Learning The Jewish Way to Handle Death

And a guest essay on the notion of converts as people born with a Jewish soul.

I was holding my grandma’s hand when she was dying five years ago, and I leaned into her and said it would be ok. We were close, and I knew she was scared. Also I have a jarringly low, gravely voice like hers was, and I knew she liked to hear it.

Her children and grandchildren were all there around her, holding each other, circling her bed. As a death goes, it was a beautiful one.

This was my dad’s mom, and she was not religious at all by temperament or practice but believed generally in Christian Science and lived culturally Episcopalian, so the Episcopalian rituals were what kicked in. Which meant there was a funeral a few weeks later, at a time that worked for everyone, where grandma was to be put into the family crypt in Colma, where San Franciscans are buried.

But that wasn’t for a while yet. What about that night? What about the moment after her grip goes loose and her breath stops but I’m still sitting on the edge of her bed holding her hand?

The doctor had been called and the coroner too, but that all took a few hours, five or six at least. The hospice team had said not to stay for the coroner because it was unpleasant to see.

Slowly everyone filed out of her apartment to go have dinner.

I became obsessed with her body not being alone. She hated being alone. She was a social woman. She’d outlived three husbands and always reminded me, maybe more than a little pointedly, that it was not good at all to be single. Dad and my little brother and I stayed in her apartment waiting. We opened a bottle of her favorite white wine and drank it in the living room. The doctor came. Yes, she was dead. The coroner came a couple hours later to take her body. I went home to my roommate. And Grandma stayed alone, tucked in a refrigerator somewhere for weeks.

There is a Jewish idea that a convert has always been a Jew and just discovers it within themselves, almost like a trans-ness. I learned about that from someone on Twitter actually (his thread below).

I don’t fully feel that. I don’t think I was secretly a Jew in my soul and discovered it after meeting Bari.

But I do know that something in how death was handled by the Episcopalians horrified me. I was furious. I was mad at my family. I was mad at them (us) for letting her body be alone for even a minute. I was mad that there was nothing to do for weeks until a random day by a grave, followed by a museum cocktail-party-of-a-funeral to toast her life, and that was it. I was mad at our tradition for being so shitty at this, and part of me never forgave it for that. It was cold and cruel.

One of the things Judaism knows how to do better than I could have imagined is handle death.

In a way that’s because it has held onto so many old rituals that Christians have sloughed off. But getting rid of ancient tradition does not feel particularly freeing when someone you love dies and all the rules of what to do have been rubbed away by liberalism or softly forgotten in comfort and neglect.

I don’t mean to sound like a salesman, but the only way to phrase it is: when it comes to the death aspect of life, Judaism’s got a much better set of features.

I’d learned about the rituals in my Jewish 101 class: The body must be guarded — never left alone — until burial, which must happen within 24 hours. Then there is a week-long period of mourning, a shiva. There are rules upon rules for shivas, guardrails for mourning. Even little things: as people enter, the mourner does not have to engage in “hi, how are you’s?” Why expect someone to be normal and conversational?

I liked the rules I learned. They made sense. But it was seeing them in life that made me understand the real difference. I have three experiences with death and Judaism so far:

Anniversaries: At shul, every Friday, the rabbi asks people who are observing the anniversary of a death to stand. It is called a Yartzeit (which for the life of me I thought was Yardstick until Bari proof-read this post). Everyone in the room says who they are remembering — the person’s name and relationship to them. It’s very beautiful.

Community: Bari thought for years that I was being cold, declining to attend various funerals and shivas with her (I never met the guy, I’d say). I thought she was being a little ghoulish (you had dinner with her literally twice, and now a funeral?). For the Episcopalian, going to a lot of funerals for people you haven’t met or didn’t know well is a little creepy. For Jews, it is a mitzvah (a good deed, a commandment) and an especially powerful one because it is the only mitzvah you can never be thanked for — the person is, of course, gone.

Guarding the body: For those 24 hours after someone dies, the body must never be alone. Guarding the body — shemira — is an honor. I never understood how powerful it could be until my friend Liel did it for someone who had had a hard life and little family. Liel has kids and a busy job, and losing a night of sleep is not pleasant, but when he heard she had died, he offered to be her shomer (her guard). And he stayed up all night watching over her. I wish so much I’d known Liel years ago and he could have been the shomer for my grandmother, who, let’s be honest, would have been alarmed by a 6’5” Israeli man.

Anyway, this little essay is in honor of Grandma — the great Constance Crowley Bowles Harte Peabody. She died Feb 21, 2016, and next year I’ll be celebrating her yartzeit.

Or, as we say it in here in the United California States of America, her yardstick.

