic breast cancer. At 58, she’d had cancer for 20 years. “I’ve been on 13 different chemotherapy agents,” she told me. “Enough is enough.”

Eve’s decision to die started me thinking about how people view their mortality. What makes us fear death? Why are some people not afraid? What can help us face this natural part of life with more ease?

As an oral historian, I often interview people in the last chapter of their life, either because of age or a terminal illness. I hear stories of their life and experiences, including the impact of family members dying and their own attitude about mortality.

“When I was young I was terrified of dying,” Gladys Sturman, 85, said. “My mother got cancer when she was 50. We were all sitting there crying, and she says, ‘Why are you crying? Kings die. Presidents die. What? Did you think I wasn’t going to die?’ When she said that, it totally lifted my fears.”  

When Dave Schwartz was 100, he said, “There are times when I’m very brave, and I reconcile myself to my demise. I think, it’s a passage; all living things have a beginning and a biological end. I’m looking at things rationally. But there are other times when I have a sense of sadness, a sense of nostalgia, and I have to admit, a sense of fear.”

Discussing end-of-life wishes

Starting in her 70s, my mother, Marcia Goodfriend, was adamant about one thing: “Promise me you won’t let anyone keep me alive with a machine.” She repeated this in letters and on visits and sent my sister and me copies of her Living Will. We knew what Mom wanted before she died, which made our lives easier.

Far too often, these conversations don’t happen. Yes, it’s awkward and it involves admitting that someone is going to die, which is painful. But otherwise, family members are faced with impossible decisions to continue or stop their loved one’s treatment.

“It can be very liberating to have this conversation,” Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom said. He learned he had cancer when he was 39 and, in his 2013 Yom Kippur sermon, he told his congregation, “You need to communicate with your loved ones what you want your final days to be like. What do you need for a reasonable quality of life? When should the fight for your life be carried forward, and what are you willing to endure? And when would it be permitted to say, ‘Enough?’ ” 

Having difficult conversations

“Cancer is an illness of families, and the whole family is suffering terribly,” oncologist Daniel Lieber said. “I think people are afraid the patient won’t be able to handle hearing what their family is feeling and vice versa.  But that is really isolating.”

Lieber’s father, Rabbi David Lieber, died in 2008 from a lung disease. “He faced his mortality with open eyes, which was incredible,” Lieber said. “Many people say, ‘Why me?’ and my father said, ‘Why not me?’ I could say to him, ‘I just can’t believe what it’s going to be like when you’re no longer alive.’ We knew that we could talk to each other that way.”

Renee Marcus’ husband, Richard Marcus, an account manager in the storage and networking computer industry, died from pancreatic cancer at 68. “We talked about everything,” she said, “and that continued during the nine months after his diagnosis.  I thanked him for not dropping dead of a heart attack, so that we had time to talk. I have nothing left that I would have said to him. When I joined a bereavement group, people were envious of me, because they hadn’t talked like that. They thought they’d have the time to do it, but they procrastinated.”

Numerous resources exist to assist people in facing their fears.

Ronnie Kaye, a psychotherapist in West L.A. and herself a cancer survivor, sees many people dealing with mortality. “Each person carries a set of issues related to sickness and mortality,” she said. “No matter what age, I ask, ‘Tell me what scares you?’ It’s opening the dialogue, not knowing where it will lead, but convinced that anything they open up is something we will be able to manage together.”

It’s not unusual for someone facing the end of their life to express anger, Kaye said, and this is especially true with young adults or teenagers. “There is an extra ingredient, because it’s not the right time; there was so much more life to live. In contrast, I often hear from an old person, ‘I’ve had a good life.’ ”

Meditation, or “mindfulness,” is believed to help ease the emotional turmoil of facing illness or mortality. Arash Asher, director of Cancer Survivorship and Rehabilitation at Cedars-Sinai, agrees. “It really is about being self aware and differentiating what our thoughts and feelings are from reality, and having some sense balance in relation to that.” Finding such resources is one of the services offered by Dikla Benzeevi, a patient navigator in Studio City. “I guide them through the journey,” she said. “What’s the most critical thing to do now? What’s the best way to go about the next steps? What can you learn? Where can you get support? I talk about the best approach and help them find resources.”

