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The Resilience of Rituals

Attending a virtual shiva, I saw how Jewish traditions still hold up under the most extraordinary circumstances

Alanna E. Cooper
April 03, 2020
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

On a recent Saturday night, just a few minutes after Shabbat ended, I received word that my friend’s mother passed away from COVID-19.

Under ordinary circumstances, I would have been on a plane the next day to attend the funeral and shiva. But in the midst of the plague, such a trip was out of the question. Even my friend—who had become infected during the days she spent with her mom in the hospital—was not permitted to attend the burial. She delivered her eulogy through Zoom, sequestered in her space. No one was to visit.

Without being able to turn to the regular practices that provide guidance for comforting the mourner, I was at a loss. I wanted to call, but did not want to intrude. I texted but felt unsure about what to write.

Of course, I was not alone. There was everyone else like me, all the friends, fellow shul members, students, colleagues, and relatives near and far. How could we possibly offer any sort of coordinated response, with each of us sheltering in place?

Within less than 24 hours, I received word in the form of a brief email message that there would, in fact, be order. A link was included for a webpage, with instructions that “virtual company” was desperately needed. The simple, bare-bones site (designed by a friend of the bereaved) included information about “where” and when a virtual-minyan and shiva would be held each day. I attended a number of these throughout the week. Sometimes I sat in my dining room, other times in my kitchen, always hunched over my laptop, logged in via Zoom.

These extraordinarily odd circumstances got me thinking about the normal experience of attending shiva in person. Ordinarily, I would make a quiet appearance, scan the room, and hang back, not speaking much to others while waiting my turn to approach the mourner. Pictures of the deceased would be scattered about, providing an opening for the bereaved to tell stories about their loved one. The call to minyan would bring the visitors to order. The mourners would recite the Kaddish, and all those gathered would respond “amen”—as though to announce, “yes, we are all with you.” Finally, before leaving, visitors would recite (in Hebrew) the traditional formula, “May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion.”

It’s hard to imagine how any of this could unfold over the internet, but it did. Admittedly there was a lot of awkwardness, including the obvious technology glitches. “He’s frozen on my screen” one of the visitors called out. “Your sound is distorted,” another interrupted. And there was the strange situation of 20 people listening in on a conversation that would ordinarily be held in quiet whispers. “I wish I could be there to hug you,” one friend said, “I love you,” as the rest of us, heads each the size of a thumbnail, watched.

Despite the stilted nature of gathering like this over Zoom, I was amazed that we all knew what to do. Without any clear set of rules, we understood that the mourner was not to play hostess. During the lulls in conversation, it was not her responsibility to fill the silence or entertain. Someone else would open up conversation with a prompt, “Let’s share some stories [about the deceased].” At another point, one person asked, “Do you have some pictures you can show us?” Responding, our friend held up photos to the camera, and told us some related tidbit about her mother as a bride, as a new mother, as a grandmother.

Switching gears, one person said he had watched the recording of the funeral, and commented on our friend’s eloquence. This gave an opening for her to tell us about the very difficult experience of watching the funeral—as though it were a television show—rather than attending in person (because of her quarantine).

Conversation drifted into the topic of the pandemic, the shortage of hospital beds, and whether classes would resume as normal in the fall. But we never strayed far, always coming back to the mourner: Do you have food? Is your fever down? What can we arrange for you?

An old friend of mine popped onto the screen. “I’m so happy to see you. Where are you now?” I wrote in a side chat room, as though whispering. Meanwhile someone on the main screen prepared to go offline. “I am sorry to interrupt,” he said, “I am going to leave,” and then proceeded to deliver a few soft words of consolation, including, “May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion,” as we little heads nodded along.

Later, I attended Ma’ariv (the evening prayer service) along with nearly 50 others. A rabbi called the group to order, presiding over nearly two screens’ worth of images: hands holding prayer books, heads bobbing, shoulders swaying, each of us muted, following the rabbi’s lead. When it came time for the Kaddish, the rabbi directed the mourners—all of them in different physical spaces—to unmute their microphones, so that they might chant the words together.

I said amen, wishing my friend could hear my voice. I longed to be there. Only there was, of course, no “there” at all. The internet offers no place for the bereaved. Still, our rituals are so well formulated and resilient that even at this strange and terrible moment, at least we knew what to do. As the siblings mourned for their mother, we—so many of us strangers to one another, little isolated units, spread across pockets of the globe—formed a fleeting and virtual community sending out our disparate energies, praying that somehow they might gather and hold.

Alanna Cooper serves as the Abba Hillel Silver Chair in Jewish Studies at Case Western Reserve University. She is the author of Bukharan Jews and the Dynamics of Global Judaism.