Feb 20, 2011

Deconstructing Shiva

In my seven to eight years doing Judaism in some form or another, I've experienced many moments when the thoughts "will I ever get used to this?" and "will this ever make sense to me?" crossed my mind.

Initially, the biggest one was anything that had to do with the Shoah (Holocaust). Either being completely disconnected genetically to anyone involved in anything to do with the Holocaust and thus lacking some chain of emotion and memory, or ending up in a situation where I had to consider the horrors as others related them to me. The Shoah was always a distant beast that I never thought would ever mean something to me, outside of the general horror of what humanity is capable. And then I married Tuvia, who comes from a family with survivors of some immense horrors of the Shoah, and through work on genealogy and tracking down stories and facts about where his family came from, I threaded myself into that memory and now, well, the Shoah is not distant, it's part of who I am.

Now, as I watch a generation fade away, as I become more a part of a community, as I understand new responsibilities, I consider the act of sitting shiva, which is the act of mourning over the seven-day period following the death of one's immediate relatives (mom, dad, brother, sister, spouse, and child). I'm blessed to not have had to even consider sitting shiva at this point in my life, but part of this act of mourning is the communal aspect of "paying a shiva visit" to the grieving party.

In my time doing Judaism, I've paid all of two shiva calls. One was to the home of a friend whose mother passed away far too young from an illness and the other was to one of Tuvia's grandmother's friends, who had lost her brother. The two experiences were starkly different, but both left me feeling uncomfortable in a way I can't describe. I don't know that shiva visits are meant to be comfortable, but for those who grew up Jewish, the whole idea of Jewish mourning is old hat.

For instance, Jews bury their dead almost immediately, preferably the next day. Jews don't put up a headstone until 11 months after the burial of the dead, when they do an unveiling. Jews mourn for seven days and then a month and then a year and then recite kaddish every year on the anniversary of the death of the relative. Jews tear their clothing when someone dies.

Where I come from, when someone dies, you wait until the family can get together, then you plan the funeral, which consists of a service at either a church or the funeral home, complete with songs and testimonies, followed by a long schlep to the cemetery with everyone in tow, a further ceremony there with a pastor or preacher saying words from the bible, then the burial. After that, usually people come to your house with food and linger awkwardly and then leave. After that day, all is over and you go back to your normal life.

At my first shiva call, I met my grandmother-in-law's friend for the first time. She, too, was a Shoah survivor, and as we were sitting in her time capsule of a living room, she shifted in her chair and her shirt sleeve lifted to reveal numbers. I'd never in my life actually seen a tattoo on a survivor. Tuvia's grandmother and her sisters got dog tags instead of tattoos, because by the time they ended up in the camps, it wasn't time effective. I froze, Tuvia carried the conversation, and after some awkward silences, we left. For days afterward, and even today, I remember how uncomfortable I felt. Was I supposed to say something? Do something? Sit quietly? Dance around the room and spit nickels? No one prepared me for the acts of death and mourning.

The second shiva call was heartbreaking. I'd attended the service at the funeral home for my friend's mother -- the place was packed, and the emotion was intense. The entire thing allowed me to really put into perspective my relationship with my own parents and how life is fleeting. When Tuvia and I went to their house that week for a shiva call, it was my first visit. Tuvia had been going all week, like the real mensch that he is, to help make minyan (the quorum of 10 men needed for prayer). The room was small and crowded, and I realized that it was in that room that we sat and noshed that my friend's mother had spent her last days. We had plenty of friends there, and I didn't know what to say or do, again. Silence? Comforting words? Is one's presence enough? We davened and some emotional words were shared. Everyone said their goodbyes, and we went off into the night.

More recently, my husband's uncle, Bert, died. It was unexpected and -- for us -- very sudden. The week of mourning went on as normal, but amid a snow and ice storm, which kept me and my tiny car away. I found myself unable to really cope with the death, unable to grasp the reality of it, because I couldn't go to pay a shiva call. I was both relieved that I would not be faced with the foreign and awkward custom and upset that I had no where or way to grieve.

Is it a Catch 22?

Death is never easy. Can you ever really be prepared? Does growing up with the traditions of death and mourning in Judaism make it easier to grasp? More normative? More regular? Or does it have nothing to do with it?

On a related note, for the media lovers out there: One of the best movies out of Israel in recent years, in my opinion, is a film called Shiva, which has the U.S. title of "The Seven Days." I can't seem to find a website for it, but it's about a large Moroccan Jewish family gathering at the death of one of the sons/brothers. It's a really interesting look at mourning, and what family dynamics are like over a seven-day period of enclosure and emotion. (A review of the movie from the Cannes Film Festival is online.) I recommend watching it ... whether shiva is something you're comfortable or familiar with, this movie will definitely give you a new perspective.


Anonymous said...

I have seen this film and I enjoyed it too.
As someone who was in mourning almost seven years ago, I found tha the Jewish way of doing it helped me a lot to deal with this unexpected death.

Unknown said...

Interestingly for me, I would have described my experience with paying respects at a wake in similar terms as when you recall feeling awkward at a shiva call.

I feel bad having to stand in a line before being able to finally say I am terribly sorry for your loss to someone who just lost his or her family member and have been tirelessly standing and greeting people who shake their hand and say something stupid or hurtful.

I feel very ill at ease to be in the same room as a non-buried body, and because of my personal way to deal with emotions and spirituality, I feel like something from the soul of that body is desperately crying for closure and privacy.

I like (if the word may apply in such a case) shivah, because non of this happens. The family members are in their own element at home, they can excuse themselves if the pain is too bad, they don't need to stand in a line and be social at all.

The visitors gather in the same prayer. The mincha service is short and to the point. There is food we bring to feel useful, and we don't need to talk if we don't feel like it at all.

Risa Tzohar said...

An important thing to remember about shiva is that it is part of a process. The first three days are considered 'days of crying' and if you are not particularly close to the family you should not come on those days. Those are the days when the mourners are meant to cry. The next days of the shiva are considered the days for consoling the mourners (nichum aveilim). But just because you came (or didn't come) to the shiva doesn't mean you've discharged the mitzvah. The bereaved family needs support after the shiva as well and the consolation that comes from family and community is an important mitzvah well after the shiva. Isn't that what taking care of the widows and orphans is about (on some level at least?).
May we share simchas in blogdom.

YV said...

If you feel uncomfortable
If you dont know what to say

Then you are doing it right

Silence is the right reaction

IF I get the go ahead to talk from the mourner I try ask about the person. Where were they born? What were their interests?....

erika said...

It's interesting your reaction was of such discomfort. Learning more about Jewish mourning ritual is actually a big thing that drew me into Judaism. Of course the first time I made a call I reflexively asked the person how they were doing (doh!), but the more I learned about the mourning ritual, the more I felt comfortable in Judaism (at least in this realm).

I grew up Catholic and mourning ritual is much like you described. It always felt awkward to me. Of course to a certain extent mourning is always uncomfortable, but Jewish customs just match so much better what I know a healthy and respectful process ideally would be like. I'm just so grateful that Judaism provides this framework for mourning that is so supportive and sane. It's already helped me a lot in terms of rooting a ritual remembrance in yahrzeit.

Thanks for getting me thinking about this again. I know it's a little weird to think about mourning as a way to relate to conversion and religion and daily life, but I really value the connection, and not just in an intellectual "wow, that makes so much sense" way like a lot of other things, but in emotional and spiritual ways, too.

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