Mourning and Judaism: Loss softened by togetherness
Last week I lit a yahrzeit (remembrance) candle, exactly two years after my grandmother’s death. In Jewish tradition, one lights a candle every year on the anniversary of a loved one’s passing. The candle is supposed to symbolize life’s fleeting nature and represent the soul’s journey upwards. It got me thinking about the other mourning rituals in Judaism; Ranging from the preciseness with which the body is cleaned to the strange tradition of covering the mirrors while sitting Shiva. These rituals, while they may seem odd, are essential in the process of grieving. In search of a deeper understanding of my religion’s view of death, I turned to film. I uncovered several films that explicitly depict Jewish mourning rituals, from sitting Shiva in “This is Where I Leave You,” to Jewish burial in “Son of Saul,” to the mourner’s Kaddish in films like “The Jazz Singer,” “Schindler’s List” and even “Rocky.”
Based on the book of the same name, “This is Where I Leave You,” follows the Altman family, four siblings who have grown apart through adulthood and encountering real-life struggles of their own. Following their father’s death, their mother (Jane Fonda, “Grace and Frankie”) forces them to live under the same roof of their childhood home for the week of Shiva. Starring the likes of Jason Bateman (“Horrible Bosses”), Tina Fey (“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”), Adam Driver (“Paterson”) and Corey Stoll (“Ant-Man”) as the Altman siblings, this dramedy is centered on the Jewish ritual of sitting Shiva. Sitting Shiva is a tradition following the death of a close relative in which the family sits, literally, on low stools or chairs for a week. In this week, the family remains in one location, accepts condolence calls and casseroles and tell stories and memories about the dearly departed. “This is Where I Leave You” teeters a fine line between comedy and drama, basically mirroring the complex feelings of togetherness and loss that Shiva accomplishes.
The Hungarian Holocaust film “Son of Saul” (László Nemes) won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2016. The film follows Saul (Géza Röhrig), a prisoner in Auschwitz whose job is to strip and burn the bodies of the murdered Jewish prisoners. Saul discovers the body of a boy he calls his son and swears to give him a proper Jewish burial from a Rabbi. The terrifying and beautiful film paints a harrowing portrait of the human capacity for tragedy and a father’s love. In the concentration camps, life was an everyday battle and death was all around. Death was imminent and unavoidable, yet for the sonderkommandos like Saul, death was a day job. The act of purifying the darkness of death is a core belief in Judaism, that the dead remain dignified, cleaned and clothed before they are buried. For the Jews in the Holocaust, there was as little humanity in life as there was in death.
The mourner’s Kaddish is a special prayer recited by the family members of the deceased for the year following their death. The prayer is supposed to assist the mourner in the mourning process, a mode of reflection and a public pronouncement of one’s grief. Its somber notes are a universal sign of loss. For example, Rocky Balboa recites the Kaddish for Mickey in “Rocky III.” Cantor Rabinovitch (Laurence Olivier) in “The Jazz Singer” says the Kaddish as he disowns his son, evoking a dramatic sense of loss. In the last scene at the factory in Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” Schindler declares three minutes of silence for the fallen. As he crosses his chest, a voice screams from the crowd the mourner’s Kaddish.
Jewish mourning rituals are unique in the fact that they are built on togetherness. One cannot sit Shiva without family or friends, the body before burial must be watched by a group of individuals and the mourner’s Kaddish cannot be said without the presence of a minyan (quorum). Grieving a loved one is a wound that never truly heals, therefore, we should support one another in times of suffering. No one should go through the pain of loss alone.