Aging, our society tells us, is a nasty thing. And particularly nasty, of course, if you’re a woman. In Marcia Cohn Spiegel’s Croning Ceremony, however, the convention of denying the reality of death or of fearing growing old is stood on its head. Marty celebrated “becoming a crone” (that is, a wise old woman) at the age of 60, in the company of 120 others, in her Conservative synagogue. Congregation Ner Tamid, in Rolling Hills, California. As part of this Ma’ariv/Havdala (Saturday evening service), Marty donned her burial shroud (the one she will wear, eventually forever), and she commented about that experience: “It was so moving to recognize that we are going to die, that living is a part of dying, and dying is a part of living. It’s an exciting feeling of ‘Watch the time, lady it’s running out!'”
As for the word crone itself, it is a recent feminist reclamation. The crone was not always portrayed as a shriveled, cold, bitter, old woman; on the contrary, in origin, she was a wise one, someone in menopause, a teacher and way-shower to others, someone who has gained much knowledge during her long journey through life, has consciously accepted loneliness, and who finally has the time to ponder seriously life’s meaning.
In acknowledging our aging and our losses as Marty so directly does, we embrace, rather than barely tolerate, life processes. Thus, too, do we avoid the misogynist trappings that have dictated our lives. We reclaim ourselves, we celebrate that which we have become instead of mourning what we were.
Besides Marty Spiegel, three friends of hers — Drora Setel, Sue Levi Elwell, and Marcia Falk — participated. The following are excerpts:
Welcome – Marty: People always ask me what I’m going to do when I grow up. And it occurs to me that this is it. Whatever it is I’m going to be when I grow up, I am, now. [Audience laughs.] So, I have put together a service that I hope will be a model for other people to include in their own lives as they come to significant times of passage. Everything that I’m using this afternoon is symbolic to me. Those of you who are old enough to remember Gladys Avenue will recognize my mother’s Spanish shawl that used to sit on the piano, and now is gracing our table for Havdala. Also, a lot of very special women helped me in planning this ceremony. And most of all; all of you here tonight. You are all the facets of my life! My children and grandchildren, my siblings, aunts and uncles and cousins, friends, friends of my children, neighbors, people I’ve worked with in the community, people I work with in the alcoholism program, people from my spiritual community, from my creativity group, poets, my publisher is here, my classmates are here, my students are here, my teachers are here, the people who have mentored me and the people whom I have mentored, people I have worked for and people I have worked with. Each of you has played a special part in my 60 years of life. And I welcome you.
[Song]: Bruchot haba’ot. Tachat kanfey haShechina. Bruchim haba’im tachat kanfey haShechina. May you be blessed beneath the wings of Shechina. Be blessed with love, be blessed with peace.
On Life – Marty: It’s been a difficult six years in our family. It’s okay if I cry. [She is crying, and continues to cry at intervals throughout.] We’ve had a lot of losses. And I have come to accept both the fragility of life and the treasure of good health. I’ve climbed Macchu Picchu, hiked into the Amazon jungle, and taken the train across Siberia. A lot of my friends said I was running away, but I wasn’t. I was learning — about being alone, and that perhaps my way of mourning was to learn to live more intently [Crying.] And I couldn’t get away from it, because every place I want the dead went with me. Someone said about my husband, “You know, Sid would have loved this trip.” And I said, “He would have hated it. He would’ve said, ‘The room’s too narrow. The bed’s too short. Where is there a decent toilet?'” [She laughs.] I went around the world and saw the world with the eyes of the people who are lying at Mt. Sinai. It’s been a time of integrating, of taking into myself the meaning of what life’s all about.
A Healing Ceremony – Drora: When the Torah’s open in the midst of community, there is a divine presence, a healing power All who are in need of healing in their lives, please come join us in a circle. All of us have things that are not whole in our lives. And it is a healing of spirit as well as body. The Shechina, the divine spirit, has wings like the wings on the fringes of this talit (prayer shawl) that belonged to Marty’s grandfather and that we will wrap around us now in this circle.
[Song]: Mi’sh’bayrach avotaynu makor habracha le’imataynu. May the source of strength who blessed the ones before us help us to find courage to make our lives a blessing, and let us say Amen.
Donning the Kittel (Shroud) – Sue: A kittel is a traditional Jewish garment worn by a male at his wedding. He not only wore it at his wedding, a day of transformation and change, but also every year at the Pesach (Passover) seder, as he led his family in recounting the story of our going out from slavery to freedom, also on Yom Kippur, a day of different kinds of changes and of great solemnity, and finally he was buried in it.
We live in a time when we are blessed and cursed with choices, choices that lead to changes. We don special clothes. We choose new names. We redefine the boundaries of life and death. We redefine the boundaries of joy and sorrow. We redefine the boundaries of weakness and strength. It is our challenge to make choices that will become blessings. It is our challenge to make changes that will empower us in the world.
Marty: I put on this kittel. I’m 60. This is the kittel I will be buried in. I hope wisdom will come to me now. I figure I ought to get about 30 years of wear out of this kittel on joyous occasions, spiritual moments, but I also understand that in putting it on, I accept the inevitability of life.
Making Vows – Marty: As our ancestors made covenants, so too am I going to make a vow. First, I promise — in my professional capacity — to continue to try to empower people by exploring the dysfunctions within the Jewish family: battering, incest, alcoholism and drug abuse. Second, I’m going to make a vow for tzedaka (charity). Today’s leftover food will be taken to a shelter for the homeless, and I will give a self-tax of three percent of the cost of this party to Mazon, which is an organization to help feed the hungry. And a continuing vow of tzedaka is to support financially as much as I can B’not Aish, the women’s spiritual community to which I have belonged for five years. I am also going to plant a lemon tree in the garden. Traditionally Jews plant trees at important lifecycle events. Also, I need a lemon tree in my garden.
Taking A New Name – Marty: In the story of Sarah and Avraham at the time of the covenant, they were Sarai and Avram. And after the covenant, they became Sarah and Avraham. I decided for ceremonial purposes to take on the name of Miriam, because I never had a Hebrew name, just the Yiddish Mushagoldeh. I never thought I’d say that name in public. So when I am called up to the Torah in the future, I will be called up as Miriam, bat Hinda v’Avraham (Miriam daughter of Hinda and Abraham).
Sue: We also celebrate here the bestowing of a title of honor on our elders, those who have lived and survived years of joy and pain. From them we can learn of love and loss and life. So I ask the elders to come up here. We bestow new titles on you: chachamah for a wise woman, and chacham for a wise man.
(They are blessed under Marty’s grandmother’s lace tablecloth.)