customs/rituals, death, death rituals, religion

Share the Vigil

In NYC, white refrigerated trucks hold corpses, victims of the COVID-19 virus.

I don’t know about you, but I feel so helpless during this Covid-19 outbreak. I am horrified by the accelerating numbers of infections and deaths. Besides trying to keep myself healthy and avoid spreading the virus, what can I do to help?

Physical limitations prevent me from volunteering, for example, at food banks. I have donated money to hard-hit communities, like the near-by Navajo Nation and to more local charities. But writing a check is not enough.

My solution arrived in the form of a recent email from Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips. Over ten years ago, I interviewed her for a book I co-authored (with Fredda Wasserman) called Saying Goodbye to Someone You Love: Your Emotional Journey Through End of Life and Grief. (New York: Demos, 2010.)

She expanded my knowledge about the Jewish tradition of preparing bodies for burial. Now she is involved with an interfaith organization that spiritually stays with the rapidly accumulating bodies in New York, and elsewhere in the world, until they are finally laid to rest.

Sandler-Phillips participates in an interfaith organization called, Sharing a Vigil for the COVID-19 Dead. Volunteers take shifts to focus on the dead while saying prayers, reciting poems, reading literature, playing music, or even remaining silent. This remote vigil-keeping is a way to bear witness and extend ultimate kindness to ALL dead – near and far, whether named or unknown.

When the Rabbi asked for volunteers, I signed up. I told her that every night in Las Cruces, between 11 p.m. until midnight, I would sing songs and accompany myself on the ukulele, while concentrating on the bodies elsewhere. Given the dire predictions about second waves of infection, this job will no doubt last for months, even longer.

Ordinarily, around 10:30 p.m., I am either at my computer in my office or streaming TV in the living room. I turn off the electronics and enter my bedroom for nightly ablutions before changing into my bedclothes. When I purchased the house, I loved having a reading nook inside the master bedroom. Years ago, I converted that space into a music nook that is ideal for my new endeavor, an improvised sanctuary.

Shortly before 11 p.m., I tune my ukulele and adjust the music stand holding a book of ukulele tunes, one for each day. Then at precisely 11 p.m., I begin to sing and play appropriate tunes. (I passed on Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey?) While singing and playing, I visually focus on a sight that will never leave me — in New York City, large white refrigerated trucks, temporary morgues, that are crammed with bodies awaiting their final disposition. The thought of these lonely crowded bodies fills me with great sadness.

For one hour, I sing and play songs on my ukulele, keeping company with the bodies of all faiths as well as no faith. My house is quiet: the neighborhood has mostly gone to sleep; and there I sit unselfconsciously singing.

Whereas in the past, when I entered my bedroom at night, I immediately turned on the TV listening to a wrap-up of the day’s news followed by watching one of the late-night TV comedians.

However, my new routine has brought surprises. When I enter my bedroom, I can no longer turn on the TV.  And after I am finished at midnight, once more, I can no longer turn on the TV. Somehow, this new late night routine has become sanctified, and I cannot pollute it with gags and nonsense. It’s as if I have divided my house into new zones: the sacred and the profane.

This new and moving experience satisfies my need to meaningfully participate in one of the most horrendous events of a lifetime.



Norine Dresser is a folklorist who strongly disagrees with those who want to end the corona virus lockdown and reopen businesses prematurely.

For more information about Sharing the Vigil, visit


Dazing Moments

Turn back the clock to November 9 and 10, 1938. We are in Germany and the infamous Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass) is taking place throughout Germany and Austria. Nazis break windows of Jewish business establishments, beat, rape and murder Jews. They arrest 30,000 Jewish men and send them to concentration camps. They burn down synagogues containing sacred objects and scrolls, destroying almost all of them.

However, in Hamburg, Isaac Schwartz, a 14-year-old, courageously rescues one scroll and buries it. But, when he returns to retrieve it at the end of World War II, he discovers it is unusable.

Now let’s move forward to the weekend of July 23 and 24, 2016. That very same scroll (torah) containing the Five Books of Moses, has been restored and travels to the Alevy Chabad Center of Las Cruces. Rabbi Bery Schmukler reads from it for the regular Sabbath service, but this is no regular service because the center is packed with Jews eager to meet, and some even to read from this miraculous Holocaust survivor.

Torah cover with history of this Torah. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2016.
Torah cover with history of this Torah. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2016.


Rabbi Bery Schmukler rolls open the scroll rescued in Hamburg on Kristallnacht. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2016.
Rabbi Bery Schmukler rolls open the scroll rescued in Hamburg on Kristallnacht.
© Norine Dresser photo collection, 2016.


