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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Buddhist Exercise of Imagining Death, Or A Good Deed Goes Awry

When we first moved into our neighborhood in what was then called South Central, Los Angeles, we used to joke that we could toss a handful of gravel and every piece would hit a preacher's house.

We could have done the same and found the many group homes in the area. There were none in our block, though either our house or the one next door had once been a group home for "wayward" girls.  

In the next block, though, was a home for mentally-ill AIDS patients, a group home for men who, for one reason or another, could not take care of themselves, 

and around the corner to the right, a group home for young women with developmental disabilities. Turn left, and there was another home for men (in there behind the trees) who, because of mental illness or developmental delays, could not live alone. 

In the next block was a home with a very high fence, for women fleeing abusive relationships.

Without exception, these homes were run by elderly women who looked years younger than they were, and who responded to "how are you?" with a radiant smile and, "Oh, I'm blessed.

One day, our nearest group home neighbor, Miss Earnestasia, asked us for a favor. Would we take one of her "mens" to High Holiday services? His brother had just died, and he wanted to come for Yartzheit--the service for those we love who have died. 

Of course, we said yes. So, later in the week, we picked up Artie, a one-time gambler, now in his eighties, a slender man with a New York accent, wearing a worn brown cardigan and saggy pants. "My brother was the good one. I was bad. I gambled. And I hung out with gangsters. And I stole stuff. Not big stuff, but just, you know, stuff. But my brother, he stayed in school and went to college, even, and he was an accountant. So, I just wanted to, you know, say Kaddish for him."

Kaddish is an Aramaic word that means "holy." Aramaic was the daily language in Israel around the time when Jesus would have lived. It's written with Hebrew letters. The prayer is recited, in various forms, several times during every Jewish religious service. I think of it as one of those almost legalese prayers that uses lists of words of praise to say: there are not enough words to praise God.

It's also the traditional prayer of mourning, although you will notice (I include it below) that it never mentions the word death. (With thanks to Tracey R. Rich for the translation etc.) I'm including the literal translation rather than a modern Reform version which would take out the His and the kingship and replace them with words that include male and female. 

Like almost every Jewish ritual, the Kaddish must be recited among peers, with at least a minyan, or traditionally, ten adult males. In other words, you can't really be a Jew in solitary. This may be why there have never been Jewish hermits, solitary Jewish scholars high in the mountains. You can't study alone. You can't worship alone. You can't grieve alone. You must be in community. 

"Were you close?" I asked. 

"Hell, no," he said. "Hell, I haven't seen him since, hell, since I was nineteen and I left home. I never went back. But I guess they found me when he died. And I just want to--dunno. Just want to say goodbye. You know?"

I nodded. I had family who didn't talk to me. "I know." 

"I was Avner then. My Hebrew name. But when I mobbed up, I changed it to Artie." He had to be in his eighties, which would have put him in the 1940's with the mob. I could imagine him, his face handsome under a fedora, his life lonely, a low-level crook.

We found seats midway back, and settled in. I have a love-hate relationship with my faith, which is perfectly fine if you're a Reform or Renewal Jew, where question and challenge are pretty much codified into the faith. 

My husband, on the other hand, associates large groups of Jews with the potential for terrorist attacks. 

Even so, we were more comfortable than Artie, with his flying wisps of gray-white hair and his still-handsome face, as he shuffled along between us. "I haven't been to services since I was a kid." He rolled his shoulders as though the thought carried too much weight. 

I knew, though, that he'd relax when the rabbi began to speak. "You'll love these services," I said. "There's this rabbi named Zalmon Schacter-Shalomi, who was sent from his congregation as a child, but left extreme Orthodoxy and studied Buddhism and Sufi-ism and really understands how to listen and how to care about people."  

He didn't relax, but he seemed okay as we went through the ritual of the service, standing and sitting, chanting prayers. Zalmon was co-leading with the head of this flakey New Age synagogue, a woman and a scholar who has written encyclopedic tomes about women and Judaism. Artie did get to recite the mourner's Kaddish, wobbling as he stood. 

At the break, we went to the back to light Yartzheit candles in honor of my father, and my husband's parents and Artie's brother, and then the Yitzor (memory) service began, the one where you sit and grieve and celebrate and honor the memory of the ones you love who have died. 

