Chapter Three: A Concise Field Guide to Condolence Callers
If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house
with the conscious design of doing me good,
I should run for my life….
— Henry David Thoreau, “Walden, or, Life in the Woods”
Entire books have been written concerning shivah — the traditional seven day period of Jewish mourning. Some are punctilious compilations of its rules and regulations. Others discuss the deeper meanings behind the relevant customs — offering explanatory solace. This chapter is a guide of another sort. It is compiled out of my personal experience and is certainly not meant to replace other works of the same genus.
1. The Public Figure
The public figure is usually found at any gathering where he feels that his presence may help him to further his paramount goal of keeping himself in the public eye.
1a. The Elected Official
This visitor to the house of mourning engages in an endless string of hobnobbing with those whose support he needs to keep him afloat in the style to which he has grown accustomed. He makes the rounds of weddings, circumcisions, and sundry family gatherings. He also makes shivah calls in cases of newsworthy deaths. In Israel, the presence of government ministers is usually heralded by the arrival of security personnel — tough-looking young men wearing blazers accessorized with a small earpiece, its wire curling curiously down into their jackets. They stand in the shivah home casting suspicious looks at anyone entering while their charge is in attendance, thus adding to the already surreal atmosphere. A minister may also be followed by an entourage pitching their favorite project to him — feeling that there’s no better time or place to unfurl maps and building plans than in the already over-crowded living room of the mourner.
The mourner may take advantage of the minister’s presence to query him on the issues of the day and thus distract himself from the business of grieving over his loss. Depending on the particular ministry represented, the mourner may discuss economics, foreign affairs or domestic politics. The mourner can be assured that no matter what the actual stance of the minister, he will be at pains to temper any disagreement with the mourner’s own personal opinion so as not to offend. This makes for much more pleasant dialogue than the usual shouting-match style of Israeli politics.
1b. The Public Rabbi
In Israel, municipal rabbis are life-long government appointees. They may or may not function as what much of the Jewish world recognizes as a pulpit rabbi, instead doing the paper work needed to keep state-sponsored religion moving along. As religious figures, though, they often feel that their presence adds a certain gravitas to public events and so find it difficult to stay away from even semi-public gatherings like shivah homes. Certain rabbinic figures may have their loyal retinue (or at least their driver) announce their entrance to the assembled, so as to add to the general drama of the visit.
If one misses the dramatic entrance, this visitor may still be identified by the tedious monologue he aims at his captive audience. He usually offers the ad hoc congregation some dusty pearl of sagacity drawn from his long life of public service, often recalling in his heart how well the very same speech went over in the cold winter of 1958. He may often warm to his task as he drones on — his rising oratory silencing all other conversation.
Although he knows neither the mourner nor the deceased, he does know the worth of his own wisdom and is more than gracious in sharing it with those assembled in their time of suffering.
The mourner may use the time taken by the delivery of a wellworn sermon to surreptitiously peruse some of the newspaper articles lying on the side-table, attempt to follow the faint wisps of conversation coming from those who luckily escaped to the kitchen just in time, or to amuse himself by marveling at how the speaker manages to enunciate so well despite the ill-fit of his dentures. The visit usually concludes with a limp but warm twohanded handshake offered by the visitor only after he is satisfied that his oratory has indeed hit the mark.
In order to encourage the segue from speech to leave-taking, the mourner should soberly nod his head and sigh upon the conclusion of the former, as if his visitor had succeeded in drawing apart the curtains covering one of life’s eternal mysteries and the profundity of it all was nearly overwhelming. This helps induce the guest’s departure as he feels that he must give his listeners space to digest the weight of his words.
2. The Talker
This visitor just can’t help him or herself. It may be the quiet in the house of mourning that makes him uncomfortable — he feels obliged to fill up the dead space with his own voice. Unlike the public speaker, he is not as interested in talking to the crowd as he is in talking to someone, whether the actual mourner or just another guest. Regardless, he will go on and on, bouncing from subject to subject, willing to talk about anything so long as it keeps the silence at bay. He is more than happy to take his leave once the baton of noise-making has been passed to another.
3. The Flyer
This stranger, especially in casual Israel, may often be recognized by his too-formal dress. He has flown in from overseas at no little expense to make this shivah call and will not be shy about divulging to those sitting nearby the travails he underwent to make it to Israel. This may be preceded by the stock phrase: “When I heard, I just had to come.” He knows neither the mourner nor the deceased, but following events in the media overseas just won’t do it for him — he has to be there and see for himself. (Upon his return, he will be uniquely able to describe everything to those he left behind.)
The Flyer is, of course, the visitor with whom the mourner gets to play Jewish geography. In the Jewish world, six degrees of separation is unheard of — you can usually get a hit in three, if not sooner.
4. The Donor
This visitor has much in common with the previous type and it can be difficult to distinguish between them. The Donor, though, responds to tragedy with his bank account. Just as the Talker cannot abide the silence in the shivah home, the Donor cannot abide the lack of a project in memory of the deceased — in support of which he is earnestly interested in providing funds. Now, since the death of the mourner’s loved one took place less than a week ago, the mourner may not have had time to think about a befitting memorial quite yet. No matter, the Donor will keep in contact in order to find out to whom or what he can contribute. He may even help the mourner by deciding that he is going to arrange for a gala something or other in the near future. This may be quite an expensive undertaking. No matter if the mourner himself may not actually be interested in such a grand event — it would look just terrible not to at least participate in this event undertaken in memory of one’s own loved one. Luckily, it will take place sometime down the road, not right now.
