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March 14, 2020 by

Rachel Cowan’s Last Year– ‘Dying Doesn’t Feel Like What I’m Doing’

None of us has died. No matter how close we’ve been to those who have died, it wasn’t us. Death is still a second-hand experience until you’re the one.  

So when a loving friend and filmmaker recorded the last 15 months in the life of mindfulness teacher and rabbi Rachel Cowan, I wanted to learn what wisdom came to her with a diagnosis of brain cancer. 

Paula Weiman-Kelman’s 60-minute documentary, “Dying Doesn’t Feel Like What I’m Doing,” premiered to an audience of friends at Barnard College’s Athena Film Festival March 1, and to another round of friends and colleagues at the Manhattan JCC the next day. It was like being back with Rachel for an hour, up close and personal, no testimonials, scenes from home movies and family photos with questions from the filmmaker. 

Rachel at a gratitude party thrown nine months after her diagnosis.
Early on in the film, leading a meditation class at the JCC, Rachel Cowan (1941-2018) quotes her 5-year-old grandson’s joke: “What did the bird say when he was surprised?” Answer: “What the peck happened? So that’s been my motto. What the peck happened to me?”

She’d been about to take off on the family “trip of a lifetime” to South Africa. Instead, she was rushed into surgery, on what turned into the unplanned last trip. 

Her husband, Paul Cowan, had been there before her. He died after a year of battling leukemia. The words of his front-page Village Voice story are searing: “I had assumed that health and sickness were separate, distinct terrains. I’ve since learned that those boundaries don’t really exist. Instead, the world is composed of the sick and the not-yet-sick.”

Rachel didn’t fully appreciate his truth until her own cancer. 

She and Paul came of age in the ‘60s, believing people of goodwill and determination could change things. Change on behalf of other people – African Americans, Ecuadoreans – evolved into change closer to home, in the alternative Jewish communities of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. With the women’s movement, feminists were calling out the patriarchy. Anything was possible — rethinking motherhood, work, Judaism. As Weiman-Kelman says, Rachel’s strength was creating institutions that came out of her own needs. 

She and Paul met when she was tutoring black students in Cambridge, Md. Together they registered black voters in Mississippi, then volunteered for the Peace Corps in Ecuador. Paul went on to a career as Village Voice reporter. Rachel went on to motherhood in the Upper West Side apartment she never left.  

In the early days of the women’s movement, she and the other young mothers in Riverside Park struggled over their love for their children and their desire to accomplish things outside the playground. The result was Purple Circle Day Care. This led to the Havurah School, teaching the unobservant Jewish kids and their parents about Judaism.

They were both pre-Jewish. Rachel’s non-religious Christian family sent her to Quaker summer camp, where the morning half-hour of silence by the lake formed her first connection to meditating. Paul, whose father was CBS president Louis Cowan and whose mother was from the Spiegel mail-order fortune, grew up assimilated.  

Dealing with the horror of his parents’ death in their bedroom fire, Paul began exploring his Judaism. Rachel followed, eventually converting. Together they conducted workshops for interfaith couples and wrote Mixed Blessings: Overcoming the Stumbling Blocks in an Interfaith Marriage.  When Paul became ill, she was in her fourth year of rabbinical school at the Reform movement’s Manhattan seminary. The first female Jew-by-choice to become a rabbi, Rachel was ordained less than a year after Paul’s death.

She was an organizer, not a pulpit rabbi, with Jane Adams’ settlement house as her inspiration.  As director of Jewish life at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, she channeled funds into projects including what became the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, which she eventually headed. With four other women, including two other women rabbis, she created the Jewish healing movement, a field of Jewish spiritual care that didn’t exist when Paul was dying. A year before the onset of her cancer, Rachel co-authored “Wise Aging,” growing out of programs she’d started four years before.  As she says in the film, “I keep looking for the openings.”

Her vision to fill in the spiritual gaps in modern Judaism didn’t shield her from the terror she so openly expresses as the cancer returns. At the same time, she remains ever grateful for her practice of mindfulness meditation.

For those not part of this Upper West Side Jewish world, it would be helpful to know more about the institutions she created, the link between the healing rituals she created within Judaism and the devoted stream of friends bringing companionship, food, flowers to her apartment – which we never see. We do see her surrounded by loved ones at the gratitude party she gave when she was in remission.

With Paul’s diagnosis of leukemia, Rachel found herself saying, “God, save him, save him.” Then telling herself, “You don’t believe in God” but “I can’t do this alone. I need help.” I wanted to know more – in what ways she reached into Judaism while drawing from other sources to find what resonated with her.

As a film for those close to her, the hour with Rachel more than succeeds. But for a wider audience, sometimes her own words are not enough. During the Q&A after the JCC screening, one woman told us how back in the ‘60s she’d been an artist working with male artists. But when she had a baby, male artists didn’t change diapers. She shared with all of us that with the Purple Circle, “Rachel saved my life.” That gave a sense of Rachel that her own words couldn’t. 

The magic of film is time suspended. We see Rachel as she approaches death. But we also see her as a 20something, blonde all-American bride with her beloved – forever young. I just wanted to know more about her thinking in building the foundations for what she found lacking in Judaism. 

Film trailer

For future screenings, follow the film’s Facebook page and website.