Three Jews in a Bar Discussing Death

Yonatan Gutfeld is a current LABA fellow composing a song cycle based on the poems of Ori Bernstein. Misha Shulman is a LABA fellow, playwright and educator studying to be a rabbi. LABA Journal editor Gordon Haber met with Gutfeld and Shulman in a Brooklyn bar to discuss life, death, and vodka. (Gutfeld will perform at LABALive on April 18, 2019, at the 14 Street Y. Click here for tickets.) 

Yonatan Gutfeld: Should we get whiskey?

LJ: Vodka is better. You don’t feel so bad the next morning.

MS: They say that vodka is the purest liquor.

LJ: The better stuff is. They purify it a few times.

YG: Let’s do it.

[Vodkas are ordered and appear. The Beatles song Tomorrow Never Knows comes on. The lyrics on letting go and “not living” and “not dying,” reminds Gutfeld that he wants to talk about Ori Bernstein.]

YG: I feel like the poems are very secular. He is someone dealing with coming death, and all he has inside of him are thoughts, memories, sometimes of children, women, of the earth. So there’s something very lonely about it. It’s only him. He doesn’t belong to a community. So it’s very harsh, death is very harsh, and he doesn’t make it sweeter. It’s not like he’s at a nice synagogue in the Upper West Side. It’s very lonely, solitary death, without God, but it’s very honest.

Yonatan Gutfeld’s Rendition of Ori Bernstein’s Poem, Vehaya Mehager

MS: I just had a conversation about this with my ten-year-old son. We were driving through Greenwood Cemetery. The question comes up, What is the purpose of life? And I say, “We are here to live.” Like the poems say, we are here to live. My son says, “Maybe we are here for seeing beautiful things, or maybe it’s like a reward we get from God and the reward is to create.”

LJ: When you read these poems, are you afraid?

YG: The line about throwing away possessions made me feel sad. He says in one poem, “I’m going to die and my kids are going to throw away my stuff.” There’s something very strong about it.

LJ: But they don’t make you think about your own death?

I think about my parents and grandparents. And their lives are like layers between death and me. My grandmother is alive, and so I am protected, and my father is protected. But when I started dealing with these poems, I began to identify with the poet. I became this man, reading his poems, and I stop thinking about my parents and my grandmother and I start seeing myself in him.

MS: Coincidentally, when Yonatan gave me these poems, I had just finished the book Kaddish by Leon Wieseltier [about the year Weiseltier spent saying kaddish for his father]. He writes that subjectivity is “essentially haunted.” Everything that we are used to thinking about as ourselves, are actually filled with everything and everyone that came and died before us. Life is haunted and full of mystery and ghosts.

LJ: Misha, you don’t fear your own death? I sure do.

MS: I don’t think I fear death. I see it as…a beautiful freedom that relieves me of responsibilities, kids, families, persona, all the nonsense, even the justice that I work for and the art. All that shit is beauty and nonsense simultaneously. I do study death. And my rabbi and I talk about it. In [the Talmud tractate] Berakhot, there’s a passage about what are your responsibilities to your parents when they just have died? And the answer is minimal. You don’t have to say shema, or the Amidah, or put on tefillin. The only moment you are completely free of the fulfilling the mitzvot is between when your loved has died and you have buried them.

Only death has this power — and it’s freeing. Heschel’s essay Death as Homecoming — it meant a lot to me. However I did have a moment a few days ago in which the reality hit me for a second, and I found it basically impossible to talk, and it was deeply scary and horrible. I was just driving and I don’t remember what brought it on. Maybe I was thinking about my grandma.

LJ: Yonatan, do you think about your own death?

YG: Sometimes I think about how free I am. It feels ridiculous to feel so free. Maybe when I have a child it will be different. Now, my responsibilities are limited. I am responsible for myself. If I have a child, the idea of dying is more complicated.

Well, maybe I do [think about death]. I stopped biking. I heard about an accident and I felt, “it’s so dangerous.” I just got health insurance. I felt like I need to take care of myself.

LJ: I am afraid of the moment of death.

MS: You can die with a kiss, like Abraham. God can kiss you.

LJ: I’m not in his league.

[More vodkas are ordered and appear.]

YG: I am thinking throughout life more painful things happen physically and emotionally than death. And you can be in pain throughout your life expecting death.

Romans torturing Christian martyrs. Note the “iron currycombs.” Source.

MS: Death can be a good thing. At the moment’s of Akiva’s death, the Romans were raking his body with hot iron combs, and he’s saying, “My whole life I was bummed out that I would never know if I could say like it does in the shema, “You shall love God even if He takes your soul. Now I know I can do it. I have been waiting my whole life to fulfill this mitzvah.”

LJ: I’d rather have the kiss of God, thanks.

MS: Okay here’s what I think. My grandfather was dying, and my grandmother wanted to go with him. But then she lived another fifteen years. She’d say being old is terrible, but being dead is worse.

He Would Emigrate (Vehaya Mehager)

by Ori Bernstein
translated by Ruby Namdar

And in his imagination he would travel the world and visit
every place he visited before,
thus he traveled to places
where he once felt at home:

And Burmese monks stood waiting him
at the same spot, under the same rain.

And old women awaited him,
their bodies renewed for him as he approached.

And a familiar river expected him,
with the bodies of the same drowned men
floating on its top.

And the sea, that he at times encountered,
was always the same sea.
He discovered in his mind a never-changing universe.

How, then, could he be remedied
from the malady of now?