LOS ANGELES (JTA) — With her arms raised heavenward and fingers signifying the Hebrew letter shin, Andrea Hodos danced to the choreography of a mitzvah.
At a recent Los Angeles conference on Jewish burial practices and the mitzvah of tahara, Hodos used her talents as a dancer and choreographer to interpret the seldom-discussed ritual preparation for burial of a Jewish body.
Her dance, introduced in June at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, was part of the evening program of The North American Chevra Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference organized by Kavod v’Nichum — literally, honor and comfort — a national chevra kadisha education and support organization.
The conference covered such topics as natural burial and green cemeteries, the environmental and financial issues involved with burial vs. cremation, and emerging gender issues in Jewish burial.
“How you treat people when they’re dead really changes how you treat them when they’re alive,” said Dr. Michael Slater, the president of Kavod v’Nichum and a member of a tahara group.
Slater, a practicing Chicago physician, met Hodos in Jerusalem in 1991 and continued to follow her work. He said he invited her to the conference to “help find a different way to represent to the world what we do.”
“Death is hard, but it shouldn’t be scary. No one wants to talk about it,” Slater said, noting that those who work with the dead have issues, too. “There are emotional and physical challenges to performing tahara.”
Tahara, which means ritual washing, includes rechitza, a cleanliness washing, as well as halbasha, dressing the meit (male deceased) or meitah (female) in shrouds.
To create the dance, Hodos, who uses movement and theater exercises in her work interpreting the Torah, reached into her family history.
“I began thinking about my grandmother,” who had died a few years earlier, said Hodos. After the funeral Genie Zeiger, who had participated in the tahara for Hodos’ grandmother, presented the family with a poem titled “Washing the Corpse.”
“She lay in stillness under a thin white sheet,” began the poem, which unemotionally takes the reader through the steps of tahara, as well as connects those steps to the meitah’s life.
“Needlepoint was her specialty," the poem continued, "and so it was with that exacting care that we tied her white linen vestments.”
"I was moved by how the poet had captured so much without even knowing her,” Hodos said.
At the convention, before a small audience that included members of tahara groups in the United States, Hodos introduced her dance by reading from a description of tahara written by Rachel Barenblatt, better known by her nom de blog, the Velveteen Rabbi.
“The steps of the process are simple," the description began. "Wash hands and don gloves and aprons. Say a prayer asking the meit to forgive you for any inadvertent offenses of missteps committed during tahara.”
According to Slater, tahara is performed by a team of three or four people — men prepare men, women prepare women — with as many as six or seven if new members are being trained.
Volunteer burial societies, or chevrei kadisha, which organize and train the tahara groups, are located in rural and urban areas. Many societies in larger cities pay a stipend.
Generally, Barenblatt’s description follows an outline of first ritually washing the hands, then with warm cloths washing the body. Then the body is washed with a constant stream of poured water using nine kavim, or three buckets of water about two gallons apiece.
Once the washing is finished, the group repeats the words “tehorah hee,” “she is pure.” The meitah is dried off and dressed in hand-stitched white linen, with the strings tied “so that the loops form a letter ‘shin,’ representing Shaddai, a name of God.”
The meitah is then placed in a simple pine box and the lid is closed.
Hodos suggested in her introduction that the process had its own choreography.
While reciting the poem, she began to dance.
“We washed her, under sheet after sheet,” intoned Hodos, her hands and arms moving in a sweeping motion as if uncovering, then pouring water.
“We tied her white linen vestments,” she went on, her fingers moving as though stitching, after which she held up her hands, each with three fingers extended, signifying the form of a shin.
“We recited prayers,” she said, her hands held together as if holding a book.
“After closing the lid, we rested our hands on its soft piney surface,” said Hodos, gracefully lowering her arms.
Then, repeating "tehora hee," she raised her arms to heaven, signifying the end.
“When a tahara team is working together, it’s like a troupe of dancers,” said Rabbi Meira Iliinsky of San Francisco said following Hodos’ demonstration.
“Tahara is an intense experience,” added Iliinsky, a former member of a tahara group in Richmond, Va., who found that after performing a tahara, returning to normal was difficult.
“You can’t help but think this is going to happen to me someday,” she said.
Iliinsky found the dance a ritual that could help her get back into life.
“It uses your body to express the feelings between life and death,” she said. "It’s a perfect ritual to begin a tahara or end it.”