Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
My husband and I just got our Estate Planning documents done. By that I mean we each signed a Will regarding how we would like our assets distributed after our death, Power of Attorney documents in case we’re incapacitated and medical instructions saying to pull the plug if we’re brain dead.
Signing these three documents are the minimum a person should do in regard to pre-need planning. We also need to buy burial plots and leave instructions regarding the disposition of our remains. All of which brings up the question of an Ethical Will.
Many Jewish people write an Ethical Will for their kids. We don’t have kids, but I have two nieces. It would be cool if I could leave them with some wisdom when I go. Although, I have to admit, I don’t know whether it would do them any good. In my experience, most people learn from their own experiences, not from experiences or advice told to them by others. Especially unsolicited advice, which this would be.
It occurred to me that I could print out some of my favorite blog posts, and leave them in a folder for my nieces to read after I die. I don’t know whether or not they read my blog on a regular basis, but I suspect not. Either way, there are a few good ones in there from which they might learn something.
Then, I thought, maybe I could just write down a list of things I feel like I did right in my life. There are too many possibilities to try to anticipate what they might encounter and therefore what mistakes to avoid, but maybe some information about what I did right might be instructive.
So, here is a list of the top 10 things I feel like I’ve done right:
1. Married John Barnes
There is no contest for putting this decision at the top of my list. Having him in my life simply makes my life better. I might not have done it, but my father, alav hashalom, told me to marry a person I wanted to spend a lot of time with, and he was right. There’s nobody I’d rather spend time with than my husband.
2. Divorced my first husband
Number one above couldn’t have happened without this one happening first. My first husband was emotionally abusive, and he refused to try to learn how to stop. Staying with him would have meant destroying who I really am inside.
3. Promised myself not to allow fear to rule my life any more
When you spend 10 years with an abuser, you spend an awful lot of time in fear that if you make one wrong step, it might lead to an explosion. Eventually, you realize your fear is running your life. Now when I’m afraid, instead of running away, I walk toward my fear. And every single time I do so, I’m glad I did.
4. Joined my synagogue’s chevra kadisha
I used to be afraid of anything that had to do with death. Because of number three above, I knew that meant I had to get closer to death. The more I learn about death and dying, the more time I spend around people who are dead, dying, or in mourning, the more comfortable I get with it, and with the thought of my own death. I highly recommend it.
5. Didn’t give up on my first marriage too soon
Even though we’d lived together for five years before getting married, and even though I realized on my honeymoon that marrying him had been a mistake, I still spent the next five years trying to make the marriage work. If I hadn’t done everything in my power to try to make it work, I would have spent the rest of my life wondering whether I’d given up too soon. As it stands, that isn’t a thought that merits consideration.
6. Started greeting people coming to services at my synagogue
It’s awkward to stand around by yourself before services when you don’t know anyone. I had just read Ron Wolfson’s book “The Spirituality of Welcoming,” so I decided one day to stand in front of the synagogue entrance and to greet people as they came in. It’s amazing the doors that opened for me after I made that one simple decision.
7. Went to the mikvah
Every Jewish person should do this at least once. Open yourself up to this ancient Jewish ritual. It’s amazing.
8. Lived with cats
I’ve lived with cats most of my life. They make me smile every day. If you’re ever feeling too full of yourself, a cat will always be happy to remind you that you’re not as special as you think. But if you’re upset or crying, they will always be there to remind you that you’re not alone.
9. Participated in a long term medical study
For over 25 years, I’ve been part of a long term study regarding heart disease. I just started participating in a long term study regarding cancer. Everyone wants to help make the world a better place. If a few hours of my time and a few vials of blood every few years will help to find the causes of, or the cure to, any ailment, then I feel I owe that to future generations.
10. Learned to play the clarinet
Being in band helped to ease me into my new school after we moved from one end of the state to the other when I was between 6th and 7th grade. It gave me a great group to belong to in high school. It helped me to appreciate music in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise. And it helped my not-yet-husband to find me again, when someone in the adult band I was playing in told him I was getting a divorce. Your results may vary.
