Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
For the last few months, on most Saturday afternoons I have been visiting a woman I will call Betty, in order to preserve her privacy. Betty is in hospice, which means she is approaching the end of her life, and is living at home in a hospital-type bed she will likely never leave, with the constant attention of a caregiver.
I met Betty because I am a volunteer for the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. Living at home alone, unable to go out, and seeing only one person (or the caregiver’s relief on her days off), can be quite a lonely existence. So I was asked to visit.
Unfortunately, by the time I got to visit Betty for the first time, she was already suffering from dementia. I have never had a conversation with her. Once or twice she has asked me who I am, but when I answer, there has been no coherent conversation after that.
Once, the entire time I was there, Betty was talking. Part of the time, she was asking me whether I had my car keys, and she seemed to want to go someplace. Some of the time, she was speaking with people I couldn’t see. At one point, she appeared to be hosting a dinner party in her mind, and was concerned that the roast come out of the oven in time.
Usually when I see Betty, she is asleep. Sometimes I talk to her. Sometimes I quietly sing or hum some Jewish songs to her, knowing that music is processed in a different part of the brain than speech, and hoping she will recognize the tunes.
At times, I have wondered whether there is any point to my visits. Generally, she doesn’t seem to know I am there. Even when she opens her eyes and looks at me, I’m not sure she really sees me. But part of me hopes that somehow, on some level, my presence is making some kind of positive difference, if only to help her to feel a little bit less alone.
Last Saturday, Betty woke up shortly after I arrived, and said, “Who are you?” I answered, and then she reached out her hand. I held her hand in mine while she fell back asleep. I started humming and singing some Jewish songs, mostly from the Saturday morning liturgy.
Suddenly, for the first time since I’ve been visiting her, it occurred to me to sing the Sh’ma. I had mixed feelings about this idea. The Sh’ma is the most recognized prayer in Jewish liturgy. Even those Jews who aren’t very observant know it. We chant it as part of every service. It is called “The watchword of our faith.” So, although I wasn’t sure whether Betty knew all the other songs I had sung to her, I was confident she knew this prayer.
On the other hand, the Sh’ma is supposed to be the last thing we say before we die. I certainly did not want to imply that Betty was about to die. For a patient who is coherent, and certainly for a person in hospice who was aware that the Sh’ma is said right before death, I wouldn’t dream of suggesting it. But in this case, I decided, it would be okay, because I was confident it wouldn’t register with Betty as a sign of impending death.
So I began to chant the Sh’ma, using the tune so familiar to Jews around the world. And as I began the second part, the V’ahavta, Betty drew the hand I was holding in mine to her other hand, so she could hold my hand in both of hers.
She held my hand in hers like that until I approached the end of the prayer, when she pushed my hand away and opened both of hers, letting go.
I don’t know what it means, but I like to think Betty recognized this most familiar of prayers. I like to believe the tune reached a part of her brain that still remembers. I like to feel that, somehow, my visits do, indeed, make a difference.
12.18.13 at 12:30 am | A resource for when a general healing prayer just. . .
12.11.13 at 12:30 am | You might think it's just a little thing, but. . .
12.2.13 at 3:51 pm | Bullies can only continue to do what they do with. . .
11.27.13 at 12:00 am | Apparently, the technician gave my phone to the. . .
11.20.13 at 12:00 am | When we thank some donors at the expense others,. . .
11.13.13 at 12:00 am | Do we think the dead, like God, can hear us no. . .
12.11.13 at 12:30 am | You might think it's just a little thing, but. . . (93)
8.28.13 at 1:00 am | Or, just how hard is it to get a refund for what. . . (21)
10.16.13 at 1:00 am | It can be difficult to transition from one. . . (19)
October 23, 2013 | 1:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
On Monday night I attended the first in a series of classes by Kevah, an interesting educational institution based in Berkeley, CA. Most Jewish education courses are top-down, with the institution deciding the topic of the course and where it will be. They then go in search of students to attend the course.
Kevah, on the other hand, is bottom-up. If you know a group of people who are interested in serious Jewish education, you (on your own or with Kevah’s help), can decide on a topic, and then Kevah will design a course around your needs. You meet in the home of one of your group’s members, or in any other agreed-upon place. In addition, they focus on building community at the same time that they are educating.
The beauty of this system is you get to learn about exactly what you want to learn about, with the folks with whom you want to learn, rather than with random people that happen show up. Our group chose “Jewish Ethics,” which, of course, could cover a wide variety of potential topics. Our instructor, Joshua Ladon, started with the question of how do we determine when a person has died. Is it when their brain stops functioning? When they stop breathing? When their heart stops?