Only, the local rabbi decided to start the Yartzheit service with some kind of Buddhist meditation. 

"I want you to imagine that you're dead." Her voice took on that mystical chant-tone that rabbis use when they want to sound profound. My husband twitched. I rolled my eyes. "Oh, please."

"I want you to imagine your corpse," said her fake-mystical voice. "Lying there. Dead. The spirit gone from your body. 

Artie did more than twitch. 

"We'll give it a try," I whispered to him, "We can always step out if you need to." 

"I want you to imagine that your body is decaying," she intoned. "That the bacteria has begun to work on your flesh. The worms are crawling out of your eyes."

"Fuck this." Artie leaped to his wobbly feet. He did not say it softly. "Fuck this shit." 

I got hit with the giggles. He was only saying what I was thinking. 

"The fly larvae are in your intestines. They are wriggling." 

"Fuck." Artie yelled. "Fuck this. What kind of shit is this?" He jittered around the narrow aisle, his eyes terrified. 

"Let's go." I grabbed my husband and pulled him down the aisle, following Artie, whose steps were slower and more wobbly than when we had arrived. "I'm so sorry," I said to Artie. "I had no idea." 

"Your eyes will never open again. The fly larvae are multiplying." The magnified intonations of a flakey New Age rabbi followed us up the side aisle. 

"This shit is so fucked," I said to Artie. "I'm so sorry." 

"I hated it, too," my husband told Artie. "What was she thinking of?" Poor Artie was so shaken. I fought down giggles as I sat in the back of the car with him all the way, repeating myself. "I'm so sorry. That was really fucked. I didn't know. I've never heard that at the services before." 

Clearly, I was no more ready for this particular Buddhist meditation concept than Artie was. 

He calmed down, but every now and then, he'd jerk up in his seat. "What the hell was that bitch thinking? Is she crazy?" 

There wasn't a lot of traffic, thank God. We got him home. I tried to explain to Miss Earnestascia. How do you explain this, though?  We had gone for a service to remember the dead, to give comfort to an old man bereft and guilty after finding out that his long-neglected only brother had died. 

Instead, we'd subjected him to "a meditation" on worms and fly larvae, what felt like a pre-teen Halloween boogie-man chant. 

We never saw Artie again. Needless to say, when we offered to take him to other services, Miss Earnestascia refused on his behalf. 

Yit'gadal v'yit'kadash sh'mei raba (Cong: Amein).
May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified (Cong: Amen.) 
b'al'ma di v'ra khir'utei
in the world that He created as He willed. 
v'yam'likh mal'khutei b'chayeikhon uv'yomeikhon
May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days, 
uv'chayei d'khol beit yis'ra'eil
and in the lifetimes of the entire Family of Israel, 
ba'agala uviz'man kariv v'im'ru:
swiftly and soon. Now say: 
(Mourners and Congregation:)
Amein. Y'hei sh'mei raba m'varakh l'alam ul'al'mei al'maya
(Amen. May His great Name be blessed forever and ever.) 
Yit'barakh v'yish'tabach v'yit'pa'ar v'yit'romam v'yit'nasei
Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, 
v'yit'hadar v'yit'aleh v'yit'halal sh'mei d'kud'sha
mighty, upraised, and lauded be the Name of the Holy One 
(Mourners and Congregation:)
B'rikh hu.
Blessed is He. 
l'eila min kol bir'khata v'shirata
beyond any blessing and song, 
toosh'b'chatah v'nechematah, da'ameeran b'al'mah, v'eemru:
praise and consolation that are uttered in the world. Now say: 
(Mourners and Congregation:)
Y'hei sh'lama raba min sh'maya
May there be abundant peace from Heaven 
v'chayim aleinu v'al kol yis'ra'eil v'im'ru
and life upon us and upon all Israel. Now say: 
(Mourners and Congregation:)
Oseh shalom bim'romav hu ya'aseh shalom
He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace, 
aleinu v'al kol Yis'ra'eil v'im'ru
upon us and upon all Israel. Now say: 
(Mourners and Congregation:)

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