by Ferida Wolff (Cherry Hill, NJ)
I have paid many shiva calls, the Jewish visit of condolence, over the years so I’m aware of the general customs that prevail: enter the house without knocking, let the mourner initiate conversation, bring something edible to the shiva house. The traditions help mourners focus on their immediate loss and then segue into the stream of life again.
My sister and I were sitting shiva for our father at my house. People entered through the open front door without knocking, as is traditional, but then the traditions bent themselves somewhat to the circumstances. Some of the visitors were my sister’s friends and some were mine, but none were our father’s; they had never met him.
Dad had moved around a bit – from New York to New Jersey to Florida and back to New Jersey to be near us when he and our late mother needed extra care. Yet he always considered himself a New Yorker. He had no real connection to New Jersey in general or to the place where he spent his last years. Much of his family still lives in New York, his city of birth. When we made plans for his burial, there was no question as to where it would be; he was buried on Staten Island in the same cemetery as his mother, father, brothers, wife, and countless other relatives. After the burial, those attending services spread out to visit the familiar graves and to place stones on the plots as reminders that the loved ones have not been forgotten. We knew that the same custom would prevail whenever family members went to visit our father’s grave, too.
So my sister and I chose to mourn back home where we felt most comfortable.
That is where our friends came to pay respects to us, the sisters they knew, with the intention to console. Several of the visitors were not Jewish, unfamiliar with our traditions, but it did not matter to us. When they rang the bell, someone in the house answered. We were just glad they were there.
“I’m so sorry,” they each said in the way consolers do. It is hard to know what to say to mourners. Each person wants to make her friend feel better. Sometimes a hug is the only thing needed. And there were plenty of those.
They asked about our father so, in a tradition reversal instead of listening to stories, my sister and I told them. Some memories were difficult. Our childhood years were an erratic emotional mixture. There were some difficult times but there were also some fun times to offer: the annual (sort of) family picnics, huge Pesach dinners at our grandmother’s house with thirty-five people all trying to wash their hands at the same time, stories sprinkled with our father’s propensity to pun.
Shiva plates piled up: homemade cookies, muffins, mini-quiches, chocolate covered pretzels, tea sandwiches, all brought on dishes from our guests’ kitchens. Coffee and tea flowed and the conversation was a welcome consolation for us all.
After the mourning period was over, I started returning the platters to their owners. One of my friends, however, suggested that I keep the cut-glass dish her food came on. It was presented with love and blessings for both the mourners and my father’s spirit.
“Pass it on, if you like,” she said.
I thought that was a wonderful idea. When I made a shiva call some months after when my friend’s brother had died, I did exactly that. I filled the same dish with cakes and blessings and brought it with me. Later my friend wanted to return it, as I had, and I told her what my other friend had said to me. She smiled.
“Oh, how lovely,” she said. “I will.”
Her reaction made me realize that this small gesture of condolence carried a larger meaning. The caring that was transmitted with the platter affirmed our personal connection as well as an understanding that life continues and it is enhanced by friendship, compassion, and memory. It was like a holy embrace at a particularly hard emotional time. I knew that I would continue to do this in the future, passing on this new tradition.
And in giving my friend the plate, I experienced a sense of release from my own grieving which, for me, led to gratitude. I understand now the true value of the custom of shiva. It is the most comforting embrace of all.
Ferida Wolff’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Moment Magazine, Midstream, Horizons, and Woman’s World, among other periodicals. An author of seventeen books for children and three essay books for adults, she has also contributed stories to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series and HCI’s Ultimate series, as well as online at www.grandparents.com and as a columnist for www.seniorwomen.com. You can visit her website for more information www.feridawolff.com or her blog at http://feridasbackyard.blogspot.com/ And you might enjoy her most recent book, Missed Perceptions: Challenge Your Thoughts Change Your Thinking (Pranava Books).