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July 24, 2013 | 1:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
The letter from my attorney came a few weeks ago. It said I had discharged all my duties as the executor of the estate of my father, alav hashalom. It was expected. It was a relief. It was a blow.
For more than two years, the administration and distribution of my father’s estate was my connection to him. Now, the steady stream of letters and emails, forms to sign and phone calls to make, had come to an end. Now, that connection to my father was gone. My last connection, the last thing that kept him reappearing in the front of my mind.
It had been a hard road; something I wanted to put behind me. Nobody finds the death of their father to be a piece of cake, but so many things went wrong with this one. After spending the last few years participating in my synagogue’s chevra kadisha, I knew what the rhythms and rituals around a Jewish death should look like. They didn’t look like this.
My father died shortly before the start of Passover. Passover, like any Jewish holiday – including Shabbat –overrides shiva, the traditional 7 days of mourning after burial. So, my experience would not have been ideal in any case.
But things really started to go sideways when my father’s widow decided to leave town for a week, refusing to make any arrangements until after she returned, thus eliminating any chance that my father’s remains would be buried in a timely manner. As it turned out, his body remained alone, unattended by s shomer, for 12 days before the burial. 12 days, for a Jew, who by all rights should have been buried within 48 hours.
Furthermore, since my father was being buried where he had lived at the end of his life, in Mono County, where there are no synagogues, there was no rabbi available to do the funeral. So I planned and conducted the funeral myself. Myself. Thank God there was a minyan from my synagogue gathered in my rabbi’s office back home to say the Mourner’s Kaddish with me over the phone, or I don’t know what I would have done.
Later, I found out my father had been in and out of the hospital the last week of his life, but nobody had told my sister or me, despite our clearly expressed desire to know any time our father was hospitalized.
I have been trained by the Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco to visit people at the end of their lives. I visit elderly people as a volunteer. This was my father. I felt I had been robbed of my opportunity to see him at the end of his life, to comfort him, to hear his last words to me and to say my last words to him. It hurt, deeply. It still does.
And all of that before I received my official papers as executor, shortly after which I discovered that in the days surrounding his death, virtually all the money from my father's two bank accounts, which he had Willed to my sister and me, had been transferred to somebody else.
That wasn’t the end of it, but you get the picture. The circumstances of my father’s death and eventual burial, as well as my duties as executor, were an ordeal. A long, unpleasant ordeal.
So when I got that letter telling me all my duties as executor had been discharged, I knew it marked the end of one part of my life, and the beginning of another. I wanted to mark that transition with an appropriate Jewish ritual. So I sent an email to my rabbi, saying, “I want to go to the mikvah.”
I had never been to the mikvah before. It’s not something Reform Jews do on a regular basis, but it’s becoming increasingly more popular as we reclaim many of the rituals abandoned by the founders of our movement. It is most often used by Reform Jews to mark passages such as conversion, weddings and such.
To me, it would mean the transition from a person with two live parents to a person with only one. It meant an end to the ordeals I had suffered after my father’s death. It would mean an end to the connection that being an executor brought, and a beginning of a new life. It also meant connection to an ancient Jewish ritual which I found tugging at my soul.
I cried through the whole thing. I cried as I counted the ritual seven steps as I walked down into the living waters. I cried as I immersed myself three times. I cried as the mikvah lady said “kasher” signaling each immersion as kosher. I cried as the rabbi, hidden behind a door, spoke to me. I cried as I said the blessings. I cried as I chanted the sh’ma and as I sang shehecheyanu. I cried as I walked back out of the water.
And now, somehow, I feel whole in a way I don’t remember ever having felt before.
July 17, 2013 | 1:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Of all the things not to like about the Trayvon Martin killing and subsequent events – and nothing could possibly even come close to outweighing the tragedy of an unarmed teenager being killed on his way home from the convenience store – there is at least one good thing coming out of it. And that is the discussion about racial profiling and its opposite, white privilege.
Although some white people may have an inkling of what white privilege is and how it advantages us, for many of us, it’s hard to get our minds around it. Young black males and other minorities live with profiling, and are reminded of it every time they are pulled over and/or questioned by police. It’s in their face every time it happens.
