October 21, 2004
I am the Shiva Guy. When a member of my temple's congregation loses a family member, it is my job to take prayer books to the
house of mourning, where at least 10 people of bar/bat mitzvah age or above pray twice daily. And eat -- mostly bagels, lox and cream cheese and fruit, but those particular menu items aren't mandatory.
Being the Shiva Guy is an odd thing for me to be doing because, as far as religious observance goes, I prefer to observe my religion from afar. Once in a while, however, my wife will ask whether I will be attending services with her in a slightly different tone and, after 12 years of marriage, some of it blissful, I will choose the opportunity to make her happy over "The Daily Show" episodes I Tivoed during the week. And if, in the process, I avoid the days of thick, tense silence that are sure to accompany a no, so be it. At the heart of every unselfish act is a nugget of selfishness.
It was on one such Shabbat where I was sitting in services, my eyelids drooping, my neck bending beneath the weight of my head as the rabbi spoke. I enjoy the content of his sermons. It is the rhythm of the speeches that act upon me like a couple of Ambiens washed down with warm milk. It was at the end of one of these sermons that the rabbi announced that the shul's Shiva Guy, a friend, was in the hospital. The shul needed a fill-in Shiva Guy. I awoke to find my hand in the air. That is how I became the Shiva Guy.
My job as Shiva Guy entails mostly schlepping. Whenever the need for a shiva arises, I go to the shul and gather up one or two shiva kits. Each kit is housed in a nondescript, black rectangular briefcase -- like a doctor's black bag except, at this point, there's little hope of saving the patient.
Inside each shiva kit is a stack of yarmulkes and 19 prayer books. Generations from now, archaeologists, numerologists and theologians will ponder the significance of 19 books. What does it mean? Why 19? It is, of course, because, no matter how you stack the books -- upright, on their sides, as a tetrahedron -- you can only fit 19 books in there. I'm sure that the archaeologists, numerologists and theologians will come up with a better explanation.
I'm also in charge of driving the Torah to the shiva house Thursday and Sunday mornings. I have been driving my only child, the light of my life, for 11 years without giving it a second thought. But put a Torah in my trunk and suddenly I'm a white-knuckled, nervous wreck. Next time, I may put the Torah in the back seat, belted in, and let my son roll around in the trunk.
I transport the kits to the shiva house where I become instantly awkward. I am not very good at talking to strangers. I am much worse at talking to bereaved strangers. After I've stacked the books on a table the bereaved usually thank me. I am embarrassed to say that, on more than one occasion, I have responded, "It's my pleasure." I'm sure that there are dumber things one could say to someone in mourning. I'm not sure what they are.
One time, I schlepped the shiva kit and the Torah to a morning service. The place was packed. I didn't know the mourners. I was sitting at the back, uncomfortable. I could just as easily have been sitting at the front, uncomfortable, but I'm more comfortable being uncomfortable at the back. The woman told the story of how her late father had saved someone's life in World War II. Later, over bagels and lox and fruit, the son-in-law told me about the two loves in his father-in-law's life and how the man just didn't have the strength to survive the death of the second one. Being the Shiva Guy has its moments.
I have also discovered some aspects of my personality about which I am less than proud. When someone dies, the temple generates an e-mail with the heading, "Condolences." It is, in Shiva Guy parlance, the "shiva signal." When I see this, I immediately tense up. With baited breath, I slowly reach for the mouse and double click the e-mail. The body of the letter gives the name of the person who has died, the time of the funeral, as well as the times and location of the shiva. Sometimes, however, it will say that someone has died in New York or Florida, followed by the words, "No shiva." At this point, I let out a sigh of blessed relief. It's sick, I know. But it's human nature. At least, I hope it is. Otherwise, I may have to be put away. And, if I am, the shul is going to need another Shiva Guy. Any takers?
Howard Nemetz has had a moderately unsuccessful career as a television writer.