Sunday, June 3, 2007


We get up from shiva tomorrow morning, sometime after a 7:00am morning service at our home. Today was our "big" shiva day with our Madison community (yesterday was Shabbat), with morning and afternoon services at our home, attended by many members of the Madison Jewish community, some our close friends, some colleagues, some folks we know far less well but who were inclined to help provide a community of support during our time of special need. As we have tried to do for others, on other occasions. No man is an island, especially in times of existential grief and loss. The Beth Israel Center community understands that very well. It is one of our great strengths.

Relatives also gathered from Chicago and Milwaukee, and friends dropped by throughout the day.

Anthropologists class ritualized death behaviors among the human universals. From my perspective, Jewish shiva customs have a great deal to recommend them, in their recognition of the finitude of individual human life, the necessity for recognizing the reality and this-worldly finality (somewhat qualified, but a lengthy theological excursis would take us too far afield) of the death of the loved individual, the necessity of a time and process of transition from raw, abject grief (and unanswerable questions) back to continuing life, and the vital role that communal presence and support, emotional and material (e.g., providing food for the grieving family), can make in easing this painful transition. The response to unanswerable questions is, I think, presence--that is, human solidarity at a time of maximum aloneness.

(I have special reason to recognize this after the very unusual experience of being "onen" for the eleven days between my father's death and his burial at Arlington, necessitated by the special logistics of an Arlington burial. Jewish tradition tries very hard to avoid such long periods before burial, and with good reason. It does less well in responding to that rare situation when it does arise, despite the best will of all concerned.)

I am incredibly grateful for all those who came to be with me and to comfort me, and to listen to and share my memories of my father. Thank you to all who participated and have occasion to read this.

I have also been comforted by the music of David Zeller, a true poet of the spirit who also left this earthly existence in recent weeks, leaving behind wonderful and comforting gifts.

Whether the conventional liturgy and prayer practices during the mourning period will provide a comparable source of comfort remains to be seen. I will try to hold myself open to this possibility. I know it has been meaningful to many others, although I will have some obstacles to overcome. I miss the havurah communities whose prayer practices have taught me the possibilies of spiritual connection that the conventional liturgy, conventionally approached, does not achieve for me (or that I, so far, have not been able to find in it).

The time for reading Leon Wieseltier's Kaddish has finally come; perhaps it, and the advice of friends who have been through this, will provide some help.

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