Embracing Human Complexity, at Life’s Most Painful Moments

The Wonders of America

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published July 31, 2008, issue of August 08, 2008.
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For some time now, I’ve been meaning to comment on the variety of ways by which contemporary American Jews have redefined the tradition of sitting shiva, from reducing its length to three days — and, in some instances, even to just one day — from seven, to removing the ritual practice from the precincts of the home and resettling it at the funeral parlor. Much as I tried, I couldn’t find my way into the subject, and so I turned my attentions elsewhere. But life has a funny way of clarifying things, and now, in the wake of my cherished mother’s recent death in Jerusalem, I find myself thinking of little else.

What intrigues me most about shiva is not so much its halachic implications — others can address those far better than I — as its sociology. Straddling, and at times, even deliberately blurring, the line between the public and the private, the holy and the profane, shiva embraces the human condition in all its complexity. At my parents’ home at 10 Rehov Mendele, where my father and my three siblings and I sat shiva for an entire week, the rhythms of each long day were bracketed by the minyan at one end and the seemingly endless consumption of food at the other, by the soothing cadences of Aramaic and the consolations of lasagna. Meanwhile, a steady stream of visitors filled the air with conversation about this and that, about my mother or the weather or the latest book or — this being Israel, after all — the political imbroglio du jour.

I don’t think I’m guilty of intellectualizing unduly when I say that, at times, the shiva resembled nothing so much as a salon where the art of the aperçu was cultivated and a kind of verbal free-for-all burst forth as people from the multiple worlds we each inhabit bumped up against each other: the folks from the Israel Museum and the Joint Distribution Committee mingling with those from the Hebrew University and the Israel Psychoanalytic Institute and the synagogue and the gym and the neighborhood. At other moments, shiva felt more like a movie set where a dark and droll comedy — the kind of film my mother most relished — was un-spooling in real time: here, someone from our childhood; there, a person no one seemed to know (“Who was that woman”?); here, people looking on dutifully as we set photographs of our mother before them (“You look just like her; on second thought, no, you don’t”); there, people plunking themselves down in the kitchen, where, making themselves completely at home, they would pop open the freezer in search of ice for their drink of bottled water or mitz tapuzim (orange juice), prompting another round of “Who was that woman?”

Through it all, through the strange encounters, raised eyebrows, snippets of conversation, well-meaning faces, bountiful food and recitations of an age-old liturgy, shiva was at its most effective in holding the external at bay, in easing our transition from a world complete with a full set of parents and a loving wife of more than 50 years’ standing to one without. Little wonder, then, that perhaps the most moving moment in the course of the entire week, at least for me, took place shortly before we “got up” from shiva: At the conclusion of the 7 a.m. minyan, a phalanx of daveners turned to us, recited the traditional Hebrew words of consolation — “May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” — and exhorted us, sotto voce, to rise. A few minutes later, all the Weissmans — minus one — found themselves back on the streets of Jerusalem.


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