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.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.