I am honored and privileged to be able to present to readers of www.ShivaGuide.com some excerpts from the writings of Melinda Ehrlich. Much more of Melinda’s great writing can be found on her website at http://www.melindaehrlich.com/blog/
An Orthodox Jewish boy calls his mother. “Mom, I met a girl,” he confides.
“I’m getting married.”
“Wonderful!” his mom qvells (for the goyim: reacts with immense pleasure)
“There’s only one problem. She’s a Native American. Her name is Running
Deer but I love her so much that I’ve taken on a Native American name too:
This is met with silence.
“Mom, why are you so quiet?”
“I’ve taken on a new name too,” she says, “Sitting Shiva.”
Sitting shiva is no laughing matter. Or is it? For as many years as I’ve been married to Kenny, the two of us have held that nothing is sacred if we find humor in it. If it’s funny, convention goes out the window. Just as The New York Times film critic A.O. Scott was trying to find “the sweet spot between ickiness and humor” in a review I read, we are going to look at some memorably amusing moments in post-mortem rituals.
My purpose is not to be purely irreverent, but to celebrate, if you will, some very funny, strange and unexpected incidents that have transpired during Jewish shiva periods. In this way the deceased will be memorialized and hopefully, everybody will start to feel a little better. The seed for this book started in 1998 while sitting shiva for my father-in-law. The stories that came out that week! Did our crazy Uncle Bob have to tell me that my father-in-law was the most well- hung of all his brothers? Too much information? Perhaps, but funny, nonetheless. And the stories and the well-wishers kept coming! Like the woman who told us that when she lost her husband Julius, she sighed, “Well, at least I know where he’s sleeping tonight.”
I speak from experience of losing four immediate family members within a period of eleven years. With that disclaimer, I cannot be accused of poking fun at something so sacred that I know nothing about. Allen Klein put it nicely in The Courage to Laugh: If you’re close to the pain you can joke about it; those who aren’t, shouldn’t.
Dying and mourning. Everyone thinks about it, talks about it, and zillions of pages have been dedicated to it. Though inevitable, it can be depressing to think we are merely Shakespearean poor players who strut and fret our hours across the stage until we are heard from no more. Not in my book! (NIMB) Unless the deceased was a mass murderer or a child molester, in which case, they can go to hell; all others are fair game to be unconventionally memorialized in the pages of this book.
There is nothing like a good distraction during the week of mourning. At the same shiva where I found out about my father-in-law being well-endowed, enter: Ben, the companion of Kenny’s lovingly bawdy Aunt Rozzie who was staying at our house that week. A proper little old man, clad in a navy blue brass-buttoned double-breasted blazer, he never went out without his World War II V.F.W. hat. You’ve seen the type. Uncle Bob, the family macher (the big shot who is supposed to command respect) nicknamed him “the Commodore,” but Ben reminded me more of Paul McCartney’s grandfather in “Help” – only older. In his youth, Ben was a long-distance runner, even an Olympic hopeful, and at 92, he had never lost his zest for life.
It was a long day of shiva and after a few hours, he announced, “I’m going out for a walk.” We were expecting nothing short of a vigorous saunter from this vibrant old codger. He buttoned up, tied a wool scarf around his neck, donned a pair of gloves and went out to face the elements (a pleasant 45 degree late November afternoon). We watched him totter down our rather steep driveway, turn left, walk just a few steps up the block, about face and continue past the driveway a few more paces. Going about our business of greeting guests, noshing and listening to Uncle Bob’s dirty jokes, we forgot all about Ben.
In the 45 minutes he was gone we were so pre-occupied that when he returned, we felt a little guilty (and what’s a day without Jewish guilt?) that we hadn’t missed him. Walking through the unlocked door (shiva houses are supposed to keep the doors open for visitors) Ben, visibly winded, rasped, “I couldn’t figure out which house you lived in.” In the end, he had spared us the opportunity to panic, so we made a big deal and told him how impressed we were with his “workout.” Kenny and I looked at each other trying not to die laughing, but we had to give him credit. When we’re nonagenarians, I hope we can mobilize for 45 minutes. “Commodore” Ben Goodman was a good man who passed away several years later at age 95.
Note: Little did we know then that there actually is a ritual which involves walking. At the conclusion of shiva the family is supposed to take a shpatzir around the block which symbolizes the need to rejoin the world in spite of their grief. Ben may have made it around the block, but we’ll never know.
I am honored and privileged to be able to present to readers of www.ShivaGuide.com some excerpts such as this from the writings of Melinda Ehrlich. Much more of Melinda’s great writing can be found on her website at http://www.melindaehrlich.com/blog/