5. The Student(s)
This visitor usually arrives as part of a group. The entire bunch has most likely been brought by their teacher or rabbi. They have come as part of their educational experience, probably their gapyear-in-Israel program. Their leader has spoken to them of tragedy in the abstract and now they have a chance to see it close up. This is their opportunity to observe firsthand the “courage in the face of death” displayed by the mourners.
They will probably not speak with the mourner. They are still not yet mature enough to fully participate, and will be content to uncomfortably observe the proceedings, stare at their shoes and try to keep from giggling nervously. Coming as they do in a bunch, they take up quite a bit of space in an already overcrowded home. But, they do not intend to stay long and spend most of their time keeping quiet so as not to miss the cue from their leader that they can leave already. However, having been instructed by this same group leader in the Laws of Comforting Mourners, they will all take pains to stand before the mourner, one after the other, and mumble out the traditional parting phrase of consolation, “May God comfort you amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” The more conscientious will have practiced saying this tricky Hebrew phrase and will get it out nearly painlessly. Others in the group, though, will stumble a bit, and need to repeat themselves, thus holding up the entire long line of teenagers-with-hands-in-pockets staring at the floor.
The mourner may try to estimate where exactly the line ends, but must not break off his one-after-the-other-after-the-other acknowledgements, lest the entire process grind to a halt while the students pause and await the mourner’s attention before continuing. Everything else must wait until the mourner has cleared the entire group.
6. The Interrupter
This visitor has done his homework. He knows, like the Student, what he needs to say before he can take leave of the mourner. Unfortunately, he has a busy schedule and so cannot wait until the mourner has finished the serious, quiet conversation he is holding with someone else. Therefore, he loudly clears his throat and pushes his way toward the mourner to loudly announce, “May God comfort you amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem,” no matter what else the mourner may be doing. He then takes his leave, satisfied with having fulfilled his duty as written in the great Codes of Jewish law.
7. The Colleague/Boss
This visitor may also fall into one of the other categories, but his distinguishing trait is his connection to the mourner’s work. While a lucky few enjoy both their occupation and workplace, most people can easily identify their bosses and co-workers in any Dilbert comic. If the visitor is a colleague after one’s job or an annoying boss, the mourner may make use of the temporary leverage offered by the moral high ground of victimhood to make him squirm for a change. This can be accomplished either by steadfastly ignoring the visitor or steering the conversation to points sure to make him uncomfortable. (“Death makes one appreciate one’s real friends”; “Missing out on that promotion seems so insignificant now”; etc.) Care should be taken, however, for most likely the mourner will have to return to work sooner rather than later, unencumbered by any moral high ground.
8. The Contact Aggrandizer
This visitor has only the faintest of connections with the deceased, but especially if the deceased was well-known or his death newsworthy, he will milk it for all it is worth. The mourner may overhear, for example, something along the lines of, “Yes, my grandson and he were great friends in elementary school.” This may have been true 25 years ago. It also may be that this grandson actually taunted and teased the deceased only a few years ago in grade school, and was anything but a friend. This guest is usually content to make a brief appearance aimed at relaying to others his own important connection to the tragedy. Whether the mourner should grin and bear it or point out that “Yes, I recall my son coming home in tears after being picked upon yet again by your lout of a relation” is a difficult call.
9. The Night-Owl
This caller leads a busy life but makes the effort to reach the mourner’s home, even if it means arriving quite late. Yes, the chairs are being stacked, and the floor swept, but even if it is midnight and mourner would like nothing better than to get some rest, the night-owl will sit himself down to offer his condolences. As this nocturnal visitor arrives at a house empty of other callers, he often assumes that he must make an extra effort at consolation despite the hour. The mourner may find that letting nature take its course and allowing himself to drift off, chin to chest, is the only surefire way to end the day’s activities.
10. The Helper
This visitor often goes unnoticed by the mourner himself during shivah. He, or more likely she, will arrange for food to be prepared for the family, deliver it, do the dishes quietly in the kitchen and even wash the floor while the mourner is napping, trying to gather strength for the next round of visitors. Depending upon the particular family structure, the Helper may also take it upon herself to entertain the mourner’s children who have been shortchanged of parental attention for the duration. In short, the Helper knows that the mourner and his family are on the verge of being crushed under the burden of loss. Even in the best of times, the stress of having to cope with the crowds who make their way into his home would be difficult, and the Helper does her best to keep things running as painlessly as possible.
It is quite appropriate to buy this visitor a gift in the days following the shivah, when the mourner finds out who it was that did all those little things that kept his home in one piece during the shivah. It is also quite appropriate to be inspired to become a helper oneself next time the need arises in the neighborhood.
11. The Davener
This visitor, almost always male, arrives, puts on his tefillin or takes out his siddur and does what he came to do — pray in the mourner’s home. He may not linger or do anything else. This is his way of being there for the mourner. Without him, there may not be a minyan (the quorum necessary for recitation of the kaddish). He should know that his presence is appreciated.
12. The Friend of the Deceased
This visitor, although not an official mourner, is probably suffering from the mourner’s loss, because it is also his. A part of his life has also been excised away. Commiseration — the sharing of mutually felt pain — can open something deep inside of both.
The deceased’s friend can also tell the mourner much about the deceased — sometimes things that the mourner couldn’t even imagine. While the mourner has his own memories, the stories told by this friend are precious. They add texture and color, allowing the mourner to reconstitute the life lost more clearly and more deeply than he could on his own. The mourner should record these tales. He will want to listen to them again.
13. The Friend
A true friend makes the unbearable somehow sufferable. He knows when to talk and when to keep quiet. He offers the mourner space to be himself, without the need for any stiff upper lip. With a look, he can share the mourner’s exasperation with some of the other visitors mentioned in this Guide. The mourner should know that in the future, when the rawness of loss has receded, both will laugh together when they look back at this week.