For white people, though, white privilege is not obvious. That’s because almost every time it happens, we have no idea it’s occurring. We only get a hint of it every once in a while. That’s what makes it so easy for us to dismiss it as nonexistent, uncommon, or unimportant.
Two years ago, my husband and I were driving in a rural, predominantly white area, when he was pulled over for speeding. “Are you heading up to the slopes to ski?” the officer asked my husband, peering into the back of the car, where no ski equipment was visible.
“No,” my husband replied, gesturing toward me, “We’re on our way to her father’s funeral.”
“I’m sorry,” said the officer, handing my husband’s driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance back to him, and then he let us go on our way without a ticket.
Would we have been treated differently if we had been two young black men, or members of any other minority group? I have no idea. And I have no way to know. Perhaps the officer, seeing no ski equipment and hearing of the reason for the trip, would have let anyone go without a ticket. But I doubt it.
Even more suspicious was a sobriety check point at which I was pulled over several years ago. “Have you had anything to drink tonight?” the officer asked me.
“No,” I replied.
“May I see your driver’s license?” he continued, holding out his hand.
“It’s in my purse in the trunk,” I told him.
“Do you know your driver’s license number?” he inquired.
“Um, it’s C05…something…I think,” I offered.
“Ok,” he said, and he let me go without asking me to retrieve my license from the trunk of the car. I was shocked.
You see, around this time the police in the county where this happened were being accused of staging sobriety checkpoints not just for the purpose of catching drunk drivers, but also for the purpose of arresting, and impounding the cars of, undocumented immigrants.
I am quite certain that if I had been latina, or if I had spoken with an accent, the officer would have insisted that I get my driver’s license out of the trunk . I am certain he would have checked it to make sure it was valid. It’s preposterous to think this was anything other than a case of white privilege in action.
I understand why it’s so hard for many of us to know when we’re the recipients of the advantages of white privilege. And I understand why that makes it hard for some of us to believe that it exists in any substantial way. So I’m grateful that this horrible tragedy of Trayvon’s death has at least gotten some of us to talk about it, because recognizing there is a problem is the first step toward solving it.
July 10, 2013 | 1:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
I was getting off the freeway on Monday, when I saw a bumper sticker in the back window of the vehicle in front of me. It featured a picture of California State Senator Dianne Feinstein, with a dog muzzle over her mouth, and the words, “Muzzle Feinstein.”
The message isn’t subtle, and it created a visceral reaction in me. It is typical of the kind of message aimed at women by those who feel we are threatening their male privilege. It’s insulting. It’s dehumanizing. It’s bullying.
It doesn’t matter what the women want or how much logic may be behind their arguments. These men don’t feel they need to respond with logic or reasoning. They don’t feel the need to make their case or to show weakness in the case of the women. No, their answer is to use their physical strength to silence us.
It is frightening to see such a thing in the United States. More so in California, which is generally considered to be one of the more progressive states. Although, I must admit, we are losing ground in that area, as evidenced by the passage of Proposition 8. Although that ban on same-gender marriage was recently overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, there are still many in this state who are up in arms about that decision.
This silencing of women is something that has been going on for a long time. It wasn’t that long ago (less than 100 years ago, less than a lifetime for some), that women in this country had no right to vote in elections. Women are still under-represented in top jobs in business and government, and women still earn less than men doing the same job.
Women continue to be undervalued, underpaid, bullied, and silenced.
Just this week, the Women of the Wall arrived at the Kotel for their monthly prayer service, and were met by crowds of ultra-Orthodox Jews who tried to silence them. Some blew whistles to try to drown them out.
What were these women doing that was so objectionable? They were trying to pray traditional Jewish prayers in the only Jewish country in the world, at the site where Jews have yearned to pray since the last destruction of the Temple almost 2,000 years ago.
These women were not breaking halacha (Jewish law), they were not breaking Israeli law, they were not attempting (and never have) to stop anyone else from praying in the manner they wish, they were not even trying to pray in a mixed group of men and women. Yet bullies showed up with whistles to silence them.
