Book Review: Zohar Gazit’s A Struggle to the Death

Following the tragic passing of my father, I spent a lot of time thinking about mourning rituals, and particularly about the invaluable work of Menuha Nekhona (“A Righteous Rest”), the all-volunteer organization that runs the secular-civil cemetery in my parents’ town. I was so impressed with them that I started drafting a book proposal about secular burials in Israel, but a few days later found out that someone has already written a book about alternatives to religiously sanctioned deaths: Zohar Gazit’s A Struggle to the Death (Tel Aviv: Resling, 2016) (Hebrew.) The original title, “Osim et HaMavet” (“making death”) is a double entendre: it’s a figure of speech meaning “haranguing someone” and also, in this context, implies the creative remaking of a hegemonic ritual in a way that fits the needs and concerns of deeply underserved populations.

Gazit’s book, which is based on his doctoral dissertation, examines three alternative death initiatives: in addition to Menuha Nekhona, he looks at Path to Life, an organization devoted to the healing and welfare of family survivors of suicide and to the destigmatizing of these deaths, and at Lilach, an organization promoting death with dignity (passive euthanasia) for terminally ill patients. Gazit’s theoretical framework heavily relies on Bordieu’s “field” concept (what sociological work doesn’t?) and shows the complicated relationship that each of these organizations has with the death “field.” All three of these organizations struggle against the hegemonic death rituals and perceptions in Israeli society: the religious concept of suicide (and any other actively chosen form of death, including some forms of euthanasia) as defying halakhic rules; the aggressive and greedy religious monopoly on burials in Israel, run by Orthodox Hevre Kadisha organizations who perform alienated, antiquated rituals, discriminate in plot allocations, and humiliate the dead and their loved ones; and the Israeli hierarchy of death, which glorifies military casualties and features a constant contest among other groups about their relative prestige, access to services, and differential stigma.

Gazit’s analysis is incisive and sensitive. His ethnography (participation in meetings and rituals, plenty of interviews, clever media analysis) shows internal conflicts and contradictions within the organizations he examines. What they want to highlight, and who they want to associate themselves with, is a delicate and carefully strategic dance of courting legitimacy and support. For example, Path to Life activists fiercely oppose efforts to downgrade the status of soldiers who committed suicide beneath that of supposedly legitimate military casualties; at the same time, they assiduously avoid even the semblance of supporting suicide as a legitimate option. They also contest professional opinions that discourage open talk of suicide as potential encouragement, arguing that open conversation can invite attention, help, and saving lives. Similarly, Lilach activists try to disengage from suicide organizations and stick to passive euthanasia, so as not to invite displeasure. And Menuha Nekhona have faced a complicated relationship with the very few people in Israel who sought cremation, an option associated with deeply negative stigma in Israel due to the legacy of the holocaust; at the same time, they’ve had to partner sometimes with Hevre Kadisha for burial services, among other surprising disclosures in procuring coffins: traditional Jewish burials are in shrouds, with no coffin, but bodies flown in from abroad arrive in coffins and Hevre Kadisha sell these to Menuha Nekhona.

Gazit’s book is full of fascinating information for anyone interested in social movements, sociology of religion, political theory, and constitutional law. I learned a lot. There is plenty I’m interested in that I didn’t find in the book (such as the negotiations of individual burial styles, headstones, and maintenance), but there’s only so much one can include in one work. My only quibble–a minor one, and by no means limited to Gazit’s book–is that he repeatedly relies on the terms “good death” and “bad death” for, respectively, the hegemonically sanctioned death and the alternatives. I know these are both well-established sociological terms of art and Gazit is correctly using them. But terms of art in sociological theory can sometimes sound jargony and, in this case, given that these organizations fight deep injustices, come off a bit precious and more than a bit jarring in their aesthetic and moral removal. I would have preferred “hegemonic” and “alternative.”

This minor issue aside, Gazit’s book is an important and worthy addition to other texts investigating national-religious hegemonies in Israel and those who try to contest them, such as Daphne Barak-Erez’s Outlawed Pigs and Michal Kravel-Tovi’s When the State Winks. I’ll end with my favorite passage (in my own translation from Hebrew):

All three organizations have emblazoned death on their flag, but they carry a message of life. Better, safer, richer, more mindful life, achieved through dealing with the “bad death.” From an event that happens to us, death is shaped as an event that we are active in. Passive social isolation, leaving decisionmaking to the medical establishment and later to Hevre Kadisha with no input from the individual and their loved ones, are replaced by decisions, choices, and action. Addressing “bad death” is framed as an empowering resource in the activists’ lives–an expression of courage, principled stance, and a struggle against injustice.

