Jewish Social Skills: Death & Mourning

This afternoon and Wednesday I’m teaching my Intro classes about Jewish Death & Mourning. I am pretty sure that when they look at the syllabus, they are thinking about funerals, and they are mostly identified with (1) the dead person or (2) the mourners. That’s normal and human, to picture a topic with ourselves in the center.

My task as teacher is to teach them how to be members of a Jewish community that has mourners in it. True, sometimes they will be the mourners, and someday every one of us will be in that casket at center stage, but for most of our Jewish lives, we’re in the “mourner support” roles. And face it, that’s where the mitzvahs are.

Yes, it is a mitzvah to bury one’s dead. No doubt about that. But there are many other mitzvot that come under the general heading of “comforting the mourner,” most of which don’t sound like a modern idea of “comforting” at all. Here are ways we comfort the mourner:

  • Support our synagogue, so that there are clergy to assist mourners.
  • Support our local Jewish funeral home, so that Jewish mourners do not have the added stress of explaining everything.
  • Show up at funerals, even for people we barely know.
  • Show up at shiva, even if we are not “close” to the family.
  • Offer to babysit, run errands, wash dishes, answer the door during shiva.
  • Sit quietly with a mourner at shiva, just listening.
  • Refrain from telling mourners how they should feel “by now.”
  • Alert the rabbi if a mourner appears to be slipping into depression or otherwise in trouble.
  • Call or write weeks after the funeral, just to “check in.”
  • Say hello to mourners when we see them at synagogue.
  • Invite widows and widowers to events or to dinner in our homes.
  • Make sure that no mourner in our community feels abandoned.

The English word “comfort” in modern usage generally transmits an image of a pat on the back, accompanied by “there, there” or magical words of healing. Grief cannot be fixed by magical means. It can only happen in its own time. We can help by supporting, by being present to the mourner.

Those of us who have been mourners know how important this sort of support can be. Perhaps we received it; perhaps we didn’t. One route to self-healing is to take our sadly-won knowledge and turn it outward, making sure that the next mourner is not left to grieve alone.

My Basic Jewish Book List

I just updated the list of recommended books I give to my beginning students. I thought I’d share the update with you.

I can recommend all of these books. As far as I know, all are currently in print. Many are available inexpensively as used books. Obviously, which you choose will depend on availability and your curiosity.

General Introductory Texts on Judaism

Settings of Silver by Stephen Wylen. (The 1st text I use for Intro to the Jewish Experience)

Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas: A Brief Book for Seekers by Rabbi Arthur Green (The other text I use for Intro to the Jewish Experience)

Basic Judaism by Milton Steinberg. A classic text, first published in the 1950’s but still good.

What is a Jew? by Morris N. Kertzner. Another good basic text.

Living a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant. 

Jewish Literacy by Joseph Telushkin.

Living Judaism by Wayne Dosick.

Jewish Bibles

I don’t require you buy one for this class, but every Jewish home should have a Tanakh, a Jewish Bible. Most Reform and Conservative synagogues use a JPS Tanakh in some form.

If you are curious as to how the Jewish Bible is different from the Christian Bible, read Beginners’ Guide to the Jewish Bible. For a discussion of the various translations of the Tanakh available, read Which Bible is Best, Rabbi?

If you would like to own a commentary on the Torah, a book with footnotes that explain things in the text, some of the most popular are:

The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. Gunther Plaut

Etz Chaim: Torah and Commentary, ed. Jewish Publication Society

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, ed. Tamara Eskenazi and Rabbi Andrea Weiss

A Torah Commentary for our Times, ed. Harvey J. Fields


Every Jewish home should have at least one copy of the Haggadah, the script by which we lead the seder every year at Passover.  There are many to choose from, from some rather uninspiring (but free!) free haggadot to very expensive art books. Some of the best fall in between those two extremes. The best way to find one is to go to a bookstore during the month before Passover and browse them until you find the one that speaks to you.

Jewish Holidays

Seasons of our Joy by Arthur Waskow. 

Guide to the Jewish Seasons editor Peter Knobel.

The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel

Keeping Passover by Ira Steingroot

The Days of Awe by S.Y. Agnon

This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation by Alan Lew

Jewish Home

How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household by Blu Greenberg (orthodox practices) 

On the Doorposts of Your House, CCAR Press (also in .pdf format)

Jewish Lifecycle

Gates of Mitzvah: A Guide to the Jewish Life Cycle by Simeon Maslin

Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness by Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Michelle November, MSSW

How to Raise a Jewish Child by Anita Diamant

The New Jewish Baby Book by Anita Diamant

Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah by Salkin, Lebeau, and Eisenberg

The New Jewish Wedding by Anita Diamant

A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort: A Guide to Jewish Bereavement by Dr. Ron Wolfson and David J. Wolpe

Mourning and Mitzvah by Anne Brener

Choosing a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant (conversion)

Choosing Judaism by Lydia Kukoff

Jewish Thought

Finding God: Selected Responses by Rifat Sonsino and Daniel Syme. Clear and simple approach to the question, What do Jews think about God?