He said he wanted to choose a topic that was interesting, but not one that was so controversial that we might come to blows or ruin our relationship with each other. That seems like a wise way to start, especially since he hasn’t worked with us before, and didn’t know what to expect from us. I’m happy to say we’re a pretty congenial group, and we are used to disagreeing on occasion in a way that maintains our mutual respect and affection. So, I suspect we will be able to tackle more controversial subjects in the future.
We started with a discussion of when we think a person has died. We then discussed a number of related excerpts from the Talmud, as well as the opinions of R’Moshe Fienstein and his son-in-law, R’Moshe David Tendler.
It was a revelation to some in the class that Orthodox Jewish opinion is not settled on this issue. We in the Reform world often get the impression that Orthodox Jewish law is settled on most important matters, so it can be eye-opening to see where there are differences of opinion, especially on a question as fundamental as when a person has died.
In addition to what constitutes death, we also spent some time discussing end of life issues, and whether it is okay to be either passive or active in regard to the end of a person’s life. For instance, one person spoke of a relative who had asked that no measures be taken to revive him, and how hard it was to sit nearby as the heart monitored slowed and then stopped. Even if you know it is their wish, it can be very difficult to passively allow a person you love to die.
Similarly, I spoke about having to make an active decision when my grandmother was dying. The doctor said she would never leave the hospital alive, and that she was in pain. He told me he could give her more morphine, but it might cause her to stop breathing and die. Making that decision was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.
This class helped us to discuss important, deep issues, and to examine our own thoughts and experiences about them. I am very much looking forward to discovering what next week’s class will be like.
October 16, 2013 | 1:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
I’ll start by saying I’m not converting to Orthodox Judaism, and I’m not transgender. So this whole blog post is written from an outsider’s perspective, and as a result, it may contain inaccuracies. I apologize to anyone who feels I have given an inaccurate picture of either the conversion or transgender experience.
I have read quite a bit of commentary by transgender people over the last couple of years, as well as by people who have converted to Orthodox Judaism. And it struck me how much these two groups of people have in common.
One thing both groups of people must contend with as they realize their situation and decide to pursue it is they have no idea how their friends and family will react. Both groups are likely to experience some resistance from at least some of the people who are closest to them. Both may experience feelings of rejection and hurt.
Families of both may feel like the convert/transgender person is rejecting them as well, even when they are not. They may think, “Why won’t the converting person eat in our home any more?” or, “Why won’t my daughter wear the beautiful earrings I bought for her?” Some of these issues may be smoothed over through conversation and attempts to understand the viewpoint of the other, but they may result in long-term confusion and hurt feelings.
In addition, both groups have to contend with doubts about their motives and sincerity. Both may run into people who think they’re not pursuing an identity that feels authentic to them, but may think they are “acting out” in order to get attention. Both groups are likely to run into people who believe what they are going through is “just a phase” and that they will go back to their “normal” life once they’re a little older and more mature.
Next, both groups have to contend with gatekeepers who test their sincerity and try to keep them out until they are able to “prove” that they belong. Both groups are asked to live the life they say they want to adopt, and neither group is taken as sincere until they have done so for some period of time.
Orthodox Jewish converts must meet with rabbis and possibly others who monitor their progress, just as transgender people frequently meet with doctors and mental health professionals who monitor theirs. Both groups are at the mercy of these gatekeepers, who may tell them that they cannot convert or, if they want reassignment surgery, they can’t get it.
Furthermore, even if the gatekeepers allow them in, they are held to a higher standard than others who were born into their adopted group, and there are always others who will continue to doubt their sincerity.
For example, those who are “frum from birth” may break the rules every once in a while, without anyone doubting their Jewishness. But a convert who is seen breaking those same rules will raise doubts about whether his or her conversion was sincere. In some cases, conversion has even been revoked.
Similarly, for example, females who are born with a male body are expected to always wear their hair and to dress in a feminine fashion, while females born with a female body are free to wear short haircuts and wear more “masculine” clothes without anyone doubting their gender or raising a fuss.
I’m sure there must be other similarities I haven’t mentioned. It just goes to show how difficult it can be when a person seems to be born into one group, but doesn’t fit into that group, and makes an attempt to be recognized as part of another group. I would like to see a world in which both Orthodox Jewish converts and transgender people could recognize their similarities, share their experiences with each other, and support each other.
