Wanting Memories: the Tender Potential of a Men’s Hevra
The chevra kadisha (“Holy Community”) is a geographically-organized group responsible for all Jewish matters pertaining to death, including arranging people to sit with and guard the body (shemira), and preparation of the body for burial (tahara). The 7th of Adar, which fell yesteray, February 22, is the date the Rabbis assigned to Moshe’s death (Talmud Bavli Kiddushin 38a). Because God prepared Moshe’s body for burial personally, the chevra honors this date as a day of reflection on the work they do. Different chevras and members have various approaches to balancing modesty with a desire to spread knowledge regarding death rituals to make them less obscure. This post, by Joey Glick, on the role of chevra kadisha work in enabling gentleness in masculinity, is the seventh and final piece in our week-long series by contemporary Jews involved in local chevras. Click here for Parts 1, by Gidon Von Emden, 2, by Nina Rubin, 3, by Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips, 4, by Elissa Felder and Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein, 5, by Emily Fishman, and 6, by an anonymous author and Allen Spivak.
A few years ago, I found myself in a crowded café, weeping over my laptop. I had just watched a Tiny Desk performance of the Ysaÿe Barnwell composition “Wanting Memories” by Cantus, a men’s choral group. Barnwell’s song begins with the raw expression of a person who has lost their parent: “You said you’d rock me in the cradle of your arms/You said you’d hold me ‘til the storms of life were gone/You said you’d comfort me in times like these and now I need you/Now I need you/And you are gone.” Barnwell ends her work with a glimpse of the hope waiting at the end of grief: “I thought that you were gone, but now I know you’re with me. You are the voice that whispers all I need to hear.”
While these words on their own would be enough to bring me to tears, Cantus’ performance turned me into a blubbering mess. As a cis-man, I had spent years searching for alternatives to poplar media’s representation of a masculinity of detachment and aggression. While I had seen this masculinity challenged by my gentle father and other men role models, there was something different and profound about the experience of listening to Barnwell’s poetry in Cantus’ rendering. For the first time, I heard a choir of men, following the script of a woman’s voice as her words echoed against the walls of grief and vulnerability. That moment of listening gave me a dream: to one day sing in such a choir, finding a range of pain, openness, and intimacy in my own voice amongst a community of men. After years of searching, I was surprised to find my voice and choir in the basement of Bresniak Funeral Home.
Earlier this year, I joined the Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston. In my first tahara, I was one of five men on a team preparing the met, the deceased man, for burial. While giving the met an initial bath, our team sang together the Rosho Kedem, a passage drawn from Song of Songs. In it’s biblical context, the female lover of the Song delivers the Rosho Kedem as an ode of masculine beauty while she desperately searches for her lost love.
As we began to sing, I was struck by the dissonance of the Rosho Kedem; we chanted “his locks are curled and black as a raven… his lips are like lilies,” while washing the met’s bluing lips and wispy white hair. The sad strangeness of these words mixed with the longing of the Song’s poetry. As the woman of the Song called out for her lost lover, we called out to our lost met, mourning a life ended. Before I could sink into this sadness, I looked up to see my teammates in action. I saw a man holding the hand of the met and another patting drops of water from the met’s brow. As I watched this choreography of care, I knew that loss was not the last but the first note of our song together. Our voices joined the words of the woman of the Song and the presence of the met’s neshmah, his soul, in singing an aria of poetry, of grief, and of hope.
For years now, I have searched for the melody of my masculinity in the words and poetry of women’s and non-binary folx’s songs. With this search came an implicit understanding that there was a limit the ability of men, particularly cis-men, to compose gentleness; at best, I believed, we could play out weak imitations of our siblings’ and parents’ music. The men of the hevra kadisha have taught me otherwise. Their care has shown me the possibility that men can contribute new harmonies and timbre to the ongoing composition of our people’s melody of tenderness and care for the living and for the dead.
Joey Glick is a first year rabbinical student at Hebrew College. When not learning, he can be found playing old hymns on his banjo with friends.