Cover image for When a Jew dies : the ethnography of a bereaved son
Title:
When a Jew dies : the ethnography of a bereaved son
Author:
Heilman, Samuel C.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Berkeley: University of California Press, [2001]

©2001
Physical Description:
271 pages ; 24 cm.
Language:
English
ISBN:
9780520219656
Format :
Book

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Status
Central Library BM712 .H45 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
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Summary

Summary

Samuel Heilman's eloquent account of the traditional customs that are put into practice when a Jewish person dies provides both an informative anthropological perspective on Jewish rites of mourning and a moving chronicle of the loss of his own father. This unique narrative crosses and recrosses the boundary between the academic and the religious, the personal and the general, reflecting Heilman's changing roles as social scientist, bereaved son, and observant Jew. Not only describing but explaining the cultural meaning behind Jewish practices and traditions, this extraordinary book shows what is particular and what is universal about Jewish experiences of death, bereavement, mourning, and their aftermath.

Heilman describes the many phases of death: the moment between life and death, the transitional period when the dead have not yet been laid to rest, the preparation of the body (tahara), the Jewish funeral, the early seven-day period of mourning (shivah), the nearly twelve months during which the kaddish is recited, and the annual commemorations of bereavement. The richly informative ethnography that surrounds Heilman's personal account deepens our understanding of the customs and traditions that inform the Jewish cultural response to death.

When a Jew Dies concludes by revealing the rhythm that lies beneath the Jewish experience with death. It finds that however much death has thrown life into disequilibrium, the Jewish response is to follow a precisely timed series of steps during which the dead are sent on their way and the living are reintegrated into the group and into life. Filled with absorbing detail and insightful interpretations that draw from social science as well as Jewish sources, this book offers new insight into one of the most profound and often difficult situations that almost everyone must face.

Cover illustration by Max Ferguson


Author Notes

Samuel C. Heilman holds the Harold M. Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies and Sociology at the City University of New York.


Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Heilman was born in Germany just after World War II, the only child of concentration camp survivors; the family emigrated to the U.S. three years later. In 1996, Heilman's father died, and the author began looking for books that explained the cultural meaning behind the practices and traditions that surrounded a Jewish death. Not finding any, he wrote this, his eighth book, which describes what is particular and what is universal about the Jewish experiences of death, bereavement, mourning, and their aftermath. Heilman describes the phases of death: the moment when Jews hover between life and death, the period when the dead have not yet been laid to rest, the preparation of the body, the funeral, the 7-day period of mourning, and the nearly 12 months during which Kaddish (the memorial prayer) is recited. The book insightfully examines a traumatic time in all our lives. --George Cohen


Publisher's Weekly Review

"For Jews, time alone does not heal; life with people does," posits Heilman, a sociologist at the City University of New York. The Jewish rituals of death and mourning, he says, "demonstrate that however much death has thrown life into disequilibrium, the Jewish response is to bring that life back to some equilibrium in a precisely timed set of steps." As the only child of Holocaust survivors, Heilman struggled all his life with a legacy of death. Five years ago, when his father died, Heilman was forced to confront death "not as... the object of an anthropologist's curiosity. Death became my father." His book crosses back and forth among personal, academic, religious and collective boundaries. Structured in two voices of the bereaved son and the social scientist the intimate, poignant narrative describing his experiences around his father's death contrasts with an objective, academic exploration of the whys and hows of traditional practices that help the mourner master the encounter with death. He concludes that the role of community in repairing morale and ensuring personal and collective continuity is paramount: "For Jews in death no less than in life, solitariness is replaced by solidarity." Heilman recognizes that his traditional approach may not resonate with everyone in today's pluralistic society, but the rhythms of death and mourning he describes reflect enough of the universal to appeal to many seeking understanding and solace. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Library Journal Review

When his father, a Holocaust survivor, died in 1996 after a long illness and a series of strokes, Heilman (Defenders of the Faith; Jewish studies, CUNY) followed the traditional rituals of Jewish mourning, from gosess and petira (for near death and the end of life) to leveiya (the funeral and its accompaniments) to yahrzeit (anniversary of a death) and finally to the perpetual remembrance of beit olam and yizkor. As he did so, he not only analyzed these traditions from a sociocultural perspective but also looked deeply into his own personal experiences and emotions (presented in boxed inserts in the text). He concludes, "However much death has thrown life into disequilibrium, the Jewish response is to bring that life back to some equilibrium in a precisely timed series of steps, during which the dead are sent on their way and the living are reintegrated into the group and the world they inhabit." Although voluminous notes are given, there is no bibliography, which would have been helpful to general readers, students, and scholars alike. Nevertheless, When a Jew Dies is a moving and enlightening contribution to the literature of the Jewish way of death, dying, and mourning. Recommended for public, academic, and professional library collections. Marcia Welsh, formerly of the Guilford Free Lib., CT (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Choice Review

This innovative book by the ethnographer-sociologist Samuel Heilman (CUNY) fills a void in the area of Jewish books on death. While there are manuals on Jewish rituals surrounding death and books reflecting on death theologically, these often lack a critical edge. This volume moves back and forth between a sympathetic reading of the rites surrounding death in traditional Ashkenazic Jewish culture and a willingness to engage in psychological and anthropological appraisals. The insider views are drawn from the author's experience of his own father's death in 1996, as well as from his firsthand work as a member of a Chevra Kaddisha, a group that prepares the Jewish dead for burial. Brackets are used to distinguish the firsthand passages from the analytic ones. This book is the ritual equivalent to Sherwin Nuland's medical description of death How We Die; Reflections on Life's Final Chapter (1994). Both books challenge the current American propensity to avoid fully acknowledging death. Heilman dedicates a chapter to each ritual stage of the Jewish experience of death and mourning. This book contains a wealth of knowledge from classical Jewish sources and from a host of modern studies on dying, death, and mourning and is accessible and compelling. All readership levels. J. S. Kaminsky Smith College


Table of Contents

Introductionp. 1
Gosess and Petira: Near Death and the End of Lifep. 13
Onen: Freshly Bereavedp. 23
Tahara: Purifying the Deadp. 31
Leveiya: The Funeral and Its Accompanimentp. 72
Shivah: Seven Days of Mourningp. 119
Shloshim and Kaddish: The First Month and Afterp. 155
The Twelve Months and Yahrzeit: Anniversaryp. 182
Beit Olam and Yizkor: Foreverp. 202
Final Thoughtsp. 223
Notesp. 235
Glossaryp. 261
Indexp. 265

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