What the New Tina Fey Movie Taught Me About Shiva

October 23, 2014Cantor David M. Mannes

I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re all from families with some level of dysfunction. It’s a human thing. It’s healthy. Look at the founders of Judaism: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. They all came from dysfunctional families and had dysfunctional families. And look how they turned out. Where else would we learn to cope with all the mishegas (Yiddish: craziness) in our lives? I recently saw This is Where I Leave You, directed by Shawn Levy, and based on the best-selling novel by Jonathan Tropper, featuring Jason Bateman (Arrested Development), Tina Fey (30 Rock), and Jane Fonda (Klute, Coming Home, The Newsroom). In short, the story depicts the interfaith Altman family, who don't get along, and haven't all been together in years. But when the patriarch dies, the whole clan is expected to fulfill his final wish and sit shiva (the Jewish mourning period) for him for an entire week. Newly divorced, newly jobless Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) has to travel home to face his dysfunctional family, including his psychiatrist mom, his sarcastic older brother, his unhappy sister, and his younger brother. Watching it, I reflected on family dynamics, not only of my own experiences, but of congregants dealing with loss and grief.

I thought about how those familiar with the custom might view shiva: the concept to be housebound for a week to remember, share memories and experiences, and reflect upon one’s own mortality and life. Shiva is meant to allow us to grieve, and then, like a little kid who falls off his bike, to get back on and ride forward, slowly at first during sh'loshim (the first 30 days of mourning), and then racing forward to grab life.

I remember my father’s funeral in Nashville. He’d been the cantor at West End Synagogue. I was supposed to officiate at a bar mitzvah at my congregation the weekend I received the news of my father’s sudden heart attack and death. Winging my way southeast to Nashville on Shabbat morning, of course the airline lost my luggage (for two days). For the funeral, I borrowed a pair of slacks from my brother and wore one of my dad’s sport jackets. (This uncannily parallels Jason Bateman’s character in the movie who has to wear one of his father’s jackets). As much as I wanted to officiate in some way at my father’s funeral, I wasn’t in any shape for it. Rabbi Ron Roth and my dad’s and my friend Cantor Bernie Gutcheon did the honors.

In keeping with traditional mourning practices, the mirrors in our home were covered for shiva. We pulled the cushions off the sofa. We had minyanim (prayer quorums for services) at the house twice a day for seven days. (In the movie, Bateman’s character Judd can’t imagine being locked down with his family for a week, and tries to bargain with the rabbi for just three days.) The congregation and community were very supportive, but we were glad when we could be by ourselves. We reminisced. We were angry and ranted over the fact that dad had never told any of us he even had a heart condition. Because of the distance we all lived from Nashville, my brother and I had to handle matters that most would postpone until after shiva. I left the legal matters to my brother, a lawyer. I went to the synagogue office to clean out my dad’s desk and gather his personal belongings - not an easy task. The hardest part was knowing I’d have to go back and tell my grandmother, who was in a nursing home, that her only son had pre-deceased her. I didn’t want to call her on the phone. I needed to be there with her. At times, I remember (like Judd Foxman and his brothers in the movie), feeling like a caged tiger in my parent’s condo apartment. Early one morning, I snuck out and went for a jog. I needed time to be lost in my own thoughts to reflect on my relationship with dad and what his passing meant.

Death brings a roller-coaster of feelings to mourners. We all mourn loss differently, but most of us go through periods of shock, anger, guilt, and sadness. Closure is tricky. We often don’t get the chance to say goodbye when the death is sudden, and even when we do, we don’t necessarily say all the things we want to. During shiva, we find ourselves thinking about all the things we should have said or done. It’s not only about reflecting on the life and relationship we had with our loved one, but about reflecting on our own lives and what we might have done differently, and perhaps should do differently. And in this manner, it’s not unlike the High Holidays.

Seeing This is Where I Leave You so close to the High Holidays helped me to reflect as we approached this holiday season. I know of families whose members haven’t spoken to each other in ages. Life is too short. And often times, it’s only after someone dies that we realize our regrets. We’ve waited until it’s too late. Like shiva, the High Holidays give us a chance to reflect and change. We spend a lot of time in introspection. When the dust settles, there are still regrets - words we should have said, hugs we should have given, mitzvot (commandments, or good deeds) we should have tried harder to complete. At times like these we reflect on how we might improve our relationships with our spouse, children, family, and friends.

Hindsight is a good teacher. The result of all this reflection is not to hesitate and regret, but to move forward, transform into our full potential, and learn to value all human experiences and all relationships. Each experience is a chance to grow, to change, and to learn.

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