los angeles | With her arms raised heavenward and fingers signifying the Hebrew letter shin, Andrea Hodos danced to the choreography of a mitzvah.
At a Los Angeles conference on Jewish burial practices and the mitzvah of taharah, Hodos used her talents as a dancer and choreographer to interpret the ritual preparation for burial of a Jewish body.
Her dance, introduced this past summer 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 (burial society) 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 taharah group.
Slater, a 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 taharah.”
Taharah, which means ritual washing, includes rechitza, a cleanliness washing, as well as halbasha — dressing the deceased 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, someone who had participated in the taharah 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 taharah, and connects those steps to the deceased woman’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.
Slater said taharah 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.
Generally, the chevra kadisha process begins with first ritually washing the hands, then with warm cloths washing the body. It is then dried off, dressed in a shroud, and placed in a simple pine box.
Hodos suggested that the process has its own choreography. While reciting a 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 continued, 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.
Her dance moved those in attendance. “When a taharah team is working together, it’s like a troupe of dancers,” Rabbi Meira Iliinsky of San Francisco said after Hodos’ demonstration.
“Taharah is an intense experience,” added Iliinsky, a former member of a taharah group in Richmond, Va., who found that after performing the ritual, 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 taharah or end it.” n