Friday, September 19, 2014

This Is Where I Leave You: Sitting Shiva in the 21st Century

Jonathan Tropper's "This Is Where I Leave You" was one of my favorite books. I found it hard to put down and several parts were laugh-out-loud funny. As I read Tropper's book, I remember hoping that it would one day be made into a movie. Well, the movie version of Tropper's book opens today and I cannot wait to go see it.

The story focuses on the Altman family who are sitting shiva after the family patriarch dies. It was his final wish that the entire family sit shiva for him for an entire week (the traditional observance period). The film has some of my favorite actors in it, including Jason Bateman ("Arrested Development"), Tina Fey ("30 Rock"), Adam Driver ("Girls"), Dax Shepard ("Parenthood") and Corey Stoll ("House of Cards"). I'm hopeful that it will be an accurate portrayal of the modern shiva experience for the mass audience, but also hopeful that it will prompt learning opportunities for rabbis and other Jewish educators to inform about the ingredients of a traditional shiva observance.

This Is Where I Leave You focuses on a Jewish family sitting shiva
This Is Where I Leave You focuses on a Jewish family sitting shiva

Part of the reason I enjoyed the book so much (aside from Tropper's writing) was that I could relate to the shiva experience -- both as a Jewish person who has sat shiva for deceased relatives as well as a rabbi who has visited hundreds of shiva homes in a professional role. Shiva is an interesting ritual and one that non-Jews often point to as something that really impresses them about the Jewish faith. In fact, last October I had the opportunity to meet Tina Fey in New York City not long after she finished filming "This Is Where I Leave You" and she remarked to me how touching and meaningful it was to sit shiva (even if it was in a fictional movie).

Shiva has many long-standing traditions, but it is also interesting to see how it has evolved over the generations. Sitting shiva in the 21st century is different from previous centuries. Many non-observant families opt to satisfy the more traditional requirements of shiva, while some observant families find themselves settling for a less traditional shiva experience. This is often due to the wishes of the deceased or to keep the peace with other mourners. While "shiva" literally means seven, reflecting the seven days the immediate mourners are required to officially mourn at home following the burial of their loved one, many Jewish families are opting for shorter shiva periods. I've also noticed more emphasis being placed on specific rules for visiting the shiva house -- what one might call "articulated etiquette." That is to say, families are including instructions in the death notice or in announcements at the funeral home that those who wish to pay their condolences to the shiva home may do so only between certain hours of the day in order to give the family their privacy.

Yesterday afternoon I took part in a HuffPost Live segment on shiva. We discussed some of the nuances of sitting shiva and how shiva can serve as a cushion for the mourners. I explained that, as a rabbi, visiting shiva homes is actually one of the highlights of my rabbinate. I truly enjoy having the ability to interact with families in their own homes -- outside of the walls of the synagogue. Teaching Torah, leading prayer services, answering questions, schmoozing and comforting mourners in the relaxed setting of their living room is often a more conducive setting than a synagogue. Congregants are more likely to let their guards down a bit in the comfort of their own home.

During the HuffPost Live segment, I was asked if it's appropriate for the shiva house to be a place of socializing and respectful laughter. I explained that humans are able to mourn for seven days in a row, but we're not capable of grieving non-stop for that period. Although the point of sitting shiva is to suspend normalcy, it is completely acceptable to share a laugh over a funny story during shiva. Some shiva houses will organically be more somber settings based on the details of the death, but in all cases the basic rules of decorum and etiquette should dictate people's behavior.

It proved to be a very interesting discussion with Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani, Mort Laitner, Nancy Dennis, Sydnee Bursik and Victoria Song (even though I was disappointed that Jonathan Tropper wasn't able to be a guest). Here's the full video of the HuffPost Live segment:

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