Because male privilege believes bullying is an appropriate response to threats to its power. Because religious privilege believes bullying is an appropriate response to those who sincerely hold beliefs other than its beliefs. Because so many have been accustomed, so long, to seeing women bend, compromise, and acquiesce to the demand for them to be silent.
But these tactics will not work. No more than Senator Feinstein will be silenced by the bullying of a bumper sticker will the Women of the Wall be silenced by the bullying of those with whistles.
Male privilege feels threatened because it is not only being threatened, it is being weakened. In time, it will be overthrown. Not because women want to replace it with female privilege. We don’t. All we want is to be heard, and to be recognized as equal partners. And we will get it. It’s just a matter of time.
July 3, 2013 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Last weekend was the hottest weekend we’ve had so far this year. It was hotter than normal for this time of the year. And our synagogue has no air conditioning.
There was both a bar mitzvah and a bat mitzvah ceremony in the sanctuary on Saturday morning. It was crowded. We opened the doors and turned on the fans in an attempt to create some air circulation, but within a half hour of the start of services, the temperature was clearly rising.
While the cantor led a prayer, the rabbi sat next to me for a moment. “It’s pretty hot,” she said, gesturing to the other side of the sanctuary, “and those people are sitting in the sun. Do you think we should pass out water to everyone?”
Clearly, she was concerned that passing out water in the middle of a religious service might be disruptive. Normally, we don’t allow food or drink in the sanctuary. On the other hand, there was a real concern for the people’s health. We have had people faint in the sanctuary on cooler days than this. Anyone, of course, is welcome at any time to get up during the service to get a sip from the drinking fountain, but visitors might not know it’s there.
Some have criticized Judaism, saying it is all about following rules. One of the most important rule, however, is that just about any commandment may be broken if breaking it will save a person’s life. The rabbis have interpreted this to mean we must break a commandment if doing so will be for the benefit of a person’s health. For instance, if a person’s doctor says that, for their health, they must not participate in a fast, not only are they allowed not to fast, but they are commanded not to fast. When it comes to a person’s health, they have no choice. They are commanded to choose life.
So another congregant and I went into the kitchen, and with the help of the caterer who was preparing lunch for after the service, we passed out cups of water to everyone in the sanctuary.
What does any of this have to do with Pride Shabbat? On Friday night, several members of the congregation spoke. They are all members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) community, either due to their own sexuality or identity, or others in their family.
One of the things some of them spoke about is the discrimination and pain suffered by many of the people in the LGBTQ community. One of the great tragedies about how some of the people in this community are treated is that so many of them contemplate, or even attempt, suicide.
So, as we were passing out the water to the people in the sanctuary who might feel uncomfortable or even faint, but who were quite unlikely to die, it occurred to me: Why are so many Jews ready and willing to make accommodations for people who are thirsty for water, yet so many are unready or unwilling to accept and embrace people who are thirsty for something just as important: for love and acceptance? As the suicides clearly show us, without these things, many in the LGBTQ community will surely die.
Whatever a Jew may believe about the meaning of the prohibition in Leviticus about a “man lying with a man as with a woman,” just about any commandment may be broken if doing so will save a life. If denying a person the right to love who they love, if claiming that their committed relationship is somehow less than anyone else’s, if denying them the ability to stand up and declare who God has made them to be results in their being harmed, then we must not do these things.
We are commanded not to do these things. We are commanded to do the opposite: to embrace them, to welcome their relationships, to recognize them as b’tzelem elohim, created in God’s image, just like everyone else. We must not stand idly by while the blood of our neighbor is shed. We must do our part to prevent the conditions leading to their suicide.
It is far past time that we all provide water for the thirsty and embrace our brothers and sisters in the LGBTQ community. To not do so is nothing less than to be in defiance of Jewish law regarding the sanctity of human life.
June 26, 2013 | 9:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
As you’ve most likely heard (many times) by now, this morning the Supreme Court announced its rulings on two key cases regarding marriage equality: DOMA, the federal “Defense of Marriage Act” was struck down, and the California court ruling overturning Proposition 8, which disallowed same-gender marriages, was allowed to stand.
