Checking out Jewish Montreal with a "deadhead"
George Solomon almost died last year. The congestive heart failure that nearly felled him a few weeks before his 60th birthday was the closest he's come to his own demise. But it was hardly his first encounter with the Grim Reaper. Solomon makes his living selling coffins. And as the leader of Burlington's Chevra Kadisha, or Holy Society -- volunteers who prepare bodies for traditional Jewish burials -- he's handled hundreds of remains, including many belonging to his friends.
On a recent Wednesday morning Solomon's gray GMC Yukon pulls up in front of my house. A wooden casket rides in the back swaddled in a gray mover's quilt. He's delivering the box to a Montreal funeral home. While he's there, he'll pick up another coffin and take it to a Plattsburgh mortuary. And as long as he's making the trip, he'll fetch some bread for a Burlington caterer: six three-foot loaves of braided challah. I'm going along to get an insider's look at Jewish Montreal, and to hear the casket seller's stories.
Solomon is short and slightly stocky, with white hair and a mustache. He's lived all his life in the same Burlington neighborhood, within walking distance of two synagogues. His distinctive diction sums up his background: It's two parts Yiddish inflection, one part native Vermont brogue. Large hearing aids nestle inside both his ears, tubes looping around the outsides. Conversation with him requires a lot of shouting, especially over the rumble of the engine. One of the first things I want to know, as we head north on I-89, is how he became involved in end-of-life matters in the first place.
"It started with curiosity when my mother died," he tells me. He was 11. All that year, while other kids were playing ball or doing homework, young George was in synagogue saying Mourner's Kaddish with the old men in the 10-person minyan required to recite the prayer. He was also thinking about what it means to be mortal. "I didn't quite understand what really became of us, and I was a bit frightened, because I wasn't sure what it all meant. And I was curious. I became curious about death."
Some of the older men were performing taharas -- ritually preparing bodies for burial -- and George started asking questions. When he was around 15, he was invited to watch the procedure. "I knew the man, and I remember they said, 'Touch his feet,' and I was scared. This man was jaundiced, he was yellow," Solomon recalls. "I can still see him as I tell you about it. I touched his foot reluctantly, and it was cold and clammy. But that didn't stop me from still being more curious and watching. And I realized the act itself was just a beautiful way of handling someone who was a living being like myself... And that's what drew me to wanting to start helping them."
The rite of passage Solomon witnessed has remained basically unchanged for 2000 years. The volunteers follow a precisely delineated procedure and work in almost complete silence. Before they begin, they address the deceased person, asking permission to proceed. Taking care never to turn their backs to the corpse, which would be disrespectful, they meticulously clean, then ritually wash him or her in water. The body is then dressed in a simple white shroud and placed inside the casket -- traditionally, a plain pine box.
Nothing is left to chance, from the scripted speech to the orientation of the body, to the shape of the knots securing the shroud. When everything is complete, the volunteers ask forgiveness for any mistakes they may have made. Because the lifeless body is completely vulnerable, performing a tahara is considered the ultimate kindness.
"You can't imagine how nice it is to be a part of something where you can do for a fellow Jew that they can't thank you for," says Solomon. Jewish law strongly discourages embalming. The idea of a tahara isn't to improve the body's appearance, but to treat with respect and return to its source the vessel that once held the soul.
Burlington's Chevra Kadisha is likely the only organization that performs the ritual in Northern Vermont. Since at least the 1940s, the Holy Society has been doing its work in an unassuming little annex attached to the old Orthodox synagogue on Archibald Street. Solomon remembers a time, though, when the deceased were occasionally prepared in their homes.
He also recalls one funeral at which there was no casket. The body was brought to the cemetery in a wicker basket and lowered directly to the bare ground. In those days, the bearers addressed the dead person in Yiddish. To help him or her prepare for resurrection, "they would put some branches in [the person's] hand as a cane to get out of the grave," Solomon says. "I remember thinking this was the end of an era I happened to be witnessing."
That practice was abandoned about 50 years ago. "It was hard on the family," Solomon notes. "They would be wailing and screaming and pulling at their clothes and it was very gruesome as they saw the form of the corpse being put into the ground. The women would faint. It was a plain chaotic situation."
Solomon began selling caskets in the 1970s at the suggestion of Peter Pritchard, from the Boucher & Pritchard funeral home. Converting a vacant building he owned on Bright Street into a warehouse, Solomon arranged to buy his first 30 caskets, including several that were Jewish. Jewish caskets are made entirely of wood, with no metal trim or hardware and with holes in the bottom, the better to return dust to dust.
In the all-volunteer, plain pine-box culture of the Holy Society, the remains of paupers and millionaires are afforded the same dignity and laid to rest in the same humble coffin, and no one gets paid for the work. But in the for-profit mortuary business through which Solomon makes his living, even all-wooden Jewish caskets range from $700 pine to $10,000 black walnut, and there's plenty of money to be made -- especially in Montreal.
