How can you use your talents to make the dying feel like they’re at the center of your universe?

Be a DJ on a pretend radio station with your friend’s name in the call letters: this idea and more when memory artist Nancy Gershman speaks with Yisrael Campbell (born Chris Campbell): a comedian of Irish and Italian descent, who grew up Catholic in Philadelphia and now lives with his wife and four kids as an Orthodox Jew in Israel. The star and writer behind the critically acclaimed Off Broadway show “Circumcise Me,” Yisrael brings his one-man show to The Edinburgh Fringe Festival August 2014.

Put the dying at the center of a make believe universe
A real relationship with God means don’t stay bottled up
Friends of the deceased don’t always remind grievers of happier times 
Some prayers are classic because they are so soothing to say
When actions have consequences, you think twice
Misery loves company (if there’s a joke in here somewhere)
If memory is more like an oil painting: paint more
Your To Do List

Put the the dying at the center of a make believe universe

One very instrumental thing – the way I was introduced to Judaism – was because of my friend, Laury Ann Levinson, of blessed memory (that’s Jewish shorthand for “she’s dead.”)  It was the early 80’s and Laury was in her mid 20s. She passed away 20 years ago after having contracted HIV from her boyfriend. She knew for a long time, 10 years, that she was HIV positive. And then she got sick. There were a few years of sick and then healthy, sick and then healthy, and then it got really bad.

For the longest time, she was going to be the one who never got sick at a time when there no cure for AIDs existed, or even the arresting of it.

Anyway, this woman who didn’t keep kosher was this amazing life force who introduced me to Judaism. I became far more religious than she ever was, but, oh wow, I wanted to have a spiritual life like hers. My life then was about searching, seeking and moving about which left me far away from the people who loved me the most. Laury was one of those. Yet I devised a way for us to stay connected.

When she couldn’t walk or stand up, she began to feel life was going on without her.

So I’d send her these cassette recordings where I pretended I was a DJ on station WLOL (which stood for We Love You Laury). I’d make up songs, interview people –and I was all the voices. I’m not a great mimic and my work is mostly autobiographical but I did 2-3 cassettes for her when she was close to the end of her life. These cassettes gave her the sense – at a time when she felt like her disease was trying to make her stop living her life – that someone was tracking her, paying attention to her, needing and wanting her.”

A real relationship with God means don’t stay bottled up

“I hadn’t yet converted to Judaism and become “The Jew” when she confessed to me, guiltily, that the pain was now so bad that she had started to pray to Jesus. She wasn’t happy she did it and I don’t know if it even gave her much relief. Yet through it all, she had this very Jewish attitude about her relationship with God. If you’re angry with God, you yell at God, you laugh with God. A ‘real relationship with God’ was stunning to me. In Catholicism, God is God and we are not.

But here you have Judaism manifesting in her life in the best possible way. Not in religious trappings, but by saying it like it is. My outlook now is, if something can give you relief and you’re in torturous pain, then take the relief.”

Friends of the deceased don’t always remind grievers of happier times

“I didn’t really think about it until now, but when my friends Ben and Marla were killed in the Hebrew University bombing in 2002 – I loved those families dearly – and hated that I knew them.

Another friend’s mother loved having me in her life because in a special way, I was the connection to her daughter. After the friend’s mother passed away, I attempted to stay in touch by naming my own daughter Leah, after my friend. But the father went in the opposite direction. He said it was nothing personal, but my staying in touch was just too hard on him. So here you had my dead friend’s mother overjoyed that we named our daughter after her daughter, a father for whom it wasn’t something that gave him any pleasure or relief.

The first tangible thing I did was write my friend’s character into the show and in that respect, that’s how I keep her alive. I did the same thing with my dad.  Although he passed away two weeks before we had our first preview for “Circumcise Me,” we wrote about a three-quarter page of dialogue into the show about my dad. His death couldn’t just be ignored; I felt it was an event that had to be acknowledged on some level.”

Some prayers are classic because they are so soothing to say

“There are two classical prayers to say over the dead.

The first, weightier one (the Ashkenazi prayer) can be loosely translated as: “May the Almighty comfort you, you the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”

The second one (a Sephardic prayer) says: “May your comfort come from heaven” which sounds to me so much better than the first, which is twice as long and hard to say. Often this will be written above the coffin so a mourner can read and recite it as a way of paying their respect.

So there’s a joke they tell that a mourner looks up and obediently reads: “Somebody lost a red umbrella … Oops, wrong sign.”  That’s how we are before a burial: out of our minds.  That is why a grieving Jew is not required to say the shema [prayer] and is excused from saying the mitzvoth [blessings].

