The Power of Shiva

by Brian on April 17, 2009

in A Parent in Israel,Jewish Holidays and Culture

I have paid many shiva calls but I never truly realized how important they are until I sat on the other side of the chair.

My father, Walter Blum, died on a Sunday. He was buried on Wednesday. I sat shiva for one day in California at my parents’ home. Then I returned to Israel to complete the mourning process with my community in Jerusalem.

My first act of shiva came Saturday night after the Ma’ariv minyan (the evening prayer) that was held in our living room. As I sat down in the low chair prescribed by Jewish law, wearing my ritually torn shirt, some 25 eyes, many of them strangers, bore down on me.

The tradition is that those who come to comfort the mourner do not speak first. It is up to the bereaved to direct the conversation. Never having done this before, I nervously began to tell of my father’s last days, of how he went from diagnosis to death in less than three weeks.

When I paused, about half of the men and women present got up to leave. I breathed a sigh of relief. Surrounded now by just close friends, I was able to open up.

Over the next two and a half days, I shared stories about my father. At first I was timid. But the more I did it, repeating the same words and answering the same questions, I became more “polished.” I perfected my inflections; I even started doing voices.

Everyone experiences shiva differently. I know it sounds strange to say, but I actually had fun. To the point where one of our friends told me the following Shabbat “I really enjoyed the shiva. I felt like I got to know your father.”

And that was the point. My father was a performer. He started his career as a radio disc jockey. Then, as a journalist for 35 years, he had a magical way with words. By putting on my own “show,” I felt as if I was honoring his memory, celebrating his achievements with joy and verve.

And as I told the stories, I learned even more about who my father was and how much he shaped who I am today.

My father grew up in New York in a modest apartment on W. 83rd Street in a Conservative home. His parents went to synagogue and kept two sets of dishes. But Dad was an iconoclast. As soon as he left the house for college, he rushed to the first non-kosher restaurant he could find and ordered a bacon double cheeseburger. He never looked back.

Dad received an M.A. in Music Composition from Columbia University. During his 10-year career in radio, he played classical music on air and hosted a “romantic” morning show. It was during a gig in Philadelphia that he met my mother. She had fallen in love with his voice on the radio even before they met at a local Jewish students social.

My parents moved to California a month before I was born. My father intended to get another radio job but the town was unionized and he couldn’t find one. Instead he took a part time job at the San Francisco Examiner. They liked him and eventually he became the senior feature writer for the Sunday magazine.

(My own experience paralleled my father’s in many ways: I also intended to pursue a career in radio after college but came to Israel where, in 1984, there was only one rock and roll station…in Hebrew, plus the Voice of Peace, a pirate station broadcasting from a ship off the Tel Aviv coast. I didn’t come to Israel to work at sea. So I too turned to writing.)

My father’s real dream was to write a novel. So every night, he would retire to his den and work for two hours on his old IBM Selectric typewriter. When he’d finished a book, usually after a couple of years of work, he would retype it with carbon paper, then carefully place the original in a box, put a rubber band around it and ship it off in search of an agent.

We would then wait and wait. Inevitably the box would return. There would be a few days of depression. But Dad was tenacious and another book was always on the way. If there were blogs in the 1960, I imagine my dad would have written a very good one.

He did publish one book, a commissioned work on the life of Benjamin Swig, a well-known banker and philanthropist in San Francisco. As we were looking over the book during the shiva, one of the guests flipped to Chapter 3 which was all about a man named Charles Ponzi – yes, that Ponzi – whose actions eventually forced a bank owned by the Swig family into bankruptcy. It was fascinating to read a fresh account of the original Ponzi that wasn’t primarily a comparison with international scammer Bernard Madoff. (I’ll post an excerpt from the book in an upcoming blog.)

In addition to writing, I’m sure my passion for music also came from my father, though our preferred genres differed. When I was a teenager, I tried valiantly to convince my father that Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen was on a level with Beethoven and Schubert. I never won that argument, but now my 11-year-old son Aviv is convinced that Queen’s 1975 ode to histrionics is one of the greatest songs ever written.

My father arrived home from work every day at exactly 5:25 PM. Dinner was served precisely at 5:30 PM. We ate together every night and were expected to talk. Dad took the role as itinerant professor, leading us through discussions on science, history, philosophy, politics (a lot of ranting about Richard Nixon) and religion (a superstitious anachronism of a primitive era).

Those dinnertime debates instilled in my brother and me a life long passion for intellectual pursuit. I can see that now as I try to keep things lively around the Shabbat table. More recently, in the computer age, Dad’s emails have been a constant source of call and response. I will sorely miss our electronic back and forth.

My father’s life wasn’t easy. He was disabled as a child from polio and although he was able to walk well – albeit slowly – for many years, as he grew older an ailment known as “post polio syndrome” set in and he found himself combined to a wheelchair. That made him crotchety for sure, but he could also be quite the charmer, something that many of the residents of my parents’ retirement community cited when they paid their shiva visits.

Above all, he was a fighter. When the cancer was raging in his body, he was given the choice to do nothing (in which case, the doctors said, he had anywhere from three weeks to three months) or to try chemo which would be very hard on his body but that could give him up to a year more. He opted for the latter. It’s probably what killed him in the end.

My father wasn’t perfect by any means. Although he liked my writing (and edited the articles I wrote for the local newspaper while I was growing up mercilessly), he rarely said “good job” or “that’s a nice paragraph.” I don’t remember him ever saying “I love you.” Emotion wasn’t his thing.

That was hard for me. So hard, in fact, that I’ve spent much of the last 30 years being angry at my father for what I didn’t get, losing sight of what I did.

And that’s why shiva has been so profoundly moving. It was an opportunity to reconnect with the good. To appreciate how he positively influenced my brother and me.

140 friends came to visit during the short time I was back in Israel. The more I spoke, the more the things that hurt began to fade away. Now it seems so foolish, to have spent all that energy on something that ultimately proved so unimportant. It propelled me to hold individual talks with each of my kids on the importance of communicating now, not just at the end.

At the end of shiva, our friend Rabbi Ruth Kagan facilitated a “getting up” ceremony. Several close friends shared words of wisdom. Then they physically pulled me up out of my low chair. I changed out of my torn shirt and they accompanied me in my first walk outside since we re-started shiva at home.

When shiva is over, you’re supposed to go back to work. I had a meeting in Tel Aviv and my business partner was frantically calling to tell me about an important presentation we had scheduled for the next day.

But I wasn’t ready. I had spent the last week in a fog, thinking and talking about nothing other than my father. I was constantly surrounded by people. Now I was without that framework but I was still grieving, I felt lost, confused. During shiva, I kept my composure. Three days letter, after watching a stupid Jim Carrey movie, I broke down into hysterical sobbing. The post-shiva period has turned out to be far more difficult than the shiva itself.

I will never forget the shiva experience. It was without question one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever done. Judaism got this one spot on right. Of course no one wants to have to sit shiva, but when the time comes, being part of a supportive community makes all the difference.

My father’s name now lives in Jerusalem as well as San Francisco. My fervent hope is that I’ve brought a taste of who he was to my friends and community here in Israel.


An obituary for Walter Blum appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle last week. Here’s the link.

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