Friday, September 26, 2008

Putting Death Back in Dying...

Let’s talk about death. No, really, don’t go! Most of us have issues with death. We don’t like to talk about it – reminds us that we all leave this earth the same way… we die. Who wants to think about dying when you’re healthy, when you live in a prosperous country? Even if you’re not rich, you’re better off than the majority of the world, so why bring a downer into the conversation and talk about death?

And when we do talk about death, we have a tendency to do so in platitudes. There are a couple of reasons for that, I think… generally speaking, most of us don’t write our own obituaries (heck, it’s a pretty humbling thing to write a will!). And we’re not celebrities, so no newspaper office has one ready to go for most of us… That means that the task of getting the obituary into the newspaper usually falls to a grieving family, who are often in no shape at all to do more than the basic obituary notice we’re all used to seeing – “passed peacefully away after a long struggle bravely borne…” or “passed peacefully away after a courageous struggle with…” I’m pretty sure that if my death comes after a long struggle, it’s unlikely to be all that peaceful, and I doubt very much that I will be all that courageous. If we were to follow that format for me, and wanted to be honest about it, it would have to say something like, “died after a tedious struggle, during which she was more cranky than usual…”

But please, don’t worry about it!! I definitely don’t want someone else writing my obituary (I’ve already done it thanks, but you’ll have to wait ‘til I shuffle off this mortal coil to see it… some friends have seen a draft, but of course, it gets updated from time to time… will you get a mention in my obit?!). And I especially don’t want any announcement of my death to include the phrase “passed peacefully away…” or in fact, “passed away” in any form!! (I used to tell my daughter, before I decided to write my own obituary, that if anybody tried to use those phrases, I’d come back to life to beat the person who did it!)

What on earth is our problem with the word “died?!” Most of us have seen The Lion King, and Mufasa certainly didn’t “pass away!” He died! And that’s ok – it is, as the song says, part of the circle of life! The Torah tells us, in Deuteronomy, that “Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died.” For Christians, Jesus didn’t “pass away,” either. “He was crucified, died, and was buried…” So what’s with the platitudes surrounding death? If we say “passed away,” does it somehow lessen our grief? Do our hearts ache less if the obituary says “passed away,” and not “died?”

We can joke about death, about killing, and about murder – “Man, I really died out there!” says a baseball player having an off day. “I could have killed him!” “I could really murder a good steak right now.” So we’re not afraid of the words, then. Except for the instance of using them to refer to someone who has actually died.

So, light years into the future, if you should see my obituary, and if it says “passed away,” you’ll know that it’s not the one that I have prepared. And if you had a hand in getting it ready, you should hide, because I’ll be on my way to have a little chat with you!

Monday, September 22, 2008

The tallit

If you google the word "tallit," you might wind up at a web page that offers this: "The tallit (also pronounced tallis) is a prayer shawl, the most authentic Jewish garment. It is a rectangular-shaped piece of linen or wool (and sometimes, now, polyester or silk) with special fringes called Tzitzit on each of the four corners. The purpose of the garment is to hold the Tzitzit. Most tallitot (alternative plural: talleisim) have a neckband, called an Atarah, which most often has the blessing one recites when donning the tallit, embroidered across it." ( As much as there's some useful information there, though, it's more difficult to explain what to me has become the very profundity of the tallit.

I used to think that a tallit was an interesting idea... but I didn't want one.

Then I noticed that some women in my synagogue were wearing them, and that was interesting... but I didn't want one.

After a while, I thought that it might be nice to have one to wear from time to time... but it wasn't really important.

After another while, I thought that perhaps I would, after all, like to have one, if I could find one that I liked... but I didn't look that hard.

It was on my mind, though, and I kept coming back to it. Eventually, I started to look for one. There are some incredibly beautiful ones available to purchase, but I wasn't really sure, because I wasn't really sure of my commitment to the idea. Perhaps, I thought, I might make one for myself. I began to look for fabric... but not too hard. It wasn't that important (yet).

