by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education

Often when I teach youth about mikveh, I talk about how a ritual can help us get from Point A to Point B. We start with the secular. For a few minutes, a group of middle school students and I will generate all kinds of transitional moments and the sometimes bizarre, sometimes ordinary, rituals that go with them: the baseball player that adjusts his gloves the same way before each pitch, or a chant before a group of actors walk on stage for their 8th grade musical.

We always talk about why we do these things. Last Sunday, I heard from a group of children:

“I would feel strange if I didn’t do it once.”
“It’s comforting.”
“Makes me feel like I’m ready.”
“It’s just what we do.”

On our way to understanding the often-mysterious ritual of mikveh and how it has been used to mark transitions of all kinds for thousands of years, there is some consensus about why we do most rituals. Whether silly and made-up, or a centuries’ old Jewish tradition, a ritual can help us navigate the many beginnings and endings that that make up a life.

I recently experienced a big ending: the end of my great-aunt’s life at the age of ninety. After several years of declining health, I had found myself (in partnership with my grandmother) in a caregiver role for someone I love very much. At her best, my Aunt Ria was ready to give a loving, high-pitched cackle, dream out loud in hopes I’ll someday have children, and support my life choices no matter what they were. At her worst, the hospital room and the rehab where she often found herself were places of torment. Disabled, poor, and an immigrant with little English, my aunt was very dependent on the good will of others. Her incredible kindness and warmth made people fall in love with her easily, but I would be lying if I said that was enough to secure decent treatment within chronically underfunded social welfare organizations.

As for me, at my best, I was patient with her, the doctors, hospice nurses, and caregivers. I understood that this slow-motion decline meant she would eventually be gone, and I should appreciate the time I had left with her. At my worst, I was unwilling to let her go, and completely terrified about what she was experiencing.

On a Tuesday night this last September, I met my husband, David, at the nursing home. The hospice nurse let me know that she was now in a more active stage of dying. She appeared to be unconscious. David and I sang her our favorite niggunim (wordless melodies), we told her we loved her, and let her know who was with her as family came in and out of the room.

After close to an hour, David said we should step out and eat our dinner. I told him I would meet him in a bit. As soon as he left, I felt as though I could not move. I was planted firmly by her side for ten minutes when suddenly, her breathing became heavy. I wasn’t sure, but I began to feel this moment was my aunt leaving. I panicked. There was no one in the room except me – no nurses, doctors, friends, or family. At first, I felt as though nothing had prepared me for this moment; I was flailing. As I grew accustomed to her breathing, I understood that perhaps this was what she wanted. Our favorite moments over the years were the ones where it was just the two of us chatting, holding hands, or drinking tea.

So I sat with her, held her hand, and again told her I loved her and that I was with her. Only, my words felt very small. I desperately wanted to say to her that “Soon Misha (her husband) will be with you,” but I didn’t know that. Then, without thinking at all, my heart reached for the shema (a prayer about God’s oneness that is a central component of morning and evening services). I began to sing a melody I’d never heard or sung before. I was so grateful to have it. My aunt’s face softened the more I sang. She began breathing with her whole body; she tried talking but couldn’t manage. The time between each breath stretched out and occasionally, she opened her eyes to look at me and cry. In that quiet room, all of the beeping of the nursing home disappeared. Just her labored breaths and my voice. And then, her breathing stopped.

My family at Ria’s 90th birthday in August.

Now it was very quiet. I don’t know how much time passed, but eventually David returned. We cried and hugged and then, we had a list of things to do. First, we did not touch her body for the proscribed 15 minutes. I gently closed her eyes, straightened her body, and covered her with her bedsheet. We looked for windows to open (they were locked); we poured out all the water in pitchers and glasses in the room, and then we covered the mirrors. I began reading tehillim (psalms) as we waited for the funeral home to take her body.

I didn’t stop to think, “Should I sing the shema?” It was just part of me. I didn’t ask myself, “Why am I straightening her limbs or pouring this water out?” I just did it. Although it’s never come up with my middle school students, it’s clear to me now that at least one part of what makes a ritual precious is that you can reach for it in the dark. I will always be grateful for that list of things to do as I began traveling the distance between my life with my aunt, and my life without her.

Leeza Negelev is the Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim.