Location: Charlotte, North Carolina
I went to my first shiva last night. It was at the home of friends and neighbors who lost their 94 year old patriarch of the family. It was another instance of mourning a loss but finding comfort in a long life well lived and a death that was peaceful.
Sitting shiva is the traditional way that Jews mourn the dead. In the most observant homes that practice a strict adherence to Jewish rituals (such as the one pictured above), it lasts seven days. The deceased’s family sits on low stools and boxes to symbolize being brought low by the death of their loved one. That was not the case last night. We did, however, have a rabbi who led us in prayers and remembrances.
I found myself thinking about my dad during the Mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer that is said to honor the dead in the Jewish faith. At Temple Beth El, it is often preceded by the song Heal Us Now that Hannah and Eliza used to sing together and that they sang at my father’s service. Hannah first soloed on that song when I was sick, and hearing it and the Kaddish prayer brings back that scary time and the gratitude of making it through tied up with the grief of losing my dad and the way we are all still struggling with the void he has left. As I do often these days (a viewing of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhoodor a glimpse of a photo or something that is said that reminds me of my dad), I found myself wiping away tears.
My thoughts also turned to loss and mourning and how we come together to support each other. The shiva home was filled with friends and family who were there to pay their respects and to comfort those left behind. You do not fully appreciate how much that kind of support means until you are on the receiving end of it. And this is especially true for those of us who aren’t local, who can’t physically be there to check on the one left behind. This banding together of friends (the family we choose) is all the more important when there is no family nearby. I am so grateful that my mom’s circle of friends continues to check on her and include her in social gatherings to ease the inevitable loneliness that losing a life partner entails.
I also found myself pondering my familiarity with many of the prayers, having heard many of them over the years. I also enjoyed chatting with Rabbi Schindler about my kids, all of whom she knows well because they grew up in the Temple, I realized that I have managed to carve out an atheist existence within the Jewish faith. I have been accepted on my terms – I once even delivered a D’var Tora (a talk or sermon about that week’s Torah portion) about not believing in God – and have never felt ostracized for my beliefs (or lack thereof). In finding a hybrid existence, with one foot in the Temple and one out, I have been able to enjoy all the best that a community of faith has to offer. Just as Rabbi Hershenson was able to respect my dad’s atheism at his service, acknowledging it with respect rather than ignoring it or finding fault with it, but incorporated teachings from her faith into his tribute as well.
Enjoying the beauty and comfort of traditions and rituals that are thousands of years old while still holding true to ourselves is a gift I do not take lightly. And the Jewish tradition of marking any occasion, somber or not, with lots of food is also something I appreciate. Just as the array of baked goods piled high on the dining room table could easily have sustained a seven day shiva, the love and support that filled the house will sustain them long after the final guest leaves.