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  • Writer's pictureJane Leder

Dying On Purpose

Malka from "Shitsel"

In all the hours and hours that I spent creating a title for my book about teen suicide, "Dying On Purpose" was never one that crossed my mind. But when I heard Grandmother Malka, mother of Shulem Shtisel in the widely successful TV series "Shtisel" about, I ran for a pen and paper. What an apt, powerful title Why didn't I think of it?

I swore that I'd had enough of depression, anxiety, and suicide; Marketing, talks, guest appearances on the radio and on TV over the years had me feeling "down." I needed to write about more uplifting topics, maybe even humorous ones. It was time to laugh and, hopefully, bring some joy to others.

But watching "Shitsel"--an in-depth look at a fictional Haredi family living in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem-- got me thinking all over again about suicide and the right to die.

Spoiler Alert

Grandmother Malka and her potty-mouth friend Shoshanna live in a Jewish nursing home. Their rooms are tiny, just big enough for a single bed, bathroom, and a sitting area that some might call a living room. The two elderly women--Malka almost 90 and Shoshanna 90 or older- -quarrel over all kinds of unimportant stuff like watching American soap operas on what is Malka's first exposure to television and Shoshanna's side business as a money changer. But when it comes to dying, they are both dead serious (The title of my book.)

Shoshanna was a Rebetzin, the wife of a rabbi who had passed away years before. When she is diagnosed with cancer, she makes a conscious decision to end her life by taking more pills than would kill a horse--a painless passage. When Malka tries to dissuade her, Shoshanna replies: "Mialkele, let me die . . . Better to die like a rabbi's wife, not a miserable rag." With her dear friend Malka by her side, Shoshanna chooses to die on purpose. And though viewers are not privy to how much time passes between her death and Malka's, there is no doubt that Shoshanna's death encourages Malka to decide how and when to die--alone and peacefully.

In general, suicide is forbidden under Jewish law. However, there are situations in which a person may choose to take their own life, namely to avoid physical or mental suffering. No doubt that as a rabbi's wife Shoshanna was well aware that her dying on purpose did not break the laws by which she had lived her long life.

Malka's decision is a bit murkier. She suffered from dementia. She continued to mourn the death of her husband who had died many years earlier. She didn't approve of her older son's choice of a new wife after his first wife had died. And she longed to see the sea after not having been for a visit in sixty years. Still, was her death on a bench on the sand a death on purpose or a death by natural causes? Her family chooses to believe the latter, but viewers are left with serious doubts; there are hints of her having taken pills like her dear friend.

It's never possible to really understand why someone decides to die on purpose. I know because, after more than four decades, I still don't understand my brother's choice to take his own life. My fervent prayer is that, like Malke and Shoshanna, he decided when and how to die to avoid his mental suffering and that, wherever he might be, my brother is in peace.


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