By Gail Rubin
My Mexican Shivah is a very funny comedy funeral film that illustrates highly traditional shivah Jewish funeral traditions in an entertaining manner. It contrasts contemporary Mexican Jews living in Mexico City and shows the clashing cultures of secular versus religious.
At the very opening of the film 75-year-old Moishe drops dead of a massive heart attack during a celebratory dinner with a group of theater friends. Moishe’s family and friends gather in Mexico City for the seven-day Jewish mourning ritual known as “sitting shivah.”
A crazy collection of characters come together to make a delicious comedic stew flavored with Jewish traditions many less-observant Members of the Tribe may not know about.
Moishe (played by Sergio Kleiner) had been living with a Catholic girlfriend before he dropped dead. Daughter Esther (played by Raquel Pankowsky) is a typical Jewish mother who worries about her daughter not getting married. Son Ricardo (played by David Ostrosky) butts heads with his son who has become Orthodox and sports a black hat and payas side curls.
According to Jewish belief, from the moment a Jew is born, he or she is accompanied by two angels: an angel of light and an angel of darkness. The spirit angels Aleph and Bet (only visible to the camera) watch over the family and calculate which angel will accompany Moishe’s soul to the afterlife. They speak in Yiddish. The rest of the film is in Spanish and Hebrew (for the prayers) with subtitles.
My Mexican Shivah shows a number of Jewish funeral traditions before during and after a funeral. During the opening credits we see these traditional actions taken when someone dies:
- Closing the eyes of the deceased
- Saying the Shema prayer and the repetition of the Hebrew phrase “The Lord is God” seven times
- Covering the body “so his Soul can start the Journey”
- Candles and a glass of water at head of deceased
- Turning the feet to point toward the door
- The living apologizing to the dead for any awkwardness of handling the body
- The tahara ritual – washing the body for both physical and spiritual cleansing
To make sure the proprieties of mourning are observed there’s a Chevreman on the scene. He is a member of the Jewish Burial Society (a.k.a. the Chevra Kaddisha) who guides the family through many of the funeral rituals.
- He asks for Moishe’s prayer shawl so it can be buried with him (no one thinks he had one)
- He conducts the keriah ritual where the mourners tear their clothing just prior to the funeral
- The burial shows dirt landing on the rough wood of the simple casket
- He helps the domestics set up the house of mourning. That includes:
- Clearing out flowers, covering mirrors and family photos and lowering the seating
When one of the domestics tells the Chevreman that “Mrs. Esther likes to show off the mirror,” he replies with the rules of the seven days of mourning. “Mrs. Esther knows that for seven days she can’t show off… she can’t work, bathe, wear leather shoes, have sex, study the Torah, greet people, wear clothing with starch, sit in normal chairs, shave or express joy in any way.”
In a comedic twist, over the seven days this guy is milking the family for all they’re worth by charging for kosher food, slippers and various shivah goods. Some of the elements of shivah portrayed in the film include:
- A seven-day candle is lit to mark the start of the mourning period right after the funeral
- A glass of water and napkin or towel is placed next to the seven-day candle (a very old tradition designed to appease the Angel of Death)
- Visitors to the house of mourning kiss the mezzuzah as they enter
- Moishe’s son and daughter eat a hard-boiled egg as the first food they consume after the funeral (representing the cycle of life)
- Prayer services are held daily in the house of mourning (the film depicts the men praying and the women observing)
- Mourning is suspended during Shabbat
- At the end of the seven-day period the family leaves the house and walks around the block to indicate they are done with the initial mourning period (there are other observances over the course of the year)
In between all the Jewish traditions portrayed there are too many comedic situations to describe. You just have to see it yourself.
I use clips from My Mexican Shivah to illustrate and discuss Jewish funeral traditions in talks at Jewish community centers, synagogues and funeral homes. Another good film option that is more widely available on DVD is Nora’s Will (also from Mexico).
Unfortunately this film is not widely available for sale. However it is available for rent on Netflix.
Gail Rubin, The Doyenne of Death®, is author of the award-winning book, A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die and host of A Good Goodbye TV. She speaks to groups using clips from funny films to illustrate funeral planning issues and help start serious conversations.