When a Jew Dies: The Ethnography of a Bereaved Son

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9780520219656: When a Jew Dies: The Ethnography of a Bereaved Son
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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

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From the Inside Flap:

"Samuel Heilman has walked the mourner's path both as an anthropologist observing the socio-cultural death practices of the Jewish community, and as a bereaved son grieving the loss of a beloved father. In the wake of his successful navigation through these two worlds—academic and personal—he presents an acute understanding of the detailed intricacies of the cycle of Jewish rituals from deathbed to burial, from mourning to memorialization. Heilman emerges from his journey through grief with a wise and seasoned appreciation of the symbols and practices which are at the foundation of Jewish life and culture. When a Jew Dies provides an insightful roadmap to the subtle and profound vicissitudes of grief in the Jewish tradition. For mourner and scholar alike, this is a book to be savored, a friend to walk with, a companion with which to explore the reality of the walk through the valley of the shadow of death."—Simcha Raphael, author of Jewish Views of the Afterlife

"Heilman has an unusually keen sense of perception and ability to put everything into an almost universal, social scientific perspective while, at the same time, retaining his personal ties, thought and feelings. As in his previous work, he here examines something that almost every traditional Jew is familiar with, and gives it new perspectives and new meaning. When a Jew Dies includes significant discussion of prevalent customs and the Jewish bases for them. The author's particularistic-universalistic synthesis as well as his deeply-rooted, personal-scholarly synthesis set this book apart from all others."—Chaim I. Waxman, Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University and author of America's Jews in Transition

"Heilman offers a unique synthesis of historical scholarship and ethnographic description in this rich account of the complex processes by which Judaism brings the dying to the end of life and the mourning to the end of grief and a return to life. This is, as far as I know, the only study combining the legal-historical, social-historical, and ethnographic perspectives in a single volume. It offers a remarkable glimpse of how one sector of contemporary Jewry confronts the reality of death and transfigures it."—Martin S. Jaffee, author of Torah in the Mouth

About the Author:

Samuel C. Heilman holds the Harold M. Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies and Sociology at the City University of New York. He is also on the faculty of Queens College, CUNY. He is the author of Defenders of the Faith (California, 1999), Synagogue Life (1998), Portrait of American Jews (1996), The People of the Book (1993), Cosmopolitans and Parochials (1989), A Walker in Jerusalem (1986), and The Gate Behind the Wall (1984).

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