What do these rulings mean for California? First, because the Supreme Court ruled that those who appealed the Proposition 8 court ruling did not have any standing with the court, the appeals court case stands, meaning Proposition 8 has been overturned, and same-gender couples may again be married in California. Look for further announcements from the State Attorney General regarding when, exactly, such marriages will resume.
That’s great news, but it’s only part of the success. Another layer of success was added by the overturn of DOMA. Although same-gender couples have been able to be married in several states, they were still denied various benefits enjoyed by opposite-gender couples. For instance, same-gender couples were not able to file joint tax returns, receive spousal survivor’s benefits, etc. All that will change now.
Most importantly, for many couples, when a lesbian or gay person marries, his or her spouse will now be treated the same as a heterosexual spouse in regard to immigration and citizenship. As a result, many same-gender spouses who have been forced to live overseas, apart from their America spouse, will now be allowed to come home. It is, indeed, a great victory.
What do these rulings mean for your synagogue or Jewish Day School? Essentially, nothing. Neither of these rulings will force your clergy or your synagogue to allow or conduct same-gender marriages if they do not wish to do so. The rulings will not force your Jewish Day School to treat its religious teachings about same-gender couples any differently than it does now. Despite the fear-mongering of some religious people, these rulings do not, in any way, harm your freedom of religion.
Does this mean it’s time for proponents of same-gender marriage to relax? No. Although the Proposition 8 ruling allows same-gender marriage to resume in California, there are still about three dozen states in which same-gender marriage is not allowed. We will not be able to rest until marriage equality is recognized in all states.
And, of course, the opponents of same-gender marriage will not rest, either. Whether they call heterosexual marriage “traditional” marriage, ignoring the centuries of polygamy that used to be the accepted as normal, or they call it “natural” marriage, implying there is something “unnatural” about people who God made lesbian or gay, they will continue to try to force their religious beliefs and definition of marriage onto others.
Now is the time to celebrate, but now is not the time to relax. Rather, it is the time to press forward in strength.
June 19, 2013 | 7:59 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
It has been said that most of us believe newspaper reporting to be generally accurate, until we read an article on a subject with which we are intimately familiar. It is then that we see the inaccuracies and distortions of a story clearly. Such was my experience with a recent article in The Jewish Daily Forward titled, “Unlikely Radicals Take Aim at Corporate Jewish Burial Business.”
The inaccuracy begins with the title, and continues with the very first sentence, which boldly states, “The annual meeting of the Jewish death care radicals is no place for a funeral director.” The author is speaking about the 11th Annual Chevra Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference which I attended, and which is, unsurprisingly, a very appropriate and welcoming place for a funeral director.
A chevra kadisha is a group of people who use Jewish ritual, prayers and practices to watch over a dead person between death and burial; and to wash, spiritually purify, dress, and place a dead body in his or her coffin in preparation for burial. We work closely with funeral directors, mortuaries, and cemeteries. Most of us have an excellent partnership with the funeral directors with whom we work, and we have every intention of keeping it that way.
The author of this article was referring to one presentation by Rabbi Wasserman in a single workshop surrounded by a very full three-day conference covering a wide range of other issues. Michael Slater, the President of the Board of Kavod V’Nichum, which puts on the conference, tried to correct the record in the comments section of the Forward.com article, stating, “We support a vigorous debate, including the airing of positions such as Rabbi Wasserman’s. We do not advocate the wholesale dismantling of the funeral industry as organizational policy.”
Indeed, although this one short workshop presented one Rabbi’s adversarial experience with his local funeral directors, most of the conference addressed various topics which had nothing to do with radicalism or controversy, let alone our relationship with funeral directors.
For instance, there were workshops and presentations concerning topics such as a basic taharah (preparation of the body for burial) demonstration, difficult situations that may come up while doing taharah, how an autopsy or organ (and/or tissue and/or bone) donation impacts taharah, infection control, processing feelings after a taharah, taharah liturgy, how to ensure the long term financial health of cemeteries, and how to properly tie the special three-looped knots called for as part of the ritual dressing of the body.
