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Defining Jewish Moments

It’s cold. The chilling northern wind whips around my legs; I can’t feel the tips of my fingers even through my wool gloves. The bright sun shines but gives no warmth in the tent; my knees knock together. The wind tugs at my kippa (yarmulke, head covering), making it want to fly away; I want to fly away to escape.

I stand and see through blurred eyes at least five hundred others are also freezing. I wrap my arm around her because she needs me to, and because I want to do it. We walk, dazed and cold. She picks up a single red rose. She throws it down, picks up the shovel and follows the rose with a handful of red Georgia clay. I do the same. We start our journey down the long lonely hill towards the car; she turns to me and says “I don’t want to leave him here.” She cries. I cry. We cry together. Not for him, the husband of my mother for fifty-five years, my father. We cry for our loss.

We leave for the house. We know the comfort of seven days of shiva (mourning) and shock. Of meals brought and hunger abated but not felt. We pray, Jews and gentiles together for the man we knew and respected and many loved. That I loved. We pray together for our loss, our comfort, our grieving.

My ten-year-old son tells me on the phone that night that his grandfather had a long life. A full life. He died a good death, a peaceful death. I know this, but I still miss him. He was seventy-nine. My son knows his Christian friends take comfort in stories about going to heaven, about meeting your maker. But this is not the Jewish way. Jewish mourning is about the family, those left behind, their grief and its passing. Its rituals are beautiful and sad. But always focused on those left behind. My gentile family (on my wife’s side) asks if they should send a wreath or flowers to the funeral. That is not our way. Our family has always asked for one final mitzvah (or good deed) in the departed’s name. The giving of a gift to charity or contribution to the shiva meals.

When my wife’s father died, I had the opportunity to mark his passing from a Lutheran perspective. A service in church, the sharing of food at the church’s social hall, and then guests at the home later that day. This was her family’s tradition. The prayers were different. The sharing of grief much shorter and only on the day of the burial. Sadness and heartbreak were common in both experiences: a human encounter with our shared mortality regardless of faith.

Like Jews all over the world we take comfort from the rituals of mourning. Not unlike other moments in our Jewish life--like the birth of a child, a wedding, our first Yom HaShoah (remembrance of the Holocaust)--a death in the family is a moment in which your tradition is etched, when you seek ritual, and when you express your tradition.

Sitting shiva is part of the mourning process. It is the seven days following the death where family and friends bring food every night. At sundown, a prayer leader from the synagogue or the community visits the home, and a memorial service is held. At my mother’s home, shiva calls were made by both my father’s Jewish and non-Jewish friends. Mourning is a human experience and traverses tradition and religion. Some nights nearly eighty people came to share our grief and memories.

As we say the Sh’ma during the service, I think about my sons. How we say Sh’ma every night before we go to bed. How it comforts me to be saying it as part of the mourning process. This quintessential prayer defines us.

We ask to be granted wisdom and strength in responding to the pain of others as the memorial service reaches its conclusion in the Aleinu.

Thus even when they are gone, the departed are with us, moving us to live as, in their higher moments, they themselves wished to live. We remember them now; they live in our hearts; they are an abiding blessing. (from Gates of Prayer for Weekdays and at a House of Mourning, 1992)

Finally, we reach the mourner’s Kaddish. We ask for peace for those living to descend upon us.

When the service is over, when the shiva is over, and only the grief of loss remains, you know this has been one of those unforgettable moments. A moment both defined by the traditions passed down through generations of Jewish loss, and where you define your traditions, your beliefs, your values--your humanity. Regardless of how you practice, or what religion you practice, this is our way of seeking strength.

To read the Eulogy of Leonard Michalove, please see: definingjewishmoments.blogspot.com/2005/04/eulogy-of-leonard-t-michalove.html

©Steven Michalove, 2005

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Yiddish for "skullcap," also known in Hebrew as a "kippah," the small, circular headcovering worn by male Jews in most synagogues, and female Jews in more liberal congregations. Traditional Jews were kippot (plural of kippah) all the time. Hebrew for "holy," a prayer found in Jewish prayer services. There are many versions of the Kaddish, the best known being the Mourner's Kaddish, said by mourners. Hebrew for "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") Hebrew for "our duty," it's the name and first word of a prayer recited at the end of three daily services in traditional Jewish liturgy. Hebrew for "seven," refers to the seven days of mourning following the funeral of a family member.
Steven Michalove

Steven Michalove recently relocated from Copenhagen to Seattle with his wife and their two children. He works for Microsoft as a senior security strategist.

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