Of Breath and Kisses by Rabbi Janet Madden


For almost a week now, it’s been my turn to oversee my father’s care. I have been at his side, liaising with physicians and nurses in order to bring his pain under control, reassuring him that he is not a burden, assisting him to eat whatever he is able to eat, helping him with personal care and engaging in conversations around what his life will look like now, post-fall. Each time I leave his room, I kiss him gently on the cheek and tell him that we love him.

My father, who began his ninth decade of life with a birthday admission to the Emergency Room, does not experience cognitive deficits. He continues to be clear-minded and resolute about his end of life decisions. What is less clear for him—and for his children—is how, exactly, we will navigate the narrowing straits in which we now paddle: how we can reach the best possible balance between how he wants to live with the living arrangements that are now possible for him. The only certainty is that we recognize and are adjusting to the reality that a limit has been reached and that he is no longer able to live independently.

This life-changing time is different from, yet similar to, bereavement. It is a transitional time, a time that will require adaptability and sensitivity to many adjustments and ongoing changes from now until the end of my father’s life. Like so many of the families that I serve as a hospital chaplain, my family, too, now inhabits this liminal place of anticipatory grief—a grief that is no less real than bereavement and which comes from knowing that we are grieving not just what was and what now is but also what we know lies ahead.

With every injury and illness and every experience of recovery, we are reminded that our bodies are complex physical embodiments of fragility and resilience. Aging teaches us that our bodies are not well suited to long lives; our bodies are created to break down, to disintegrate into elements. As I witness the many complications that have resulted from his fall, I think, ruefully, of how my father’s physical experience of growing old is not that of Moses, who, we are told, died at age 120, with eyes “undimmed and vigor unabated” (Deuteronomy 34:7-8). My father’s aging is following a more common physical pattern: slow, incremental losses and then a precipitating, life-and-circumstance-changing event.

But as we spend these long days together and I continue to learn from my father, I’ve also been thinking that the Torah’s description of Moses’ clear vision and intense energy might not in fact refer to Moses’ physical body, but rather to his spiritual condition. Perhaps what the Torah is really telling us is that Moses’ many years of being in deep relationship with the Divine both sustained him through the disappointments and difficulties during his life and also supported him in old age, right up to the moment when he died “al pi Adonai” (“by the mouth of God”), which the midrash interprets as a loving, gentle kiss—the original “Kiss of Death.”

Like many of the elderly patients I’ve served in chaplaincy, my father is striving to cooperate with and accomplish everything that occupational therapists, physical therapists, nurses and aides ask of him. He is apologetic when he cannot. He is unfailingly polite, expressing thanks to everyone who cares for him, appreciative of the smallest things. Because he is a man of deep faith, he has shared with me how he is actively praying for Divine guidance in coming to acceptance of his new reality and in making decisions even as he is grieving his loss of independence and trying hard to recover sufficiently to transition to the next stage of his life, should he survive. He is aware that the combination of his pre-existing conditions and these recent injuries mean that he will never be as he was just weeks ago and that he may not live much longer. He is engaging in life review and sharing thoughts, reminiscences and instructions.

As my siblings, my father and I progress through this liminal, sacred time, the self-care practices that are sustaining me include meditation and chanting. These breath practices are important to keeping my spiritual and emotional balance. They keep me from becoming complacent about the miracle of breathing. They keep me mindful of how, on the physical level, life literally begins and ends with breath. They keep me mindful of how the Divine breath sustains me in my own spiritual life.

I pray the Mi Shebeirach for my father, knowing that healing comes in many forms, including in the cessation of breath. The prayer of my heart is that when that moment that breath ceases comes for him and for me, it will come gently, and we will know it for what it is: the breath-taking, unifying and loving kiss that comes by the mouth of God.

Rabbi Janet Madden PhD was ordained by The Academy for Jewish Religion-California. She serves as the rabbi of Temple Havurat Emet and Providence Saint John’s Health Center and has been a student of the Gamliel Institute. She is a regular contributor to this blog.

