Remembrance and mourning in Newtown

I imagine I’m not alone in still struggling with the Newtown massacre. Even after witnessing media deluge, the tangential political grandstanding, the unique evil of killing 1st graders is very difficult for me to think about.

How do reporters even begin to make sense out of the bloodbath? For many, they turn to politics, which provides comfort for many, including many journalists.

I’ve been intrigued by the relative downplaying of religion in coverage. But there was a really good piece on one of the victims and it’s worth a read.

It comes from The Jewish Daily Forward, a publication we don’t normally critique. But it’s written in a straight news fashion and does a great job of looking solely at how six-year-old Noah Pozner’s family is mourning. It begins with a mention of all of the gifts being sent to the family by strangers the world over.

Noah was the youngest child massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, when 20-year-old gunman Adam Lanza first killed his mother, Nancy Lanza, and then shot his way into the school and slayed 20 first grade students and six staff members, including the principal. Noah was hit 11 times. He was the first child to be buried, on December 17 in a funeral overseen by Rabbi Shaul Praver of Congregation Adath Israel of Newtown.

For the following six nights, the family sat shiva at a friend’s house, which could better accommodate the dozens of visitors than their smaller home. Today, Sunday, with the official Jewish mourning period over, the Pozners have invited friends and family to a large white two-story home they have rented on the outskirts of Newtown. (Noah’s father Lenny is not present. Veronique says her husband “needed to get away” after sitting shiva with the family, and went to visit friends in Florida.) In preparation, the family clears the stuffed animals off the kitchen island and replaces them with bowls of dried fruit, chips, candied nuts, carrot sticks and a roast turkey.

This is how the nation’s most famous Jewish grieving family grieves.

The story is a couple thousand words long and includes tons of details, explaining that a torn black ribbon pinned to mother Veronique’s shirt is a Jewish mourning custom. Other things are not, such as a tattoo she got the day after his death of “a small pink rose flanked by two angel wings with Noah’s name spanning the space between them, and his birth and death dates beneath.”

For those curious about the day-to-day aftermath of losing your child, we learn a great deal about just that. And about how Veronique became Jewish:

Veronique was born in Switzerland to French parents who raised her in Scarsdale, N.Y. She converted to Judaism in 1992 when she married her first husband, Reuben Vabner. Her second husband, Lenny, is also Jewish; he is originally from Brooklyn and works in information technology. In 2005, Lenny and Veronique relocated to Newtown from nearby Bethel. (They had previously lived in Westchester.) They had three children in tow: Sophia, an infant, and Danielle and Michael, from Veronique’s first marriage. Sometime in 2013, Veronique says, she plans to move her family again, this time to the Seattle area where much of her extended family lives. They will be taking Noah’s body with them.

Noah and his twin Arielle, we learn, were inseparable. Their 22-months-older sister was also close to them. He was a smart kid who asked about how things worked:

Noah also wondered about God, asking his mother, “If God exists then who created God?” He wanted to know what happens after death. “I would always tell him, ‘You are not going to die until you are a very old man, Noah.’ He was afraid of death, I know he was. He feared the unknown,” Veronique says. “Sometimes I wonder whether he had some foretelling, some prescience about it. Of course I will never know for sure, maybe it was just the random fears of a child.”

The whole piece is good and worth a read. It’s full of interesting details about the religious practices of the Pozners. Would be nice to read more of this type of story.

Remembrance candle via Shutterstock.

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  • sari

    Nice article, but no one should presume that what’s portrayed as traditional Jewish practice, especially for Conservative or Orthodox Jews. Shiva, the seven days of most intense mourning, are part of the longer Shloshim or thirty days, after which all formal restrictions are lifted for all relatives but parents (twelve months). Disinterment (Noah’s family plans to move the body) is usually forbidden, the body is usually dressed in a shroud of pure white linen, and viewings are usually forbidden. In addition, mirrors are covered during the shiva period and the onan (mourner) expected to forgo leather shoes, makeup, etc. Even the little black ribbon is a non-Jewish custom.

  • sari

    I should add that tattoos are explicitly forbidden by Torah, not just the Halakhah.

  • agricola

    Can we just critique the story, not the quibbling details about one family’s particular practice?

    • sari

      One can critique it, but to do so one must be familiar with the Forvertz and its history as a Jewish socialist paper with little regard for religion. It is also important for readers here, most of whom are non-Jews, to understand that the Poszners’ practice is not representative of most Jews. Much of the halakhah pertaining to funerary customs has been retained as tradition, even by the most liberal Jews.

      The big question mark in the story was Lenny, Noah’s father. Parents do not opt of out their children’s shivas. He has been a non-entity throughout, which made me wonder if the parents were separated. The family’s impending move also suggests a family in transition in more ways than one.

      The rabbi’s voice is also missing. Any reporter familiar with Jewish burial customs would have asked about the viewing, the absence of a burial shroud, and exhuming the body. They would have asked about the tattoo -and- about Mrs. Pozner’s interpretation of Noah’s questions about G-d. Most parents field similar questions, not because their children fear death, but because children are children. Bright children are even more curious.

  • agricola

    I did think about addressing the particulars of ‘normative’ Jewish burial and mourning practices, but decided it didn’t really belong here.
    Mirror covering is minhag. Disinterment is USUALLY not a practice. The torn piece of ribbon, while not a universal Jewish practice, is certainly very common. We have no information about whether Lenny was ‘at home’ for the shiva period (or not) and it would be improper to speculate, tattooing is PROBABLY forbidden by Torah law, but we should also seek rabbinic opinion….
    Here’s something to be considered though – don’t attempt to correct or contradict a person when their dead lie before them (P.A. 4:18 – paraphrased).
    There is also the consideration of lashon hara.
    ..judge every person favorably (P. A. 1:6)

  • sk

    It is clearly stated he left AFTER the shiva in the brackets.