Six Feet Under: A Jewish Take
Your father is dead and my pot roast is ruined.
Reprinted with permission of the Forward.
There is a moment directly after a loved one’s death when thought and action cease. It’s an instant of dissociation from everything before the tragedy, and everything that will follow.
The hit HBO television show Six Feet Under took advantage of that moment once a week for five seasons to educate viewers about death and preparation for burial in a dramatic and entertaining way. As I watched the first season of the show in 2001, it seemed to me that rather than selling products, these weekly lessons about dying were meant to enhance the viewer’s life. I am accustomed to thinking of television as an ethical wasteland, and of Torah--not television--as the weekly lessons meant to enhance my Jewish life. This show seemed to bridge the gap.
This past spring, a Jewish storyteller, or magid, put a Jewish spin on Six Feet Under in a class, offered to stimulate the Berkeley, California, community’s thoughts about Jewish burial customs, in advance of the annual hevra kadisha (burial society) conference the following month. It helped me to understand that television could be Torah.
In Class with the Magid
I decided to attend the class because I knew magid Jhos Singer’s reputation in dealing with challenging material. If anyone could pull the Jewish meaning out of this show, Singer could. I first encountered Singer teaching at a Jewish meditation center in Berkeley, where he led services, with an unerringly sharp d’var Torah and music that spoke to my bones. Sometimes synagogue can lull people to sleep but with Singer, nobody dozed.
"The Torah of Six Feet Under” opened a window into Jewish life for the class. We watched all 13 emotionally jarring episodes of the award-winning first season. Though it’s not about Jews, the show is ideally suited to an exploration of the techniques and ethics of Jewish preparation for burial: Each episode brought another kind of death, leading to the preparation of a different kind of body for burial, and the challenge of another family’s bereavement. After each episode, Singer guided the discussion with a prepared vort introducing the themes of the show, discussing how the Fisher family (owners of the show’s funeral home) can be viewed in the context of Torah, Talmud, or a practical guide to Jewish burial customs.
Singer taught that rather than hiding death or minimizing its impact on the living, Jewish tradition considers death a time of transition no less worthy of our honor and attention than birth or marriage. Because four of our classmates were active members of the synagogue’s hevra kadisha, participants conversed weekly with people who honored a Jewish commitment to the end of life.
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