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Gavriel Savit

Protecting Ashkenazi Jewish Magic: Preservation Through Storytelling and History

I was a sophomore in college when my grandfather died. He was a good man—82 years old, a trumpeter, soft-spoken and kind. He slipped on an empty Coke bottle getting into his car one day; he hit his head on the curb, passed out, and never woke up again.

I went down to Chicago to be with my family for his shivah. Shivah is the seven day mourning period in Judaism immediately following the burial of a close family member. Mostly the observance consists of scrupulously doing nothing— opening a space to reflect, to process, to be with the loss. It’s a long spiraling week of almost entirely unstructured time: there are regular prayers, but even mealtimes grow wishy-washy as the leftovers cycle in and out of the fridge.

And this, after all, is the point. Without distractions, thoughts turn naturally toward the departed. People reminisce. Anecdotes are traded, and the family history that might otherwise have been forgotten starts to bubble up to the surface. We found some interesting things in the boxes and closets: naturalization documents, yearbooks, war letters.

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