Thursday, February 10, 2005

Shiva in My Bones

I remember a cartoon I once saw of a posh French restaurant. The Maitre d’ was saying to a haughty waiter, on his way to serve a family that had obviously saved-up to come there, “Give them a couple of tries at pronouncing it and then tell them it’s not on today.”

You are not supposed to enjoy a shiva.
At least as a visitor you shouldn’t. I don’t remember having sat it myself so I cannot say this for certain but I have a suspicion that some families are only waiting for all us spot-grievers to go, before lolling back to gleefully relive in minute detail each and every uncomfortable moment they watched us endure. I am nothing if not a learner though and, as I have no choice but to attend my share of these flaggellatory-bonding sessions, I have developed a system of watching the other visitors and entertaining myself.

Frum shivas can be excruciatingly funny. Just as most people have a special low and grave voice they use for their doctor, even if they are only discussing a mole on their arm, most people seem to think shivas are the intensive-care unit or the library. As they enter the hall and pass the first shrouded mirror you notice them begin a Pink-Panther-like tiptoe routine. This exaggerated quietness remains on for the duration of the visit and manifests itself in a thousand shifting chairs and cleared throats. In fact a casual passer-by could often be forgiven for thinking he was looking at a doctor’s waiting room.

The guests can be split into two groups: the pushers and the flitters. The pushers scan the room and immediately identify the line of vision of the most important sitters. That is where they will soon be seated, sagely commiserating with the bereaved repeatedly as each painful detail of the deceased’s final hours is expertly extracted and dissected like a nerve during a root canal treatment. In fact the gleam in my dentist’s eye, while sadistic enough, pales into insignificance next to the relish some of these professional shiva visitors have to conceal. Meanwhile the nebbechs (nerds) look for a place on the periphery which they will try to flit into and blend into the surroundings. I have never figured out why the hell these people bother to come if they don’t consider themselves close enough to the bereaved to want to catch their eye.

The halacha suggests that it is the bereaved who have to start the conversation. It will often happen that a mourner is lost in his thoughts, or has a catch in his throat and does not want to talk. We are supposed to respect that. For some busybodies however this is easier said than done. They are the ones who, having bagged that prime seat in centre stage will, after a minute of silence at most, start hunching their backs and sighing meaningfully, all the time staring the bereaved straight in the eye as if daring him not to say something.

Shivas are designed to allow the mourners to grieve in peace and get the pain out of their system. Not everybody is lucky enough to have one. It is very much in the fashion among my parents’ generation to decide their own parents are not strong enough to handle the news that their loved one has died. It is part of this delicious importance when you can tell all your friends not to talk about it too much “because Mummy does not know yet. We don’t think it is good for her.” It is strange that children who have spent the first fifty years arguing that they are big enough to lead their own lives without their parents’ interference, will jump up to take control of their parents’ lives the moment they are no longer strong enough to fend these meddlers off.

The tactless buffoon, who fervently assures the bereft husband that soon he will find someone new and forget her, is another pitfall the designers of the shiva experience could not factor in. I remember a shiva for a woman who had died from a haemorrhage after discharging herself from hospital following miscarriage. A woman sitting at her shiva was heard to pipe up, “I hate these balabustes who think they can take the whole world upon themselves.”

It is time we started using our brains to figure out the logic of those things we do. Shiva visits are not supposed to enhance the ego of some of these professional sympathisers, who make it their business to stand out at every popular shiva. Not the time for Rabbanim, whose only contact with their flock is when they block any projects that might improve our collective lot (but was not thought of by them), to prove they are involved by arriving in a flurry of activity and stealing the show from the family who just lost their breadwinner. It is the time when the closest friends of those who have suffered a loss come and share their grief with them, sometimes in silence and sometimes with a well-chosen word. And if both these concepts are alien to you, take my advice and join the flitters or take my example and don’t go.

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