Fortunately, if you skip the title of the article and the first several paragraphs, the author does finally transition, for a while anyway, into a more accurate description of the conference, before returning to his fixation on Rabbi Wasserman’s single presentation. So at least the article isn’t a total loss.
I guess it just goes to show that you need to take everything you read with a grain of salt. Reporters are often not experts in the subjects on which they must report, and there can be a lot of pressure on them to find any hint controversy they can to make the story appear more interesting to readers. It’s unfortunate when the result is a group of calm, caring people who donate their time and energy to do a mitzvah for which the recipient can never thank them being described as a bunch of adversarial radicals who “take aim” at the very people with whom they usually work so closely and harmoniously.
I encourage you to attend next year’s conference to see for yourself what it’s really all about.
June 12, 2013 | 5:00 pm
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Ok, so they’re all Jewish. But beyond that, all three spoke to a completely rapt audience on Monday at the 11th annual North American Chevra Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference in Philadelphia. It’s unusual, at any conference, for a speaker to completely capture the attention of the entire audience. To have three speakers do so in one day is remarkable. After this experience, I would imagine people might want to attend future such conferences just for the speakers, even if they have no interest in chevra kadisha work or Jewish cemeteries.
First, Blu Greenberg bravely told us about what it’s like to get the phone call no parent wants to get in the middle of the night: The one in which you are informed your child has just been in an accident. As if that weren’t bad enough, the accident happened in Israel, so she and her husband were unable to rush to their son’s bedside. Then the news turned worse, when their daughter informed them, “I think they’re going to ask us about organ donation.”
It’s a terrible decision to have to make under any circumstances. But she didn’t know what her son’s wishes were. And, unfortunately, the window of opportunity for organ donation is so short, she didn’t have time to investigate it. Moreover, because the death occurred in Israel on a Friday morning shortly before Yom Kippur, if he were kept on ventilation long enough for her and her husband to see him, by then his organs would no longer be viable for donation.
This story led to an enormously helpful discussion about organ donation practices, the current state of halachic rulings regarding donation, how a “do not resuscitate” order can interfere with the possibility of donation, other kinds of donations such as tissue and bone, and much more.
Next, Joy Ladin gave a talk entitled, “She Said I Know What It’s Like to be Dead,” after the Beatles song of the same name. In it, she spoke about what it’s like to be a female trapped in a male body, and how it made her feel dead and, at times, suicidal.
She described her attempt to live life as a man, and how she finally realized she could do so no longer. She teaches at Yeshiva University, and told us about some of the challenges she is facing as the first openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution (she earned tenure before she made her transition, making it difficult for the university to dismiss her).
Issues of gender identity and expression are important to the chevra kadisha community, because so much of what we do, including the prayers we use, the shrouds we use to dress a dead person, and the gender of people performing the taharah are all dependent on the gender of the dead person we are preparing for burial. The more we can understand about gender identities and expressions beyond the standard but inaccurate binary model, the more likely we will be prepared when this issue comes up in our own community, as it inevitably will.
Third, Leonard Fein gave a fascinating talk about the intricate interweaving of his life, that of his daughter, may her memory be a blessing, and others, in a series of vignettes which could either be taken as a series of coincidences or perhaps the workings of a higher power.
During the Q&A afterward, he was asked whether any Jewish rituals or practices had provided him with any comfort after the death of his daughter. He responded, “When a child dies, people come up to you and hug you, and they say, ‘That is the worst thing that could ever happen.’” He said he wanted to respond, sarcastically, “Oh, really?”
Then, he said, Rabbi Larry Kushner made a shiva call. He said Rabbi Kushner said “exactly what wants to be said: Tell me about your daughter.” This was an important lesson for all of us about what to say and what not to say at a shiva. Whether or not you do chaplaincy work, sooner or later this is the kind of advice you’re likely to need, because, sooner or later, we all need to make a shiva call.
As if these three speakers were not enough, they only represent a small portion of what went on at the conference. I expect I’ll be writing more about it in the coming weeks. This conference is one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had since the one they held last year. If it’s something you’ve ever considered attending, stop thinking about it. Next year, just go.
You can learn more about Kavod V’Nichum, the organization that puts on the conference, here.