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Strangers at the Shiva Minyan

The shiva minyan. When his mother died and each local shiva minyan conflicted with our other obligations, we schlepped over the hill into Los Angeles, a journey we make only infrequently. But that’s what Jews do. We go out of our way to comfort the bereaved.

After all, her son helped raise our children. He was their teacher in high school. And as cross country team coach, he guided our middle one to push himself harder and further than he ever had before. He and his wife are inspiring work colleagues of my wife’s.

The weather hinted that we were traversing a border between now and then. Although we left a sunny 90 degree day in the Valley, by mid-Wilshire on the 405 Freeway, we were driving into a dense old world fog covering the area and watched the temperature drop speedily to a chilly 53. We had departed the brightness of our weekend to enter the overcast emotional landscape of a shiva minyan.

And we were Strangers in a Familiar Land

We knew only the deceased’s son and daughter-in-law, and one other couple, friends from the world of rabbis and past lives. The rest of the small group filling the living room were family members and dear friends. That’s what you get when you miss the more populated first nights and show up in the later days of shiva: a glimpse into the intimate regularity of an irregular moment in someone else’s home.

It was a transition back into a world once forgotten, of Polish stories and Yiddish poems, of large families living under one roof and children of survivors returning to Poland to reclaim stolen Holocaust property.

Stories Shared in the Living Room Minyan

Niggunim wordlessly carried us into the circle of memory. Sitting upon couches and shaky chairs that whispered sweet memories of cherished family gatherings, the assembled shared memories, layered one upon the other. The service proceeded more like a familiar family gabfest, eschewing the usual organized Ashekenazi formality for the haimishe cascade of memory.

We learned about how they once owned a second home which lured their son and his nascent family back from stints in Israel and New York. We marveled at how they welcomed the same son, the wife and their three children into the original home when, after a short adventure elsewhere, they returned back to sunny California. Five more people sleeping all over a small house, sharing one bathroom, with grandma on the couch, and Papa and constant caregivers dealing with darkness of creeping Parkinson’s.

We heard about these Polish Bundists who hung the mezuzah on the inside of the door because of a lingering sense of insecurity, even in pluralistic America. Living through the Holocaust and communist governments will do that to you.

We listened to excerpts from a journal of love and marriage, the deceased’s attempt to find solace through writing in the months after her husband died. We laughed as events were shared, interpreted through the lens of another family member’s experience, and then reinterpreted again.

Kaddish: Praise for Sharing Life’s Journey

And we recited Kaddish, that transcendent prayer Jews say when we remember our deceased loved ones as we walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Not once mentioning death, the Kaddish is a praise of the Source of Life, perhaps for the blessing of sharing the journey through life with the deceased for as long as we did.

Minyan over, we departed from that circle of family and friends. Driving out of the fog into the darkness that blanketed the night, we tried to gather up the sparks of light from a life now extinguished. We sought to extract meaning from our journey into that house of mourning. So we held onto the stories that brightened that house of mourning, even as the fog ate the sun.

I guess that’s why Jews go to shiva minyanim. So that for the briefest of moments, we can be ushered into a world gone by to spend sacred time with a family in mourning, and learn about a life worth remembering.

Zecher tzadikah livracha. May this righteous one’s memory be a blessing.

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