The Rosary And The Rabbi

It was not a promising start. I had left a voicemail in Spanish with a new patient on hospice and her family. The patient’s daughter sent me a text message in Spanish saying I could visit whenever I wished. I called back, and after I said in my obviously flawed Spanish who I was and that I could come now, she said, “I don’t understand English.” Yikes. Was my Spanish all that bad?

But when I replied that I was speaking in Spanish to her, she giggled and the conversation at last had a future, however fragile it might be. So I considered it a victorious leap past the communication barrier when she agreed that I could come over right away.

The patient, who I will call Margarita, was seated on the couch, and her daughter Gabriela sat next to her as she put my Spanish comprehension to the test with a complex story of woe. A couple of other family members were present as well. I then turned to her mother, who had not said anything or even looked at me much during this lament. Because Gabriela mentioned that Margarita went to Spanish Mass at a church around the corner, I asked her mother if she would like a prayer. It just so happens I come prepared with prayers written in Spanish for such visits, including a prayer for caregivers (which caregivers sometimes scan into their phones because they like it so much), and the prayer for the Rosary. Margarita found it worthwhile to tune in to me and take the energy to communicate since I brought out the magic word Rosary as one of the prayers I had on hand. At my request, the family found a set of white rosary beads for her to hold.

I felt comfortable enough saying the words themselves of this prayer in these circumstances, but as a rabbi I could not make the sign of the Cross or say “amen,” so I felt I first had to let on that  I was not Catholic, but not only that, I was–were they ready for this?– Jewish. This only added further spice to the spectacle of a gringa like me with fractured Spanish reciting a prayer of utmost sanctity alien to her own beliefs. But they were alright with this, grateful for a spiritual presence that could cut through their linguistic isolation at this time of acute need. As I started to say the words, “En el nombre del Padre, del Hijo, y del Espiritu Santo…” I saw that Margarita could say much of the Rosary by herself by heart. I only had to resume here and there to prompt her along. She teared up at the emotion of expressing this prayer, and I saw the others brushing off their own tears. And as I was engaged with this task, I thought about how odd and how glorious it was that we could transcend language and religion and nationality and race to provide this salvation of release and of God’s comforting closeness.

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Connections Across Spiritual Lines

There may be more questions per capita among the populace of Montclair, NJ than most anywhere. I did not have to say much about hospice and about my career memoir at the public library before their questions gained release after who knows how long a painful incubation. Someone finally said, himself fully sated from hearing so many, “It’s time to move on.” By then the program was almost finished. One of the more challenging questions was, “Isn’t there a disconnect for you as a rabbi to be mostly serving Catholic patients now?”  I had told the group that one reason my current employer hired me was because I could speak Spanish, and that most of my Spanish-speaking clients are Catholics.

A disconnect. In other words, alienation of some kind. I have never thought of my work with non-Jewish patients in that way, including atheists. Connection is fundamentally what a healing spirituality is all about. It is also what drives me to continue trying to reach patients and their families and build trust no matter how great our superficial differences. Impending death has a way of often getting people to dive beneath the surface and see the essences we can bring to each other. We all suffer. We all seek meaning and answers and love. We all traverse the path from birth to death in the same Universe.

I am very moved when someone with a markedly different background welcomes me into their home and into their most private thoughts. Some time ago, the lesbian partner of a patient described the intimacies of their relationship such as calling out the name of their loved one when she was in another room because she wanted to know exactly where she was. I felt a common bond as I thought about how my husband and I do the very same thing! Recently in this blog I wrote about the way a Nigerian nun and I have connected through our mutual fascination with each other as women of the cloth.

It is true that when I am with a Jewish patient, it takes less guesswork to find things in common. Jewish patients can take comfort from knowing that we are both “members of the tribe” and that there will be no awkward jockeying between us about how to  give and receive care without elements that may seem foreign, i.e., not Jewish. It also is so much easier to pray when asked, because there are many prayers I know by heart, and many sacred melodies too.

On the other hand, there are some elements at play that can make spiritual support harder to provide the more similar the patient is to me. A Jewish patient may feel guilty in the presence of a rabbi because of their self-evaluation of not having been a good Jew. But when I am with a lapsed Catholic for example, they may feel free to unburden themselves regarding why they have come to feel a disconnect with the Catholic Church or with priests. They can talk freely without worrying that I will judge them for not regularly attending Mass.

Any questions?

My Fractured Spanish and Patient Power

Power gets in the way of compassionate care. The very words, “compassionate care,” smack of a power differential between the caregiver and the patient: Me Tarzan: healthy and something to give you. You Jane: weak, vulnerable, dependent. I cast about for ways to make the patient and me more equal, partly because that is what I wish in order to honor them as a sojourner on the path of life, and partly to put them at ease. Bad enough I am ordained clergy, authority figure par excellence and sometimes viewed with suspicion or distaste.

What I tend to do to level the playing field is at least offer choices. Does the patient even want a visit in the first place? If so, do they prefer conversation to prayer, or just quiet? Hold hands or not? I take note of my physical presence and minimize any implied superiority by sitting rather than hover over the bed. Most importantly, I let them set the agenda for our interaction. It is their choice whether to talk about Trump or trauma, stock tips or taking stock.

I recently got hired by Center for Hope Hospice in New Jersey because I can speak Spanish, among other reasons. I do not speak like a native or anywhere close, for sure, but enough to relieve the suffering of those who need to pour out their hearts. So here I am, a Jewish chaplain, hired to speak Spanish with Catholics! During some of these visits, clients sometimes step in and help me with my Spanish skills. I then joke and praise them for being my “profesor de español.” They laugh and are pleased to help, often continuing to offer other tidbits such as a grammatical correction. This is great for both of us: I get a Spanish lesson, and they get to take the lead in at least one respect.

In general, when I speak my fractured Spanish, I am deferring to the client, giving them the home team advantage. Perhaps too, English may have the connotation for them as “impersonal,” “cold,” “official,” “uncaring” or even “threatening.” As I put myself at a linguistic disadvantage, I may be receiving intimate and profound stories clients share that otherwise would have gone unheard and their unexpressed pain left in solitary confinement.