Sunday, November 29, 2009

Creating Rituals - Two

At the end of the first 30 days of mourning (a period called Shloshim), it us customary for a mourner to hold a Siyyum (a concluding ceremony) complete with a text study in memory of their loved one, a meal and prayer service. This signifies the transition into the next phase of mourning.

I struggled again with how to handle this next phase of Jewish mourning ritual. My father wasn't engaged in on-going Jewish learning in a formal way, and therefore traditional text study was foreign to him. In addition to that, a prayer service in his memory would also not be a true honor of who he was. So I spent some time thinking about how to blend my need for "tradition" and my life commitment to being a Jewish educator/role model with his personality.

My father was a passionate ornithologist (bird watcher) and traveled all over the world watching birds and recording his sightings (check out his website at At one point, my father even "discovered" the 500th species of bird in Florida (the story is on the website). So one night while I was contemplating my ritual dilemma the "obvious" occurred to me. I needed to weave my father's love for birds and nature with my need to have this ceremony.

Whenever my father traveled, he looked for nature reserves and birding spots to visit. On one of his trips to Atlanta, he spent an hour at the Chattahoochee Nature Center. It's a gorgeous area on the banks of the Chattahoochee River just a few miles from my home. This seemed like an obvious location to honor my father's memory.

Lucky for me, my friend Amy Bram is the Director of Camp Kingfisher, which is the Nature Center's summer and school vacation camp. Luckier for me she is gracious, loving and compassionate. So when I asked her if there was a way I could utilize the Nature Center for a gathering, she not only agreed to make that happen, but also agreed to bring out some of the Birds of Prey for us to encounter.

So on Sunday, November 29, I held a Shloshim Siyyum in memory of my dad which was an integration of his love of all things birds (and animals in general) and my love for Jewish texts. Below are the texts I shared with my friends who gathered to help me honor him and transition into the next part of this journey. What I highlighted for them was his true love of animals and how he treated (& taught us to treat) the pets who have blessed our lives and the natural world around us.

In reflection on the day, I could almost imagine what another special party for my dad would look like .... a fantastic breakfast with bagels and lox, olives and pickles and sweets ... surrounded by friends, a gorgeous Fall day, an encounter with birds of prey, and a chance to walk hiking trails and take in nature. The only addition was a quick look at Jewish texts. The only thing missing .... was him.

Tzar Ba’alei Chayim – Ethical Treatment of Animals

Proverbs 12:10 A righteous man knows the soul of his animal.

Exodus 23:12 Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor, in order that your ox and your ass may rest and that your bondsman and the stranger may be refreshed.

Leviticus 22:28 Whether it is a bull, a sheep or a goat, do not slaughter [a female animal] and its child on the same day.

Deut. 22:10 Do not plow with an ox and donkey together.

Exodus 23:4-5 If you come across your enemy's ox or donkey going astray, bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of someone you hate lying under its load, you might want to refrain from helping him, but [instead] you must make every effort to help him [unload it].

Deut. 22:6-7 If you come across a bird’s nest on any tree or on the ground, and it contains baby birds or eggs, then, if the mother is sitting on the chicks or eggs, you must not take the mother along with her young. You must first chase away the mother, and only then may you take the young. [If you do this] you will have it good, and will live long.

Talmud, Berachot 40a; Mishneh Torah, Laws of Servitude 9:8 One is obligated to first feed his animals before one feeds oneself.

Jacob, Noah, Moses and King David were all shepherds, people who cared for animals and all biblical heroes. Judaism has always recognized the link between the ways a person treats animals and the ways a person treats human beings.

Humanity is given dominion over animals (Gen. 1:26), which gives us the right to use animals for legitimate needs. Animal flesh can be consumed for food (a post-Noah permission); animal skins can be used for clothing. However, dominion does not give us the right to cause indiscriminate pain and destruction. We are permitted to use animals in this way only when there is a genuine, legitimate need, and we must do so in the manner that causes the animal the least suffering. Kosher slaughtering is designed to be as fast and painless as possible, and if anything occurs that might cause pain (such as a nick in the slaughtering knife or a delay in the cutting), the flesh may not be consumed. Hunting for sport is strictly prohibited, and hunting and trapping for legitimate needs is permissible only when it is done in the least painful way possible. – Source:

As with all animals, we are required to feed our pets before ourselves, and make arrangements for feeding our pets before we obtain them. Also, like all animals, household pets are entitled to Sabbath rest, thus you cannot have your dog retrieve the paper for you on Shabbat, etc

Birds in Jewish Text (sample)

Genesis 6:20 From each bird according to its kind, and from each animal according to its kind.

Genesis 8:7-8:12 He sent out the raven, and it departed. ….. He then sent out the dove …. The dove returned to him toward evening, and there was a freshly-plucked olive leaf in its beak.

Friends in attendance:
Joy Signer
Jennifer Finnel
Leah Fuhr
Joan Herschfeld
Julie Ancis
Debbie Denenberg
Rebecca Levin
Jaci Steinhart
Danielle Steinhart
Naomi and Michael Rabkin and family
Anthony Erdman
Karen Paz
Marc Goldman and Jeremy
Amy Bram

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Saturday, November 21, 2009

"no activity in the last 25 hours"

As part of the Jim Joseph Foundation Fellowship (in partnership with the Lookstein Center at Bar Ilan University), I am responsible for being an active part of a few Google Groups and Wikis. The group (14 plus staff) are very active and fairly "talkative" - so much so that I find if I don't check the groups/wikis every day (at least once a day) then I can't catch up in all of the reading.

