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A Crack In Everything

09/20/2021 04:16:36 PM

Sep20

Matt Harle

A Chevrah Kadisha is a Jewish society tasked primarily with performing the ritual preparation of the dead for burial. The essay below is my attempt to look at the Chevrah Kadisha in the context of Sukkot, and give some sense of why I love both.*

 

“My beloved is like a gazelle or like a young stag. There he stands behind our wall, peering through the windows, peering through the lattice.”

Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) from the annotated translation by Michael Fishbane, The Jewish Publication Society (March 1, 2015).

“There is a crack, a crack in everything

That's how the light gets in”

Leonard Cohen, Anthem.

A little over three years ago, the BHA Cemetery Committee sent me to Maryland for the annual North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference. Prior to that, I had heard the term “Chevrah Kadisha,” and had a general idea of what one was and did, but I had no concept of the Chevrah’s true scope and depth. 

Though I didn’t know what to expect from the conference, my intuition told me something I needed was there: a sense of place and purpose I’d been chasing since converting to Judaism in 2016. Stumbling through the open doors of the Chevrah, I realized I’d finally come home. 

Years ago now, when my mother-in-law Judith told me of the lattice in Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs), something clicked. I think it’s fair to say that my connection to Judaism was somehow crystalized in that telling: I saw that the lattice, simultaneously concealing and revealing, had been with me all along, now speaking its name (and mine). Neither wall nor window, but somehow both, the lattice’s intricate structure allowed me to glimpse a landscape recognizably my own, one whose features faded even as they resolved.

Every year I help build two sukkot. The smaller sukkah is an 8’ x 8’ x 16’ structure with two fabric walls, one lattice wall, and a roof made of reeds. I build it each year in the little yard adjacent to BHA as a temporary home for study and prayer, the occasional beer cans and baggies telling of other uses by other visitors. The larger sukkah, perhaps four times the area of the smaller one, is much more public, built in a park in Beacon, NY, the city in which I currently live. Now eight years old (though on hiatus this year, like last, due to COVID), “Open to the Sky” invites the greater Beacon community into the sukkah for potlucks, storytelling, music, classes, etc. Made of community as much as wood and fabric, the sukkah mirrors its meaning: loose-knit, temporary, welcoming the world across its threshold to shelter in its shade, dappled with the light filtering through its branches.

This is why Sukkot is my favorite holiday: it is a week-long celebration of the lattice, a liminal space whose permeability reminds me of my own. Each year we build again these monuments to the temporary, reminding us that we are still nomads, still mortal, our lives a gift we can’t keep. And so, there it is: when I found the Chevrah Kadisha, I found a sukkah; a shelter/not shelter inviting life and death to share the same space, and to tell each other their stories.

Perhaps I joined the Chevrah Kadisha because I had no structure for mourning my parents’ deaths. What does a Presbyterian death ritual look like? More like the choir that sang to my mom through her window than the ministers who swept in, against her (and our) wishes, to give last rites. But mostly my sister and I were on our own. 

There was comfort and distraction to be found in invention: for my dad, it was Bartok and poetry at the memorial; ashes scattered on the ridge, the piece of quartz brought back from the Sierras acting as a two-way radio between ridge and range. For my mom, a New Orleans-style Second Line playing Oh When the Saints; the bag of hand-stitched constellations that would hold her ashes; Converse low-tops, her favorite, for everyone. For both, a tree: his, a cherry, south of the church’s courtyard where my mom’s ashes would later be buried; hers, a dogwood, west of the library whose care she invested with so much love.

Through ritual, whether invented or received, something is allowed to cross the threshold: my mom to the wind, where she told us she would go; my dad to the crow, the unintended host, whose caws and clicks articulate the poems he had yet to write. The process of helping them get there dug a well of meaning whose bottom I won’t reach until someone digs mine. 

On Sukkot we invite our ancestors into the sukkah as ushpizin (“guests”). If this essay is a sukkah whose boughs are sentences, allow me to invite Oliver and Nancy Harle, as well as all those you have loved and lost, to stand in its sun and shadow, to see and be seen through the lattice.

And, yes, BHA has a Chevrah Kadisha! If you would like to join, or just learn more, email me at matt.harle@beaconhebrewalliance.org.

Mon, October 18 2021 12 Cheshvan 5782