A “Shloshim” (“Thirty”) Ceremony for my Dad

Today, my family will observe the “shloshim” (“thirty”) ritual for my dad, a little over a month from his death. This Chabad resource explains the ceremonial significance of the passage of the first month of mourning. It is customary for family and friends to visit the grave and witness the unveiling of the new headstone (“giluy matzevah.”)

Headstones are placed on graves for various historical, practical, and cultural reasons. I see dual symbolism in a heavy, sturdy stone. First, there is the idea of finality, of coming to terms with the loss, which reflects the complicated psychological process of grief after the shock and confusion that characterize the time of the funeral. The grief is far from dulled, but it begins to transform as loved ones try to adjust to their bereavement. And second, there is the idea of the stone not as an end, but as a beginning–as a cornerstone for what will eventually become a memory palace for the person we grieve.

The concept of a “memory palace” comes from memory science, where it is also known as the “method of loci.” It is an ancient mnemonic device which uses the visualization of familiar spatial environments–or the detailed imaginary construction of spatial environments–in order to enhance the recall of information. I think that the idea of spatially constructing memory during bereavement is hugely important. Events immediately preceding death, as well as death itself, tend to loom very large in the loved ones’ consciousness, which I think is true in cases of a sudden, shocking passing as well as when a prolonged period of suffering and caregiving overshadows a lifetime of happy memories. This understanding transforms the meaning of a headstone from something final to a new beginning–a freeing process by which having the dying process and the death settle into the memory makes room for preceding memories to emerge and populate the palace.

In light of this understanding, I choose to interpret my dad’s headstone as a cornerstone for the memory palace I’m building for him in my heart. The ceremony I’m officiating today is therefore designed to ceremonially and emotionally place this cornerstone, through sharing memories and through special prayers and texts crafted to move along the memory-building project.

The central prayer of the ceremony is my version of the traditional Jewish “El Maleh Rakhameem” (“God full of mercy”) recitation, which is a deeply spiritual call to find a proper resting place (“menukhah nekhonah”) for the soul of the deceased. The original prayer is full of flight, bird, and wing imagery, which reminds me a lot of one of my dad’s favorite songs, El Cóndor Pasa:

My version of the prayer retains the flight motif and invites the memory to soar (English translation follows the Hebrew original):

חברים אהובים, מלאי רחמים, חברים עצובים והמומים, המציאו מנוחה נכונה על כנפי זכרונותיכם הטובים במעלות קדושים וטהורים, כזהר הרקיע מזהירים, לנשמת חיים אבירם בן שרה ושמואל יוסף שהלך לעולמו. רננו לכבודו, הללו את זכרו בכינור ובנבל עשור. שירו לו שיר חדש. היטיבו נגן בתרועה. זכרו את הווייתו הזכה, את חכמתו הרבה, ליבו הגדול והחומל, צחוקו הטוב, מעשיו הנאצלים, ועשו מעשים טובים בשמו ולעילוי זכרו. את הציווי לחיות חיים מוסריים, טובים ומשפרי עולם שמרו – אל נא תעזבום בשמו. בכל לבכם דירשו את צרכי תיקון עולם – אל נסטה ממצווה זו כשם שהוא הגשימה בכל נשימה מנשמות אפו. הנה תאבנו לדעת איך לרפא תבל – בצדקת מעשינו נחיה כשם שחי הוא את חייו הטובים והראויים.

על כן ברחמיכם הגדולים תסתירוהו בסתר כנפיכם לעולמים, ותצררו בצרור זכרונותיכם היקרים מפז את נשמתו. ליבותיכם האוהבים הם נחלתו, וינוח לשלום בנשמות כולנו, ונאמר שלום.

