The play began with a shiva, which clearly telegraphed that it would end the same way. The play was Rose, written in 2000 by Martin Sherman. It was presented in Dallas by Wingspan Theatre Company at the Bath House, one of the city’s cultural centers. It’s a one-person, two-hour monologue that encapsulates the history of our people from the Holocaust to modern Israel.
Rose is the title and only character, who sits throughout – not on a hard wooden bench, as she says she should for a shiva – telling her story. She is old, at the end of her life, and was played convincingly by accomplished local Jewish actress Barbara Bierbrier, who I’m sure won’t mind my saying that she’s no spring chicken either. But then, neither am I …
I went to the play because I knew what Rose would be about, and because I’d recently missed an important shiva myself. Back in my hometown, my son’s mother-in-law recently passed away at age 86. She had been ill for a long time with an inoperable abdominal tumor; at the time she herself thought was appropriate, she refused all further treatments and entered hospice care — in her own home, augmented by the loving presence of her children and our shared granddaughters and great-grandsons. Although near the very end she could no longer move or speak, she had managed to remain herself throughout.
I could not attend the funeral and shiva because Ruth Ann’s practice was totally traditional; she had asked in advance that whenever she died, she wanted to be buried immediately — within 24 hours — with a simple graveside funeral. The time came on a recent Thursday morning; the rest was the next morning. It was a cold, snowy Friday in Pittsburgh. My son told me, rather ruefully, that his dear mother-in-law had made her request last summer, when she had a spell that looked near-death to her and everyone else. But she recovered, and nobody thought to ask her if those initial requests could be set aside in case of inclement weather.
And of course there was no way I could get there in less than 24 hours. But I called the deli that Ruth Ann always used when she needed trays for any occasion, and asked it to send a standard shiva tray. They won’t need it, I was told. Ruth Ann was well-known and respected in her community as a longtime teacher in its leading Jewish day school; by the time I called, there had already been orders placed for enough shiva trays to see everyone through the afternoon following the funeral, and to feed all the family on Shabbat. So I ordered platters of vegetables and fruits for Sunday. I had several emails and calls of gratitude — for two days, all they’d been eating was lox, bagels, tomatoes and onions!
But maybe through her shiva, my dear Ruth Ann, who had been my friend in high school, my sorority sister in college, and a constant figure in my life even after I had moved far away from her, long before our children met and married, taught our younger generations an important lesson. It was my son who called to verbalize: “We were all sitting there, passing around old snapshots,” he told me. “And everyone was touching them, and remembering things. You can’t do that with pictures in our cellphones…”
That, and the text of Rose, made me finally, fully understand why survivors of all tragedies — from the Holocaust to our recent wind and fire home destructions — try hardest to rescue their family pictures. Why they are the soul-soothing presences at shivas — even in the play, where Barbara Bierbrier painted them so vividly with her words.
(If Dallas’ great theater figure Rene Moreno had been Jewish, we would have been sitting shiva for him. Rose was the last play he directed. His funeral was on the day of its final performance.)