Crossing the border as often as he does, Solomon has the system down. It takes about a minute to hand over his paperwork and pass through the Highgate station. In another hour we're in Outremont, a thriving Jewish section of Montreal since World War II.
Homemade Kosher is a big brick box of a building. Solomon noses the Yukon into the parking lot, which is jammed with cars and blocked by a tank truck that's making a racket disgorging flour into the factory through a huge white hose. We enter a door beside the loading dock. The shipping area is filled with boxes of standard-sized braided challahs -- but no three-foot loaves.
Solomon steps up to the office and asks the man behind the desk, "Where's my order?"
"It will be ready tomorrow," replies Kevin Hart, director of operations.
"Tomorrow? I said Wednesday," Solomon tells him. We march up the stairs to a larger office, where a woman confirms Hart's claim.
"Thursday's no good, I don't want them," says Solomon, marching towards the stairs. But Hart catches up with him, promising to have the bread baked by three o'clock.
"They'll be ready by then?" Solomon prods.
"You've got to have faith in me," Hart replies. The matter resolved, we pull on hairnets and Hart shows us through the plant.
With its 72 employees, Homemade Kosher is anything but homemade. Their 90-foot oven, Hart proudly reports, turns out 10,000 loaves an hour. About kosher, on the other hand, there's no question. Hart boasts, "We operate 24/6." The plant runs from Saturday night through Friday afternoon, then shuts down for Sabbath. Affixed to each doorway throughout the building is a mezuzah, a box holding a tiny scroll with biblical verses. In the bread room, a huge automatic sifter ensures that the flour is free of even the tiniest impurities, including parts of insects, which kosher law prohibits.
It's no wonder Homemade Kosher is so particular. Owner Pinchos Freund is a member of the Satmar Hasids -- one of about 10 sects whose presence makes Montreal's ultra-Orthodox population the second largest in North America. Among groups like the Satmars children don't watch television, women don't drive cars, and men dress in the same black coats and hats their ancestors wore in 19th-century Europe. Satmars are particularly known for their vocal opposition to Zionism. Without the Messiah, in their view, the state of Israel is a heresy. This May, while Jews around the world celebrated Israel Independence Day, Satmars in Montreal held a counter-demonstration, carrying signs with slogans such as "Jews mourn 55 years' existence of 'Israel.'"
None of this comes up in our conversation with Freund, however. A large man with a trim brown beard and mustache, a large black velvet yarmulke and side locks neatly tucked behind his ears, he smiles easily when Solomon and I step into his office. Whenever he receives a call, a snippet of can-can music erupts from his cell phone.
When I ask what makes the Satmars distinctive, Freund answers with a joke. "God goes to visit the heavens. He comes to a large building. The first room belongs to the Belzers [another Hasidic group]. In the next are the Viznitzers, and so on. Finally they come to a certain place and the angel tells God to be quiet. 'These are the Satmars,' he whispers.
'So why should I be quiet?'
'They think they're the only ones here.'"
"But the Satmars and the Lubavichers don't get along very well," Solomon prompts. In Brooklyn, strife between these two Hasidic groups is commonplace. But Freund waves Solomon's provocation aside.
"Next week we're donating to the Lubavich parade," he reports.
"You never donate to us," Solomon replies, referring to his own Conservative synagogue in Vermont.
"You never asked," says Freund.
"This weekend we're having a picnic for the kids. We could use some hot dog rolls," Solomon tells him.
Freund answers, "How many do you need?"
By noon, we're driving to Decarie Square in Hampstead. The mall's tenants include Kosher World Supermarket, Montreal Torah Center, B'nai Brith Canada and one of Solomon's favorite eateries, Ernie and Ellie's. It bills itself as the city's only kosher Chinese restaurant, but the menu also offers Moroccan and "Canadian" fare, which is "really Eastern European like your mama used to make," according to manager Roman Kreyzerman.
The tables are filled with mostly single-sex groups. The majority of the men wear black, with velvet skullcaps like Freund's. The women dress modestly, arms and legs discreetly covered. A door near the cash register leads to the restrooms and a washing station -- sinks holding the traditional two-handled cups used for ritual before-meal ablutions, as well as a basket full of chunks of challah and a saltshaker. Following Jewish law to the letter means saying a blessing and then eating salted bread immediately after ritually washing.
After we've eaten -- Moroccan koftas for Solomon and for me a "Canadian"-style terrine of fall-off-the-bone beef floating in yellow broth -- Solomon introduces me to the mashgiach. His job is to guarantee that Ernie and Ellie's doesn't violate any Jewish rules, dietary or otherwise. I ask what I consider to be an easy question: the mashgiach's name. "I can't answer your questions without permission from the Vaad," he replies. He gives me the phone number of the rabbi who runs the Jewish Community Council of Montreal. For the city's kosher restaurants and caterers, certification by the Vaad is essential to survival. And for the 100-some mashgiachs on the Vaad's roster, even appearing to violate the organization's standards could mean unemployment.
