Celebrating Modern Jewish Living Through Food, Tradition, and Family
The Gift of Shiva
Sounds like a crazy title, doesn’t it? Until a few weeks ago, I would have been inclined to agree with you, but at the recent Shiva for my husband’s grandfather, I experienced a deeply rich connection to the man I only saw a handful of times while he was silent, still, and ravaged by Parkinson’s Disease.
However, after his death at the age of 97, as visitors poured in and out of my in-laws’ home to pay their respects to Marcus Levy, a friend, husband, father, brother, grandfather, great-grandfather, and mentor to so many, I leaned so much about the man who was orphaned as a young boy and raised by his sisters, to later become the General Manager of New York City’s Housing Authority under Mayor John Lindsay. He also became a husband, father, attorney, real estate executive, Judge Magistrate, confidante, and trusted friend and counsel to many.
During one of the nightly minyans several of his his grandsons, three of them lawyers, broke down as they spoke of how their grandfather inspired their own life’s path. One spoke between tears how his grandfather embraced him as a child and welcomed him into the family as his grandson even though he was not a grandson by birth but by virtue of a blended family. He spoke of his grandfather’s blindness to this and the hugeness of the kind heart that enveloped him and his brother into the family as a grandson like the other two biological grandsons.
This unconditional acceptance of children into the family set the tone for my husband’s childhood and indeed has informed how he and I raise our own three children, which are also siblings under the same blended dynamic. To us, it’s just our family but I learned that it didn’t just happen, it’s the result of how Marcus and Florence Levy welcomed and treated all four boys equally. How could two people I’ve never known impact my own children and my own life so significantly?
Absolutely amazing what you can learn between putting out platters of lox and tomatoes and cucumbers.
And so for a few nights, we sat. We sat, we listened, and we ate. What else is new?
Friends of my father-in-law visited, many of them rabbi’s, like himself, offering words of consolation. My mother-in-law and her sister, my wonderful Aunt Fran, welcomed their guests and shared stories of their childhood and their different remembrances of their parents. They grew up in the same neighborhood as I did until I was seven. They attended the same schools as my mother, from kindergarten through high school and while we had been through all of this before, this time it was different–this time the stories really felt like they were being told in the past tense, as both of their parents were now gone and they were in fact talking about an era that had gone by.
But because my parents had walked the same streets, because my husband and I had no doubt passed each other in our strollers time and again and our mothers ate lunch in the same school cafeterias for most of their childhoods, I felt I had somehow been there too. I felt deeply connected, very blessed to be part of this family, and grateful for the gift of Jewish geography that started almost 70 years before my husband and I ever laid eyes on each other. I knew that my husband and I had been together long before we had ever met.
The most moving and difficult part of Shiva came on the second to last night during the minyan. As the rabbi led the group in prayer, I stood next to my mother-in-law, holding her hand, reading from my prayer book. As I started to read a certain passage, I felt a terrible jolt, as if I was suddenly back at my own father’s minyan, two-and-a-half years ago, feeling the words rush over me, the exact passage that had made my knees go out from under me then. There, as I was trying to be strong for my mother-in-law, no amount of telling myself to hold it together to keep me from coming undone. And with these same words, I wept and buckled for my father:
Those I have loved, though now beyond my view,
Have given form and quality to my being,
And they live on, unfailingly feeding
My heart and mind and imagination.
They led me into the wide universe
I continue to inhabit, and their presence
is more vital to me than their absence.
What You give to me, O God,
You never take away
And bounties once granted
Shed their radiance evermore.
– – –
I was unable to stay in the room. I walked out and went to the ladies room. I closed the door behind me and was greeted by the sheet-draped mirror, that at least couldn’t reflect back to me my own disappointment in not being able to stand where I was needed. Instead I sobbed for the utter despair at not being able to conceal the grief I feel and cannot hide over losing my father and missing him every single second of my life.
I returned to the room and put my arm around my mother-in-law’s shoulders. The service continued and the night brought more stories, more gifts, more joyful remembrances about another father, loved no less by his own wonderful daughters.