When the start of the pandemic coincided with Passover, I saw my social media feed covered with images of Zoom seders, Powerpoint Haggadah, and families adjusting to broken traditions. Over the past six months, this has extended to birthdays, weddings, and, perhaps most importantly, funerals. In Welcome to the Shiva House at this year’s Fringe, creators Benjamin Behrend and Logan Gabriel Schulman are sitting shiva with their audiences in the virtual age.
“Sitting shiva” refers to the weeklong mourning period in Judaism following the burial of a loved one. This performance walks through multiple rituals in homage of Sam Bloom, an avatar or sobriquet representing multiple deceased characters from different walks of life. Over the course of the performance, we meet new mourners (all played by either Behrend and Schulman) and hear about new Sam Blooms, each with a particular intimacy and vagueness to remind us just how diverse our experiences with loved ones can be.
A community of mourners
Our screen-based audience truly felt like a community supporting these mourners as the host led us through various traditions. We waved at each other, pulled out our respective candles (mine was a Candle app), spoke in unison for a call-and-response prayer, held up our papers and fabric for keriah, and named our own lost loved ones.
But the host also acknowledges how this virtual experience is different. Shiva is accompanied by friends, neighbors, food, and the physical space of the house. Mourning without all of these aspects does feel different, like we can’t fully go through the motions of processing death.
This performance focuses on the final day, during which mourners move out of this intimate period and return to the outside world. Prior to the performance, the hosts sent out digital components: a companion reader providing context and references to shiva in other media, as well as an audio file for the final action. Following the Zoom call, attendees are invited to follow along with the guided audio walking meditation led by both hosts. As I stood outside my apartment waiting for the cue to start, I found myself tearing up at Schulman’s explanation of why this is so crucial to the experience.
“There is an infinity to stress, worry, and grieve over in the world right now,” they say as the experience begins. “In walking and in being open, we are not leaving our grief behind, but rather living alongside it.”
Sharing cultural traditions, especially those which help us process grief, can be so personal. But the experience of shiva is about embracing that loss within ourselves and with others. The consideration and care the hosts take in explaining each ritual in the grieving process, allowing Jews and non-Jews alike to participate in this collective mourning for Sam Blooms fictional and real, is noted and greatly appreciated. For every death we experience, may their memory be a blessing.
Image Description: A screengrab of a Zoom meeting with faces in a grid of squares. Everyone holds up some kind of candle or light.
What, When, Where
Welcome to the Shiva House. By Benjamin Behrend and Logan Gabriel Schulman, for the 2020 Philadelphia Fringe. Through September 27, 2020. https://fringearts.com/event/welcome-to-the-shiva-house/.
This show contains audience participation. The show also contains brief graphic language and talk of illness and death.