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4 must-see documentaries to help you understand the process of shiva

Jewish mourning rituals are complex and deeply personal. These films can help you begin to understand them

Mourning can be a tremendously isolating experience. Many onlookers struggle to help grievers, because their emotions are heavy and painful to share.

And while shiva, the Jewish practice of sitting with mourners after a loved one’s death, provides the mourner with momentary relief and space to grieve, the process is not always simple.

These documentaries shed light on the diverse ways in which mourners experience the grieving process — along with a unique insight into the taboo emotions attached to it.

‘Last Flight Home’

Written and directed by Ondi Timoner in 2022, Last Flight Home captures the final days of Timoner’s father’s life, intimately exposing her family’s preparation for loss. The film takes the viewer through Eli Timoner’s journey through the end of his life, as he chooses to die at 92, following heart failure and immobility, under California’s End of Life Option Act.

Ondi Timoner wanted to portray her family’s challenging experience coping with her father’s decision, providing the audience with an angle not usually seen or understood. And while the documentary grapples with heavy topics, it’s also witty and comedic. The mourners are not confined to their pain. Instead, we see them live in the face of death, especially as they begin to move forward with their lives after the loss of their beloved patriarch. The documentary challenges the narrative that death and grief put a temporary stop to other experiences — even of joy — with raw and unflinching honesty.

‘Shiva For My Mother’

Shiva For My Mother, released in 2003, follows the story of an Israeli woman named Yael Katzir, who expresses conflicted feelings regarding her mother’s death at the beginning of the film.

“Mom died this morning,” she tells the audience. “I have always craved her hugs and approval, but it did not happen.”

The story begins right after the funeral for Katzir’s mother, Zoya, while Yael processes not just grief over her death, but also the pain of her family history, including her father’s 1933 escape from the Nazis.

Yael and her siblings also confront the problems they had with their mother as their grieving process unfolds. Toward the end of their week of sitting shiva, Yael realizes that her children quarrel with her over the same things she fought over with her own mother. Later, she finds a letter from her mother that never got sent, saying how much she wanted to hug her.

Yael finally finds a sense of closure, realizing that throughout all the conflict, she still has sweet memories on which to fall back

Etgar Keret: What Animal Are You?

In Etgar Keret: What Animal Are You? (2012), director Gur Bentwich follows Keret, an Israeli writer and Bentwich’s friend, on tour in New York as he promotes his book Suddenly, A Knock on the Door a mere five weeks after his father’s death from mouth cancer. The documentary is as funny as it is intimate, including in a scene at an event in which Keret memorializes his father, Ephraim, by performing monologues on stage. The narrative is wistful, nostalgic and humorous.

Later in the film, Keret notes to his friend Ira Glass that the purpose of shiva is to hear and tell stories of the dead, almost to keep their memory alive. Glass responds that Keret’s book tour is a “shiva tour,” and that he should extend it to prolong the memory of his father. To remember is to keep alive, and Keret retelling his father’s stories proves a poignant memorial.

‘Love & Stuff’

Love & Stuff, a 2020 documentary by Judith Helfland, follows Helfland as she settles in the newness of grief over her mother’s death and considers the weight of her late mother’s belongings, which sit in her home, and which she cannot bear to remove. Her house is filled with photographs and elephant figurines, perfectly standard household items that, despite their ordinariness, are a lasting token of her mother’s presence. In the documentary, Helfland shows the audience the piled boxes, saying their contents still smell like her mother. “They still held traces of my mom’s DNA,” she says.

At the beginning of the film, right after her mother passes, Helfland tells the audience about the beauty and dread of the shiva process, defining it as “a week surrounded by loved ones and friends … comforting, exhausting.” She is surrounded by friends and well-wishers, but is confronted with the unflinching burden and exhaustion concomitant with the grief she feels. There is also the difficulty of letting go, which would be concretized by her throwing away her mother’s stuff. “The film,” Helfland shared with JTA’s Andrew Silow-Carroll, “is a roadmap for when the whole world turns upside down.”

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