Sitting Shiva in Israel: A Letter from Gali

Dear Friends,

I want to thank all of you who have reached out to me after the deaths of my father and my grandmother last month. Your kind words, cards, donations, meals and gestures warmed my heart.

When my father died I knew where I needed to be – in Israel with my brother and my sister. With that said, I have gotten so used to the way we do things here that I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived in Israel. I am truly blessed to live in our little Jewish community here in Jupiter and so it was a bit awkward for me to be sitting shiva in Israel, away from my own home, my own Temple, family and friends. 

When Alon and I left Israel 20 years ago there was only one way to deal with life cycle events: the Orthodox way. On my 10 hour flight from Newark to Tel Aviv I began to wonder about many things:  As a woman, would I be allowed to say Kaddish for my father? Would the ceremony be led by some Orthodox rabbi who would mumble some prayers fast and say nothing of substance about my dad? Would my dad be buried outside of the cemetery’s fence as they used to do with people who have committed suicide? Would I feel alienated from the ceremony that would be my last goodbye to my beloved father? And what about the shiva? Would anyone be there for me? Would there be much judging and explaining? Isn’t a whole week too much for our aching souls?

What I found upon arrival was that so much has changed in Israel. The funeral was a combination of old and new. The Chevra Kadisha, the Orthodox company that handles death on behalf of the state, went through the basic and most significant religious parts of the funeral ceremony (identifying the body, kriah- tearing of the clothes of the mourners, burial and kaddish). Then we had a beautiful and moving memorial service that was very personal and touching, complete with the unfortunately fitting Mozart’s Requiem, that was my father’s (a classical music connoisseur) favorite piece. Everything was done graveside, start to finish: no chapel, no synagogue. There was no casket - those are only used in Israel for soldiers- and the body was on a stretcher covered in white linen shrouds. Finally, I was relieved to find out that the Rabbinical Courts in Israel recognizes depression as a disease and therefore people who commit suicide are no longer buried outside of the cemetery’s fence.

After the funeral we went home. The custom in Israel is that only immediate relatives arrive to visit on the first day after the funeral. The rest of the days were constant visitations of people far and near from as early as 7:30am to 11:00pm. It seems that every single person who ever met my father or had a relationship with any of us mourners took some time off from work and came over for an hour or so. Almost each person who came in brought with them cookies or a tray of homemade food and stuck it in the refrigerator. Neighbors and friends came in and took over the house: one was washing dishes, another sweeping the floor in the lulls between the people coming in, someone else ran to the grocery store when we ran out of milk for the coffee. The town provided both initial guidance and plastic chairs for the mourners. This went on for seven days with a break for Shabbat. There was no minyan or service as my father and step-mother are secular Jews and do not belong to or attend a synagogue, but the sense of community, caring and support was palpable and very real.

Having been living so far from my homeland and coming in only for short and carefully orchestrated visits, most of my interaction with Israel is on the phone with family or through the headlines of the newspapers. In that week of shiva I have been reminded of the true beauty of Israel: the kindness, care, openness, warmth and lack of judgment of people was both uplifting and nourishing in our most difficult time. Even through my teary eyes I was able to see what makes Israel so special: the people.

After the week was over we went back to my father’s grave, said kaddish, put on one more stone and shed many more tears. The grave will be erected and ready for an unveiling within a month or so, as it is done in Israel.

Sitting a full seven days of shiva in Israel, I could not come back and sit shiva here. This means that I did not have the opportunity to be with my friends and share my grief that by the time I was back grew to include not only my father but also my beloved grandmother who died in Portugal. But, I am simply overwhelmed with gratitude for how so many of you found ways to reach out and make sure I knew that you were there and that I was not alone. Thank you for taking care of my family when I was away and thank you for all the love and support. It sustains me and helps heal my broken heart.

With a profound sense of gratefulness and love, 

Gali