Tag Archives: shiva

Water and Stone

by Aslan Cohen (Chicago, IL)

I never knew there was a real connection between laughter and death. To me, death was the solemnity of the shiva: covered mirrors, torn shirts, itchy beards. When I first visited my grandfather’s grave, I silently placed a small, unpolished stone above the black rectangle of his marble tombstone. Only rocks, in their mineral mutism, can adequately represent the congenital silence of our ancestors. I took that as a general truth. After all, only rocks remain.

Which is why I thought the goyim were so mistaken in using flowers. Most of the flower market in Av. Revolución, far from where the Jews live on the Western edge of Mexico City, consists of oversized funerary arrangements. People have them custom-made for their lost ones. And I just couldn’t understand how those kitschy amalgamations of colorful impermanence could be used to coronate the most serious thing in life.

Little did I know. Because many years later I went with some ‘goyim‘ friends of mine to the graveyard that is in Santa María del Tule, in the outskirts of the city of Oaxaca, on the Day of the Dead. It was an extremely humble place, about a five minutes walk from the Tree of Tule, a cypress of a species we call ahuehuete (which means “old man of the water” in Nahuatl), and which is said to be one of the oldest trees alive. If you go there you’ll find small children that, in exchange for a coin, will give you a tour of the shapes around its wide, wide trunk, and which included, when I was there, the ass of Shakira and the nose of Celia Cruz.

The path to the cemetery was adorned with long strings of petals, which, as I later found out, connect the individual graves with the particular house where the dead person used to live. Through this endless network of smells, life branches in and out of the cemetery, reminding us that our vane pursuits are nothing but a meaningless dance we perform during the short trajectory that goes from our doorposts to our graves.

I mention dance because there was music inside the cemetery. People danced to it in pairs. I remember there was a huge trombone playing with the band. The tunes were not particularly sad, but neither were they frivolous. Something in them captured the sweet-and-sour irony of the encounter of absence with life. This is the irony on which the Mexican Day of the Dead is predicated.

But the exact feeling it gave me is very hard to convey, especially because it was accompanied by the sight of whole families sitting in a circle around the place where their loved one had been buried, drinking and talking with the dead. They tell them about last year: a grandchild’s birthday, the departure of such-and-such who went looking for a job to the United States. They bring the dead their favorite meal. I saw apples and bottles of Coca-Cola over the tombstones. They placed them at the very same spot where I had once burdened my grandpa with a stone. I even saw a bottle of Corona in one of them.

And further down I saw a widow, a very old lady filled with wrinkles, who had brought nothing more than a single glass of water to share with her late husband. She told me that. And I remember being very moved. I am moved to this day. The images of that graveyard have been mostly blurred out from my mind, but I can still see the brown jícara (calabash) with still, transparent water enclosed in it. And I realize it is the very opposite of my grandpa’s stone. But, when all is said and done, they are really the same thing.

Aslan Cohen was born in Mexico City, where he grew up in the Syrian Jewish Community. Today he lives in Chicago with his wife, where he pursues a PhD in Biblical Literature at the University of Chicago.

 

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Filed under Family history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism

Passing Along a New Tradition

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.comYou 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).

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Filed under American Jewry

Shiva

by Leslie LaskinReese (San Rafael, CA)

Lori asked if we would sit shiva and  I said no, who would come that knows Mom?  That was my knee jerk reaction.  Raised a Jew but not trained a Jew.  We never sat shiva growing up. I didn’t even know what it looked like when I was young.  But the day after Mom died I realized I needed to sit shiva.  When I told Dad he sounded almost relieved.  Or maybe I was imagining things.

We are Reform Jews.  Orthodox Jews sit shiva for seven days.  That’s what shiva means: seven.  Reform Jews sit shiva for three days.  I don’t know who picked three.  Officially shiva begins as soon as the funeral finishes.  I checked in with my friend who is studying to be a rabbi and she said shiva can begin when I need it to begin.  So my shiva began on Sunday.  My dear dear friends brought lunch and dinner and spent time with me.  They let me talk and they listened.  They made me sit down and they fed me.  They gave me room to breathe.

Last night and tonight we had a service at home.  Our wonderful cantor and my friend who is almost a rabbi officially, and is clearly a rabbi in every other way, led beautiful services and gave me room to pray and remember and cry surrounded by friends who will wrap themselves around me and my family.  It gave me a place to begin.  I stopped holding my breath.  And I told them about Mom.

So yes, I did sit shiva Lori, and it was amazing.  Thanks for asking.

Leslie LaskinReese is a writer and restaurant designer living in Northern California.  Leslie’s writing can be found at something’s burning (http://leslieedie.wordpress.com/) where this piece first appeared.  When she is not writing, Leslie is either designing restaurants  or tending her family.  Someday, Leslie will have the courage to seek print publication for one of her many writing projects.

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Filed under American Jewry, Family history