Rabbi Janet Madden

Rabbi Janet Madden

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GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

LOOKING FORWARD: UPCOMING COURSE

The Gamliel Institute will be offering course 5, Chevrah Kadisha: Ritual, Liturgy, & Practices (Other than Taharah & Shmirah), online, afternoons/evenings, in the Winter semester, starting January 9th, 2018. This is the core course focusing on ritual, liturgy, practical matters, how-to, and what it means (for everything other than Taharah and Shmirah, which are covered in course 2). The instructors will be Rabbi Stuart Kelman and Rabbi SaraLeya Schley, with some guest instructors during the course.

CLASS SESSIONS

The course will meet online for twelve Tuesdays (the day will be adjusted in any weeks with Jewish holidays during this course).

There will be an orientation session January 2nd.

Information on attending the online orientation and the course will be announced and sent to those registered.

REGISTRATION

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

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or see the information at the Kavod v’Nichum website. Please contact us for information or assistance by email info@jewish-funerals.org, or phone at 410-733-3700.

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Gamliel Café

Gamliel Students are invited to an informal online monthly session, held mnthly. Each month, a different person will offer a short teaching or share some thoughts on a topic of interest to them, and those who are online will have a chance to respond, share their own stories and information, and build our Gamliel Institute community connections. This initiative is being headed up by Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. You should receive email reminders monthly. The next scheduled session of the Gamliel Café is December 20th with a discussion of the creation of the Chai Mitzvah curriculum on discussing Jewish dying and death by Rena Boroditsky and Rabbi Joe Blair.

Starting in January 2018, the Gamleil Café will move to Thursday evenings at the same time. Watch for information on these events.

If you are interested in teaching a session, you can contact us at j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or info@jewish-funerals.org.

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Gamliel Continuing Education Courses

Gamliel students should be on the lookout for information on a series of “Gamliel Graduate’ Courses, advanced sessions focusing in on different topics. These will be in groups of three sessions each quarter (three consecutive weeks), with different topics addressed in each series. The goal is to look at these topics in more depth than possible during the core courses. The first course took place in Fall 2017, focusing on Psalms. The next course will be in April, and will look at death as seen in the Zohar, taught by Beth Huppin. Registration is required, and there will be a tuition charge of $72 for the three sessions. Contact us for information, by email info@jewish-funerals.org, or call 410-733-3700, or simply register online at www.jewish-funerals.org/gamreg/.

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16th annual Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference

Mark your calendar and hold the dates! June 3-5, 2018, in the Washington D.C. area. Details to be forthcoming soon.

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DONATIONS

Donations are always needed and most welcome to support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the annual conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, the Gamliel Café, and the Gamliel Continuing Education courses, 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, both 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) organization, 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 a regular email link to the Expired And Inspired blog 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, courses planned, and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.

RECEIVE NOTICES WHEN THIS BLOG IS UPDATED!

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.

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SUBMISSIONS 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 unpublished 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, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

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Death makes life matter: Thoughts on my brother’s passing


Last February, I joined a club. It wasn’t my choice. It’s one of the worst clubs around, and if you’re not already in it, I hope you don’t become a member. If I could quit, I would. But the bylaws forbid it.

Like all clubs, this one has its benefits, too. It provides a community and helps clarify relationships with friends and relatives. It also force-feeds wisdom — and lots of it.

This is the club of people who have lost a loved one at a painfully early age. Within the clubhouse, I’m in the room with people who have lost a sibling. And in that room, I’m at the table of people who have lost a brother. 

My older brother, Aaron, died on Feb. 3. He was 34 and had been diagnosed in March 2014 with metastatic bladder cancer. It’s a freak diagnosis for a young, otherwise healthy American male. There are a few hundred such diagnoses per year. 

Aaron was an observant, intensely curious Jew and had a brilliant mind with seemingly endless interests (philosophy, politics, physics, the list goes on). In his final months, he never acted bitterly toward the world or toward God. He actually became sweeter, kinder and more grateful than he already was.  

A crisis, the saying goes, doesn’t build character — it reveals it. And cancer, with its intense, painful and exhausting regular infusions of chemotherapy, plus – in my brother’s case – regular trips of hundreds of miles between hospitals, is an indescribably horrible crisis. It steals both your energy and your time. You have to feed yourself and the cancer, or the cancer will simply eat you. It forces you to rely on others when you’re accustomed to relying on yourself. It makes the simplest tasks — going to the bathroom, getting a cup of water — Herculean challenges. It makes every normal activity hurt and sets your default mood to depressed. Being happy takes a lot more work. Cancer is pure destruction. It’s the ISIS of the biological world.

