Today I wish to turn my attention to delicate subject of death. I’ll do my best to treat is as sensitively as possible knowing as I do that it’s distressing for all concerned, most especially the deceased.
I’m aware, for example, just how many JC readers anxiously turn to the Social and Personal section before anything else to check if they need to ring round their friends to make up a recently vacated place at the Monday evening kalooki table and I know how inconvenient prayers can be when at such short notice you have to find someone to take Tuesday evening’s Spurs tickets off your hands.
It would be cheap of me to make comparisons with non-Jews, so I’ll get that out of the way quickly. A notable difference between Jews and Gentiles when it comes to dealing with death is to found in timing; they like to get the drink in their bodies before they put the body in the ground, while we prefer to get the body in the ground before we turn to the drink, which, in our case, happens to be tea.
Irish Catholics treat the mourning period as if it were a party, filling the funeral home with the trappings, sounds and smells of gaiety, while the emotional reality is lachrymose. Jews, in contrast, conduct themselves in a sober and reflective manner, while talking endlessly about parties. “On simchas” we all say to each other, “only on simchas”. And what happens at those simchas? We remember dear old Harry who would have loved to have been there had it not been for the fact that he died 37 years ago.
Actually this approach is rather clever. Happiness is not an emotion Jews are comfortable openly expressing for fear of attracting the evil eye. We therefore choose our moment to be happy precisely when the evil eye is not looking, that is, when it thinks it has already done its vindictive work. Ha ha! We’ve worked out how to double bluff the evil eye.
Let’s admit it, we Jews love a shiva don’t we? If you don’t believe me, go to any shiva house and I guarantee you’ll meet several people who have no connection with the family whatsoever. They’re simply there for the craic.
These hearse-chasers can be seen scouring the streets of north-west London between 7.30 and 8 on any weekday evening, looking for open front doors. In they slip, shuffling their way toward the mourners where they proffer a sympathetic hand and gently grunt the customary words “Wish you long life”, to which the reply comes, “Thank you. And how did you know my father / mother / sister / brother?” The answer to this being “he / she knew my father / mother / sister / brother”, a tactic that removes the need for any knowledge of the deceased. The visitor then takes his place for prayers and is later rewarded for his concern with a slice of cake and a cup of tepid tea, during the consumption of which he will wander around the room gently murmuring the words “on simchas…only on simchas” as if he is spreading information about an illegal warehouse party.
Then, before leaving he returns to his host (for that is essentially the role of the mourner under the circumstances) and repeats the blessing for a long-life, whereupon the mourner will thank him for visiting. “It’s a pleasure”, will come the honest but somewhat insensitive reply. Like I say, a Jew loves a shiva.