One day, out shopping for something that had nothing to do with a tallit, I found a beautiful linen scarf - the only one of its kind in the store. I noticed it because it had two bands of a particular shade of mossy green that my daughter and I call "Grandma Green," because it was my mother's favourite colour. I had no idea what I might do with this scarf, but I knew that I would buy it simply because of the colour.

By the time I got home that day, I had decided that I would make a tallit with this scarf. I began searching for a design, but again, though there was much to see that was quite beautiful, there was nothing that really spoke to me.

I remembered The Book of Ruth. According to David Plotz of Slate Magazine, this is one of the most popular books of the entire Bible (Jewish & Christian books included). Many of us have heard Ruth read at weddings - "your people will be my people, your God will be my God." What we often don't know, though, is that this is not said by a bride to her husband. Rather, it is said by a widow to her mother-in-law. And suddenly, I had an idea for my tallit. I had lost something myself with my conversion - in my case, it was a great connection to my family. Of course, they are still my family and still love me, but we no longer share a faith tradition... and yet, although I couldn't minimise the importance of this, there was no question that I was choosing another path.

So my tallit, starting out with this cream-coloured linen scarf with its green bands, was embroidered with a tree of life... and with the Hebrew words for "your people will be my people, your God will be my God." My mother taught me to embroider when I was about 10 or 11, so there is more of her in this tallit than just the colour. I think she would have liked the idea. I finished the tallit last year in time for Rosh Hashanah, which seemed appropriate, and have been wearing it since.

Why wear a tallit, though? I'm a Conservative Jew, and as an egalitarian branch of Judaism, women certainly can wear them, but not all women do. In fact, women are in the minority in this choice, it seems. Once I began to make mine, though, I began to think about what it might mean to me. The way that it makes most sense to me is this: I wear a tallit because in a community of Jews, where we pray together, the tallit provides me with an intimate space for my own personal interaction with God. I am a Jew as part of a community, but also as an individual, and here is a space where I am that individual but in a community of believers.

I don't know how many others who wear a tallit feel (or have come to feel) as I do about them. I love wearing it, I love the connection I feel to God and to a tradition - to a people - that is thousands of years old. I loved making it, because with every stitch, I was reminded of its importance. When I embroidered the blessing on the atarah, I had time to savour every single Hebrew letter, each Hebrew word, that would eventually come to say, "Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha'olam, asher kid'shanu, b'mitzvotav vitzivanu l'hitataif b'tzitzit," or "Blessed are You, Lord God, king of the universe, who makes us holy with commandments, and who has commanded us to wrap ourselves in tzitzit."

What's most important about the tallit isn't actually the tallit, though - that's what you see first. What's important are the tzitzit, or the fringes, that hang from each of the four corners. They are meant to remind us of the commandments (mitzvot), so that whenever we put on a tallit, we say a blessing that reminds us of them, and we wear a garment upon which they are, metaphorically speaking, resting.

It's not a tallit if there are no tzitzit, so I had to learn how to tie them. And this is where my greatest surprise came, because it wasn't just about wrapping a handful of threads around each other until they looked like the fringes I'd seen on other tallisim (that's the plural of tallit). There's a pattern to the winding and knotting of tzitzit, and like much in Judaism, there's symbolism connected with the number of times you wind and knot the threads. Ultimately, by the time you've finished wrapping and knotting, you will have 'counted' to 613. Care to guess how many mitzvot there are in the Bible? Yup... 613. And every time you tie a knot, you say "L'Shem Mitzvat Tzitzit ("for the sake of the commandment of tzitzit")," as a reminder of why these fringes are so imporant.