The Book of Jewish Values by Joseph Telushkin

Jewish History

Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews by Chaim Potok

My People: Abba Eban’s History of the Jews by Abba Eban

A History of the Jews by Paul Johnson

A Short History of the Jewish People by Raymond Scheindlin

The Story of the Jews by Stan Mack (graphic novel format but quite good)


My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit

Israel: A History by Martin Gilbert 

Israel is Real by Rich Cohen

Bloom Out of Season

This confused little iris is in my front yard. It was supposed to bloom in the spring or summer, but here it is in mid-November. I suspect it wanted to bloom in the summer, but it couldn’t for lack of moisture. So now, after a good soaking, it’s in bloom.

Even in nature, sometimes things happen out of season. We can fish for reasons (maybe it was the drought?) or we can accept that not everything happens when it is “supposed to.” One way to see this iris is to take it as a challenge to the whole idea of “supposed to.” Why shouldn’t it bloom now? Am I enjoying it any less? If it had bloomed in summer, I wouldn’t have appreciated it nearly as much.

Things happen “out of season” in our lives, too. Sometimes it’s easy to see those things as special, indeed miraculous.I once helped a woman in her 80’s learn the Haftarah blessings for her adult Bat Mitzvah service. When she chanted those blessing and her Haftarah, everyone in the synagogue marveled.

But what about the boy who decides he isn’t ready for a Bar Mitzvah just yet? It is also a miraculous thing for him to have the insight that he’s not ready – maybe next year, maybe when he’s 16. It takes courage to step off the conveyor belt, to say, “Not just yet” when all your friends are in the flow. I had a student who had done exactly that: he refused to have his service at 13, waiting until he was 16. He chose to take Intro to Judaism and to work with a tutor for his preparation, and then he stood before his congregation and proudly led the service. His insight and courage were no less miraculous than the great-grandmother I had coached a few years earlier.

Sometimes we realize that there’s a bit of teshuvah we didn’t do during the High Holy Days,  Our minds and egos can be very tricky, making us “forget” something important until Yom Kippur is past.  Despite all the liturgical talk about the “gates” being “closed,” it’s never a bad time to make teshuvah. So what if Chanukah is almost here? Like the iris, your act of teshuvah  will have the beauty of its own time.

I went to rabbinical school with many young people who were going at the “right time” in their late twenties and early thirties. A few of us were late bloomers. While we couldn’t offer Am Yisrael (the Jewish People) as many years of potential service as our younger counterparts, we brought other gifts: congregational experience, management experience, parenting experience, experience. We bloomed out of season, but for all that, we had much to offer.

Have you ever bloomed out of season? What was that experience like for you? Is there a bloom within you that needs to come out? I invite you to share all this in the comments section!

A Word to Readers in France

I am sick to hear of the terrible violence in Paris. As Shabbat falls here in California, know that you and all France are in my prayers tonight. You will be in our thoughts as we sit at the Shabbos table.

May all who suffer be comforted, and may peace soon be restored in your beautiful country.

Shabbat Shalom: Toldot

This week we look at the eventful and troubling parashah Toldot, or “Generations.”

I confess I don’t have a d’var Torah to offer you this week, but I can point you to several good ones online:

Blind Love from ParshaNut, by Rabbi David Kasher

A Father’s Love by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Joy and Loss by Rabbi Emma Kippley-Ogman

Sowing in the Unity of Love by Ariel ben Avraham

Can I Identify with the Struggles of Others? by Isaiah Rothstein

What to Say When Someone Dies

If you really want to learn what to say, spend some time reading What To Say When Someone Dies, a magnificent blog by writer and editor Teresa Bruce. Ms. Bruce is a widow, so she speaks from experience.

I know of few better resources anywhere for comforting the mourner. a mitzvah which we call in Hebrew Nichum Avelim (nee-CHUM ah-veh-LEEM.)

Jewish tradition reminds us that our presence is the main thing we have to offer. There is a human impulse to run away, to avoid, and we must fight that impulse with all our might, because there are few things more cruel than to abandon a mourner. Mourners bear the weight of loss, and they deserve our support. We can express that support by showing up, by reaching out, and sometimes simply by being there in silence. But sometimes we need to know what to say, or how to say it: that’s where Ms. Bruce’s blog is such a gift.

There are a lot of entries. Use the tools on the side: search box, categories. Find the things that will help you in your current situation. She covers many situations, and you can leave her a question in comments  if you can’t find the help you need.

So go, read, learn how to be there for the mourners in your community! If you don’t know any now, the day will come and you don’t want to be caught flat-footed! This is a mitzvah we can all do, and with such gentle instruction, we can do it well.