Amid all that, Aaron’s character revealed itself as fundamentally decent. If he was in particular pain at any given moment, he would ask those who he knew would particularly worry (like my parents) to leave the room for a bit. My family and Aaron’s friends weren’t the only ones to lose a lot when he passed. The whole world lost a gift. And although I believe he’s in a better place, we’re certainly not. 

This experience has confirmed for me that someone needs to write a short guide to avoiding well-meaning but inane words of comfort, such as “It’s all part of a plan” (How do you know that?), or “God wanted him” (Why can’t God want Kim Jong-un?), or “I know exactly how you feel” (That’s impossible, even if you’re in the club), or — and this is my (least) favorite — “At least he’s not suffering anymore” (I assure you, he preferred pain to death).

But death also has a built-in silver lining. It’s what gives time meaning. Death limits time. Economics 101: The less of something there is, the more valuable it is. Aaron’s struggle with death didn’t only force him to think about the Big Questions. It forced me, and, I presume, all those who loved Aaron, to ask themselves the Big Questions. The most important one: If I were to die tomorrow, what would I regret about my life?

Aaron’s passing taught that this is the most important question to living a meaningful life. Knowing that my defining fear in life is to have regrets before I go has influenced my long-term plans for career and family, and, in the short term, how I spend my time every day. I more clearly understand that every second really does matter, and it takes flirtation with death to make that obvious. 

Aaron was a private person. I know that he re-examined his own life. But I don’t know what he concluded or what he would’ve done differently. I do know, though, that he wanted his life to have a lasting impact. I don’t buy the saying, “He’s not dead as long as we remember him.” Let’s change that saying to, “He’s not dead as long as he continues to impact.” 

To that end, my family is working with UCLA, where Aaron spent his final weeks, to create a kosher helping us raise money for the Shabbat closet, are creating this sacred space to commemorate Aaron’s life and death. Keeping alive Aaron’s positive impact in the physical world is not just about allowing us to remember him — it’s about creating something in his name that lives on. It’s about performing good deeds in his name. It’s about giving to the world what he would have wanted to give, but no longer can.

Death forces us who are here to re-examine our own lives and complete the unfinished tasks of those who died. And at Yom Kippur, we can take time to become more focused and to get moving, so that when our own time is up, most or all of our tasks will be completed.

For more information on the Shabbat closet at UCLA, please email jareds@jewishjournal.com

Obituaries


Eliezer Benjamini died Feb. 14 at 79. He is survived by his wife, Leslie; son, Ethan; daughter, Lori; stepdaughter, Carrie Bullock; stepson Jeff Bressler; grandsons, Joshua and Matthew; stepgranchildren; brother Eddi (Dorit); and brother-in-law, Bruce Hackel. Hillside

Lawrence Howard Beylen died Dec. 30 at 77. He is survived by his wife, Joan; daughters, Karen Rice, Andrea (Nathan) Gardner and Margo; and two grandchildren. Groman

Ann Gertrude Blaine died Dec. 24 at 87. She is survived by her nephew, Robert James. Malinow and Silverman

Beatrice Budnick died Jan. 4 at 89. She is survived by her spouse, Frank; daughter Heidi Goldberg; and two grandchildren.

Arnold Burton Cane died Jan. 30 at 84. He is survived by his wife, Ann Carter; three daughters; one son; two sisters; three grandchildren; and several great-grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Russell Chase died Jan. 22 at 83. He is survived by his sons, Philip and Douglas; daughters, Susan Levine and Marjorie; eight grandchildren; and friends. Pierce Brothers

Ann Davis died Dec. 26 at 81. She is survived by her sons, Steven, Joseph and Samuel; daughters, Diana, Rhonda and Miriam; 13 grandchildren; and one great- grandchild. Groman