October 9, 2013 | 1:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Pretty much every day, usually more than once a day, I ask myself, “What am I going to write about in my next blog post?” Sometimes, people ask me what I’m planning to write over the next few weeks, as if such a plan has ever existed in my life as a blogger. Sometimes, I’m worried I’ll never come up with anything interesting to write about again. Yet, every week, something seems to present itself.
And then, sometimes, what seems like a perfect story unexpectedly appears out of the ether. It’s a story with drama; it has a beginning, a middle, and an end; it includes moments of humor; it even presents a few displays of human kindness.
Such a story appeared this week. And I can’t tell it to you.
As a human being, over the last decade or two I have practiced being more open and revealing about myself. I continued to do that through my writing, and made my inner thoughts and feelings even more public when I started blogging a few years ago. It’s been quite a positive experience for me, and I highly encourage others to reveal their true selves and to say what they mean whenever feasible.
However, most people desire some degree of privacy. Not everyone wants every little detail of their lives splashed across the internet, for all to see, in perpetuity. I get that. And, while authenticity and self-disclosure are important to me, it is also important to me that the people around me know they can trust me not to share or – God forbid – publish what they would like to keep secret.
It does present a bit of a problem for me, since I can be a bit obsessive about my writing. When a story “wants” to be written, it won’t leave me alone. It keeps swirling around in my head, presenting phrases and even paragraphs, refusing to quiet down until I release it into a Word document or onto a piece of paper. It can be quite disruptive, interrupting me whenever I’m trying to think about something else.
I’m hoping that writing this piece will settle this particular story in my mind. If not, I may need to write it down even though I don’t intend to share it with anyone. But, no matter what happens, I’m sorry to say, I won’t be telling it to you.
October 2, 2013 | 1:30 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
For Sukkot for the last several years, I have helped to build the two sukkot (temporary huts) at the synagogue, and on occasion I shook the lulav, and I usually ate at least once each year in a sukkah. But that was about it. I never slept in one.
Sukkot is supposed to remind us of what it was like bimidbar (in the wilderness) as Moses led us away from Egypt and toward the Promised Land. It is supposed to remind us of the fragility of life and how everything we have is temporary. I never really got much of that feeling during Sukkot.
This year, I spent most of Sukkot in Kenya.
Kenya is where, while we were at the small Nairobi Wilson airport transferring between game camps, I noticed a breaking news story on a TV in a room off the main waiting area. Ultimately, more than 65 people were killed and over 100 more injured in this terrorist attack at the Westgate Mall.
As the incident was unfolding, I asked the airport employee watching nearby how far away the mall was. “Quite far away,” he reassured me, “Quite far.” Then he thought for a moment, and added, “About 30 kilometers” (less than 19 miles). That didn’t sound quite far enough away to me. That day I received the first of several emails from the U.S. State Department warning us of dangerous conditions and the need for heightened security in Kenya.
Kenya is a place where, painted on the side of our airplane, it said, “Cut here in emergency” (see photo above). I can’t imagine a scenario in which the best option in an emergency would be to wait while someone outside finds the proper tools to cut open the side of the aircraft.
For three days, we had a local guide/driver named Moses. He was great at finding all sorts of wildlife like elephants, lions, cheetahs, warthogs, and even a leopard and a rhino, and lining us up to get the perfect camera angle.
Kenya is a place where the people who run the game camps insist you don’t walk around during the early morning or in the evening hours without a guard. You aren’t allowed out of your tent at all during the night. They are so serious about this that after dinner there is a spotter outside the dining tent. Every time a couple finishes dinner and tries to walk back toward their tent alone, the spotter lights them up with a flashlight and one of the guards hustles over to lead them.
It is a place where the guards don’t always let you take the shortest route to and from your tent because there is a wild elephant of water buffalo on the path blocking the way.
It is a place where, on a nature hike on foot, we came across a wild bull elephant standing about 60 yards away. We knew it was a serious situation, because our local guide and the other local guard both turned toward it and froze, silent. We froze as well, but the non-local soldier with us kept talking until the guide told him to shut the heck up, so we could slowly and quietly sneak away. Afterward, the guide showed us the scar on his leg from when an elephant had stepped on it, breaking it before picking him up in its trunk and tossing him aside.
Kenya is a place where, one night, we heard an elephant rubbing up against the front of our tent, before it moved to the side and breathed just on the other side of the canvas from where my head lay on my pillow. Before it left, it broke the number sign off our tent, as well as the fence out front.
So this year during Sukkot I finally got that sense of impermanence I had been missing, the sense that anything could be around the next corner, and a feeling of gratitude for the safety and security I so often take for granted.