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Ritual Mourning for Slain Brooklyn 8-Year-Old

Jul 15, 2011 -NY Times
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The Jewish custom of shiva, the seven days of intense mourning, often has its spirited aspects.

In a message posted in the entryway to their apartment building, the Kletzkys thanked sympathizers.
 Despite the prevailing sorrow, visitors might gather around platters of food in a bereaved family’s home and celebrate a long life, or remember foibles with affectionate laughter.

But not after the death of a child, particularly one who died in such chilling fashion as Leiby Kletzky, the 8-year-old Brooklyn boy who was kidnapped and killed this week. Throughout the morning and afternoon on Friday, a stream of visitors entered the Kletzky family’s brick apartment building on 15th Avenue in Borough Park. Almost all were somber, as if on a mission they did not relish.

 Shoeless and sitting on a low chair, Leiby’s father, Nachman, received the visitors alone in a narrow dining room while his wife, Itta, and their four daughters clustered in a bedroom off the kitchen.

 Around the apartment, there were so many gifts of fruit and cakes that the family had been forced to send some back. But these were no consolation, visitors said.

 “They’re trying to cope,” said Jonathan Schwartz, 42, a close friend. “They keep on saying that God gave them the privilege to raise this child for nine years.”

 Though most visitors had attended shivas before, several observed that no gathering had approached the shock and deep grief of Leiby’s.

 “If you had a dad go, 90 years old, it’s understandable,” said one family friend, who asked that his name not be used. “This is harder to comprehend, the worst of the worst.”

 Mr. Schwartz told of how his 9-year-old son, Shimmy, had often sat beside Leiby in synagogue and recently asked his father why he kept seeing his friend’s picture in the newspapers. “He can’t stop thinking about it,” Mr. Schwartz said. “He asks me if God just takes away kids at the age of 9.”

 With the beginning of Sabbath approaching — a night and day when even shiva is interrupted — Mr. Schwartz and other visitors grasped at the thought that the usually joyous observance would provide a respite. “It’s the day of peace,” Mr. Schwartz said. “It will affect us for the better.”

 Still, it was hard to escape reminders of Leiby’s ordeal. Outside the building, neighbors had posted a sign that said: “Please be sensitive to the family. DO NOT share rumors, stories and information you have heard — at all!!” Leiby was suffocated and his body was dismembered, but people close to the Kletzkys say they have tried to spare the family the details.

 There was also a note from Leiby’s parents posted in the building entryway, thanking those “who assisted us above and beyond physically, emotionally and spiritually — and to all from around the world, who had us in their thoughts and prayers.”

 In a contrasting tableau in the adjoining neighborhood of Kensington, two police vans marked Crime Scene Unit were parked in front of a house whose resident had been Levi Aron, the 35-year-old hardware store clerk charged with murdering Leiby after the boy got lost while walking home alone from his day camp on Monday. Knots of onlookers gathered behind barricades to glimpse investigators removing brown cardboard boxes of evidence.

 Mr. Aron was taken from Rikers Island to Bellevue Hospital Center, in Manhattan, about 8 p.m. on Thursday after jail officials conducted an intake examination and decided he required further psychiatric evaluation, said Sharman Stein, the chief spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Correction. She said he was in the Bellevue prison ward and “under very close watch.”

 Shiva, prescribed for the death of a parent, child, sibling or spouse, harks back to the Bible’s tale of the seven days that Joseph mourned his father, the patriarch Jacob. The ritual has since been layered over with dozens of customs observed differently by various Jewish communities. It generally begins the day of the funeral, and in Orthodox circles it lasts to the morning of the seventh day.

 Close relatives do not work, cook or run errands. They spurn shoes, refrain from showers and shaves, do not wear fresh clothes and sit in low chairs. Mirrors are covered, and a candle burns round the clock.

 The object is to concentrate on grieving. Visitors are to stay attuned to the mourners’ feelings and not bombard them with remarks. They generally greet a mourner with the words, “May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”

 But shiva can be a surprisingly busy time. Synagogues dispatch volunteers three times a day to set up minyans, quorums of 10 for prayer, and often send along a Torah, said Menashe Silber, a Hasidic community organizer.

 Bereavement organizations like Chesed Shel Emes provide such necessities as the low chairs and prayer books, according to Rabbi Mayer Berger, a director of Chesed.

 Samuel C. Heilman, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York who wrote “When a Jew Dies: The Ethnography of a Bereaved Son,” predicted that for much of the shiva period at the Kletzky home there would be “a lot of sitting in silence.”

 “How do you explain such evil?” he said. “You can’t say God has done something evil.”