Evidence of the Torah's smokey past. The rabbi invited us to sniff the smoke, but I declined. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2016.
Evidence of the Torah’s smokey past. The rabbi invited us to sniff the smoke, but I declined. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2016.

My intention was to visit the center on Sunday and photograph this religious artifact. It was number one on my “to do” list for that day. However, I was unprepared for the emotional impact it had on me. Sure, I took my photos, but I was overwhelmed by the power of seeing this holy object up close. It was as if it could speak to me and convey the horrors of the past. I had to sit down and reflect upon what it represented. Although I do not consider myself a religious Jew, that made no difference. My inner core was struck by thinking about the history of the Jews, the struggles, the sacrifices, the destruction, the constant enemies, yet overriding that was the pride of surviving over the centuries. I thought about my grandparents fleeing the Pogroms, the financial hardships endured to reach this country and start from scratch to provide for their families and glow to see their children flourish.

So what started out a just a number one Sunday task turned out to be much more. It became the reigniting of a reminder of who I am and from whence I came.

A staged photo of me reading from the Torah. Note the use of a yad (hand), a ritual pointer) to protect the scrolls from the oils on the fingers. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2016.
A staged photo of me reading from the Torah. Note the use of a yad (hand), a ritual pointer to protect the scrolls from the oils on the fingers. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2016.

Norine Dresser is a folklorist whose own emotions often surprise her. And that is a good thing.

Artifacts, folklore, religion

I Love A Mystery!

To prove it, when the late Kay Hardman Enell, my folklore colleague and friend, and I were doing research in Hollywood during the 1980s, a local newspaper labeled us “The Snoop Sisters.” Decades have passed, but the inquisitiveness gene still pulsates.

Artifact given to me by Robin Hutchins. Photo by Mariah Chase. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2016.
Artifact given to me by Robin Hutchins. Photo by Mariah Chase. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2016.

I met Robin Hutchins here in Las Cruces who, with her husband Paul, moved here from Maplewood, New Jersey. At one time, she owned an art gallery there. During the 1980s, a young woman, Anisa, came into her gallery and identified herself as an artist. She and her husband were newly arrived from Israel because her husband had been hired to work in the U.S..However, shortly upon their arrival, he began getting severe headaches and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. To complicate matters, Anisa discovered that she was pregnant and felt overwhelmed since she had no friends or relatives for support.

One day, she dropped into Robin’s gallery to show her portfolio. Robin liked her work because Anisa had pen and ink drawings: precise delicate flowers as well as quiet scenes that were professionally executed. Robin offered to show Anisa’s work, taking several pieces on consignment and offering to frame them. From that point on Anisa and Robin became friends, having tea on rainy days.

Fortunately, the husband recovered from the surgery and moved on with his career. They had a son, and after a visit home to Israel, Anisa presented Robin with the above artifact. Anisa didn’t know much about it other than having purchased it from a street vendor in Jerusalem.

Because of my Jewish heritage, Robin thought I would like to have the object, but she didn’t know what it represented. I could tell by the designs above the head of the man that the individual motifs represented the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

At first, a Hebrew School teacher translated it, but his results didn’t quite make sense to me. I next showed the artifact to Rabbi Schmukler of the Alevy Chabad Jewish Center of Las Cruces. He immediately identified the script as Aramaic and not Hebrew. He said he didn’t want to mis-translate it and after taking a photo, he promised to confer online with other Chabad rabbis. I loved the idea of these sages discussing ancient matters in cyberspace.

Within a week, Rabbi Schmukler sent me the answer. The lines are from Solomon’s Song of Songs. The male is speaking to the female. “At the gathering of the steeds of Pharaoh’s chariots have I silenced you, my beloved. Your cheeks are comely with rows, your neck with necklaces. We will make you rows of gold with studs of silver.”

Mystery Solved!

Norine Dresser is a folklorist who believes her love of mysteries has to do with her astrological sign. Scorpios are considered the “Detectives of the Zodiac.”


Them Versus Us

Donald Trump scares me. He perceives the universe as Them Vs. Us.

As a Jew, I have mostly been on the “them” side. Beginning with the immediate family, it was the Russian Pogroms when Cossacks on horseback hunted down and murdered “them.” Later, Hitler’s final solution was to identify “them” with yellow stars on their clothing and tattooed numbers on their forearms before exterminating them. And that’s just the Jews. What about the others including homosexuals, the disabled, Roma (Gypsies), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Afro-Germans, Soviet prisoners of War? They were “them,” too.

Official Japanese Evacuation Document signed by FDR. © Norine Dresser Photo collection, 2015.
Replica of official Japanese Evacuation Document dated, May 3, 1942. This act declared that both alien and non-alien Japanese be removed from their homes and sent to Relocation Camps. © Norine Dresser Photo collection, 2015.