We head towards Côte des Neiges and the palatial edifice of Paperman & Sons Funeral Home. As we roll up the drive, a cortege is slowly filing out of the parking lot, which holds 250 cars. This mother of all mortuaries handles a whopping 1000 calls each year, with funerals costing on average $7500 Canadian, not including the price of a plot. Montreal is home to 100,000 Jews. Though the ultra-Orthodox handle their own burials, most of the rest, it seems, eventually find their way here.
The basement-level garage houses the home's three immaculate hearses and 10 gleaming limousines as well as the Papermans' personal vehicles. Two workers there greet Solomon like an old pal. Then they heft the casket onto a dolly and begin circling the shiny wooden box, inspecting it for defects. One man finds a hairline crack in the lid. "You'll have to take 20 percent off," he says, still smiling. The other discovers an irregularity in the detail work on the side and digs in with a penknife. "Okay. It's just a little extra wax," he decides.
When the transaction is complete, they roll up a dolly with a casket a Canadian manufacturer has left for Solomon to deliver to a funeral home in Plattsburgh. They're just finishing when Ross Paperman arrives. His great-grandfather, Lazar, established the business over 90 years ago when he came to Montreal from Russia. Today Ross and his two older brothers run it with their semi-retired father, Herb. With his ready laugh, 44-year-old Ross seems more like a party host than heir to a funeral-director dynasty.
Before he takes us on a tour of his facility, he wants to show off his latest eBay purchase. "You don't want to know what I paid for this," Paperman says, laughing as he displays a white plastic hat for a G.I. Joe doll. "Wait till you see my office." On the way, we stop by the immaculate tahara facilities, where the home's on-staff Chevra Kadisha prepares bodies. Paperman points out that the home goes beyond the letter of the law, providing separate rooms for preparing men and women. The mikveh, or ritual immersion bath, is "designed to the exact dimensions of the Temple," he says. "The flushing drains are to hospital specifications."
An elevator takes us upstairs to the offices. Even though Paperman has warned me, his still comes as a surprise. This room where he meets with bereaved families is filled with toys: G.I. Joes, model cars, action figures. The funeral director opens a glass case and places the precious plastic hat on the head of G.I. Joe Astronaut. "There," he says, clearly satisfied. Then he answers the obvious question. "When you live with death every day, you have to enjoy your life. We don't just do funerals for old people here, but unfortunately for all ages. I can take my mind off it with these toys. When families come here to make funeral arrangements, they appreciate it. A funeral is a healing process." Many of the toys in his collection are actually gifts from grateful families.
This whole visit, in fact, feels like a friendly family gathering. Paperman rounds up his brothers and they take turns praising Solomon. "He's an exceptionally caring human being, not just someone who supplies us with caskets," says Laurence. "The casket business is a large local business," adds Ross. "We work with George because we love him."
Three dozen gleaming coffins, about a third of them Solomon's, are displayed in the carpeted showroom. As Solomon looks over his wares, inspecting surfaces, opening lids and peering inside, Ross Paperman points out his personal favorite, a simple mahogany box. "It's a very fine casket but not gaudy," he comments. "People who choose it know it's among the finest, but it doesn't shout in people's faces. They choose it for themselves."
Or for a loved one. "They'll look at a box and say, 'That's exactly what Mom would like.' Something that seems silly is often the first step towards healing."
Back downstairs, mourners are moving out of one of the home's three "family rooms" to the larger of the facility's two chapels. We step into an office where a cantor and a rabbi are getting ready for the service. When Paperman introduces me, the rabbi lowers his eyes. "Nice to meet you," he says in a somber voice.
Paperman lets out a laugh. "You don't need to use your funeral voice," he teases the rabbi. "This is a reporter."
The rabbi relaxes. "Nice to meet you," he cheerfully repeats, smiling. Then he hurries off to the chapel. A few minutes later, the measured tones of his eulogy come over the loudspeakers.
By the time we get back to Homemade Kosher, a herd of enormous challahs is waiting on a cooling rack. They're still too hot to be wrapped in plastic, so a packer neatly settles each one in its own specially tailored box. After all the day's focus on funerals, they remind me of bodies in coffins. But Solomon just can't get over their size. "They're like big whales," he keeps saying.
Pinchos Freund has thrown in 100 free hot dog rolls. The packer carefully wedges the boxed loaves in the back of the Yukon, fitting them beside and on top of the casket.
The truck is redolent with the yeasty aroma of cooling bread as we merge with the afternoon traffic. Solomon is tired, but also clearly pleased with what he's been able to show me. "The baker came to see me," he says, back on the topic of last year's hospitalization. "The Papermans sent me flowers." We cross the Champlain Bridge, then turn south towards Plattsburgh. The fields are green with new growth. "More than anything else," says this man whose life is bound up in death, "I'm happy to be alive.