I walked through Times Square and onto a side street lined with old walkups, trendy Asian restaurants, and some street people with overstuffed shopping bags who looked like costumed extras. A white brick apartment building with a nondescript lobby stood at the end of the block, its lack of character in stark contrast to the garishly lit theaters just a few minutes away. Upstairs the small apartment was packed with loud, laughing people; at first I thought I had the wrong address, and this couldn't possibly be a house of shiva. There were knickknacks from world travels lining the shelves of a big breakfront, and photos of exotic locales on the walls. Even before I met the person who lived here, I could tell that she knew how to have a good life. On the corner of the dining room table sat a photo in a silver frame of a woman with grey, upswept 50s-style hair wearing a smile that at once looked satisfied, patrician, and very kind.
I didn't know the woman who lived here—the knickknack collector and daughter of the smile in the photo—but she recognized me, and we sat down to talk for few minutes before I began the minyan. I lead services occasionally but certainly do not have, or ever pretend to have, the skills of someone in a pastoral role. But although mourners at a minyan know I am not even one ten-thousandth of a rabbi, the fact that I am about to stand in front seems to make me very approachable. I take this inadvertent responsibility seriously; when, right before we begin the service, I ask the son or daughter how she's doing, and the answer comes in waves with silent tears as everyone else is shmoozing and waiting to start, I listen with all my soul for as long as needed. This evening the daughter told me, in the space of just a few minutes, how her mother was "one of the last heroes," a rescued child of the Holocaust who survived even as hundreds of others in the transport did not. How, her family's wealth decimated, her appearance and actions resonated with elegance and refinement even as they struggled in poverty. And how her mother demanded the highest standards from those around her, but always with love and a warm smile. There were no other siblings; the daughter explained that her friends filled this role, and that she wouldn't have survived the ordeal of her mother's illness but for their support. I suddenly thought of myself, and all the losses I experienced at a young age, and realized how fortunate I was to have so many relationships as deep and enduring as the ones this woman described.
There's always time during a shiva minyan to share stories of the deceased, but those friends chose to talk about the daughter instead—how lucky her mother had been to have such a child. Their pride filled the room like sunlight on this freezing January night, helping melt sorrow for a few minutes. The daughter thanked me profusely when it was over, and apologized for being in a hurry—she had to start packing for after shiva ended, when she planned to travel out west and to Europe to heal and continue to live the life of quirky knickknacks and vivid photos that her mother taught her to live.