Barry Herbert Gertler died Feb. 15 at 77. He is survived by his wife, Hope; daughters, Nan and Robin; son, Gary; son-in-law Michael; daughter-in-law, Robin; five grandchildren; sister, Illa; and siblings-in-law, Stanleyand Bert. Hillside

Lawrence Merrill Greener died Feb. 22 at 89. He is survived by his wife, Rosemary; son, Gary (Mallory); daughter, Lynn (Marvin); four grandchildren; sister, Faith Pearlman; nephew, Charles Pearlman; and niece, Penny Pearlman. Hillside

Morton Grossman died Jan. 5 at 84. He is survived by his wife, Zelda; daughter, Rachel; and two grandchildren. Groman

Anne Kanner died Feb. 16 at 93. She is survived by her sisters, Helen Samples and Iris; and nephew, Mel (Stella) Samples. Mount Sinai

Asir Kharitonov died Feb. 16 at 68. He is survived by his wife, Maya; son, Alex (Mariana); daughter, Natalia (Yahouda) Zarrabi; and five grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Catherine Leon died Jan. 28 at 95. She is survived by her daughter, Roberta; and sister, Rosa (David) Amato. Malinow and Silverman

Evelyn Maletz died Jan. 6 at 80. She is survived by her husband, Harold; son, Lloyd; daughter, Sherri; and five grandchildren. Groman

Constance Corinne Martel died Jan. 31 at 93. She is survived by her friends, Susan Connelli and Sylvia Lecher. Mount Sinai

Helen Montrose died Jan. 31 at 79. She is survived by her brother, Rabbi Lawrence; and nephew, Rabbi David. Malinow and Silverman

Nejatollah Nejat died Dec. 31 at 79. He is survived by his wife, Parvaneh; son, Albert; daughters, Rosette Younesi and Mahnaz Kohanchi; and five grandchildren. Groman

Dr. Peter B. Neubauer died Feb. 15 at 94. He is survived by his sons, Joshua and Alexander; and grandchildren.

Marjorie Oberman died Feb. 17 at 87. She is survived by her daughters, Lynn (Richard) Kravitz and Judy (Barry) Wechsler; son, Dennis (Deedy); eight grandchildren; 17 great-grandchildren; and sister, Joan Waldman. Mount Sinai

Ethel Reader died Feb. 15 at 91. She is survived by her daughter, Judi Chauncey; four grandchildren; and friend, Arne Wynner. Hillside

Cecile Rivkind died Feb. 1 at 85. She is survived by her daughter, Diane (Bill) Brinson; son, Steven; four grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and brother, Morton Newman. Malinow and Silverman

Mildred Schiller died Feb. 14 at 90. She is survived by her daughter, Adrienne; and four grandchildren. Groman

Freda Schlesinger died Dec. 26 at 89. She is survived by her friends. Groman

Ralph Segalman died Jan. 12 at 91. He is survived by his wife, Anita; sons, Robert and Daniel; daughter, Ruth Ancheta; four grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. Groman

Samuel Sideman died Feb. 12 at 79. He is survived by his wife, Naomi. Sholom Chapels

Joseph Simpson died Dec. 22 at 88. He is survived by his son, Myles (Gail); daughter, Joyce (Andrew) Edelson; and three grandchildren. Groman

Dr. Jacob Somerman died Feb. 3 at 90. He is survived by his son, Marnin. Sholom Chapels

Goldie Cooper Sonkin died Dec. 25 at 92. She is survived by her son, Julian (Pamela) Bieber; brother, Melvin Cooper; and two grandchildren. Groman

Roselle Helena Stein died Feb. 15 at 81. She is survived by her children, Bill, Gary (Ricki) and Hal (Joan); four grandchildren; sisters, Edith Zimbler and Judith; and brothers, Hyman and Jack Seiden. Mount Sinai

Kate Stone died Jan. 27 at 99. She is survived by her sons, Jerry (Donna) and Frank Stone; three grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Arlene Tarr died Feb. 14 at 81. She is survived by her daughter, Stephanie (Steve) Slater; grandchildren, Jessica Rembert and Scott Slater; and sister, Debbie Radwin. Mount Sinai

