Jewish rituals and traditions are intentionally communal. I have always admired that about our faith. I went to summer camp six months after moving to the United States because I wanted more Jewish friends. I was a counselor at a Jewish group for all of high school, coming together week after week to teach about Jewish values and traditions. We learn together, we pray together, we spend summers together.
And when we mourn, we mourn in community.
Since October 7, we have all been mourning. Every headline, every death toll update, brings on a new wave of sadness. No one knows how to deal with loss. No one wants to deal with loss. It’s hard and it’s awful.
In times like these, I turn to Judaism. We have been around for thousands of years, there has to be some wisdom somewhere when it comes to grieving. In Judaism, we mourn by sitting shiva, so I thought I’d start there. When I looked up the rules, I realized that I had been inadvertently doing a lot of it already. Maybe you have been too, or maybe you are just like me, looking everywhere for a little of Jewish comfort and joy.
There are lots of different ways of observing shiva; here are some of the things I have been borrowing from this ritual to get through my day-to-day.
Not wearing leather shoes or new clothing
I have (mostly) left behind leather shoes, opting for my Ons Cloud — whatever can make the walk to my classes easier. I find myself reaching for my oldest clothes, the ones that bring comfort and joy — two feelings that seem hard to come by. I can’t be too picky about the source.
Sitting on the floor
My Jewish roommates and I have been spending more time than usual in the living room, especially around meals. Our usual conversations about boys and gossip go on as always, except now they are interrupted to discuss the latest news updates and the never-ending stories on our Instagram feeds. We are intentional about gathering to talk: We all feel that need for community and contact. I have found comfort in sitting on the floor — whatever I can do to feel grounded.
Covering the mirrors
The reason we cover mirrors during shiva is so the focus can be on those who passed and not the mourners themselves. I think my mental attitude — decentering myself while still acknowledging my feelings — has been helpful and in line with metaphorically covering the mirror.
I am a big believer in therapy, and something my therapist and I have been discussing is how anxiety is about bringing the future into the present. The truth is that fear will not protect me; I do not know what tomorrow will bring. Today, we can focus on those we have lost. Today, we can focus on the community around us and the tools we have to cope. The ritual of covering the mirrors is a reminder to take a step back and think of what is important, a reminder that stepping out of our fears and anxieties can be helpful.
I feel like I need to disappear for a week and focus on myself. It’s frustrating that I can’t because I am a student. It feels so unreal that the world is moving on, that I am applying to internships and grocery shopping and replying to two classmates in my discussion posts.
But the truth is that is the situation for most of us: Life goes on. While we can’t completely stop our lives, we can choose to slow down where we can. If you know me, you know I am always running around campus, bouncing between meetings, social events and the library. Now, I have been staying home more often. Halloweekend was just not a thing for me this year and I think that is okay. I am moving slower, taking things more patiently. I have been embracing the fact that things now take me twice as long and that I get distracted more often. I have found that sometimes staying home feels better, and that is okay.
Finding comfort in food
Learning more about the ritual of shiva has also made me realize what I have been lacking. Typically, when a family sits shiva, visitors will bring food to those who are mourning. Jewish people like to say that there is nothing a matzo ball soup can’t fix, and while I have not tried it, I do think this situation is giving the dish a run for its money.
My relationship with food has been a little love-hate. There are days where I am hungry and snacking all day, and some days where anonymous posts on Greekrank about harming Jewish students at Cornell take away my appetite completely. What I take from the ritual of shiva is to be okay with giving food less thought, and letting go of control a little bit.
A personal favorite meal for me has been Trader Joe’s frozen turkey meatballs and the new Well Yes! Campbell soups (highly recommend the tomato and sweet basil one). Lazy meals are okay. Takeout is permitted. Eating out at your local college-town Mexican restaurant with disposable plates is encouraged.
On the other hand, if making food from scratch feels good right now, lean into that. One of my friends says that she has been making food that nourishes her, saying that that is what she needs to take care of others.
Finding comfort in your network
I want the company. I dread the moments when I have to sit alone with my thoughts and the simple fact that there is nothing I can do. I want to be surrounded by people all the time. I wish that my friends were bringing me food and caring for me, but that is what makes this situation so hard: we are all trying to take care of one another as we struggle to take care of ourselves. Our parents are sad, our grandparents are sad, members of our community are sad. Who is taking care of all of us?
If you are in college with a Jewish center on campus, reach out. The Hillel professionals at my school have saved my life, and I do not know where I would be without them. Also: people care. There are allies out there and people who have your back. Mourning has brought me closer to my Jewish community and my people.
I have found wisdom and love in shiva rituals. We are people who have become experts at not only mourning but also caring in community. Resilience is ingrained in our DNA, passed from generation to generation. We will sit shiva together. We can do this together.