"Angels of Mercy Embrace the Dead" by Karen Benioff Friedman
"Angels of Mercy Embrace the Dead" by Karen Benioff Friedman

Where Jewish lives end, this East Bay artist’s work begins

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Art depicting Jewish burial rituals is rare. A quick internet search will turn up only two sources: a series of 18th-century paintings made in Prague, and the contemporary work of East Bay artist Karen Benioff Friedman.

The Prague paintings detail the work of the “Holy Brotherhood” of the Prague Chevra Kadisha, or Jewish burial society, from attending the sick to preparing the body for interment to consoling the family of the deceased. They are pictorial at best.

headshot of a grey-haired woman standing in the desert
Karen Benioff Friedman

By contrast, Benioff Friedman’s paintings, while covering the same ground, range in style from the figurative to the nearly abstract. With muted colors and gentle gestures, they express the underlying tenderness of the subject.

“I see in her artwork a soulful understanding of what goes on in terms of the preparation of a Jewish deceased person for burial,” said Sam Salkin, executive director of Sinai Memorial Chapel in San Francisco. “She knows about the work in a deep way and is also a very talented artist. She knows how to express the spiritual side of it, the unseen.”

The nonprofit Sinai Memorial, which has offered end-of-life services to the Northern California Jewish community for over a century, will exhibit Benioff Friedman‘s artwork Feb. 5 through March 18 in the foyer and chapel of its historic San Francisco location. Any member of the public can view the works during business hours and by appointment.

Benioff Friedman will also be the featured speaker at Sinal Memorial’s annual meeting, which is open to the public, on Tuesday, Jan. 31, at 10:30 a.m. (RSVP by Jan. 23.)

Though a memorial chapel is not a typical place to view art, Salkin and the board of Sinai Memorial say Benioff Friedman’s paintings and prints powerfully convey the work they do, and they are confident the community will come see them.

Joan Laguatan
Joan Laguatan

Joan Laguatan, Sinai’s board secretary, discovered Benioff Friedman’s art more than a year ago while she was searching online for depictions of chevra kadisha. “Karen’s art just popped out at me. It was so expressive. It really moved me,”  Laguatan told J. “The fact we’re having it in a memorial chapel … a synergy exists where the impact of subject matter is reinforced by the place.”

Benioff Friedman trained in sculpture and drawing at Amherst College and the Boston Museum School. Years later, during subsequent studies in classical painting technique at the Golden Gate Atelier in Oakland, she was looking for a compelling subject for a series of paintings. She recalled her participation, since about 2001, in a chevra kadisha group at her Berkeley synagogue, Congregation Netivot Shalom, in response to a Yom Kippur callout to the congregation by then-Rabbi Stuart Kelman.

“He said a congregation is defined by this kind of work, central to the core of who we are,” Benioff Friedman said in an interview with J. “And I was like: Yes. The idea of shmira resonated with me, that you do not leave the dead alone [when they transition]. I wanted that for myself, so I joined.”

The activities of chevra kadisha, and in particular taharah — the preparation of bodies for burial — provided inspiration for figure studies and composition; they also invited the artist to visualize the spiritual and emotional underpinnings of the rituals.

“It seemed a really rich subject to tackle,” Benioff Friedman said. “It’s about the body. But it’s also about the emotions we feel when doing this work of caring for the dead. There is no end to how many aspects of this practice I could imagine painting. This work could last decades.”

Sam Salkin
Sam Salkin

The allure for an artist is not surprising, given the depth and significance of Jewish burial practice. Salkin estimates there are about 10 existing chevra kadisha groups in congregations around the Bay Area. Each group is composed of individuals who perform various tasks in service to the dying or to those who have passed and their families. A subset of the group will perform taharah, which refers to the ritual washing, purifying and dressing of the body in preparation for burial (or, in modern times, cremation) guided by the appropriate liturgy. Traditionally, women and men form separate taharah groups to care for each gender.

“At the taharah‘s conclusion the body is prepared for the earth while the soul is freed to continue its journey,” Benioff Friedman writes in her exhibit description. The taharah teams “are deeply aware of the dual presence of body and soul, and every action is carefully performed with particular attention to respecting both.”

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Although she was raised in a secular Jewish family in Massachusetts and New York, Benioff Friedman said she had a kind of spiritual awakening during a gap year she spent in Jerusalem during college. Spending time with her observant Israeli cousins helped her appreciate the emotional, familial and potentially spiritual rewards of being a practicing Jew, she said.

After moving to Berkeley in 1989, she became an active member of Netivot Shalom. (Benioff Friedman, who is married with two sons, is a second cousin of Salesforce co-founder and co-CEO Marc Benioff.)

She told J. that she finds Jewish liturgy “so visually rich” and that a lot of her work is about the biblical angels of mercy, which make frequent appearances in her chevra kadisha pieces. While two of her taharah paintings were included in the de Young Museum Open Exhibition in 2020, the exhibit at Sinai Memorial will be her first solo show with all of her chevra kadisha work in its entirety. She expects to hang four or five large oil paintings, about 25 monotype prints and several charcoal drawings.

Her achievements have already been recognized with a 2022 grant from the Marianne Oberg Foundation for Spiritual Art.

“I don’t know any other artist who has taken up the subject in the way she has, within a contemporary framework,” Salkin said, noting that the Jewish concept of chesed — “true loving kindness” — lies at the core of chevra kadisha work. “It is the ultimate gift, from a Torah perspective, because these acts of love can never be repaid; the recipient is dead.”

Besides the “comfort” provided to the soul of the departed, Salkin underscored the traditional value of communal responsibility for the care of the dead, regardless of the deceased’s station in life. The practice also reinforces the notion that human beings come into this world equal to one another, and should exit the same way, whether rich or poor. “It’s a leveler,” he said.

Laguatan noted that many practicing Jews are not familiar with “what goes on behind closed doors” when a friend or member of their family passes away. “I think this art exhibit is an opportunity for the community to learn about our end of life traditions,” she said.

She added, “It’s amazing to know that in a few hundred years, Karen’s work is still going to be out there, revealing the care, respect and love that goes into this practice.”

“Chevra Kadisha: Artworks by Karen Benioff Friedman”

Feb. 5-March 18, Sinai Memorial Chapel, 1501 Divisadero Street, S.F. Opening reception 2-6 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 5. Free.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.