Mina Tsukerman died Jan. 31 at 88. She is survived by her sons, Isaac (Sofia) and Ilya (Zina) Zukerman; and five grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Fredrick Yamron died Feb. 18 at 76. He is survived by his sons, Bernard (Jennifer) and Todd; sister-in-law, Roberta Giller; and two granddaughters. Malinow and Silverman

Michael Zeitlin died Jan. 6 at 88. He is survived by his wife, Martha; son, David; nine grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and sisters, Ruth Resnick and Ethel David. Groman

Obituaries


Genelle Altman died Feb. 21 at 84. She is survived by her son, Jeff. Malinow and Silverman

Ben Berk died Feb. 21 at 99. He is survived by his daughters, Harriet (Arthur) Kohn and Marlene Safer; five grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Eugene Merrill Brown died Feb. 20 at 77. He is survived by his wife, Andrea Harris-Brown; sons, Brian (Yumiko) and Lance (Masako); and four grandchildren.Leana Kate Burkardt died Feb. 8 at 16. She is survived by her parents, Randy and Juergen; brother, Harrison; and grandmother, Ruthe Hirschfeld. Groman

Jay Barry Edelman died Feb. 20 at 54. He is survived by his father, Norman. Malinow and Silverman

David Flushman died Feb. 19 at 91. He is survived by his children, Bruce (Bette), Nancy (Bob) Eagleton and Phyllis (Ira) Klein; nine grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. Hillside

Marilyn Jussim died Feb. 20 at 71. She is survived by her husband, Jared; sons, Noah (Andrea) and Roderick (Tova); grandchildren, Eva and Solomon; stepmother, Hilda Blumberg; and cousin, Barbara Haar. Mount Sinai

Murray Kimmel died Feb. 21 at 88. He is survived by his wife, Gloria; and sons, David (Dina) and Joshua. Malinow and Silverman

Karen Anne La Casse died Feb. 18 at 52. She is survived by her husband, Bryan; sons, Adam and Michael; daughters, Tina Gonzalez, and Nicki Volkmar; six grandchildren; parents, Eliot and Rae Kontoff; sisters, Linda Birnbaum and Michelle Rindler; brother, Rob Kontoff. Groman

Henry Solomon Lager died Feb. 17 at 85. He is survived by his wife, S. Bernice; daughter, Eve (Joe) Schleich; sister, Thelma Heubsch; and three granddaughters. Malinow and Silverman

Arnold Laykoff died Feb. 11 at 79. He is survived by his wife, Celia; son, Richard; and two grandchildren. Groman

William Lerner died Feb. 17 at 83. He is survived by his wife, Florence; son, Jeffrey; daughter, Linda Oppenheim; sister, Doris Leibers; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. Groman

Evelyn Henrietta Mayer died Feb. 18 at 89. She is survived by her son, Joel; six grandchildren; six great-grandchildren; and sister, Sylvia Setless. Groman

Victoria Moin-Amini died Feb. 16 at 85. She is survived by her sons, Sambiz (Vicky) and Kambiz (Jacqline); daughters, Shirin (Bijan) Kohan, Rana (Youseph) Sakhai, Mina (Shahim) Elihu and Ziba (Parviz) Amini; and 18 grandchildren. Groman

Jeanette Rosen died Feb. 21 at 90. She is survived by her son,Philip; daughter, Wilma Maxine Linsk; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Groman

Marshall Siff died Feb. 11 at 86. He is survived by his wife, Helen; son, Matthew; daughters, Susan Caldwell, Karen Ehrenberg, Victoria Russell and Jeny; and six grandchildren. Groman

Rose Sino died Feb. 13 at 89 She is survived by her son, David Swartz; and two grandchildren. Groman

Sylvia Slade died Feb. 20 at 87. She is survived by her son, David; daughters, Gayle Chamberlain and Shelly; and seven grandchildren. Groman

Madeleine Thompson died Feb. 21 at 65. She is survived by her husband, James; daughters, Victoria Ginsburg, Debbie (Robert) Miles and Jacqueline Godfrey; and five grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Hymen (Michael) Winn died Feb. 21 at 85. He is survived by his wife, Margaret; children, Shana (Marshall) Mintz, Sheree (Michael) Marx and Ross (Betty); stepchildren, Tony and JoAnna (Doug Levin) Price; nine grandchildren; and sister, Doris Cheston. Hillside

The Jewish Journal publishes obituary notices free of charge.Please send an e-mail in the above format with the name, age and survivors of the deceased toobits@jewishjournal.com or fax it to (213) 368-1684 — Attn: Obituaries.Deadline for publication is Monday at 9 a.m. Longer notices will be edited. Thank you for your understanding.

