Tag : shiva

October 23, 2020 by

Jewish. Feminist. Canadian.

A new novel from Nessa Rapoport, 30 years after her debut novel Preparing for Sabbath, is both deeply Jewish and (wait for it) deeply Canadian. There’s very little feminist fiction worthy of this claim.

The taut story of Evening (Counterpoint Press, $26) centers on two sisters, one marking the shiva of the other in their family’s home in Toronto. Eve, the survivor, fled the chilly (in every sense), WAS Py Ontario city to find her way in New York, very slowly completing a Ph.D. dissertation and teaching at a community college (“night school” a relative calls it), and carrying on a deliberately distanced relationship with an academic so brilliant that he wasn’t even bullied at the British boarding school where his English Jewish parents sent him at age seven.

Eve returns home to observe the seven-day ritual mourning period for her sister, Tam. For the week that’s the span of the novel, the household also includes Eve’s divorced parents, her remarkably accomplished grandmother, Nana, and a constellation of characters mostly spinning out from the tight circles of Eve’s childhood and adolescence. Prominent among these is her ages-ago boyfriend Laurie, whose presence at the shiva pulls Eve into a magnetic field that’s simultaneously charged, familiar, stifling and alluring. An old ad for tourism to Canada described Quebec, the province just east of Ontario, as “friendly, familiar, foreign and near.” That line came to mind as an apt description both for Laurie and for Simon, that quiet, witty, genius professor Eve has been keeping at arm’s length for three years in New York.

The interplay between the lives of the sisters is at the core of this brief novel. Tam had been a determined, high earning, famous-in-Canada television personality, happily married with two young children. (“All the things Jewish parents revere,” Rapoport commented to Lilith in a recent Zoom call.) The cancer that ravaged Tam’s body and took her life moved slowly enough that she had time for a deathbed argument with Eve about their seemingly very different paths, an exchange so fierce that, despite their decades of sisterly closeness and understanding, there was no emotional space left in which Eve could reach out to connect again before Tam died.

None of this is a spoiler, nor is the fact that after the funeral Tam’s husband hands Eve a sealed message from Tam; even the book’s advance publicity leaks this much. The single cryptic sentence in that envelope hints that Tam’s life hadn’t been quite the carefully mapped journey Eve had always considered the obverse of her own uncharted, halting career and love life.

Rapoport’s carefully told story is about the power of family role models we emulate or resist whether we understand them accurately or not—including Nana’s own remarkable life as a Jewish woman in an Anglo-Saxon stronghold, a woman with a Ph.D. in science, a pilot’s license, a passionate attachment to her late husband and a lifelong aptitude for self-definition.

Susan Weidman Schneider


To hear more about the ideas motivating its author to spend 30 years crafting Evening, Naomi Danis and Susan Weidman Schneider invited Nessa Rapoport, herself the oldest of four sisters, for a Zoom chat along with her daughter Mattie Kahn, culture director at Glamour. Here are some highlights from that conversation.

Nessa: There’s a culture and a chemistry in a family of daughters… In the book, I wanted these two sisters to have lives of both sensuality and intellect. I also wanted to show, through Tam, the working life of successful women—that world of accomplishment and fame. Yet Tam was limited, despite her success.

I’ve been told that in AA there’s a saying, “Never compare your insides to someone else’s outsides.” The family’s assumption was that Eve would envy her sister, and I knew from the beginning that she didn’t. Actually, Tam had a lot to envy in Eve. I wanted to reveal the complex interior lives of these sisters, not that Tam’s the accomplished one and Eve’s the blurry one.

Naomi: Your book title, Evening, evokes the evening of the score between two competitive sisters and also as the end of a day (and more poignantly the end of a life), as well as the character Eve’s becoming herself.

Nessa: You saw all three meanings of the title!

Mattie: Mom, your opening sentence says: “One loves, the other is loved.” I found that very provocative.

Nessa: You can still find relationships— whatever the power dynamic— where that is the operating assumption. In the end, the book is a refutation of the opening line. Eve’s myths about her family are all upended. And Simon becomes a real human being, which is, to Eve, unsettling.

Susan: The women in this novel are already real. You describe your own grandmother in your memoir, House on the River: A Summer Journey. She bears a close resemblance to Nana in Evening. Deliberate?

