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On Being an Orphaned Adult: An Interview with Rabbi Marc Angel
On Being an Orphaned Adult: An Interview with Rabbi Marc Angel

Volume 2 , Issue 1


Rabbi Marc Angel is the spiritual leader of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue on Manhattan's Upper West Side. As a nationally renowned spokesman for Sephardic Jewry, Rabbi Angel is the author of many articles and books (on Sephardis culture. In his most recent award winning book, The Orphaned Adult, Rabbi Angel shares his wisdom on coping with the death of a parent. In the process he draws upon a wide range of sources and speaks to those both in and outside the Jewish community. In this interview with Jewish Review editor, Sandy Drob. Rabbi Angel speaks briefly about his involvement with Sephardic Jewry and then shares some of his wisdom on coping with the death of a parent.

Jewish Review: Could you tell us something about your own background, and your involvement in the Sephardic community?

Angel: I was born in Seattle, Washington in 1945. My grandparents on my mother's side came from villages outside of Istanbul in Turkey and on my father's side from the island of Rhodes. They were from Ladino speaking communities. It was this background which molded my basic outlook on life. Originally my involvement in the Sephardic community grew out on a clear recognition, which any Sephardic Jew in the United States has that the Sephardim are an exceedingly small minority. Especially years ago, whenever there would be discussions of Judaism or American Jewry or Jewish customs or Jewish cooking or anything similar, Sephardim would always be left out of the whole discussion. So my task in life was really to put the Sephardim back on the map and to make the American and World Jewish-communities more aware of Sephardic Judaism.

Jewish Review: Could you give us some background and history of your congregation, Shearith Israel? Who does the congregation serve today?

Angel: Our congregation, Shearith Israel, was founded in 1654. It is the oldest Jewish congregation in North America. It was composed, even from the very beginning, of Sephardim and Ashkenazim, although the custom or rite of the synagogue has always been the Sephardic custom as practiced in Amsterdam, among the western Sephardim. The congregation continues to maintain this elegant, dignified and very beautiful custom to this day. Our congregation today is made up of Sephardim and Ashkenazim in about equal numbers. Many of them are Orthodox, many of them are not, but they come here because it is just a very aesthetically and spiritually moving congregation and service. Thus our congregation is very diverse. Most of the members live in the vicinity, though we have some who reside a great distance away and who maintain their connection for historic reasons, their families having been associated with the synagogue for generations.

Jewish Review: Amongst the Sephardim there doesn't seem to be a division between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. Why is that so?

Angel: Historically the Sephardic Jews have been traditional Jews, following halakha, and we did not have an Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movement-- these were all Ashkenazi inventions. Now, unfortunately some of the Sephardic communities are also getting involved in these divisions, but the vast majority of American Sephardic synagogues would fall into the general category of being orthodox or traditional synagogues, and I don't know if there are any (perhaps there are one or two now) which are identified with non-orthodox movements.

Jewish Review: So those who are non-observant would still feel comfortable coming to an ?orthodox? sephardic synagogue?

Angel: One of the unique things about Sephardic Jewry has been its openness to Jews of all beliefs and observances. The Sephardic community believes in tolerance and openness. We try to persuade rather than coerce. We try to work with people and bring them closer to Judaism in a positive way.

Jewish Review: Your book The Orphaned Adult recently won an award. Could you tell us about that?

Angel: Yes. The Orphaned Adult recently won the 1988 Jewish Book Award in the category of ?Jewish Thought?.

Jewish Review: I know you get into this in the book itself but could you tell us how you came to write The Orphaned Adult?

Angel: In 1983 my mother died of cancer. During the last year of her life, when she was struggling with her illness, I was back and forth a great deal between New York and Seattle, where my parents lived. I went back as often as I could, at least once a month for three or four days at a time. Now even though I am a rabbi and I deal with death all the time and I'd been giving counsel to people with ill parents and aiding mourners through the grief process, when the death of my own mother confronted me it felt like a completely novel experience. I tried to seek personal guidance in literature. I looked to see if there was anything written dealing with the death of an adult's parent. I was then 36 years old, married with three children, the rabbi of a prominent synagogue, and successful and happy in many ways. Nevertheless, I found it to be a crisis. It was a very difficult thing to see a mother who was always so strong and energetic deteriorate. to become more and more ill and more and more weak. It was shocking, it was a traumatic thing for me and for all the people in the family as it was for her. Even after doing a great deal of reading in Jewish and non-Jewish sources on the subject of coping with death, I didn't find anything that was written specifically on my question of how adults deal with a dying parent. After my mother died a book began to form in my mind and it sort of cooked in my mind for about a year. Suddenly I decided to try to sit down and put some of those ideas in writing. From the time I sat down till the time the book was finished was a matter of two months. The book, in a way, wrote itself, and I should say that my mother is its co-author.

Jewish Review: Your book seems to be aimed at a general readership and while you quote many Jewish sources you quote many non-Jewish sources as well. Why did you write a book of this kind? Do you feel that the Jewish rabbinate has something to say to the wider world?