A date for three


I’m always hearing about a surplus of widows and divorced women, but recently I realized that I have been meeting widowers.

I got a call from my photographer
who asked if he could fix me up with one of his actor clients, “Moe,” who had spotted my photo and wanted to contact me. The last time I’d seen him was several years ago, and he was married then. Now he was a widower. I spotted his picture in the photographer’s sample book and kept flipping the pages. The photographer was pleased — he thought he was making a shidduch (match) and was surprised when I told him I’ve known Moe for years.

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Moe, acting like he didn’t know me, sent me an e-mail, containing a few silly one-liners — and he asked me to call him. I told myself I have nothing to lose — if nothing else I’d get a lunch out of it. I played it straight. I wrote back and asked him to tell me about himself and what it was about my headshot that caught his eye. He responded that it was the sparkle in my eyes, and he asked for my phone number.

He called and we arranged to have lunch on a Tuesday. At lunch I saw a totally different Moe. He was a little more serious. He talked about himself, and about his late wife, which brought tears to his eyes. She had died of a brain tumor, and he was her caretaker. He has grown children from a previous marriage. And, of course, we talked about our careers and how we keep busy between auditions.

Although we are both in a good age category, neither of us gets many auditions, but we keep plugging. We parted with “let’s stay in touch.” I called him about a week later, and we had a friendly chat and left it at that.

In 2003, I got a call from a friend in Chicago telling me that a mutual friend in Maryland had died of a brain tumor. I sent her husband “Joe” a condolence card. In 2004, as I usually do, I sent a Rosh Hashanah card. Then I get a phone call from Joe. A weekly call turned into a daily call. We reminisced about the old days and caught up with the present. He was still hurting after his wife’s death (it was a 45-year happy marriage). Our phone conversations cheered him up. Joe decided he wanted to visit Los Angeles. He had been stationed at Camp Pendleton in the Marines in the 1950s and had not been here since. I had not seen him since I left Maryland 30 years ago.

When I met him at the airport he looked the same — a few wrinkles, a little gray hair. Then I noticed a shaky hand (an uncontrollable tremor), and he had problems with his dentures. The two weeks in January that he stayed in my guestroom were the rainiest in Los Angeles. In between the raindrops, I tried to show him the sites. We did see a lot of movies, and ate out.

He hated to leave: He was having a good time and it was cold and snowy back East. Joe beamed when his flight was delayed by two days. Before he left, he accepted a wedding invite in May in San Francisco and invited me to go. His unmarried adult daughter was also invited.

When they came in May he rented a car, and was planning to do some of the driving. But once was enough for him, and L.A. traffic was not his thing. His daughter was no help, so he handed me the keys and I drove the entire trip up the coast. We stopped at all the famous sites. Having lived in the Bay Area for many years, I was familiar with the area.

During one of our phone conversations we had talked about what I would do if I had lots of money — my response was to travel. Well, he asked me if I wanted to go to Israel (the rabbi from his temple was going to lead a mission at the end of June 2005) — something I wasn’t expecting. Of course, I said yes.

He paid for the entire trip including separate rooms. Jerusalem was our home base and we were kept busy from morning till night. We took lots of day trips from the Golan Heights to the Dead Sea — including what seemed like every Israeli museum. I had a wonderful time and made 30 new friends instantly. As much as we both enjoyed the trip, it felt like his late wife was with him in spirit the entire time. Bottom line: we still talk twice a week. I’ve seen Joe a few times when I’ve gone to Washington, D.C. to visit my kids.

I feel sorry for both Moe and Joe. Although they say they are healing, I don’t think either one will get over the loss of their wives. The jury is still out. And, yes, I do feel somewhat cheated — maybe the next time I meet a widower I should give him a questionnaire asking “how far along are you in the grieving process?” before I date him.

