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Help! I’m Dreading an Awkward Shiva Call

This week on Thou Shalt: Gathering the courage to pay a shiva call to someone you don’t really know that well, talking crabs and kashrut with your non-observant boyfriend, and figuring out how to toast your Orthodox friend at his wedding

Shira Telushkin
May 02, 2019

Thou Shalt is a Jewish advice column for anyone navigating a Jewish situation about which they are unsure. Which is understandable: For thousands of years, Judaism has been rolling through time and space, picking up everything in its path. Which is awesome and beautiful and great, but also means that we’ve inherited a tradition with a complicated and often confusing mix of rituals, identity markers, red lines, and ways to practice. The peculiarities and particularities of the diverse Jewish world have tripped up many well-meaning Jews and non-Jews alike, and the goal of Thou Shalt is to create a space where we can all help decode our Judaism for one another, and the world.

Shiva Jitters

Hey Shira,

A woman in my broader Jewish community just lost a parent, and it’s really tragic. We’re not friends, but we would recognize one another on the street. She’s sitting shiva, and I’m worried it will feel unnatural for her to have to speak to me if I make a visit, given that I am such a causal acquaintance. How do I make my presence a comfort and not a burden?


Concerned but Cautious


Dear concerned,


The answer is almost always to go. In times of loss, just like in celebration, many people want to feel surrounded by the comfort of their community. You might not be her friend, but as a familiar face, you make up part of the visual background of her life, and serve as a reminder that her loss is shared by the wider community. If you feel hesitant, then before you enter, get comfortable with yourself about the potential moments of awkwardness that arise in a shiva house. When you enter, the only available seat might be across the room, and you should calmly walk through the guests and find the seat, rather than hover by the walls. If it’s a very busy shiva house, you should not feel the need to interrupt the mourner’s conversations with other guests. Rather, sit calmly and respectfully, knowing that your presence is noted, and being there is much more important than saying anything. You don’t need to stay for more than 15-20 minutes, though before you go you should approach the mourner if you haven’t already, and briefly interrupt them to squeeze their hand, or clasp your own hands together, and say you are sorry for their loss, and that you are all thinking about them.

If it feels appropriate to you and the particular house, say the traditional Hebrew phrase of leave-taking one says to a mourner—hamakom yenachem etchem betoch avlei zion v’yerushalayim—but also don’t feel pressured if it feels unnatural. In a more quiet shiva house, enter with purpose and take a seat close to the mourner. When asked by others, explain you are a friend from the community. As tradition advises, you should wait in silence for the mourner to initiate any conversation. Follow their lead on whether to ask about the newly deceased, or distract them with other talk about the world. When in doubt, refrain from any theological explanations about their loss, and stick to expressions of sympathy.

If the loss was tragic or hits home for you, check yourself in advance to ensure you’re not going to self-center your own tragedies or fears in the conversation. Don’t make assumptions about their relationship to the deceased. If you are particularly anxious about the visit, then still go, and remind yourself before entering the home that your presence is welcomed, and your visit needs no justification or explanation, despite your peripheral place in this person’s friend group.

You can also plan to visit around a minyan time, where the bustle can feel less fraught. Ultimately, when somebody you know has suffered a loss, the right thing to do is pay your respects. This is an example where, as my father likes to say, doing the right thing usually turns out to be the right thing to do.


Feeling Crabby

Hey Shira,

I’m an observant Jewish man, and I’ve been dating this very awesome guy for a while, and it’s going pretty well. He grew up religious, and in terms of Jewish values and other meaningful aspects, we feel pretty in sync. The one thing is that he doesn’t keep kosher—like, at all. I will only eat vegan when eating in non-kosher restaurants, and otherwise in my life am a vegetarian. When he orders crab legs or oysters, it grosses me out. I would prefer he stopped eating non-kosher food, but not just for me. I want him to choose it. How can I bring this up? Am I being overly dramatic?