When I was in second grade, I became friends with a Japanese classmate. I loved going to her house after school and playing hop scotch in her garden. One of my strongest memories is of her mother who, one day, invited me inside their dimly-lit dining room to see a display of dolls in traditional Japanese costumes encased in glass as part of their Girls Day celebration. I felt so excited and honored.

Soon after, I moved to another school district and in 1941, when Pearl Harbor Day occurred with the ensuing edict of evacuating the Japanese, I imagined my girlfriend’s house darkened and boarded up. How this saddened me.

After my marriage, we lived on the same block as the Ito family, parents and grandfather of Lance Ito, the judge who presided in the OJ Simpson double murder case. The senior Ito family was evacuated to Heart Mt., Wyoming, where Lance’s parents first met. After the war, this family was among a minority who was able to return to their homes due to the generosity of the elder Ito’s friendship with a co-worker who protected the house while they were gone.

In the documentary film, “Witness: the Legacy of Heart Mt.,” Judge Ito discloses that he keeps a painting of the Heart Mt. internment camp in his judicial chambers to remind himself about what might happen if the public is not paying attention.

As an anthropologist/folklorist, I am familiar with the concept of xenophobia, fear of the other. It is a dangerous yet universal notion that divides people. Trump is good at inflaming fear of one group of people against another. This is dangerous. His rhetoric fans the flames of bigotry. It encourages the fringe people to act out their hatred towards “them.”

In his campaign for Republican Presidential nominee, Trump began by bad-mouthing Mexicans. His current “them” is Muslims. How can one not partially connect his vitriolic words against “them” with recent attacks, including arson, upon mosques in North Palm Beach, Florida, Coachella and Hawthorne, California, Macon, Georgia, and Houston, Texas?

Now as the 2015 Christmas Season draws to a close, we see this inspiring message everywhere: Peace on Earth; Good Will Toward Men. In Trump’s view that sentiment appears to be, Peace on Earth; Good Will to Those Men of My Choosing.


Norine Dresser is a folklorist who deplores “him” and not “them.”





celebrations, music, religion, Uncategorized

“When You Get to the Word ‘Jesus,’ Just Sing ‘Hm, Hm”

Those were the instructions my mother gave me after I told her that I had been chosen to be a sixth grade Christmas caroler. She felt that I would be betraying my Jewish heritage if I sang the name of “Jesus.” I didn’t agree with her, so I didn’t obey.

Anonymous group of Christmas carolers. Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.
Anonymous group of Christmas carolers. Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.

For me, music trumps all, and I’m not talking about Donald. Other Jews don’t have a problem paying tribute to the birth of Jesus. Look at Irving Berlin. He composed the iconic two tunes associated with Christian holidays: “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade.” High-profile Jewish vocalists have joyfully sung Christian holiday songs, such as Barbra Streisand with one album of Christmas melodies and Neil Diamond with three different Christmas albums.

In 1994, the First World Sacred Music Festival occurred in Los Angeles and was a spectacular event. Because Los Angeles has so many different religions, the event lasted for two weeks in many sacred as well as public venues. However, the most exciting program occurred at the Hollywood Bowl. First of all, the Dalai Lama blessed this gathering of almost 18,000 audience members. To protect him, all of us had to pass through metal detectors before being seated.

After his blessing, the performances ensued. Because there were so many musical acts, the concert began at 4:00 p.m. in the afternoon and ended at 10:00 p.m. As each group sang, the excitement heightened until we reached the last act, a renowned choir from the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles.

The pianist slowly played some chords and then intoned: “You may have AT & T, but sometimes your call doesn’t go through.” She played some arpeggios and continued. “You may have Sprint, but they, too, have problems and sometimes you can’t get through.” After playing more chords and arpeggios, she dramatically mentioned more phone carriers, all with connection flaws, leading to the climax: “But there is one person who will always be there to answer your call, and his name is…” In the spirit of the moment the entire audience shouted, “JESUS!” Then the choir began and we rocked on throughout their set until we left the Bowl on a high note.

By singing the name “Jesus,” did that negate my religious or spiritual beliefs? Did it change who I am? I don’t believe so. For me, the music transcended the words.

Is it bad/evil/or disloyal to sing the name of another one’s God?

I have never felt so, but I speak only for myself.

Oops! I have much more to write about, but it’s time to leave for my Las Cruces Ukuleles rehearsal for our four upcoming Christmas concerts. And when we get to the word “Jesus” I will have no problem belting out his name.

The author in her Las Cruces Ukes performance costume. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.
The author in her Las Cruces Ukes performance costume. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.


Norine Dresser is a folklorist who delights in music of all kinds, religious and secular, Western and Eastern.