Esther W. Hersh is an actress who lives in Los Angeles.

Obituaries


Joanna Black died May 2 at 17. She is survived by her mother, Suzanne; sisters, Danielle and Rebecca; and many friends.
 

Final Lesson


In this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, we have the most intimate description of a deathbed scene and the most elaborate description of a le’vayah (funeral) contained in the Torah.

As I read through this portion in preparation for writing this column, I found myself struggling for a theme. I quieted my mind for a moment and found myself immersed in memories — memories of the dying, of funerals, of people working through grief. Like all congregational clergy, I have attended to the dying and their families. It is one of the holiest things I do, or, more precisely, one of things I do that makes me most conscious of the Holy.

It’s an aspect of a rabbi’s life that, I believe, is key to all of us, but one that we don’t talk about much, even to each other. I feel in some ways that a dying man helped make me a rabbi.

I was a rabbinical student at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion when I first reported to my second part-time student pulpit in Boise, Idaho, in September 1982. Linda, the synagogue president’s wife, picked me up from the airport and after a bit of chitchat asked me if I was willing to work hard. I said that I was and told her a bit about myself, to which she responded, "Well, maybe you’ll do." She told me that there was a dying man, and she felt he needed to talk to a rabbi.

I had no idea what rabbis or anyone said to someone who is dying. It was just before Rosh Hashanah and I thought maybe he would want to hear the shofar, so I brought it along with my prayer book.

When we got to the hospital, Linda took a seat in the waiting room and I walked into the dying man’s room. He was having trouble breathing and looked angry. He said, "What’s that in your hand?" I told him it was a shofar, and I asked him if he wanted to hear it. He told me that if I wanted to be helpful, I could throw my shofar and my prayer book out the window and bring him a gun so he could put himself out of his misery.

I could feel that I had been play-acting at being a rabbi, doing what I thought a rabbi should do. I wasn’t real. I caught my breath and my bearings returned.

I put the shofar and the siddur on an empty bed, pulled up a chair next to him and said, "I don’t have a gun, and I don’t know that I would give it to you if I had one, but tell me why you want one." He told me of his excruciating pain in taking each breath. He told me of a wasted life, of the bitterness in his family. He just wanted out.

I told him, "I want you to tell me what went wrong, what you would do differently." I did not ask that only as therapy, I am a bit ashamed to say; I asked for me. I suddenly knew that one of the ways I might die would be like this, in a hospital bed, in pain. Would I think of a life wasted? Would I be filled with bitterness? I wanted him to teach me.

Each word was spoken in pain, but he insisted on speaking. I filled in words for him, and eventually pulled out a notepad and started writing things down. He spoke in grief about his children and their discord. I asked him what he would want to tell them, what legacy he wanted to give them. I told him, "This is your final goal — help us live better lives."

He grew so tired that I knew it was time to leave the room. I told Linda how it went. I could see her eyes laugh when I told her about asking him about the shofar. When I finished, she said, "You’ve got some work cut out for you here."

I flew into Boise once a month for a few days each time. I visited with the man in the remaining few months of his life and I spoke to his family. I helped him compose what I later learned was called an ethical will, a way of passing his values on to his family.

Linda and her husband, Alan, guided me carefully through the entire process, up through his death, which occurred when I was in Los Angeles; a lay leader officiated at the funeral. I felt the dying man’s family was transformed by his work, a transformation I hope was lasting.

I took the lessons he taught both to me and his children to heart. I became a witness to a family story, a story of love and bitterness and folly, and a final redemption. I realized that every family, every person has such a story, a fully textured life of hopes and dreams, of joy and heroism and tragedy, and we hope, of redemption.

Every life is a like book of the Torah, filled with laws and lessons, wisdom, drama and destiny. I realized something of my role, as one who works with the dying and their families — if I can, to draw out a teaching, a legacy, for those left to grieve, and for me.

And as we attend to the dying, grieve with their families, draw out lessons and legacies, we strengthen them, and we are strengthened.


Mordecai Finley is the rabbi of Ohr HaTorah and the provost of the Academy for Jewish Religion, California.

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