Convert Corner this week is Andrew Seal, who teaches in the economics department at the University of New Hampshire.

He wrote beautifully on Twitter about the Jewish soul, which I referenced above and reprint here with his permission:

I just found Nellie Bowles’s Substack on converting to Judaism. As she notes, the topic of conversion among Jews is a bit uncomfortable, which is why I’ve never particularly wanted to write about my own experience.

It is not just that there are many opinions or sentiments about conversion among Jews. One should expect dissensus among Jews, but this is more than disagreement; it is more like tactfulness and restraint. I think many Jews find the notion of converting to Judaism perplexing and even in a sense dubious. Bowles mentions that many Jews find converts’ desire to share the fate of a people persecuted throughout history to be an odd one, and there is probably among some a (reasonable) question re: the motives of one who willingly takes on this burden.

For someone like Bowles or me, that question can be answered simply by the fact that the person's partner is Jewish--that usually suffices (even if, theoretically, it should not be the *real* reason for conversion) as an account of one's motives. But there is something more, which has to do with the awkwardness surrounding anyone who comes from a numerically or culturally powerful group but who willingly aligns themselves with and takes on the status of a minority or less powerful group. Of course, not all people who convert to Judaism are coming from a more powerful group.

But speaking from my experience, I think it is quite understandable why someone would question if not the genuineness then the self-awareness of someone who takes a step that entails giving up certain forms of power and privilege. Can someone who has not experienced the kind of othering and prejudice that faces a minority really know what they are taking on? Is it possible to become a Jew without ever having had the experience of being the target of antisemitism?

This is a particularly acute question for straight white men, who likely will not have other experiences of prejudice or inequality with which to make a comparison. For this reason, I certainly understand a certain hesitation among some Jews regarding conversion: while it might be going too far to say that you haven’t fully won their trust until you prove you won’t try to blend back in among the gentiles when the neo-Nazis start marching, the depth of your commitment to the Jewish people—your people—can't wholly be taken for granted either.

But there is a bigger issue as well, which Bowles neatly captures with her Substack's title, “Chosen by Choice.” There is a concept that somewhat bridges this underlying theological paradox—who is brazen enough to think they know better than G-d, who created some people Jews and others not Jews—and that is that some people have a Jewish soul (neshama), even if it is born into a Gentile body. I have always been fascinated by how much this resembles the language of being born into a body of the wrong sex, of being a woman “trapped” in a man's body or vice versa.

I recognize that the language of trans people explaining themselves is generally much more sophisticated and subtle than that, but certainly among many cisgendered people the vernacular understanding of a trans person’s life is something along those lines: of being born into the “wrong” body. It is, I think, an effect of the awkwardness and silence of most Jews and Jewish converts regarding conversion that this really quite crude explanation is still in many ways the best attempt many people make for narrating their journey to Judaism. The comparison between conversion to Judaism and being trans breaks down at many levels, but it has been the one that has made the most sense to me.

Many converts, I think, do not “feel” Jewish before they start the conversion process, but I did—there was a touch of dysphoria, a sense that I really belonged among Jews. Partly this could be retrospective re-narration of a sort: it is easy to remember a kind of affinity and inflate it, turn it into something deeper than it was. I certainly do not mean to compare my experience to the often painful experiences of trans or nonbinary people who are forced to perform gender in ways that are egregiously unnatural to their sense of self. But as I said, there is so little real reflection on the phenomenon of conversion to Judaism that I have had to find approximations where I can.

So perhaps, following Bowles’s lovely lead, I should be the change I want to see (or however that goes) and try to do more reflecting in public on this. There surely are others who either are Jewish converts or who might find it helpful in other ways?

My dad, Henry Bowles II, wrote me back something smart when I sent him this week’s essay as a sensitivity reader. (He is a better writer than I am and hopefully he’ll contribute something to this blog one day.)

He wrote that the Episcopalian response should be understood in the context of the Christian thinking on heaven. When she passed, Grandma, the soul that is Constance Peabody, remained entirely alive, happy, free, heading upward. The body left behind is the vessel.

He did add, though: “I think the Jewish tradition is excellent, more sensible. Guard the body until it gets buried. Then mourn or celebrate but deal with the physical and don't pretend they are still alive somewhere.”

Reader, I’ll have Dad singing kiddush before long.

Thank you as always for reading.

Fellow travelers, if you’re interested in writing an essay, send me an email: nellie.writing@gmail.com. Thanks to our supporters, we pay all our contributors $250, even if you contribute via thoughtful Twitter thread. Andrew asked that his goes to Mazon, a Jewish philanthropy that works to fight hunger, so that’s what we did.

Wishing everyone a beautiful shabbat.