When Called to Guard

(Letter to Temple Emanu-El Providence community, June 2010)

By now you have probably received an email from Temple Emanu-El calling for “Shomrim”. You might already know that it involves signing up to spend an hour or two sitting with the body of a member of our community who recently passed away in the days before he or she is buried. It has come to my attention, though, that many of our members don’t really know what this mitzvah entails.

In the coming paragraphs I hope to give you a bit more insight into what “Sitting Shmirah” means, and I hope to encourage you to sign up when we are looking for shomrim.

Judaism considers the body to be a gift from God to man, to house the soul that lives inside it. Each morning we recite a blessing thanking God for allowing all of our bodily functions to work properly followed by a blessing praising God for “restoring the soul to the lifeless, exhausted body,” i.e. when we’ve woken up in the morning (these blessings can be found on p. 4 of the Weekday Sim Shalom Siddur).

There is a sense in the Jewish afterlife tradition that as relatives say Kaddish for loved ones over the eleven months after they have passed on, the soul gradually rises toward the Throne of God. Since the soul is closest to the body just after he or she has died, and, tradition tells us, that the soul is most aware and most frustrated until the body has been interned in the ground, we keep the body, and the recently released soul, company until it reaches its final resting place.

When you sign up for Shmirah, you will be directed to the location where the body is being kept. Generally in our community Shmirah is served in the basement of the Sugarman-Sinai Funeral Home, but there have been instances where Shmirah has been served elsewhere. At Sugarman-Sinai Funeral Home, you will enter through the door in the back (facing the parking lot) and go down the stairs to where shmirah is observed unless there is a notice on that door indicating that Shmirah will occur somewhere else in the building. In some cases the body is in the same room but in a casket, in other instances, the casket is kept in the refrigerator to delay decomposition, but you would sit outside. In most circumstances, the body is not in a place where you can see it.

Once you arrive, there are a number of things you can do while you are “guarding.” It is customary either to read or discuss Jewish-themed texts or to recite Tehillim, from the Book of Psalms. Some suggest that you should only read those psalms which are appropriate to somber mood and the end of life. When I sat Shmirah for the first time, I learned from Cantor Brian Mayer that funerals are a “celebration of life, and hurt like hell.” He explained that because we direct our attention to the celebration of the person’s life we can say all of the Psalms because Tehillim, by nature, represent the whole spectrum of human emotion: fear, contentment, happiness, sadness, anger, resilience.

Here is my offer to anyone who is willing: If you are willing to serve as a Shomer this time around or in the future, I’m happy to sit with you or to find you a buddy who will sit with you. I understand if it’s not an experience you want to have alone the first time.

Keep in mind the following Gemara (based on Shabbat 127a and found on page 5 in the Weekday Sim Shalom Siddur):

Here are the things that yield immediate fruit in this world and for which a fund is established for him in the World to Come: honoring mother and father; doing acts of lovingkindness; attending the House of Study punctually in the morning and evening; welcoming guests; visiting the sick; welcoming a bride; attending to the dead; probing the meaning of prayer; making peace between one person and another, and between husband and wife. And the study of Torah is the most basic of them all.

In our tradition, attending to the dead in our community is considered one of the highest mitzvot one can do since there is no expected return from the person toward which the mitzvah is directed. It is one of the highest but also one of the most important, since, as we know, it is not easy.

They Have Aspirations, Too

This summer, I am working at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, in a whole conglomerate of jobs. I am on the music staff, I am teaching, and I am working with Tikvah, the edah (division) in camp for campers with moderate special needs. Overall, the whole experience is rewarding, but I am learning most from my Tikvah campers.

I’ve worked with special education programs since I was in ninth grade, already eight years ago. I’ve worked with many different kinds of children and adults with many different kinds of disabilities: learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, autism, hemihypertrophy, CHARGE syndrome, and Down’s syndrome are only a few of these. But being in camp with these kids is much different than being in an after-school program or in an in-school classroom setting. Here, in camp, we get to see how these children exist outside of a classroom; how they thrive in everyday life activities; and where their failings are so we can help them stand on their own two feet. In a classroom we talk at our kids a lot. Here, we talk with them.

As many encounters as I’ve had with kids with special needs, I disappoint myself to think that it never struck me how these kids have big aspirations for their lives just like the rest of us do. A graduate of the program and of the additional vocational program told me over lunch during staff week this summer that he wants to be a chemistry teacher when he graduates from college, and is striving as hard as he can in school to be a chemistry major (something that I could probably never do successfully). A current camper expressed to me today that he would never want to come back to this camp on staff because he’d rather be a counselor at a basketball camp. Another wants to be an artist, and she already designs some of her own unique products, which she sells to contribute 50% of her profits to an organization doing work with children who have brain tumors. Another one of my campers told me last week she was a cheerleader in middle school, and would love to be a dancer. And one of the boys, like in any boys’ bunk, wants to grow up to be a rock-and-roll drummer, having been lead in the marching band at his school.