Angel: I wrote the book because I think all human beings whether they are Jewish or non-Jewish suffer similar life crises. The death of a parent equally affects Jews and non-Jews. My goal in writing this book was to write from a Jewish perspective, since that is my tradition, but to deal with the subject matter in a more universal way: namely this is a phenomenon that confronts all kinds of people and there's guidance that can be found in Judaism as well as in the wisdom of other cultures that can help people as people get through this crisis. The book has, thank God, been successful and I know that both Jews and non-Jews are reading it. This makes me very happy because it shows that there is a Jewish message that has a universal appeal. If non-Jews can see something sympathetic and positive in the teachings of Judaism that's all to the good.

Jewish Review: Your book is somewhat psychological in orientation. Do you believe that a modern rabbi needs to be something of a psychologist. perhaps even versed in the practice of psychotherapy?

angelphoto2Angel: I think that every rabbi and probably every human being has to be something of a psychologist, a psychologist in the sense of one who tries to understand the motives which prompt people to act in the ways which they do. I think that a rabbi, who does a great deal of counseling and who feels this to be an important part of his work, needs some kind of psychological insight. Now I don't think its important for a rabbi to be psychiatrist or a psychologist or to be knowledgeable in psychotherapy per se. but it is important to have basic counseling skills. Many times people want to talk to<{pan style='mso-bidi-font-size: 8.5pt;mso-bidi-font-fami|y:\ahoma'? > you, they don't want you to talk to them. They want you just to be a sounding board for them. You have to be able to listen as well as talk. This book, by the way, is in a sense me talking to myself. In it I?m giving myself guidance and clarifying certain ideas. I think this book isn't so much psychological or psychiatric as much as it is a piece of pastoral counseling. The book simply reflects how I came to see the problems of losing a parent and how I feel others can see these problems in ways that will be helpful to them.

Jewish Review: Let's talk a little about the modern attitude toward death as you describe it. You speak of death as a personal crisis in the life of the dying person in today's world, and you speak of our society as a death denying society.

Angel: Yes, the prevalent pattern in America has been that of a death denying society. Death is not nice. It is a failure of medical science. It's ugly. It's camouflaged. We don't like to talk about it. We speak of people ?expiring? or ?passing on? rather than of people dying. On the other hand in Eastern cultures you have what we might call a ?death accepting? attitude. Death is part of life, and is nothing to be afraid of. Life, in this philosophy, has no great long term value anyway -- so you might as well accept death as part of the fate of humanity. I tried to draw a picture of Judaism as striking a balance between these two extremes. Judaism doesn't deny death. To be sure there is an element in Judaism that actually defies death. We find this in the doctrine of life after death, in the view that the dead will ultimately be resurrected and in the very act of saying kaddish for the dead. There is a statement of the prophet Isaiah which is recited in some of our prayers of mourning that death will be swallowed by God eternally. So we have a certain resistance and we certainly don't like to give people over to death. We are, for example, able to violate Shabbat to save a life. So we have a very strong emphasis on life. Having said that, Judaism is also exceedingly interested in accepting death when it comes. We fight it. We're not anxious to jump into death, but when it comes we neither deny nor distort it.

Jewish Review: You point out that for many individuals in our society their aged parents have become almost ?expendable?. Why does this occur and isn't this a tragedy that runs completely contrary to the Jewish tradition?

Angel: One of the features of our society is that medical science has increased the life span of human beings. It has given people greater longevity but it has not been able to provide people with meaning in their lives. The result is that we have many elderly people who may live to be 80, 90 or 100 years old who don't necessarily feel that their lives are worthwhile. It is now also common for many children to be grandparents while their own parents are still alive. Unfortunately, they may tend to view their aged parents as expendable. I've come across cases of adults who themselves are in their 60's who have parents in their 80's or 90's. These parents can, in some cases be very demanding and they can make their children feel very guilty about their treatment of them. These are not specifically Jewish problems, they're problems throughout our society. On the one hand we want people to live longer but our society must now work to give meaning and value to these longer lives.

Jewish Review: People today often feel awkward in making a shiva call. What kind of guidance can you give them?

Angel: The guidance I would give is that people should be sensitive to the needs of the mourners. Sometimes the mourners want to have a bit of peace and quiet and do not want a serious philosophical conversation, at other times they do want such conversation. When we were sitting shiva for my mother the visits we appreciated the most were those of individuals who had memories of my mother, who told us anecdotes or stories which one way or another reinforced in our minds her value to them and her value to the people in the society in which we lived. They made us laugh. Sometimes they made us cry, but the sharing of memories was so important. I think a person making a shiva call should take his or her cue from the mourners themselves and should try to be sensitive to what they want to talk about and how much they want to talk.

Jewish Review: You seem to believe that death and dying can actually be an opportunity for the dying person and his or her family. How is this possible?

