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My Father, Denied Tahara

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Born to a Litvak and a native South African Jew in 1929, my father lived every day of his life as a Jew. In his early years, everyone was, of course, Orthodox. By 1956, the year he married my mother, a Reform community (of which my Welsh-born maternal grandfather was a founding member) had started in Cape Town. I spent my early years in the Orthodox shul playing with the fringes of my father’s tallit, downstairs in the men’s section, but as I grew and could no longer enter the men’s section, I preferred the Reform shul, where my maternal grandfather had come to appreciate sitting with his wife and daughters. My childhood memories are of fights about which shul to go to on holidays  – my father would come with us to the Reform shul on the first day and return to the Orthodox shul on the second day. Over time, however, he migrated entirely to Reform and eventually served a term as president. Given his Orthodox education and his excellent Hebrew, my father was frequently asked to lead services, read from the Torah or offer a d’var if the rabbi was not able to be present. He was devoted to Jewish learning and took advantage of the many opportunities that Cape Town offers, whether Limmud or Melton or the Cape Town Jewish Literary festival.

Following my parents’ divorce in the late ‘80s and a stint as an eligible bachelor, he fell in love with and married an Afrikaner. They were married for over 30 years. In 2021, my dad wrote an email to his four children articulating his final wishes. He was to be cremated, as he did not want burial in the Cape Town Jewish cemetery where his non-Jewish wife could not be buried.

In June 2022, he suffered a massive stroke and needed care around the clock. It was clear that he would not be able to return home. In consultation with Dad’s rabbi, my siblings and I began to plan for what would happen following his death.

I live in New York, active in a non-affiliated but essentially Conservative congregation. A close friend, who died very young of ovarian cancer in 2002, had designated me a member of her tahara (the ritual purification of the body or met prior to burial) team. Doing tahara, unprepared, for someone you love, is extremely challenging. It took me seven years to be able to confront the ritual again. Since then, I have participated in many taharot alongside extraordinary women. This is a mitzvah for which no one can be thanked. The arc that one travels –from unzipping the bag and confronting the unknown, through the cleaning, washing, pouring of the ritual waters, drying, clothing in linen and finally closing the lid of the coffin– is remarkable. We emerge from the funeral home into the Manhattan night with a new appreciation of one another, of teamwork and of life.

In Cape Town, we discussed where the funeral service would be conducted and where prayers would be held, and then I inquired about tahara. The rabbi looked a little uncomfortable. “We can try,” was his response. In New York, we have performed tahara knowing that an individual was not going to be buried. I didn’t for a moment dream that Dad was actually going to be denied tahara, and yet that proved to be the case. The rabbi tried, my brother in Cape Town tried, and we ran into a brick wall. No tahara was granted there for Len Anstey, as he was going to be cremated.

As the months passed before my father’s death, I thought I had come to terms with this refusal. Dad died on the second day of Pesakh. My brother and sister-in-law were with him and my sister and I were on the phone. If he could hear, he would have heard my sister-in-law sobbing and my sister singing “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.” It was an extraordinary moment to share.

Numb, I went for a walk with my partner and then to shul for the second day service. The rabbis announced Dad’s death the next day at the end of Shabbat services. I was surrounded by a circle of friends, many of whom had participated in tahara. I happened to mention that Dad was being denied tahara. A wise man, blessed with creative, strategic instincts said, “Why don’t we do a conceptual tahara, like in COVID?” I was startled and thought why not? How to pull this off?

That afternoon, I walked with Rabbi Jan Uhrbach, a close friend and floated the idea, not sure whether she would push back or embrace it. Without hesitation, Jan picked up the gauntlet.

So now I had to find a space, find liturgy that made sense and a tahara team. The local community funeral home was able to offer us a space. Another rabbi friend in Colorado sent a manual developed during COVID by a Portland Hevre Kadishe (burial society) which we could use as a framework. However, there were some challenges.

During COVID, the team members were separated from one another and from the met and would meet online. We, by contrast, would share a space. Tahara is the most physical of rituals. You are literally working in a large bathroom: cleaning, lifting, washing, drying, pouring, drying again, dressing. Our tahara would indeed be ‘conceptual’. Yet, the purpose of tahara is, at its core, to aid the soul in its journey, and this would be the intent of our tahara.

Rabbi Jan, gifted in liturgy and ritual, found a way to make the entire conceptual tahara feel meaningful. We took turns reading from the Portland manual as one does at a Seder, appropriate during Hol Hamoed Pesakh. This gave us the sense of a team that is such a critical component of the ritual.

The biggest challenge was how to incorporate water into the ritual while sitting in a circle in a room. The high point of the ritual is pouring the water in a continual flow over the met and chanting tahor hu for a man and tahora hi for a woman (“he/she is pure”). Generally, a tahara team of men will perform the ritual for a man and women, for women.

Rabbi Jan, after consulting with a colleague, suggested that I write tahor hu in water on a cotton sheet of paper. This sheet would be sent to Cape Town to be buried with my dad’s remains. She also came up with some unique prayers drawing on Numbers and Proverbs, acknowledging that a conventional tahara had proved impossible to arrange and a prayer by R Nahman of Bratzlav requesting that I “pour out my heart like water before you.”

Twelve of us, men and women, came together on Monday evening, the fifth day of Pesakh. Most of those present had performed a traditional tahara. For a few, this would probably be their only experience of the ritual and its liturgy. This blessed group enabled me to offer the tahara liturgy to my father prior to the cremation. And ironically, I was able to participate in tahara for my father, which would normally have been impossible due to the traditionally gender-segregated nature of the ritual.

We then spent a few minutes talking about my dad before another important rabbi in my life arrived to lead us in minkha.

As we finished, I realized that I was able to take a very deep breath and release the anger I had been holding. My father, denied tahara in his home city, had indeed been given tahara by this caring team of New Yorkers.

 


 

Sharon AnsteySharon Anstey was born in South Africa and has lived in the US since the mid-1980s. A long-time member of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, Sharon serves on the Hevre Kadishe and as a gabbai during the Yamim Nora’im. She works as a retirement planner and long term care specialist.

 

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