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Saul Henteleff

Saul Henteleff's Film: It's to die for!

by Rhonda Spivak, March 6, 2016




I recently watched Saul Henteleff's film "My Jewish Death " and recommend that readers see it as it is really quite remarkable. (The film was shown at Limmud on March 13 with Henteleff and Rena Boroditsky speaking about it) 


The fifty six year old Henteleff, who teaches film studies at Maples Collegiate, was inspired to make the film after the death and funeral of Sheldon Oberman, z'l, a high school English teacher at Joseph Wolinsky Collegiate, author, and story teller. (Oberman, who was an excellent teacher and thinker was in fact my own teacher not only for English but also for journalism, and it was a privilege to be in his class). At Oberman's funeral in 2004, Rabbi Neal Rose, who presided at it, told family and friends that Oberman's spirit was "with us in the sanctuary", and with these words in mind Henteleff set off on  his own journey, a journey which explores  the concepts of body and soul and what happens to each at the end of life.


 Henteleff, who spent much of the last decade working on the film, joined the Chevra Kadisha, a group of volunteers at the Chesed Shel Emes who are responsible for making all necessary preparations to ensure a proper Jewish funeral.  The most dramatic and eye opening part of the film is when Chevra Kadisha Team performs a full Taharah ritual on Saul as if he were dead. Viewers see Saul himself lies on the table naked, (except for the covering of his genitals and face) and is dressed in a shroud, and even put in a casket for a few minutes.  The Taharah process involves preparing the body for its final rest (until the Resurrection of the Dead in the era of Messiah). Taharah includes cleansing, ritually washing, and dressing the deceased's body, and also involves the reciting of special prayers, beseeching G-d to lift the soul into the Heavens and eternal rest. After seeing the film, I have begun wondering if Saul is the only one in the world that has undergone the Taharah process while still being alive!


The film is very respectful of the process and one of the things I took away from it is a more sincere appreciation for the volunteers of the Chevra Kadisha who perform this ritual process with the utmost care and dedication, ensuring the dignity of the deceased.


As part of the process of making the film, Saul attended and filmed the Kavod v’Nichum annual conference in Portland, Oregon in 2006, and compiled hundreds of hours of interviews, editing them over last summer. 


The film includes snippets of Rabbi Green and Rabbi Ellis explaining the purpose of the Taharah ritual and examining the notion of the afterlife, a subject which most secular Jews do not talk about or explore.  Henteleff has worked on many National Film Board productions and other films, including “The Montefiore Club” (2003).


At first I was somewhat hesitant about seeing the film since it's subject was "death' but the film is not too heavy, but rather spiritual and well worth seeing. After watching the film, I asked Henteleff whether as a result of undergoing the Taharah process whether he more inclined to believe in the afterlife when the messiah comes or in the concept of their being a soul that goes up to heaven after the body dies?  He answered as follows: "After everything: In the burial scene, the point of view from the grave is mine looking into the sun, seeing the men shovel dirt, watching the clouds drift by, absorbing the final moments of light and consciousness and guidance. And then it fades to white. I end the film running again but now I am drifting, floating and saying my final prayer - to myself and to the world - words that only I and the audience can hear. Where have I come to in this story and where am I going when it’s done? I’m afraid that is all I can say about your questions. Just remember, this is a story that I put myself into."


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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.