Monday, January 07, 2008

Four Lives and a Death


Suzy and Nico were both hidden children during the Holocaust. Both of the rest of their families were wiped out.

The stories Suzy tells are always about the Holocaust. How their parents fled to the border, and how the ones who didn't all died. About their experiences in hiding. About those who hid them, and the children of those who hid them. About their latest trip to Germany to find memories, the monuments they saw, and the random but significant encounters they had.

All of these stories are amazing. My story is about our dinner at their house on Thursday evening.

Nearly all of my socializing is on shabbat; it is rare for someone to invite us for a meal during the week. Suzy and Nico invited us for this meal two months in advance.

When we arrived, we had drinks in the living room with the two other couples who were invited. We sat at a formal table. Each setting at the table had a printed menu. We were not allowed to help in the kitchen.

Nico had done all the cooking. The soup was an incredible Indian soup with a unique blend of spices; Nico does all the spice blending himself. The main dish was a sublime chicken curry with potatoes. Desert was the only baked apples I've ever enjoyed, as well as a hand-made apple strudel.

When asked what spices were in the soup, Nico smiled and refused to answer. When asked where he buys his produce, Nico smiled and refused to answer. This may have to do with his being partially deaf, but I doubt it.

Saturday: Peru

My wife's Greek teacher spent the last two months in Peru looking for her son, Asher Green, who went missing while hiking, inexperienced and a alone, on a long high mountain crossing. He was feared dead.

They ran into problems finding out what may have happened to him, as the other young travelers in the area are reluctant to reveal any information about themselves, where they've been, or whom they've seen, for any number of reasons.

Asher Green's body was discovered Saturday, having fallen some 500 feet and was discovered by a local farmer.

At least there is closure.

Saturday: Shiva

My friend Aviad sat shiva for his father starting last week, as well as Saturday night.

Here is how shiva works, to disabuse those of you who only know it from various Hollywood movies and TV shows:

Shiva starts after the body is buried and you return to your house. Only close relative sit shiva; these are the mourners. Shiva lasts 6 days and a bit more in most cases.

Men sitting shiva rip a small part of their shirt near the corner. Women rip a small part near the hem so as not to be immodest.

Both sit on low seats or stools, instead of normal height chairs.

Mirrors in the house are covered to indicate the lack of vanity during this period. Mourners may wash if they are uncomfortable, but do not otherwise tend to their looks in the form of shaving, makeup, and so on.

Mourners are forbidden from taking care of their general needs, such as preparing food, paying bills, and so on unless absolutely necessary. Therefore, the community or relatives prepare all their meals and otherwise take care of them. Shiva is not like a wake; it is not a celebration or a forgetting. You don't have to serve anyone anything.

While sitting shiva, people come to comfort them in their house. However, this should be done only in a way that doesn't add to their suffering: Times may be designated for shiva calls, and others as private time. People who the mourners don't like shouldn't visit at this time. When other visitors come, you should leave if it feels like any crowding is taking place (a rule of thumb: count the number of people who are there when you arrive and leave after that many more show up).

You don't say hello or goodbye to a mourner. You don't really say anything except to carry on the topics of conversation that the mourner starts. You are not there to distract them from their loss, and neither are you there to intensify it. You follow their lead. When you leave, you say a certain phrase: "May you be comforted among other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem".

The mourners should accept the visitors, but may also rest or have people come back later if they are not feeling well. But they should not be reclusive all day.

In my case, Aviad and I ended up talking about my own father's current illness, although it troubled me to do so. His father was sick for a few years, like mine has been, but the passing was quick and unexpected.


Every time I go to a wedding, a bar-mitzvah, or a similar celebration, I recognize and say hello to Mr X. I end up talking to him at the table we are both seated at while everyone else is dancing.

Each time I see him, I only remember his face. I can't tell you Mr X's name, because I don't remember it even now. I can't tell you how or when I first met Mr X, because I have long forgotten it. Mr X tell me about his life; I have vague feelings that I may remember him having told me parts of these stories last time. I tell him what I'm doing now and he nods appreciatively.

When we leave, we shake hands like old friends and I forget him entirely until the next time. And the next time, I once again only remember his face.

There is a significance to this story.



YajB (The Woolley MomMyth) said...

Excellent story!

YajB (The Woolley MomMyth) said...

...the one about Mr. X, I mean.

Batya said...

Very interesting post.
Just a question, I've never ever heard or seen kriya, cutting, done on a woman's hem. I've actually done the first knife cut for quite a number of female mourners, and it has always been at the top of the outfit, like the men. It's supposed to be near the heart. It's common to wear two layers of clothes, so that the body isn't exposed. Some mourners pin the pieces, to stay modest.

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Batya: I've seen it done the way you've described, as well.