The Food Police


Dear Police,

Depending on how serious the relationship is—and I assume we’re talking more than, like, three dates here—I don’t think you are being too dramatic. For you, food is about values, so it makes sense that you want your partner to share these values. When you become a serious couple, your choices, big and small, begin to impact another person. For many couples, disparity on this specific issue wouldn’t be grating, but clearly it is for you, so you need to address it.

The problem, as I see it, is that you want your boyfriend to change on his own, when in fact the only way to get him started on a more kosher path would be to make it about you. He wouldn’t be doing this for himself, at least initially, and that’s okay. In a relationship, you can ask someone to do something just for you. Tell him that you respect his choice to eat whatever he chooses, but that it is really hard for you to watch him eat explicitly non-kosher food. Tell him you want to start making decisions as a couple about what to eat, together, and this would mean a lot to you. He may push back, asserting that it is very important to him that he not be bullied into being more religious than he chooses. If your boyfriend grew up religious, and eating non-kosher represents a conscious break from that way of life for him, then dictating food choices is likely to be an emotionally fraught topic. In opening up this conversation, be prepared to listen to him, and share your feelings in turn. Remember that neither of you is right, just as neither of you is wrong. Maybe he’ll offer to keep only flagrantly non-kosher items off his menu, or not eat certain foods when you’re together. Think about how that makes you feel. The goal should be to find a compromise between your desire to build shared couple norms around food, and his desire to eat what makes him happy. Those are both legitimate desires, but middle ground should exist. And whatever you decide, it would be rude if he insists on eating shellfish on future dates, after you’ve directly flagged your discomfort. If he does begin to adopt some kosher standards, he might eventually come around to finding the practice religiously meaningful as well. But for now, this conversation should be less about kashrut, and more about you.


I’m Toast

Hey Shira,

My Orthodox Jewish friend from high school asked me to give a toast at his wedding. I’m very moved, but as a non-Jew, I also have no idea what to say. Are there any rules about this?


Lost At Sea


Dear Sea,

No religious rules here! Like birthday cards and personal introductions, wedding toasts are about making the other person feel loved. The best way to make someone feel loved, I’ve often found, is to demonstrate that you’ve paid close attention to who they are as a person. Your task is to keep this thing under four minutes, and to tell specific and personal anecdotes that portray your friend as unique and lovable. If you’re at a loss, then think back to the first time you met your friend: What was your first memory or impression of him? Scroll through your text message history. Does he have a distinctive way of texting, like using tons of exclamation points or always triple-texting, or is he hilariously concise and borderline rude? Reference one particular exchange. Describe what it would be like to do an activity with this person. When baking, or playing sports, or writing an essay, did he tend to jump with enthusiasm or find ingenious ways to take shortcuts? When walking through the halls of high school, was he always greeting friends, balancing stacks of books, hauling endless amounts of snacks, or smiling at the new kids? If you’re still stuck, then describe the first time he told you about his new spouse, and the specific ways he became a better friend after they met, or the types of scenarios in which you would turn to him for advice. Whatever you do, show your friend and all of his wedding guests that he is someone who evokes belovedness.

Given the Orthodox Jewish wedding context, the only thing I’d keep in mind is that your material should be free of anything religiously questionable. That means no stories where you end up eating late night food at the local, likely non-kosher, bar, or where he gets thrown naked into a pool by a team of female wrestlers. Play it safe, and practice makes perfect. Mazel tov!


How do I submit a question?

Questions can be sent to [email protected].

Are all questions anonymous?

Yes, no identifying information will ever be revealed or published about the letter-writer or their situation. Your email address will be seen by those monitoring the inbox, but won’t be published.

I’m not Jewish. Can I still submit a question?

Definitely. If your question touches on navigating a Jewish situation—be it attending a synagogue service for the first time or baking a welcome pie for your new Jewish neighbors—then this column is for you.

Shira Telushkin is a writer living in Brooklyn, where she focuses on religion, beauty, and culture. She is currently writing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America.