By Salomon Maya
About two weeks ago, as I walked out of my office, I received a FaceTime video call request from both of my older brothers. Immediately, I felt an uneasy shivar run through my spine. This could only mean one of two things: a very annoying butt dial or something bad had happened.
And unfortunately, the latter was indeed the reason for the unique call. My aunt had suddenly passed. She wasn’t sick. She just left the earth as quickly as one would turn off a light. And like that, instead of heading home for a night of fighting with the kindergartner to do his homework, I was off to my parent’s house, to console my father, who had just lost another sister.
A shiva in the time of COVID-19 is awkward to say the least. Dealing with numerous people wanting to share in the mourning but at the same time advising those same people that we’re still in the middle of a pandemic proved to be troublesome. Zoom shivas sort of work, as it allows people near and far to show support, but as this is the third shiva I have accompanied my father to, I started to wonder about why we even go through this entire process.
My first “legit” shiva was when my father’s brother passed away. The shiva was held in Mexico City and I was in my early twenties. What amazed me about the shiva ritual is how much we ate during the seven days. The line of people bringing the grieving family food seemed to be endless. I remember smoking way too many cigarettes, back when I fell victim to that disgusting habit. This shiva was tough. I gained weight. My lungs hurt from the smoking. And all I did was just sit, stand, pray. Repeat. However, by day seven I realized how much time one can devote to bettering oneself when all you have is family, time to truly ponder about life – and Mexican food.
My late aunt’s shiva was much more subdued but still felt the same. Masks hid our tears. Food masked our sadness. But bonds were born from her passing, from remembering her life and honoring it, with a side of borekas of course.
Try to explain a shiva to someone who isn’t Jewish and they might look at you with a puzzled gaze. “Wait, you literally sit on the ground for seven days?” They might ask. “So family members cook for you and take care of you?” They might ponder. “Oh well we just go to a funeral, possibly church, and then home. Maybe a viewing.” They state on their traditions. And yet here we are. Taping sheets to cover mirrors. Praying two times a day for seven days with the Shabbat exception. Cooking way too much food and at the same time reliving the lost one’s memories and sharing stories about how they impacted our lives. Laughing. Crying. Smiling. Hugging. COVID be damned.
Shivas remind us how fragile we truly are. How short life can be. And how very lucky we are to be part of a religion that allows us seven days to reminisce and most importantly rejoice in the memory of our family members … the ones who have left us and in odd way, the ones who’re still here as well.
May all of their memories be a blessing.