Counseling both the dying and their family is something Feinstein does often. “Someone came to me when his father was dying. He expected me to have some sort of prayers or mystical rituals to carry out, and I said, ‘Yes, we have them, but it’s more important that you hold his hand and he hears your voice talking about your children and how he’s affected them.’ What we’re tying to do is to re-humanize death. By recognizing that death is what happens to us all, it gives people the courage to help each other through that.”

What might be needed in a family, Rabbi Elie Spitz of Congregation B’nai Israel in Tustin said, is encouragement to be honest about a loved one’s condition. “If I’m with a family that’s withholding that information, I counsel them to share it. The context of last words to someone who’s dying is acknowledging on both sides that the end is near. It’s essential for your relationship and closure that there is honesty and partnership.”

Doctoring

“Doctors are in the business of healing and tend to focus on that rather than acknowledging the end is near,” Spitz said. “That’s where palliative care doctors will say, ‘Here are your options and you might choose to die with less pain by not having heroic measures.’ ”

Lieber agrees. He presents treatment options – the pros and cons – and talks with patients about whether the treatment is worth it. “People are not looking for just the technical. They want to know that you care and will discuss the options and value judgments with them.”  

Kaye recalled a special example of doctoring.  “I was sitting with a patient in the hospital when Dr. Av Bluming came in. The patient said, ‘Am I dying?’ and he said, ‘Yes, you are. What questions do you have for me about that?’ The only thing she wanted to know was, ‘Will it hurt?’ and he said, ’It’s my job to see that it doesn’t.’”  

A word about hospice, or end-of-life palliative care: My mother spent her last years in a board-and-care home. Twice in her last month, they rushed her to the hospital, which was not what she wanted. I discovered that getting Mom into hospice would allow her to stay in her room at the board and care, which was now her “home.” She died there, with my sister and me telling her we loved her and singing her favorite Broadway melodies. 

Faith, God and Yom Kippur

For some, faith can help lessen the fear of dying, but if one believes a terminal illness is a punishment from God, it can be confusing.

“I don’t think God gives us cancer,” Feinstein said. “The disease is the human condition that we live with. To me, God comes into it when a doctor walks into my room at 5 a.m. to make sure I’m OK, and when we live lives of meaning and take care of each other. My faith, when I was diagnosed, focused on the people around me and reminded me of the many blessings in my life.”

The traditional Yom Kippur liturgy suggests that if one is not forgiven by God, he or she might not live another year. This can be frightening for someone with a terminal illness.

“The liturgy comes from a different world,” Feinstein said. “Rabbis have always reinterpreted ancient sources for their contemporary times. I had wrestled with those prayers and, after my diagnosis, I found new meaning in them. I understood why they needed to be reinterpreted when a person is struggling with life and death. The holiday asks you, if you had only 25 hours to live, what would you want to accomplish? What would you want to say?  That’s what Yom Kippur is about.”

Added Spitz, “The wisdom of our tradition is that Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of life, and Yom Kippur is the taste of death. The 10 days between the holidays offers a mini life cycle that gives us the perspective from both sides of life … the beginning and the end, leading us to know about the value of our lives.”

Finding meaning

Eve wanted to have a “good death.” She reminisced about her family, her challenges and successes, her friendships and life’s lessons. She expressed gratitude to people she loved, and she forgave both herself and others. She truly modeled finding and creating meaning before dying.

Asher started a program at Cedars-Sinai to increase people’s emotional wellbeing when facing cancer. “Even though one is in this serious situation,” Asher said, “there are still things that they can be grateful for. You can still define your own legacy and find meaning in things that are very important to you. You still have the capacity to love and to laugh.” Asher’s program is called Growing Resiliency and Courage with Cancer, or GRACE.

