Coronavirus Cinema Collection: Jewish Funeral Traditions

May 22, 2020 | 0 comments

Today’s Coronavirus Cinema Collection video focuses on Jewish Funeral Traditions on Film. We are looking at two movies from Mexico: Norah’s Will, which came out in 2008, and the 2007 comedy My Mexican Shivah.

You may be wondering, why are there Mexican films that portray very traditional Jewish funerals? In the early 20th century, from 1912 to the 1940s, there was a lot of immigration of Jews from Europe. This was due to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and World War Two.

Both Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe and Sephardic Jews from the Mediterranean area went to Mexico. Many Jews headed to Mexico as a way to get into the United States. However, the U.S. Congress passed two highly restrictive immigration acts in 1921 and 1924. Many of these traditional Jews stayed in Mexico (sound familiar?).

Jewish communities have flourished in Mexico, with many Orthodox funeral rituals intact. We see these traditions brilliantly portrayed in both Nora’s Will and My Mexican Shivah. We also look at the American film, This is Where I Leave You.

Coronavirus Cinema Jewish Funeral Traditions

Nora’s Will

Nora's Will cover

Nora’s Will starts with Nora committing suicide by overdosing on pills. Her ex-husband Jose, who is decidedly non-religious, lives across the street from her apartment. She has carefully arranged her departure to coincide with Passover and Shabbat. As the film progresses, there are all sorts of problems getting Nora buried. Flashbacks to earlier periods in the couple’s life hint at relationship secrets and Nora’s mental illness struggles.

Issues you’ll see illustrated in this film include:

  • Scheduling of Jewish funerals, traditionally within 24 hours, while avoiding burial on holidays and Shabbat
  • The tradition of having someone sit with the body until burial – known as a shomer
  • Jewish tradition of ostracizing those who die by suicide (fortunately, this has changed in recent years)
  • The graveside tradition of avoiding passing a shovel from hand to hand

My Mexican Shivah

My Mexican Shivah opens with a party in the theater where Moishe, a popular older gent, drops dead of a heart attack in the opening scenes. This hilarious comedy 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 Jewish 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 with a sheet “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 and covering mirrors and family photos.

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)
  • Immediate family sit low to the ground on cushions
  • 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)

You’ll find Amazon affiliate links to these and other films listed below:

Nora’s Will

My Mexican Shivah

This is Where I Leave You

The Cemetery Club

The iShiva App YouTube Video

i-Shiva Commercial

Other YouTube videos related to Jewish funeral traditions

The Coronavirus Cinema Collection: Gail recommends movies that entertain while educating about funerals and end-of-life issues. You can see all these film recommendation videos through this short link:

Jewish Funeral Traditions: This one-hour presentation explores Jewish rituals before, during and after a funeral. It was recorded at the Greater Albuquerque JCC’s Taste of Honey learning event in 2014.

Jewish Burial is Green Burial: This one-hour panel discussion features Donal Key with La Puerta Natural Burial Ground near Belen, Kilian Rempen with Albuquerque-based Passages International, a leading provider of green burial and eco-friendly funeral products, and Gail Rubin, CT, death educator and The Doyenne of Death®.

Ethical Wills and Ecclesiastes: This 20-minute talk explores the concept of the ethical will and its connection to the Book of Ecclesiastes (to everything, there is a season…).

Kosher Caskets by Fathers Building Futures: This local nonprofit builds beautiful, affordable kosher caskets. They provide jobs and skills to previously incarcerated fathers, offering opportunities for family stability. Several local funeral homes carry these caskets. The Jewish Federation of New Mexico supports this organization.

About Gail Rubin, CT

Gail Rubin, humorous motivational speaker for hospice
Gail Rubin, CT, The Doyenne of Death®

Certified Thanatologist Gail Rubin is a pioneering death educator available to do virtual and in-person presentations illustrated with comedic and dramatic video clips. Her presentations qualify for continuing education credits for medical professionals, hospice and social workers, attorneys, financial planners, funeral directors and other professionals who need CEUs. She has a license from the Motion Picture Licensing Corporation to use films and TV shows in her speaking engagements. Visit this web page to download a list of talks:

A Good Goodbye