Saul HenteleffBy MARTIN ZEILIG At the 2004 funeral of prominent writer Sheldon Oberman, Rabbi Neal Rose, who was presiding at the funeral, told family and friends that Sheldon’s spirit was with us in the sanctuary, recalled local filmmaker and teacher Saul Henteleff.

 “This was the first time I had heard that there was a Jewish after-life,” he said during a recent telephone interview with The Jewish Post & News.
“The rabbi’s comments were a revelation to me and became the beginning of a personal journey that took me into an exploration of Jewish death, Jewish after-life and the ritual of Taharah.”
Taharah is an ancient ritual of washing and dressing the dead, with a central focus on spiritual purification of the soul through immersion in a Mikveh or the pouring of water, notes the Jewish Encyclopedia.
Now, 11 years later, Henteleff’s newest documentary film, “My Jewish Death”, a first-person account of this journey from, as he says, Taharah to grave, will be premiered at the Berney Theatre (123 Doncaster Street) on December 14 at 7:00 pm. A panel discussion will follow the screening.
“For Saul, this has been a labour of love,” remarked Rena Boroditsky, executive director of the Chesed Shel Emes (the Jewish funeral chapel on North Main Street).
She noted that Henteleff, 56, who teaches film studies at Maples Collegiate, first approached her about his idea just after Oberman’s funeral.
“I think Saul is incredibly brave to lie on that cold table naked, except for discrete covering of genitals and face,” Boroditsky said when describing what Henteleff did during the making of his film.
“We do Taharah on Saul as if he were dead. We dress him in a shroud, and put him in a casket for a few minutes. I’ve seen the film. It’s unlike anything I have ever seen. I was speechless and really moved – even as a seasoned Taharah team member.”
Growing up and throughout his adult life, Henteleff was told, as he stressed, that once a Jew dies that’s it - there was nothing afterwards.

“In my film, I present a first-person account of this journey – the journey that will be my final story on earth - from Taharah to grave,” said Henteleff, whose father is well known human rights lawyer Yude Henteleff.
“I learned an incredible amount.”
When it comes time to think about death, there is no discussion about a Jewish spirit or afterlife, especially for someone raised in a modern secular society, he observed.
 “When we were growing up, it was all about Israel and Zionism,” continued Henteleff, who made the well received documentary film, “The Montefiore Club” (2003), and has worked on many National Film Board productions and other films.
“After the war, we had so much death that it was time to think about life. And, so until I was in my forties, that’s all I thought about– Israel and Aliyah (the immigration of Jews from the diaspora to the Land of Israel).”
Then, with the advent of the Jewish Reconstructionist movement, which views Judaism as “a progressively evolving civilization,” younger Jews began to reconsider their connection to their spiritual legacy, he explained.
“I just happened to be in a place when Rabbi Rose expressed those ideas, which got the ball rolling,” Henteleff said.
“The actual filmmaking took six to seven years from the time I had this idea 11 years ago.”
Before he ever began filming, though, Henteleff became a member of the Chevra Kadisha, a group of volunteers at the Chesed Shel Emes who are responsible for all necessary preparations to ensure a proper funeral.
“I decided to put myself in the position of the body,” Henteleff said, noting that he and his small crew filmed in Winnipeg and at a Chevra Kadisha cemetery conference in Portland, Oregon in 2007.
“The film is not sombre. It’s very informative, and actually quite light and spiritual. The film is very respectful of the process and maintains privacy. It explains the meaning and purpose of Tahara.”