Angel: In the course of a lifetime adult children and their parents have many wonderful things in common. There are also aspects of their lives which do not run quite as smoothly as they would, in retrospect, prefer. Sometimes they say things to each other that are hurtful. If it can at all be avoided it is not a good thing for a parent to die leaving children feeling guilty, feeling that they should have made peace with the parent, that they should have done more or said more, that they should have said, for example, that they loved them. I had a case, by the way, of a woman in her 40's who came to my office whose mother had just died. The woman was crying like a baby. She said the thing that really bothered her was that her mother had died and had not said ?Ilove you? (to this daughter) in the last ten years. This left? a terrible feeling of inadequacy or guilt in the adult child. So, if a parent realizes that he or she is in the process of dying, it is a good time for an initiative to heal old wounds, to make the children feel worthy, to make them feel loved, and to clear tip all the bad that had passed between them before. Likewise, its time for children, if they haven't been exactly wonderful to their parent all along, to make some effort at reconciliation, so that when the death comes all can have a better conscience about the past.

Jewish Review: Your quote from the Spanish philosopher. Ortega y Gassett, is intriguing. Could you elaborate on this philosopher's relevance to your topic?

Angel: Ortega points out that in order for a person to arrive at a certain understanding or the building of his own character, he first must reach a low nadir in his own self-esteem, by ?crash-landing?, by feeling unworthy, by feeling that he is ?nothing?. A person is then able to come out of that sense of depression and unworthiness and find his own strength and greatness and work his way up in a strong and positive way. This idea is echoed in Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) where we have the biblical teaching, ?V'hachochma may ayin timatze? (?wisdom, where does it come from??) which the Kabbalists have translated through a reemphasis of the words to mean, ?V'hachochma may ayin timatze? (?Wisdom comes from nothingness?): At first we recognize our inadequacy, our nothingness, our humility and from this we are able to build ourselves into a better human being. The awareness of death is a means by which we achieve this experience of our own nothingness.

Jewish Review: At one point you even say in your book that the awareness of death is the distinguishing feature of humanity. Is the Orphaned Adult somehow an introduction to a more general viewpoint which you have about the role of death in life?

Angel: The last chapter of my hook focuses on a philosophical overview of what I think is the meaning of the rhythm of life and death. One of the functions of the book is to try to make people see their own lives as part of that basic rhythm, rather than to be self-consumed by their own importance. Very often human beings tend to see the whole world through the prism of their own little being and they don't really recognize the universal patterns of which they are a part. So I think part of the theme of the book is for human beings to reach out of and beyond themselves and see themselves in a more harmonious relationship with the life-death cycle and to participate in those rhythms calmly and wisely without being frightened.

Jewish Review: You indicate that Einstein seemed to have had this insight?

Angel: Yes, Einstein had the insight that when an individual only concentrates on his own being his own being is itself limited. It becomes small. fragmented and separated from the rest of the universe. Einstein saw that if a person can reach beyond himself he gets a deeper and wiser concept of life and also, I think, a deeper and wiser concept of death. If one sees oneself as part of the natural universe, as part of God's divine plan, then he is less apt to be terrified and frightened by the reality of death, which like everything else is a part of God's plan.


Jewish Review: You describe how the relationship that one has with his parents is symbolic of the relationship he has with the traditions which they represent and yet you say that when the parent dies, the child now has an opportunity to redefine his or her role vis a vis the tradition, whether to become more traditional or more creative. Do you feel that there is a role for both in a Jew?s response to his parent?s death?

Angel: Judaism has always had a great respect both for tradition and for individual insight and creativity and this can be reflected schematically in the rhythms of life and death. The parent who is a symbol of tradition, generally will die before the children but often when they are themselves adults. So the first part of any person's life is really dominated in a symbolic sense by the parents as the representatives or symbols of tradition. After the parent dies the child is already an adult(and going through the second half of his life. During this period, the influences of the parent is lessened and that would be a period, in a symbolic, schematic sense, of creativity, of individual contribution to the tradition and the culture. Judaism recognizes the need for chiddushim, individual creativity and insights, but the balance which Judaism strikes is this: that while respecting tradition it doesn't want us to be fossilized by tradition, it doesn't want us to live exactly the same way people did 2000 years ago, to dress the same way, think the same way, be the same way, but rather to take these universal or eternal principles of the Torah, of halakha, and to apply them in our generation as all of our predecessors have done in theirs. Now, that takes creativity and imagination. To be able to apply Judaism in a way that is relevant to the contemporary generation requires a considerable amount of creativity and intelligence. So on the one hand we have the tradition which guides us and binds us - we can't go beyond the tradition - symbolized by our parents: and on the other hand we have creativity and individualism, symbolized by the passing of our parents and their generation. The two things in balance prevent us from being fossilized in tradition or from going off on tangents of great creativity where we have no roots anymore. This balance is a great insight of Judaism. In general. Judaism seeks to achieve a series of balances between the poles of human nature. The Torah reflects human nature as it is in its deepest sense and the more we understand the Torah the more we really understand ourselves.

(Note:The Orphaned Adult: Confronting the Death of a Parent, by Rabbi Marc D. Angel. was published by Human Sciences Press. New York, 1987.)



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