Even we, who encounter individuals with special needs every day, forget sometimes that our kids are “normal” kids in more ways than we can imagine. They strive to mentor each other, to teach each other, to learn the most for themselves, and to be the best version of themselves that they possibly can be. They have hormones like the rest of us. They have crushes on boys (or girls), they enjoy hanging out with friends, they play sports. They sing, they laugh, they get hyper, they cry. I do the same.

Ultimately, as we work with any sort of individuals, whether they have been identified as having special needs or not, we must remember that they aspire. They aspire to do great things just like we do. They aspire to have great successes, and they perspire as they do. It goes back to that wonderful instruction I hung on my wall through my four years at BU, a lesson to everyone: “Stand tall, reach for the stars, and always wear deodorant.”

When Passion Becomes a Commodity

I love music — singing, playing, and watching conductors are all parts of that love, among other things. I sing because it changes my world, however temporarily; I sing because it brightens my day, soothes my soul, and heals my wounds. I have a passion for the music that I don’t have for many other things. Music and I have a great reciprocal relationship: I tend to it, and it tends to me.

As I think about pursuing a career in music, I must ponder the question: what happens when music becomes a commodity? What happens when a person sings or plays so much that the music no longer brings her that joy, that meaning, and instead brings her disdain and arrogance?

This past weekend I had the great opportunity to speak with many different people about their thoughts on music. I was intrigued (I will perhaps write later about last weekend, but I don’t have time for that right now.). I had the opportunity to watch a variety of conductors and musicians perform works that shed so much light on the world in which we currently live. The perfect harmony of the old and the new, in song. When speaking with one woman why she didn’t want to perform with us in Carnegie Hall next week, even though she would have been able had she wanted to, she responded, “When I perform in a choir, I get paid to do it. It’s not worth my time to sing a choir if they’re not paying me.”

This came as a shock to me, honestly, as I am still wide-eyed about the fact that I even have the opportunity to sing in Carnegie Hall once in my life. Now, don’t get me wrong: I have a lot of respect for this individual, I do. She’s wonderful and efficient, and given that the concert is a lot of Jewish music to sing for someone who isn’t Jewish, perhaps I can understand why the music wouldn’t have as much personal meaning for her as it might for me. On the other hand, her statement did get me thinking, as statements often do (and taken out of context as they usually are). The reader of my previous writings will remember that often an utterance I hear sparks a response that was almost completely unrelated to its original context.

“When I perform in a choir, I get paid to do it. It’s not worth my time to sing in a choir if they’re not paying me.”

Such an unfortunate point of view! You’d think that music is something to be passionate about, something one does because, like I said earlier, it is uplifting and powerful and all-around a spiritual experience. You’d think. Well, amend: I think. I honestly don’t know if this woman is typical of musicians all-around. Most musicians I have met will make music on the job or off the job. What happens to someone that something they love becomes a commodity and that’s it? That it is only an essential part of their identity because it allows them to make money and nothing else? How could that happen to someone?

I have no answers, only questions. Unanswered questions. I’ll keep pondering, I suppose.

The Neutralizing Power of Music

In rehearsing with the Zamir Chorale of Boston tonight in rehearsal, I had another stark realization:

Music functions as a remarkable neutralizer.

Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean that music is neutral; it is anything but neutral. However, if you sit in a room in which everyone is unified by the music they produce, everyone is level. Especially in a choral setting, the only important thing is the unified sound. Age, ideology, religious belief, career, or sickness: nothing matters except for the music. It’s brilliant!

… maybe.

The realization that I really discovered was something I hadn’t thought about recently. That is, the realization that I really don’t know anything about the people with whom I sing.

With regard to some of my choirmates, I know their careers; I know that they have children but not necessarily how many; I know their voice parts. But that’s about it. I am conspicuously in the dark about people’s religious beliefs and practices, and the more I think about this, the more it surprises me. This is one of the only religious organizations in which I have ever participated that, of forty people, religious observance is not an “important” element of people’s religious identities. Some grew up religious, some still are, some not. I’m sure that when the choir goes on tours that include Shabbat the religiosity of our constituents is called into play, and is something to be shared. But otherwise, it’s not something that just “comes up” in conversation.

To some extent, I’m neutral about this issue. I find it interesting, but it does not affect me. To another extent, it frustrates me: in all of my other relationships with other Jews, religiosity is a large part of who we are and where we come from, where we go, and what we do.

I’m fascinated by the fact that by nature of our music, we come together, as Jews. We represent one nation, one people, united. Denominational difference transcends us, and our voices mix, as one. That’s all that matters. Jews, from all walks of life. As one we sing.