Q: The granddaughter of a Cincinnati couple was one of the 17 students and staff killed in the Florida school shooting Feb. 14.
We are part of the American mainstream in some very wonderful ways but also some very tragic ways, as the headline above from the Feb. 22 The American Israelite makes clearer than any of us want to believe. This tragedy has me thinking about Jewish mourning customs in America. When I was younger, every Jewish funeral I went to followed a familiar pattern. Familiar prayers were said, we would throw dirt on the coffin and the attendees would fall on two lines facing each other for the mourners to walk through. We would try to attend the morning or evening minyan at their home once or twice in the following shiva week. It was very comforting; we all knew our roles.
Other than the Orthodox funerals I’ve been to recently, the Jewish funerals now seem quite different.
The ceremony at the graveside is usually like in the past: we throw the dirt on the coffin, say kaddish, form two lines. Sometimes there is a shiva, sometimes there is not, and sometimes shiva lasts only three days. What is your take on the changing Jewish funeral customs in America?
A: Before responding, I want to give my condolences to all the friends and family of those killed. But, as the young people of Parkland are telling us, thoughts and prayers are not legislation, and the law still enables these murders to occur. And each school shooting makes us closer to realizing that we or our family members might be the next victim.
You are correct that these killings remind us that we are part of the American mainstream. I believe a lot of the changes in Jewish mourning customs are due to a shift away from honoring prestigious figures in American culture. We no longer look to physicians as authority figures, but rather as partners in our medical decision making. We feel to free to denigrate political leaders. Church sexual harassment scandals have lowered the status of all clergy, and sadly Jewish leaders have not been immune from scandal. We have also embraced the cult of the individual, as opposed to the collective.
We see in changing American Jewish mourning customs what has happened countless times throughout Jewish history: We blend tradition with the surrounding customs. The old ways had advantages, as do the new. It is indeed comforting to have a recipe, a list of rules and actions to perform at a time when our minds and hearts find it difficult to focus because of a loss.
On the other hand, to some this feels formulaic. At a time of loss, they want and need memories and reminders of the individual they’re mourning. We are after all both members of the people and individual compilations of that people. American Jews find comfort in having prescribed communal rituals, but can sometimes find them stifling. We take comfort in having a strong community built on “tradition,” but also want to recognize ourselves as secular and independent individuals.
Geography is another reason for the change. In the past, stories and memories were often shared at the Shiva. Now, with relatives flying in and out for the funeral, there is little time for that sharing, so families have incorporated stories in the funeral itself. Many mourners now feel pressure to perform and facilitate their loved ones’ funerals, organizing and overseeing the ceremonies, while religiously the attendees are commanded to take care of those in mourning! Regardless of religious edict, mourners should not have to facilitate their own grief; the burden is obvious.
Families live in many different communities so now often shiva is celebrated in one location for a few days and the another location for the rest of the week. This allows mourners to be comforted by friends who cannot travel to the funeral.
Unfortunately, many modern mourners cannot experience the comfort of a full shiva week. The rules of the modern workplace are generally inflexible, and do not account for Jewish mourning norms. Contemporary shivas lasting for three days may be a sign of changing practices, but I believe it is more likely a matter of accommodation.
One more danger in storytelling is that one of the family members may use the time to “settle scores.” The eulogy usually begins a variation of, “My mother/father/sister/brother was a difficult person ...” The traditional option, having the rabbi deliver the eulogy, also has its downfalls. When the rabbi does not know their congregant well, or the deceased did not belong to their synagogue, the rabbi must resort to cliches and “angelicizing” a complex individual. For individuals not involved in their formal Jewish community, having the rabbi eulogize makes little sense.
Personally, I like whatever gives comfort to the bereaved. Both tradition alone and tradition with individual stories can give comfort. From me morning is not a time to judge people but time to show compassion, understanding, and love.
If you have any questions for Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, The American Israelite’s advice columnist, please send them to email@example.com