Jewish mourning traditions are wonderful, they really are. I even like our coffinless funerals that involve no beautification of death. Jews are buried in shrouds, the shape of the corpses clearly visible. The dead is dumped into the grave rather than lain into it. Before the act, the rabbi reads a line of the Mishnah: “Know where you came from and where you are headed, and to whom you will need to explain your deeds. Where you came from: a smelly drop. Where you are headed: the place of gravel, insects and worms. To whom you will need to explain your deeds: to the king of the kings of kings.” Merciless? indeed. Poetic? 100%.
I also like the “shiva”, the seven days of community mourning, during which the family receives guests and the memory of the lost one is recreated in conversation. I like it – in theory. In practice, it’s exhausting. We are at my uncle and aunt’s place in a northern suburb of the city. There’s a long wooden table in the back yard, an espresso machine and plenty of good cookies. On the third day of the shiva, I’m completely choked with cookies. We’re all bound to gain a few pounds thanks to this tradition. Indeed, we risk being soon afflicted with atherosclerosis and getting dumped into the place of gravel, insects and worms.
Ours is not a very traditional shiva. We eat warm food. We sit on normal chairs rather than low stools. We bathe and shower through this week. We do not observe the ban on leather shoes or jewlery. The mirrors in the house are not covered (by far Judaism’s spookiest custom), but my grandmother is sitting there in the shirt she wore at the funeral, with its collar that was torn by the rabbi. It’s truly a heartbreaking sight. She will continue to wear this shirt throughout the weeklong observence. The shiva doesn’t let her nor us forget for a moment how much her life just changed. This is its purpose, this is its curse.
A very different challenge of the shiva is the “bar-mitzvah effect”. I happen to suffer from mild prosopagnosia – a neurological condition impending recognition of people by their faces. My bar mitzvah was an absolute nightmare. I knew nobody there. My grandfather’s shiva is even harder. At least at 13 I was quite sure everyone was there for me. I was supposed to recognize them, so a friendly smile and feigned recognition were always in order. Here many people have no idea who I am, others are my direct uncles. I do my best not to mix them up, and fail.
But there’s a lot of love going around here. My aunt warmly hugs her two ex husbands to the astonishemnt of all, old friends of my folks appear at the door, thrilling them with their presence. My grandfather left behind a rich life story, fit to fuel many a conversation. The way he died, calmly and painlessly after having a beer and watching the England-Germany match, gives a great little story with which to break the ice. His last phone call, ten minutes before his heart failed, involved a detailed critique of the English team’s disastrous loss, so we even get to talk about the world cup. I just hope Wayne Roony knows to whom he needs to explain his deeds the day he kicks the Bucket. Shimon Yaar is waiting for him up there with a dish of fresh cookies and a few tough questions.