Nessa: My maternal clan was a unique amalgam of being practicing, committed Jews and Anglo-Saxon Canadians. My grandmother had a patrician pity for people who didn’t see that you could be observant and also be anything you wanted to be in the world. She and my grandfather invented this confident, unparochial way of being Jewish in the 1930s, a great act of audacity at a time when Canada was extremely anti-Semitic. In everything I write, there’s a grandmother who was a pioneer professionally and Jewishly.

Susan: You once wrote the script for a short film about the ritual of not leaving the house for a full week of mourning, and Evening’s framework is a shiva. Why?

Nessa: For a while, while I was writing Evening, I thought a lot about loss and trauma. I keep on my bedside table a copy of Judith Herman’s stunning book, Trauma and Recovery. Trauma limits your emotional range. It’s a very physical, limbic state. Grief, too, lives in the body. I’m now in my 60s, and I understand that our relationship with the people who have died continues. We are not who we were when they left us. We gain amplitude and insight; we can see and change even what seems to be fixed in the past..

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April 20, 2020 by

The Weight of Shiva

Sitting shiva for my father was hard. Our house was filled with people from morning until night, and I was sad. I wore the same clothing every day, with the rip across the front of that damn white button down shirt. We followed the ritual guidelines pretty strictly: the mirrors were covered up; we stayed inside the entire week; we didn’t take baths or showers. For our own sakes and the sake of our guests, we took sponge baths in the washroom sink. 

We didn’t wash our hair for a week. 

I was 13 years old. 

To be honest, I don’t remember much about that week. I know I spent a lot of time in my room, and my wise, wise mother let me escape absolutely as much as I needed to. My friends came. They were nervous; this was the first time most of us had been touched by out-of-order, out-of-time death and tragedy. They stayed nervous, but we also laughed. We hung out. It helped, a lot. I remember (to this day) every one of my friends who came. And who didn’t. 

I remember my hair getting greasier by the day. I remember my mother telling me to sprinkle it with baby powder. I tried wetting it, and pulling it back in a ponytail, and even resorting to a French braid. It weighed about a million pounds and kept getting heavier. I was aware of it in every moment. 

I’m sure it looked fine. But how I hated how it felt. From that moment, I despised the feeling of greasy hair. Most of my friends would go an extra day or two between washes, hoping to preserve a good blowout or a new haircut. I never ever did. Never. The second I felt even a hint of grease, I headed straight for the shower. 

In practice, I saved a lot of time. I never really even blow-dried my (long, wavy, brown) hair. It wasn’t worth it,because I’d be washing it the next day anyway. And the next day after that. And I’d leave the shower with wet hair, brush it and go. That’s always been my styling routine: clean. Product-free. Nothing that would weigh it down or add to the grease. I can always toss my head like a hair commercial, or J-Lo prepping for a half-time show. My hair is always ready. 

Except that I recently went for my yearly hair appointment and the stylist told me I washed my hair way too often. I was drying out my hair, dragging down my curls and exhausting my scalp. 

I’m all about making my life easier, and minimalist routines, and saving money, but I knew—just knew—that by day three at the most my hair would be a gross, heavy, oily mess. 

But Diane-the-stylist is a wise woman. And having even shinier, softer, bouncier hair seemed very appealing. I decided to try it. And honestly, I spent a huge amount of time thinking about it. Huge. So I did it. And sure enough, by Day 3 I was topknotting with the best of them and Day 4 saw the headband come out. I gave up by Day 5. But week by week I could go a little longer, and my hair would look a little better. And I would feel a little better. 

The only time I’d gone more than two days without washing my hair was during week long camping trips, when we went swimming every day and I wore a hat the rest of the time. And even then I longed for just one quick hair wash. But I wanted to give this a shot. And maybe—though I didn’t realize it then—I wanted to release my unwashed hair from the shiva memories, which perhaps weighed even more heavily than the grease. 

Sharrona Pearl is Associate Professor of Medical Ethics at Drexel University. 

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November 4, 2019 by

Ladies’ Days of Martinis and Forgetting

How pleasant to see a cheerful old person.

“Love your stole,” Lotte said to the handsome old woman at the party. “It’s grand and beautiful.” The woman thanked Lotte and her eyes flicked subliminally to the left, which meant that she didn’t know who Lotte was; nor could Lotte abort the identical tell on her own face. To save her children’s heads she could not have said if she had forgotten the woman’s name or had never laid eyes on her. Lotte carried a cane and the woman in the stole offered to get her a drink.

“Oh, thanks. I’m fine, really,” Lotte told her. “I can get it myself.” Lotte was pleased to see her friend Bessie by the coatrack and walked over.