Benzeevi, the patient navigator, has noticed that a serious diagnosis can inspire positive life changes. “When people receive a metastatic cancer diagnosis, they may experience a major transformation. They let go of toxic relationships and create more nurturing ones. They alter their life style. Their perspective changes; things that used to aggravate them are not as important. Their priorities change. They live life at a more experiential level, with a deeper mindfulness of the moments in their day and week, and of their relationships.”

In February, the neurologist and author Oliver Sacks wrote in The New York Times about his terminal diagnosis. “It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.

“I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.” 

Ellie Kahn is an oral historian, award-winning documentary filmmaker and founder of Living Legacies Family Histories, www.livinglegaciesfamilyhistories.com, which produces audio and video of oral histories for families and organizations.

Yehuda Avner, Ambassador and Advisor, Dies at 86


Yehuda Avner, a senior advisor and speechwriter to five Israeli prime ministers and an articulate chronicler of the Jewish state’s history, died March 24, 2015 in Jerusalem.

Avner served as advisor to Israeli Prime Ministers Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, as speechwriter to Israeli Prime Ministers Golda Meir and Levi Eshkol, and as Israeli Ambassador to Australia and the United Kingdom. Born in Manchester, England, he settled in Jerusalem in 1956 and joined the Israeli Foreign Service in 1958.

Born in Manchester, England, he settled in Jerusalem in 1956 and joined the Israeli Foreign Service in 1958. For 25 years, Avner, a Modern Orthodox Jew, was posted to the Prime Minister's office and worked for five Israeli prime ministers in the tumultuous early days of statehood. Avner was standing by as Israel’s leaders took momentous decisions related to military operations and diplomatic negotiations, including Operation Entebbe, Operation Opera and the signing of the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty.

As a diplomat, Avner served in diplomatic positions at the Israeli Consulate in New York City, and the Israeli Embassy in Washington D.C. In 1983, he was appointed Ambassador to Britain and Non-resident Ambassador to the Republic of Ireland. He returned to Israel in 1988, before serving as Ambassador to Australia between 1992 and 1995.

In 2010, Avner assembled his notes, correspondence and other materials and used it as the basis of his landmark 702-page memoir, “>Jewish Journal in a 2013 interview. Another hero of Avner’s was Menachem Begin. Often caricatured in the West as an irredentist right-winger, the Begin that emerges in Avner’s anecdotes is a man of supreme erudition and deep concern for all Jews, with a willingness to join forces with his ideological opponents for the good of the country. As for Yitzhak Rabin, Avner recounts several conversations that show what a concentrated and analytic intellect the general brought to bear on existential issues.

When asked how today’s leaders compared to these originals, Avner spoke with blunt insightfulness. “They were made of much flintier rock,” he said. “The circumstances forged them in that furnace of Eastern Europe, with its constant state of social and political turbulence. Also, all of them were literate Jews. They took it for granted they would breed a generation of literate Jews. It didn’t work out that way.”

In The Prime Ministers Avner also reveals a long history of ups and downs in the American-Israel relationship that numerous reviewers couldn't help but notice provided a much-needed sense of perspective in light of current events.  In one notable passage, Avner recalls Rabin's real politik advice to Menachem Begin when handling American politics:

“It is not enough for an Israeli ambassador here to simply say 'I’m pursuing my country’s best interests according to the book,'” Avner recounts Rabin telling an astonished Begin. “'To promote our interests an Israeli ambassador has to take advantage of the rivalries between the Democrats and Republicans. An Israeli ambassador who is either unwilling or unable to maneuver his way through the complex American political landscape to promote Israel’s strategic interests would do well to pack his bags and go home.'”

In 2013 and 2014, Moriah Films, the film division of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, produced The Prime Ministers, a two-part documentary based on Avner's book. It is narrated by Avner in his brisk and engaging English accent, with stars Christoph Waltz, Sandra Bullock, Michael Douglas, and Leonard Nimoy as the voices of Israel's Prime Ministers.

In a lecture sponsored by