A grieving Jew is bound to his house; told not to shave or to shower. After 30 days they can become more active. Over the next 11 months, they’re back to their regular schedule. That’s not to say that this works for everyone. But it’s a beginning.”

When actions have consequences, you think twice

“Regret gets troublesome for me when it becomes the kind occurring in the present moment. I’ll give you an example.

I was someone’s godfather when I was in my 20’s. I agreed to it because my friend had a very troubled relationship with the baby’s father. I wasn’t like Marlon Brando – that kind of a terrible godfather. I just realized that in 23 years you can’t come back with a bang, re-introduce yourself and expect to be adored especially when you thought god-fathering meant occasional visits; or my friend telling me how my god-daughter was doing over the phone. Certainly that has been a regret – that I missed or ruined this opportunity – however harsh I want to be to myself in the moment.

What I did learn from this is that the choices we make have consequences and that consequences are not always rectifiable.  Some mistakes are not fixable.

Just give me the number and I’ll call her.


How about if l take her out for dinner?


It’s better for me to think how I can behave differently going forward so I don’t turn around and make the same mistake all over again.

Barreling my way in never works … I got that. Actually, it’s somewhat comforting that things have consequences. It gives life weight – the good and the bad. If it had no consequences, someone else would always be on the hook for what I’d done.”

Misery loves company (if there’s a joke in here somewhere)

“I was always told, you’re a joker; you’re a comedian. It started when I was in my mid- to late teens; when I had stopped drinking and doing drugs, people would say “you hide your emotions behind being comic.” Well, then that’s a really effective character I’ve created. Because now I can take people in my show to a much deeper place – something which would never have happened without the comedy and the laughter.

Two jokes come to mind. People, kids, are always coming up to me and saying  ‘I have a joke for you.’ One of my favorites turned out to be:

Knock knock.

Who’s there?’

The Holocaust.

The Holocaust who?

You said you’d never forget!

Or the classic: What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple? Half a worm. And what’s worse than that? The Holocaust.

I don’t know how they did it, but some people found humor inside the concentration camps. And they still found things funny, even after the Holocaust.”

If memory is more like an oil painting: paint more

“I, for one love photographs. I think what I respond to is that they are so complete. On the other hand, memory to me is like an oil painting, missing many of the details. It emphasizes what it wants to emphasize – which in its own way is quite nice.

I have a friend who didn’t want a videographer at her wedding for that very reason.  She wanted us to remember what we wanted to remember. Like when her husband said the vows, I saw a drop of sweat on the end of her nose. There’s something about that I agree with. The videos and photographs would never be what was inside our heads at that moment …

As for the one photograph that really meant something to me — my father was a high school history teacher. There’s this one picture in particular where he’s in his classroom, wearing a 70’s plaid suit and thick-framed eyeglasses. Above the blackboard there’s Time Magazine’s Man of the Year cover but what’s crazy is I can’t see who is on the cover! Yet that is exactly what I like and don’t like about photographs: they’re a snapshot of a specific moment in time. I’m more of a I don’t want to know what 2:38 pm in 1964 felt like. Yet, without photographs … Well, I go back and forth. I’ll forget a detail and then I’ll think: maybe I’m supposed to forget that. Whatever my memory is should be sufficient.”

Your To Do List

Do you have a talent you could perform at bedside for a dying friend that puts them dead center (forgive the pun)? And could this talent also travel by smart phone, and so, fit in their hand? For example:

  • If your voice isn’t half bad, could you make up a song with lyrics that rhyme with your friend’s name?
  • If you’re a video game aficionado, could you make up a hero (with your friend’s name) and narrate a quest that fits her interests?
  • If you’re a killer salesman, could you make up an outlandish sales pitch for wherever your friend thinks they’re heading to, whether that’s heaven, hell or someplace of your own invention?
  • If you pilot a vehicle for a living, could you give her an audio tour of all the things happening – or not happening –  in her neighborhood from the ground up (if you’re a taxi driver), or if you’re a pilot, from the sky down?

Remember, it’s the effort and energy and bravery you put into your talent show that most impresses a friend who hasn’t left their bed for months, or even years on end. Not the actual talent.

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Nancy Gershman

Memory artist and psychotherapist, Nancy Gershman creates pictures of memories you have (or wish you had) of your loved one for healing, legacy and celebration. Bring her the stories that mean so much to you, and she will fashion a fine art, storytelling “photograph” from your personal photos and her own image library. So versatile, so dreamlike and so spot-on are her “Dreamscapes" that families display them at memorial services, mail them as thank you cards, wear them as reunion T-shirts, or snuggle up with them as blankets. To see how her bereaved and end-of-life clients feel about their Dreamscapes, visit Nancy’s gallery website, Art For Your Sake online, or call her at 773-255-4677 (EST).

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