(Continued from here.)
Tonight I'm attending a shiva minyan for a longtime member of the community. I'm glad to be able to give back in this way as as show of gratitude for all who came to my house. And this seems as good a time as any to write more about those other three minyanim:
The minyan last summer was the first I led that happened on the evening of the funeral itself. (I'm not usually assigned those, or leading a minyan for the death of a young person; a rabbi generally handles the more charged situations. But everyone else was away or dealing with other emergencies.) I walked into the family's apartment and felt an immediate chill. Even after a few seconds I could tell that people didn't want to be there--not just the awkward pain of making small talk after tragedy, but a pervasive sense that all present hated everyone else in the room. I think non-verbal communication is transmitted more loudly when emotions are raw; I am not the most fluent reader of body language, but the message was clear. People stood around in small, conspiratorial clumps with arms crossed tightly over their chests, glancing furtively out of the corners of their eyes.
I found the son whose mother had died two days earlier at the age of 98. Usually the family at a minyan is glad to see me, even those who have no clue who I am or are unhappy one of the rabbis didn't come--they're still grateful that someone, anyone, showed up to help. But this man was still in shock. It's funny to think of the death of someone that old as "sudden," but she hadn't been sick--and was apparently known for clinging fiercely to life with little regard for others who stood in the way. He looked at me with confusion, and motioned for his daughter to come over.
I introduced myself once again. They didn't answer. I looked at the crowd. "It must feel good to have some much family here at a time like this," I offered.
And as soon as the words escaped my mouth, I realized it was the wrong thing to say. I should have followed my instincts about body language. Both daughter and father pursed their lips and folded their arms even tighter. Then, after a frozen moment or two, the daughter smiled, probably realizing that I was being made very, very uncomfortable. I could feel the ice begin to melt ever so slightly. They led me into the living room.
I announced who I was, and asked everyone to pick up a prayer book and join in. I noticed a small crowd flattened along the back wall of the adjoining dining room, as if attempting to merge with the wall itself and escape into the next apartment. I asked the father if he wanted to begin with Minha rather than just Ma'ariv (an option in case the family was more traditional). He looked at me like a deer in headlights, and called over his brother.
"What should we do?"
The brother raised his eyebrows and peered over his glasses. "Minha, of course." I waited for him to add that I was an idiot to think otherwise, but he kept his mouth shut.
We began the service. I called out the wrong page, and made a little joke of it. They laughed, and the ice melted some more. I realized I had to appear confident and in control, some sort of anchor within the of miasma of fear and sadness I could feel swirling around us. I thought about compassion when I sang, wanting my voice to help heal these people's pain.
We reached the part of the the service where everyone is invited to share a story about the deceased. I saw the cluster at the back of the dining room roll their eyes, and the room was suddenly quieter than my cousin J. at last week's bris ("I'm going to hold my breath--what if I cry and startle the mohel??"). My mind raced as the seconds ticked--do I say something? ("Well, why don't we just finish the service and you can talk later...") Then someone to my left spoke:
"She was a very interesting woman."
And the stories began, not the usual deluge of happy memories I've witnessed at other minyanim, but a slow, steady trickle of polite, carefully chosen words. I had a sense that the deceased was responsible for some of the people in this room not speaking to others in this room. She didn't seem to be very nice, but they already missed her a great deal. With each memory, I heard that they couldn't imagine a world without her presence, challenging as it had been.
The service ended, and I darted out as quickly as possible so everyone could finally cry.