A Shiva for the New Millenium?

In his recent NY Times piece, “Mourning in the Age of Facebook,” author/journalist Bruce Feiler suggests what many have long observed: in the post-modern world, we’re witnessing traditional religious mourning practices adapted in ever new and interesting ways.

In his article, Feiler describes at length something he calls “Secular Shiva” – a phenomenon in which he claims he has participated more than once. Here’s his description of this newly adapted Jewish mourning ritual:

Don’t wait for the griever to plan: … With a traditional shiva, the burden falls on the family to open their home to sometimes hundreds of people. If you are considering a “secular shiva,” insist on doing the planning yourself, from finding a location, to notifying guests, to ordering food.

By invitation only. Traditional shivas are open houses; they’re communitywide events in which friends, neighbors and colleagues can stop by uninvited. Our events were more restricted, with the guest of honor suggesting fewer than a dozen invitees. “An old-fashioned shiva would have felt foreign to me,” said my friend Karen, who lost her mother last summer. “I’m more private. If it was twice the size, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable.”

“Would you like to share a few stories?” At the event we held for Karen, she opted to speak about her mom. For 45 emotional minutes, she talked about her mother’s sunny disposition, her courtship, her parenting style. It was like watching a vintage movie.

“I liked speaking about my mom,” she told me. “One, I hadn’t had time to fully grieve because I was so focused on my dad. And two, there was something each of you could come away with about who my mom was in the world.”

At a later event, a Catholic friend who had lost her brother chose not to speak about him. She felt too fragile, she later explained. Instead she handed out CDs with a photo montage of her brother’s life. “I think if I hadn’t had the pictures, I would have felt the need to talk about him.”

The comfort of crowds. While I came away from these events convinced we had hit on a new tool for our circle of friends, I was quickly warned not to assume our model was universal.

“Introverts need to grieve, too,” Ms. Andrews said. “For some, a gathering of this kind might be a particular kind of torture.”

My two cents:

Despite his term “Secular Shiva,” I warmly welcome these sorts of changes Feiler describes here. As someone who routinely attends and helps organize shivas on a fairly regular basis, I’ve noticed that many mourners are already incorporating many of the elements Feiler describes.

I don’t think it’s necessarily a religious/secular issue – I think many who consider themselves religious in a more liberal sense feel fully comfortable adapting the tradition shiva rites to fit their needs. In fact, virtually none of my congregants observe the full, traditional seven-day shiva, the prospect of which invariably feels overwhelming – and in some ways even counterproductive.

As I often tell mourners who ask if it’s “OK” to change or adapt some of these rituals: Absolutely. At the end of the day, I believe the purpose of religious ritual is to serve our needs and not the other way around.

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4 Comments on “A Shiva for the New Millenium?”

  1. Ruth Kane says:

    Best wisest rebbe.

    Thank you again again again again again.

  2. On a related note, I have a friend who has sat shiva with another friend long-distance via Skype. Is it the same as physical presence? Surely not. But it is an option open to us in the modern era which was never possible before, and being able to comfort a loved one with telepresence is a lot better than not being able to be there at all…

  3. Shirley Gould says:

    I have no objection to adapting Shiva for modern needs. What upsets me is the way a Shiva turns into a party, completing with lavish food service, resulting in general hilarity. There has to be a way for friends and family to come together to face the reality of the loss, and not cover it over with pseudo joy. The examples given are good. What I am talking about is what I have observed over the last decade or so, and part of the reason that I don’t attend.

  4. Jordan Goodman says:

    Shalom Rav,

    The picture of the food platter that accompanies your post reminds me of the following video:

    Shabbat Shalom to all of us,

    Biv’racha,
    Jordan


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