Out of total habit, I just checked the Google Group and the activity update says, "no activity in the last 25 hours." Duh! - as the last 25 hours were Shabbat.

It's interesting to think about Shabbat when you are not observant in the most traditional ways. The Jewish laws that shape traditional observance start with Shamor v'Zachor - to guard and to remember. They include laws about not creating and destroying (which is where the observances of not turning on/off electricity come from) and not conducting business (which is where not touching money originates). And it's traditionally agreed upon that Shabbat should be kodesh (some translate as "holy" but really means "set apart").

For me, I try and focus on the idea of kodesh - set apart. For me, Shabbat is permission to have menucha (rest). I don't feel guilty sleeping late (didn't roll out of bed today until after noon). I don't feel guilty taking naps (last Shabbat, I took at least two). I don't feel guilty letting dishes go untouched or laundry left undone. I don't feel guilty about not checking work email from Friday at about 3 p.m. until Sunday. Shabbat is permission to just be - to see where the day takes you - mostly unplanned.

Other ways to set apart the day ... indulge in one frivolous purchase; not just run errands. Indulge in one extra joy - like a massage or a long bubble bath. Experience nature in a unique way; consider a picnic in a park, flying a kite on a windy day or spending the afternoon on a boat. Envelope yourself in friendship; call a friend you haven't spoken to in a long time, just to chit-chat. Give your tastebuds a unique experience; reserve a special food (or a new food) just for Shabbat. Try something new, something you have always wanted to do; let your guard down and let yourself be challenged.

For me, Shabbat isn't "no activity for the past 25 hours" but it's "different activity for the past 25 hours."

Shavua Tov! (Have a good week!)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Creating Rituals - Part One

Judaism has many prescribed rituals surrounding death and mourning and many of them make so much sense to aid in the healing process. But when I lost my father on October 16th, I knew that some of the prescribed rituals wouldn't be 100% right for me ... so I set out to create my own.
  • Shoveling the blanket of dirt into the grave of a loved one is one of the few acts of kindness that can never be repaid. However, the stone-cold sounds the first shovels of dirt make when they hit the coffin are bone-chilling. My father had expressed many times (at the many funerals we attended together) that he never wanted my brother and I to participate in this ritual because he wanted to spare us from hearing that sound. As we prepared for my father's funeral, I wrestled with what to do ... I wanted to somehow give him a blanket, but still wanted to respect his wishes. Our Invented Ritual: sprinkling bird seed. In a sign of homage to his love of feeding the birds, and in respect of covering him with something natural, the immediate family sprinkled handfuls of sunflower seeds into the open grave. (Note: I did forewarn the cemetery director that if sunflowers pop out of the plot in a few years, he will know why!)
  • Getting up from Shiva. When a loved one dies, the immediate family "sits shiva." At the end of the seven days of mourning, traditionally the family would "get up" from shiva by taking a ceremonious walk around the block to signal to the community that they are returning to daily activities. First of all, my family chose to officially receive guests only for three days of shiva. The remaining days of the week were spent mostly just as family, trying to deal with our physical exhaustion and returning my nephews to a more normal routine. On the sixth day, I flew to Los Angeles (from St. Louis where my family is), where I would be attending a conference the following day. My Adaptive Ritual: Havdallah. Typically the ritual of Havdallah is enacted at the end of Shabbat to signify the separation (in Hebrew: havdil) of the holy of Shabbat and the rest of the week. On this particular Saturday night (which was the 6th day of Shiva) I was very lucky to be welcomed back into a community I once led in Orange County, CA for their Shabbaton retreat Havdallah ceremony. For me, it couldn't have been more appropriate and meaningful transition. The light of the candle reminding me about the light that I will see at the end of this darkness, the spices providing me with a smell of sweetness to hold onto as I transition into the next stage of mourning, and sweet juice to nourish me physically. This particular Havdallah was a true separation between the immense trauma and sadness I had been enveloped in the previous two weeks (one week my dad was in the hospital and the week of Shiva), and the future ahead of me. As I transition through the next stages of mourning, I will be incorporating Havdallah (no matter the day of the week).
  • When a parent dies, it is customary for a child to attend a minyan (prayer service with a minimum of 10 people) every day to recite Kaddish for 11 months. First of all, this is not a ritual my dad connected with. It isn't something he did when his own parents died, and it isn't something that he would want me to do as an obligation (only if it was something I wanted to do because it helped me). Secondly, part of the idea is getting the mourner to participate in community so they are not alone. In my job, in my life, I am surrounded by Jewish community 24/7. Third, I am not a big t'filah (prayer) person and making my way every day (especially when I travel) to participate in a prayer service, only out of Jewish obligation, would not be healing for me. But I knew I needed something - wanted some sort of daily ritualized encounter with Kaddish. My invented ritual: to read and journal each day in a book by Rabbi Kerry Olitzy called Grief in our Seasons. Each night before I turn out my lights, I read the daily entry in the book and take a few moments to journal my thoughts in the space provided. I then recite Kaddish (which is provided in the book). This provides my much-needed daily ritual and provides me closure to a day full of thoughts and emotions about losing my dad.
As this mourning process continues, I will share other adapted rituals in the hopes that when other people experience a loss of their own, they not only find comfort in the prescriptions of Jewish mourning, but that they feel empowered to adapt and create rituals that help them heal.

In loving memory:
David Faintich
David Meyer ben Ya'acov v'Toiba
December 18, 1943-October 16, 2009