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Mourning in America

The awkward tribute to the late Whitney Houston at the Grammys proves that the country still hasn’t learned how to mourn properly. But Judaism has.

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A video tribute to Whitney Houston at the Grammy Awards, Feb. 12, 2012. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

“There’s no way around this,” said LL Cool J as he took the stage to host the Grammys last weekend. “We’ve had a death in our family. And so at least for me, me, the only thing that feels right is to begin with a prayer for a woman who we loved, for our fallen sister, Whitney Houston.”

And on he went, thanking the heavenly father for the blessing of Houston’s honeyed voice and sending condolences to the late singer’s mother and daughter. Cool J was earnest—not a sentiment he comes by easily—but the moment, at least on television, came off as a dud. Maybe it was because no eulogist can truly touch hearts while wearing a Kangol cap. Maybe it was because the speech was accompanied by a panning shot of the audience, and what you actually saw when Cool J spoke was Lady Gaga’s colander costume or Paul McCartney’s face, looking as lively as Lenin’s after two decades in embalming fluid. Either way, Cool J’s words fell flat, as did those of most other musicians who name-checked Houston throughout the ceremony. By the time Stevie Wonder looked up and addressed Whitney in heaven, every bit of sweet remorse one might have felt for Houston had dissipated.

It’s easy to accuse the music industry for being incapable of conveying solemn sentiments—these, after all, are the people responsible for Lana Del Rey—but the problem is bigger than that: Our culture is mourning averse. The only method we seem to have for collectively processing loss is the Academy Awards’ In Memoriam model, namely showcasing the dead at their prime, beautiful and radiant and eternal. Immediately after Cool J concluded his impromptu prayer, enormous screens came down, and up popped Houston, performing at the Grammys a decade earlier, draped in white, singing her classic hit “I Will Always Love You.”

It was intended as a tribute, but it left a bitter taste. Houston was freshly deceased, and yet there she was, present and in her prime, and there we were, her fans, able to cling to denial for just a moment longer. We, after all, were watching the whole thing unfold on television; for us, past Whitney and present Whitney, Houston alive and Houston dead, were one.

It’s the same routine every time a celebrity passes away, particularly if he or she is young and troubled. We are genuinely shocked and truly saddened, yet we lack the emotional and spiritual vocabulary to process our pain.

Not so Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. While we usually think Judaism’s chief edict when it comes to grieving is shiva—the communal congregation at the home of the deceased for the benefit of the surviving family—the eminent Orthodox thinker reminds us that Jewish bereavement has two stages. Before we get to aveilut, or mourning, we have to go through aninut, or acute mourning, the period between first receiving the bad news and completing the funeral rites.

“Aninut,” Soloveitchik writes, represents the spontaneous human reaction to death. It is an outcry, a shout, or a howl of grisly horror and disgust. Man responds to his defeat at the hands of death with total resignation and with an all-consuming masochistic, self-devastating black despair. Beaten by the friend, his prayers rejected, enveloped by a hideous darkness, forsaken and lonely, man begins to question his own human singular reality.” If our loved one can just die like that, we tell ourselves in our darkest hour, then surely life isn’t much more than an empty and meaningless swirl in time, and surely human life is just as devoid of purpose as that of cattle or cats.

Such mad sorrow, Judaism teaches us, such impotent rage, is not only permissible but normal, which is why mourners during the period of aninut are exempt from most mitzvot. Judaism understands that it takes us time to process the most unnatural fact of another human being having forever disappeared and therefore suggests that we focus only on the practical arrangements of burial and leave the emotional stuff for later, when we’ve had a chance to absorb the blow. To that end, friends and family members are discouraged from offering their condolences until the deceased is buried. “Do not console a person whose deceased relative lies before him,” Pirkei Avot, the compilation of rabbinical wisdom and teachings, commands us. Cool J should’ve listened.

But Cool J, of course, was mourning not in private but on TV, his words broadcast and tweeted in real time and recounted on scores of blogs. And he was speaking a day after Houston’s demise, by which time the pop legend had been the subject of hundreds of tributes and obituaries on the Internet. We socially mediated moderns have no time for aninut. Death excites us to comment, publicly and immediately, even if what we have to say is not a howl of horror but a muted murmur, drained of warmth and meaning. Hence Cool J and Wonder and Alicia Keys and the rest, well-intentioned but uninspired. Hence the torrent of status updates on Facebook immediately after Houston’s death was announced. We’re permitted neither the time to mourn nor the freedom to mourn passionately, impolitely, savagely. We’re expected to say something about God and heaven, to watch the deceased sing a song or smile widely on some bit of archival footage, and then move on. But life doesn’t work that way. And each time a famous person dies, we begin again, baffled and strained.

So, until we can figure out how to speak about Whitney Houston’s death with distance and depth and insight, let us observe this period of aninut and say nothing more.

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Larry Gaum says:

Enough already. She was a common person, from a common place and family. After 20 years of drug and alcohol abuse, her end was more than predictable.
If you want to mourn, Jewish or otherwise, mourn for people who die young and have lived an honourable life. They will be missed. Whitney Houstan? Who is she?
L.G.

She actually was not common. She was an extremely fortunate person – her mother was a famous performer and she was very beautiful and talented. All the more reason why she had no excuse to throw it all away on drugs and an abusive relationship.

Interesting take, Liel. There’s no question that Judaism’s structure for mourning is wise, and that the traditional periods – aninut, shiva, shloshim, yud-bet chodesh, yahrzeit – do mirror the evolution of grief (such as it can be mirrored considering our individual responses and stages of grief may vary). But as someone who’s currently in the middle-toward-end of a year of mourning, I can tell you that that period of primal scream doesn’t always end after a few days, let alone the less than one day that I was in aninut before we buried my mother. The rage can continue for some time (in some people, I’ve seen it integrated into their “new normal,” another phrase that people use without really unpacking what it means).