Dear friends, full of compassion, shocked and saddened friends, find proper rest on the wings of your good memories in holy and pure realms, like the shining stars that sparkle in the skies, for the soul of Haim Aviram, son of Sarah and Shmuel Yosef, who has passed away. Sing praises in his honor, glorify his memory with a ten-stringed harp. Sing a new song for him. Let your trumpets ring. Recall his righteous being, his abundant wisdom, his big and compassionate heart, his hearty laughter, his noble deeds, and do good in his name and for the elevation of his memory. Preserve the commandment to live a moral life, good and world-improving – do not abandon it in his name. Seek with all your heart the needs of repairing the world – do not neglect this commandment, as he fulfilled it with every breath he took. Indeed, we desire to know how to heal the world – through the righteousness of our deeds, we will live just as he lived his good and worthy life.

Therefore, in your great compassion, hide him under your wings for eternity, and gather tightly the dear memories of his soul as a precious treasure. Your loving hearts are his legacy, and may he rest in peace within all our souls, and let us say, peace.

Parenting Without a Village

Roberto Benigni’s wonderful film Life Is Beautiful tells the story of a father who, sent to a concentration camp with his young son, creates the illusion of a “game” at the camp to shepherd his son unscathed through the horrors of the Holocaust.

I’ve been channeling the spirit of Benigni’s character in the last six weeks all day, every day, and we’re now told there’s going to be another month of this. The continuing effort to be everything for my son, to foster happy, meaningful experiences for him, to make this time special, and to do what I can to minimize the trauma he might experience as a consequence of social isolation at a tender, formative age, is the main and most important project of this time for me–possibly the most important project of my life. It is deeply fulfilling, full of joyous moments, and–yes–deeply exhausting and depleting at the same time.

The other day I was on a work call (Microsoft Teams), in which I had to explain to our dean that fronting as ideal workers on these calls echoes our fronting as ideal parents at home and is truly impossible, and that our ability to participate in the sacrifices that the situation demands–teaching nights and weekends–was not an option unless the preschools and daycares opened. A well-meaning colleague who is child-free shared with us a link to an app that silences background and child noises on work calls.

While this was kindly meant, the distortion embedded in it was colossal. I don’t want or need an app to silence my child. I need my work to recognize that my child needs me and that he is at the top of my priority list. I need to hear my child MORE, not less, during this time. The capitalist workplace would frame our family as an inconvenience to the enterprise, but it is the enterprise–the long workday, the expectations of splitting an organic life–that is the real inconvenience.

We are mourning the paid day-long structures that keep our children busy and social while we engage in the socially approved tasks of the adult working world. And of course, this virus, which is a great teacher, has exposed financial inequalities and problems in the provision of this service. But this hides from sight the ways in which this service in itself is a distortion.

In The Wild Edge of Sorrow, writing about trauma caused by family, Francis Weller observes:

Having worked with people for more than thirty years in my practice, it is clear to me that finding a target to blame is effortless. Nothing is asked of us when we simply assign fault to someone else for the suffering we are experiencing. Psychology has colluded in the blame game, pointing an accusing finger at our parents. While many of us suffered mightily because of unconscious parenting, we must remember that our parents were participants in a society that failed to offer them what they needed in order to become solid individuals and good parents. They needed a village around them—and so did we. Of course we were disappointed with our parents. We expected forty pairs of eyes greeting us in the morning, and all we got was one or two pairs looking back at us. We needed the full range of masculine and feminine expressions to surround us and grant us a knowledge of how these potencies move in the world. We needed to have many hands holding us and offering us the attention that one beleaguered human being could not possibly offer consistently. It is to our deep grief that the village did not appear.

For those of us living the life of professionals–mobile, class-jumping, geographically removed from our families for opportunities–this crisis brings up the deep grief not only over the loss of this village, but also the loss of its paid replacement. It makes me wonder about Pa and Ma in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s first book, Little House in the Big Woods (and apparently I’m not the only one.) How did Pa and Ma cope without their village? Without their extra pairs of eyes and hands? What was their internal world, as parents? Was there exhaustion? Was there mourning for community? Was there worry about the girls’ socialization? Or were their emotions shaped by an upbringing with different expectations?

Intellectualizing this feeling of grief or venting about it seems as alienated from the experience as ignoring or suppressing it. There are countless moments of grief and exhaustion and fear, as there are countless moments of elation and joy and overflowing love. Sitting with them and feeling them is important, because these moments are what is happening now. Sitting with the grief as it wells. Sitting with the joy as it erupts. Not just in formal practice. Moment to moment, throughout this rich and strange moment in our lives.