I've grown used to my tallit. I would feel incomplete at shul without it. For me, it's an expression of my faith, and the great amount of time spent in creating a tallit reminds me how important my faith is to me. Maybe that's why I'm almost finished another one (though my daughter suggests that my ultimate aim might well be to have a tallit that matches each pair of shoes I own!). I had thought it would be finished for the summer... then, I thought it might be finished for a Bar Mitzvah in late August... then I began to wonder if I would ever finish it at all!

Well, this evening, I will finish it. I was on a roll last night and got a lot of work done. It's beautiful, more beautiful than I had dared hope it would be, and I can hardly wait to tie the tzitzit! It will be ready for Rosh Hashanah, and how perfect is that? Perhaps this will become my own tradition - a new tallit for each new year. L'shanah Tovah!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The things that friends do...

I have some pretty good friends - people I've collected along the way, who've come to be like an extended family to me. They have taken care of me when my heart was broken... or a pinkie... they have come to dinner at my home... and invited me to MAKE dinner at THEIRS (you know who you are!)

They have, in fact, supported me in ways that are tremendously important, and it's only when I mention them to other people that I realise how unusual they really are. They have come to Catholic Masses (well, when I was Catholic, of course), although they are not Catholic, because I was preaching... They have been interested enough in my conversion to Judaism to ask me all kinds of interesting questions about it, without ever suggesting that it's just a passing fad... They have, in fact, learned about hechshers - which, in case you don't know, are wee little marks on food packaging that tell me whether or not the food is kosher - because they know I keep kosher. They have taken care to wish me L'shanah Tovah, and Happy Hanukkah, and don't send me Christmas cards anymore. (I didn't know how much that acknowledgement of my path was going to mean to me!) They have come to shul with me, even though sometimes the service is very long, and much of it is in a language that is foreign to them.

They have helped me move... again, and again, and again! They have helped me organise closets, and pick up furniture... They have gone to countless movies with me...

They have loved my daughter without reservation, just as they love me.

They have laughed with me and cried with me. They've been angry at things that have angered me. They are my defenders and sometimes my critics (and that's mostly ok!).

They are not all here, my friends... some of them are too far away to see often, and I miss that. But I count them all as blessings, and every one is precious.

L'chaim to my beautiful friends... you rock my world.

Gearing up for High Holidays

So, High Holidays begin in less than 2 weeks, and in preparation, I've been doing some thinking and some planning. Who will I invite to share dinner with me on the first night? That's pretty much organised. What will I serve? Pretty sure my daughter and her girlfriend don't want to eat gefilte fish... in fact, I don't think that Reigh (the girlfriend) will want to eat fish at all! Still time to work it out.

I've made a little siddur of sorts for the dinner, because most of the people there won't be Jewish, and for it to have any relevance at all, I thought it would be nice for them to have some of the symbolism handy. (We're all about symbols...!) This is the trick about being the only Jew in the family - it's hard sharing your holidays.

I've also been spending some time really thinking about the holidays, and what they mean. I came across this poem at, and when I read it, I was just speechless. It's so beautiful, and it expresses precisely what I feel at Yom Kippur... very small, very flawed, very humble.

Yom Kippur
By Philip Schultz

You are asked to stand and bow your head,
consider the harm you've caused,
the respect you've withheld,
the anger misspent, the fear spread,
the earnestness displayed in the service of prestige and sensibility,
all the callous, cruel, stubborn, joyless sins
in your alphabet of woe
so that you might be forgiven.
You are asked to believe in the spark
of your divinity, in the purity
of the words of your mouth
and the memories of your heart.
You are asked for this one day and one night
to starve your body so your soul can feast
on faith and adoration.
You are asked to forgive the past
and remember the dead, to gaze
across the desert in your heart
toward Jerusalem. To separate
the sacred from the profane
and be as numerous as the sands
and the stars of heaven.
To believe that no matter what
you have done to yourself and others
morning will come and the mountain
of night will fade. To believe,
for these few precious moments,
in the utter sweetness of your life.
You are asked to bow your head
and remain standing,
and say Amen.

Posted Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2008, at 6:55 AM ET