I am a non-Jew living a very Jewish life. You see, my husband is an observant Conservative Jew. Ever since we met five years ago, I’ve experienced a new world of holidays, foods and rituals. My husband has shown me many customs, down to the minutest details of daily life, including how he writes “G-d”. Although I’m not a religious person, I’ve embraced and have come to admire Judaism.
One of the more impressive aspects of Judaism that I’ve experienced as a non-Jew was my husband’s grandfather, Pop Pop Louie’s, funeral and shiva. There were many rules and rituals connected to his death that I didn’t understand. Of course, this isn’t something that one can be prepped for. I was thrown directly into the midst of Jewish mourning customs with no inkling as to the intensity of it.
Perhaps the thing that most took me by surprise was that after the funeral we literally buried Pop Pop Louie. Each person took a shovel and spaded in as much dirt as they could to participate in filling in Pop Pop Louie’s grave. This act chilled me to the bone. At the time, it felt completely foreign and unnatural. I’ve since learned that this act is the ultimate mitzvah or good deed. In burying Pop Pop Louie, we did for him what he could not do for himself. We helped him rest in peace. As disturbing as it initially was to me, I am thankful and honored to have been a part of it.
In my experience with death, the funeral is the end of the “social” part of it and then you deal with the rest on your own or with just the immediate family. In Judaism there is a custom of sitting shiva after the funeral. We gathered at Pop Pop Louie’s house that evening. At first glance, it appeared simply to be an intimate gathering of friends and family in a time of mourning. Guests brought food and words of condolence and socialized.
Suddenly it was time for a prayer service, and someone handed me a book to use which I later learned is called a siddur. There was a rabbi who led the service who told us which direction to face and when to sit or stand. It was all a bit of a whirlwind since the readings were in Hebrew and I really was just trying to keep up with what was going on. At one point I made the mistake of reciting, or trying to recite, the Mourner’s Kaddish which is reserved for the immediate family only. I was quietly but quickly corrected by my husband which made me extremely embarrassed since I felt that I had already committed some faux pas. You see, I noticed that Pop Pop Louie’s wife, Bubby Ruch, had removed all of her jewelry as well as her signature red fingernail polish. This might seem like an insignificant act; however, it was the exact opposite of my experience when attending a loved one’s funeral. I was fully accessorized with a fresh coat of nail polish. In hindsight, that could explain why my husband was quite baffled at my fussiness with my attire and quest for matching accessories.
Of course, no one else even noticed, nor would they have cared for that matter, but in my own mind I stuck out like a sore thumb. I was embarrassed about my appearance and about the fact that I had no idea how to read Hebrew. There were phonetic translations but people read so fast that I was fighting not to sound like a complete idiot. I still find Hebrew hard to follow, but now I’m a lot more comfortable with the fact that I don’t know it because I know that the relatives don’t care that I don’t know it.
After the readings everyone was given a chance to speak about Pop Pop Louie. Some told funny stories, others commented on his good character, and all reflected on the impact he had on each of us. We laughed, we cried, we devoured the delicious deli trays. Food I’ve found is an integral to Judaism. This same order of events took place in the same sequence each night for seven days. I was baffled by the repetition of it. Visiting the pain night after night in a social setting seemed completely humiliating to me. But by the last night of sitting shiva, I came to a realization and understanding and ultimately admiration of the ritual.
I’ve decided that sitting shiva gives structure to an otherwise brutally chaotic situation. It takes the overwhelming grief from a loved one’s passing and distributes it onto the shoulders of the community so that one soul doesn’t have to bear that horrible weight alone. In your darkest hour, you are absolutely surrounded and supported by love. Sitting shiva seems to take the initial sting out of death. Through prayer and reflection we are reminded of the cycle of life. Death is the natural order of things and sitting shiva is simply saying goodbye. It is a ritual of closure for the ones left behind.
Although I am not Jewish, I hope that in my passing my loved ones will have a shiva-esque gathering to celebrate my love for them and each other. When you strip away the mind numbing sadness of the circumstance surrounding sitting shiva, it is beautiful. One does not have to be Jewish to see the value in this custom. Whatever our belief system, each of us can only hope that our loved ones are cared for, supported, and carried through this time of immense pain and loss. Sitting shiva is Judaism’s failsafe method to guarantee it.