Shiva Shifts Toward Shorter and Livelier Jewish Mourning for Dead

Catered 3-Day Events Common Among Less Observant

Some Truth in Jest: Though mourning ceremonies are becoming less rigid in their ritual, few would go so far as including a mariachi band such as the one featured in the 2007 comedy ‘My Mexican Shivah.’
courtesy of springall pictures/emerging pictures
Some Truth in Jest: Though mourning ceremonies are becoming less rigid in their ritual, few would go so far as including a mariachi band such as the one featured in the 2007 comedy ‘My Mexican Shivah.’

By Rukhl Schaechter

Published March 18, 2014, issue of March 21, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 3)

At Keneseth Israel, the Shiva Committee not only runs the shiva minyan, but is even given special training to do so. “Often congregants who are marginal to the shul actually want to join this committee, so it usually ranges between 12 and 20 people,” Sussman said. This year, his wife, Liz, has also joined.

In general, the practice of sitting shiva is markedly more relaxed today than it was in previous generations. Mourners rarely sit on austere wooden boxes anymore and are often provided with low folding chairs that provide cushioned back support. And unlike the past, when people paid a shiva call wearing suits, visitors’ clothing today is much less formal, says Lucy Bregman, professor of religion at Temple University. “I recall seeing people showing up in track suits,” she remarked.

“Usually, when people return from the cemetery, the mood is lighter than it was at the funeral, and interestingly, it’s the teens who seem most bothered by this,” Sussman said. “They see their parents joking with their friends and back-slapping, but they themselves are still in mourning mode.” Knowing this, Sussman often counsels teenage children of the mourners before the funeral, by letting them know that even though their parents may not look sad throughout the shiva, that is natural. “I tell them that it’s just a way of finding relief from mourning,” he added.

“Americans have relegated death to the funeral parlor and the cemetery,” Jonathan Sarna, professor of Jewish studies at Brandeis University, explained. “Having removed death from the home, the home becomes the locus for a ‘reception.’”

Although on the surface, the difference in shiva practice appears to be dictated by whether the mourner belongs to a traditional community or not, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, an organization that reaches out to unaffiliated and intermarried families, believes otherwise. “The big divide today is not between different denominations, but between those Jews who are engaged and affiliated, and those that are not,” he said.

Religiously liberal Jews, he adds, may take the shiva just as seriously, if they feel connected to other Jews in their community. For example, according to Jewish law, if shiva has begun and a Jewish holiday intervenes, the rest of the days of shiva are nullified. “Yet, those who are accustomed to reaching out will do so anyway, even during and after the holiday,” Olitzky said. “They may not be doing it out of obligation to custom, but simply because they feel it’s the right thing to do.”

Today there are even companies that help the bereaved through the mourning process. In Los Angeles, for example, mourners can contact the Shiva Sisters, to help people carry out the appropriate Jewish rituals: providing water for washing hands after returning from the cemetery, covering the mirrors, burning memorial candles and providing low seats or cushions.

Co-founder and owner Danna Black believes they provide an important service for Jews unaffiliated with any synagogue or Jewish community. “Usually, the younger generation wants a more creative shiva that’s not so solemn,” Black remarked. “You see the mourner interacting more with the guests, rather than waiting for the guests to come over.”

But Shiva Sisters also arranges catering, provide photographers, videographers, babysitting and even valet parking.


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!
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • 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.