And even if the rabbis say that you shouldn’t console a mourner in those initial moments or days, my interpretation is that you shouldn’t try to make sense of it, because you will fail, but that you should be available to support the mourner as soon as you hear the news of their grief – not in a suffocating way, but in a way that indicates willingness to serve and support a soul in turmoil, however it’s needed.

ELLIS JAYUS says:

Your article is callous and disrespectful. Not everyone mourns in the same manner and certainly the rest of the world is not expected or required to grieve in the Jewish way. When a celebrity dies, especially one who, despite her turbulent lifestyle, enjoyed worldwide acclaim and recognition for her absolutely angelic and golden voice, a public outpouring celebrating life is both commonplace and healing for both friends and fans who loved her. Forty years ago, after the death of football hero Brian Piccolo, his close friend, Gale Sayers, remarked that we should not celebrate how he died but, rather, how he lived. I take my kippah off to the Grammy group who, on unfortunate short notice, created a tasteful tribute to the troubled lady who gave us more than one moment in time.

Richard Adler says:

This piece added nothing to my respect/admiration for Houston, Rabbi Soloveitchik, or Judaism. They have been parasitised for a professional journalistic shot. The very awkwardness of public mourning and the difficulty of television to convey deep emotion in a scripted commercial event should be no surprise. Leibovitz is every bit as self-aggrandizing as the presenters he accuses.

D'vorah Elias says:

I have, once again, but utterly horrified by the way the media has dealt with yet another famous person’s death. Michael Jackson, Etta James, Whitney Houston… it seems like they’re all the same to the media machine. I am appalled when I see the so-called “friends” of the newly deceased talking about them so intimately because they were so close. Where is the dignity for the person who has just died? Instead they become even more fodder for the gossip mill. It’s disgusting, really. Has our society become so obsessed with all things having to do with celebrity that we can not allow a troubled woman to even rest in peace without a constant barrage to her memory? It’s really quite disgusting and makes me quite ill.
Poor Whitney probably died of an inadvertent overdose which is cause for even more sorrow. Knowing that her beautiful and talented life was snuffed out because of an addiction she couldn’t beat is the real tragedy. But, then again, we’ll all have to wait for the final report from the coroner. And then the media circus can begin anew.

melech says:

All this ink over Whitney Houston and nothing about the passing of Gunther Plaut.

Who is Gunther Plaut>

I have to agree with Ellis. My initial reaction to the article was the question, “who are we as Jews to dictate how others should mourn”? While there is no question that it’s been a media circus around Ms. Houston’s death, I felt the Grammy event handled her passing quite tastefully, and on such short notice, it was quite impressive. I’m sure the majority of performers in the audience were still in shock that evening, and perhaps they found some comfort in a communal tribute to her. I do agree that the coverage in the media somewhat reinforces denial of her death, and that this exaggerated coverage is not proportionate to what she accomplished in her life relative to those in science, education, and other fields of work. However, perhaps it speaks more about popular culture and the technology that perpetuates it. While the tribute at the Grammys, and otherwise, may symbolize a more secular “aninut”, the millisecond exposure of others from the industry who had died this past year, was quite dreadful.

Todd Jacobs says:

Leil,

Its too bad that your introductory sentences were so callous toward the country implying those other than Jews are wrong in something as tenuous as mourning. You speak of Judaism as if its the answer for everyone and every problem. I’ve always thought our greatest asset as a religion is our plurality, acceptance and realization of multiple truths.

tk_in_TO says:

@Wendy, why would you ask such a question? If you are computer literate why not google Rabbi Plaut before exposing your ignorance.

Well said for the many enraging deaths of super stars and human stars .

I’m glad this custom works for the Jewish (whom I admire and respect), but in African American mourning traditions (which are equally worthy of respect) this failure to acknowledge the descent’s memory and family would be met with extreme disappointment. I really get annoyed with every group of people telling us how we should approach the world. We we weren’t rescued to a new country, we reside (with the exception of Liberians) with descents of our captures on grounds that our ancestors once labored as property. So before the judgement of a tribute as awkward and lacking, please try to consider that to most African Americans the respects paid to Whitney were seen as sincere and proper.

Thank you for your completely ethnocentric and worthless write-up.

Sincerely,

Chad

Bookworm says:

It is possible that the Jewish way of mourning may be more sensible and sensitive compared to some other secular or religious traditions in America. Bury first, mourn later, as I understand it. Many Christian sects, alternatively, do the majority of individual and communal mourning in the 3-5 days leading up to the burial. These are variations in culture that shouldn’t be the focus of criticism. In this case, however, there was an unavoidable issue of timing — Ms Houston died the day before the Grammy Awards, and therefore all of her musical peers suddenly found themselves participating in a public memorial to some extent. To cancel the show would have been impossible, and yet to ignore her death would have been unthinkable. If LL’s tribute and prayer was a dud, as you put it, it may be because so many of those in attendance were still processing their emotions. Many were probably in a certain state of aninut (religion nothwithstanding) but had no choice other than to suit up and show up and do their best. Maybe the “cool” types are afraid to be seen praying or showing any emotional cracks in their “cool” facade. Either way, I don’t think it’s very fitting for you to criticize. It was an unusual situation, Whitney was an amazing talent, and in the end we all do the best we can.

This column was penned by LL Cruel J (Liel Liebovitz Cruel Jerk)

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Mourning in America

The awkward tribute to the late Whitney Houston at the Grammys proves that the country still hasn’t learned how to mourn properly. But Judaism has.

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