Bessie said, “I’m going to stow my cane. It has a way of tripping people.”

“You made it in from Rockingham,” Lotte said.

“Made it in,” Bessie said.

“How is Colin?”

“Colin is well.” Bessie must have known that her friends could not stand Colin, the only one of the husbands still living. Colin owned houses and cars, talked about the inadequacy of the parking, and was dying of something slow and ravaging.

“Who is the old woman in the stole?” Lotte asked Bessie.

“That’s your hostess, Sylvia,” said Bessie and added that she was surprised to see Lotte.

“Why are you surprised? The third time I called to ask you for the address you were understandably irritable.”

“That was the address of the Baskins’ party, and you said you were not going.”

“Yes, well,” Lotte said, “the prospect of leaving my apartment brings on a critical desire to stay home, to not get dressed, to take my Kindle and go to bed, a minimal agoraphobia. But I like parties.”

“If you call it a party. I hope they do martinis.”

“Why isn’t this a party?” asked Lotte following her friend, who seemed to know the geography of this handsome apartment in the high Bauhaus style.

They were intercepted by an unusually large, young—well, a younger— man who kissed Bessie. He said, “Anybody seen Sylvia?”

“Who was that?” Lotte asked Bessie.

“Don’t know,” said Bessie. “Reminds me of the seventies, when one kept being hugged by old students come out from behind their beards.”

“Who is Sylvia?”

“Your hostess. The woman in the stole,” said Bessie. Drinks were in the kitchen, where Bessie was drawn into conversation with people she knew.

Lotte put out her hand to an old man standing by himself in the doorway. She said, “My late husband and I had an agreement: Every party we went to we would talk to at least one person we didn’t know.”

“And today is my lucky day.” The old man had a good face.

“Those were the days…” said Lotte.

“Of wine and roses?” the old man said.

“I was going to say the days when I used to know eighty percent of the people at a party. Today I know two people.”

“That’s doing better than I by one,” he said. “Tell me the two you know.”

“My friend Bessie, whom I’ve known for over half a century, and the woman in the beautiful red stole.”

“That’s the one I know. She’s my sister,” said the pleasant old man. “Ruthie was our aunt and I’ve come in from Albany.”

The large, younger man who had kissed Bessie performed a quarter turn, which brought him into the conversation. “We are talking about all the people we don’t know,” Lotte told him.

The younger man said, “I’m developing an algorithm which will interpret the musculature of the face of the person with whom you are talking and will tell you not only their name but where you know them from.”

Bessie brought two martinis, one for Lotte and one for herself, and said, “Let’s sit down. I can’t stand so long.” Bessie and Lotte carried their drinks to a sofa.

“And just in time,” Lotte told Bessie. “I’ve used up all my conversation starters. One more time, tell me the name of our hostess.”

“Sylvia,” said Bessie.

“I talked to her brother, who has a nice face.” “Sebastian,” said Bessie.

“Who is Ruthie?”

“Ruth Berger,” said Bessie, “Sylvia and Sebastian’s aunt, who always reminded me of that old New Yorker cartoon: ‘Mortimer was her first husband and her second novel’. And you still like parties?” Bessie asked Lotte.

“I do.

Bessie said, “I remember when we used to go in expectation, always, that something—that somebody—was going to happen. What do I get dressed for today? What do I come in from Rockingham for?”

“People,” said Lotte. “Conversation.”

“And have you had one good conversation today?”

“Not that kind of conversation. It’s like the old balls—you take a turn with one partner and take a turn with another partner.”

“And you’re having a good time?” “Yes, I am.”

Bessie was looking around the room. The set of her face told Lotte that Colin was not well enough—was not all right. “What makes this, today, a good time for you?” Bessie asked Lotte.

“Let’s see. For one, my children, so far as I know, are well and modestly solvent. Two, my right knee does not hurt. Three, I enjoyed looking at—what’s her name again?”


“…looking at Sylvia’s splendid red stole, and her brother?”


“…has a nice face. I like being in these handsome rooms, and sitting on a comfort- able sofa, drinking a good martini. I like talking with you with the sound of a party in back of me.”

“The sound of a shiva,” said Bessie. “Shiva? What shiva?”

Bessie said, “This is the shiva for Sylvia and Sebastian’s aunt Ruth Burger.” “It is!”

“I forget who said wakes and funerals are the cocktail parties of the old?”

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