Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Different "Shiva," Jewish Mourning Customs

Yesterday, when I was on my way to Jerusalem I got a call from my husband that an old friend's brother had passed away, and he was sitting shiva (the seven day mourning period) for two days in Jerusalem.  So I added that to my itinerary for the day.

I got to the Israel Museum to see my daughter and the new "Windows" exhibition, a post and pictures to follow, G-d willing.  Then I tried on that dress, picked up some aluminum baking pans in town, bought a "take-out" salad, was surprised by son #1 and met a friend to "eat out."  We sat in the shade near the big HaMashbir department store in downtown Jerusalem, each with a tuna salad. She told me, quite rightly, that I should really prepare one at home, like she does.  I ought to, G-d willing, next time.

After that I took a bus to the shiva (mourning) home.  I didn't have any details, such as when he died or had he been ill.  I did expect a mob of people.  A teenage boy got off the bus with me and also stopped to look at the death announcement poster by the building.  I read it, because I wanted to find out which apartment, but when I asked the boy, he said that he is a grandson, so for him it meant something else.

I followed him in.  The apartment door was open, which is the custom.  Very few people were there, just family mostly.  The dead had been buried less than twenty-four hours and there's a custom that only family and very close friends visit the first day or two.  But I had no real choice.  I can't go to Jerusalem often and our friend was only going to be there a couple of days.  He lives abroad and will finish mourning in his own home.

I was offered water.  This family keeps strictly according to Ashkenaz (European) custom of not serving visitors.  Sephardi (Mediterranean and North African) Jews serve all sorts of foods to hear brachot, blessings.  Some ethnic groups serve a festive meal to honor the dead every night of the shiva.

In Shiloh it's common for even the most Ashkenaz families to serve water, soft drinks, cookies etc for two reasons.  One is that there are visitors who have traveled a distance and it's considered important for them to have "something."  Another is the influence of the neighbors.  The Sefardi neighbors want to make blessings in honor of the dead.  We're a very international, multicultural and multi-ethnic community. 

Many families are Jewish ethnic mixtures.  Sometimes that can cause confusion.  A few years ago neighbors were sitting shiva over Purim.  An announcement went out that the widower, being Ashkenaz could not accept Mishloach Manot (the Purim food gift,) but his daughter, married to a Yemenite, could.

And if you're wondering what to bring, it's best to bring some food the mourners can eat.  Try to find out who is organizing things for the mourners, so you'll bring something they need.  Just in case they have too much, it should be something that won't spoil or can be frozen.  Or if you're not sure, a nice fruit basket.


Jennifer in MamaLand said...

In Canada, the custom seems to be "lavish spread, preferably with waitstaff." Generally, the less observant the family, the more elaborate the snacks.

(though, perhaps due to the stress of hosting such an affair, many shivas are only a couple of days long)

For some reason, I have attended very few weddings, but very many shivas. Maybe because our family is dwindling fast.

This is why I insist on making upsherins even though we are far from chassidish. Any excuse for a simcha!

Batya said...

Jennifer, it's a shame that mourners have to deal with catering. It goes against halacha, as does shortened for convenience shiva.

It's even happening in some frum communities. A friend returned to NY for the shiva of a parent, his last, and was horrified when after morning prayers the men demanded "herring and schnapps." That would never happen in his Israeli neighborhood.

Good idea to make lots of smachot.

Leora said...

My neighbor unfortunately had to sit shiva for her mother. It was the first time we had attended a Sephardi shiva - we were all surprised by the abundance of food on the last night. Our Ashkenazi (Orthodox) shivas are very simple and not at all lavish. Nothing like what Jennifer describes.

Batya said...

The anti-Ashkenaz sentiment sometimes heard here is that we're cheap. I think it's based on the fact that we don't serve during shiva.
Here there's so much intermarriage within Jewish groups, you don't see as much a difference, though we don't make shiva feasts.

remember that the mourners want to hear brachot.