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Monday, June 28, 2004


sur·ro·gate* (sûr'schwa-gibrevet, -gamacrt', subrever'-)

1. One that takes the place of another; a substitute.

a) A person or animal that functions as a substitute for another, as in a social or family role.
b) A surrogate mother.

3. Psychology. A figure of authority who takes the place of the father or mother in a person's unconscious or emotional life.

Over the past year, I have noticed a perplexing phenomenon which seems to be uniquely Israeli…your feedback may help me determine the truth of that supposition. If I were a psychologist or a social worker, I could easily justify undertaking a respectable doctoral dissertation on the subject…but since I’m just an untrained observer, this blog entry will have to suffice.

Several people I know have lost teenage children. Our neighbors lost their son in an army training accident. My secretary lost her daughter to a sudden, previously undetected, heart defect. A department head in my office lost his son in a tragic car accident. All of these unrelated deaths have something in common: The friends of these deceased teenage children have continued to maintain extremely close, almost familial, relationships with their departed friend’s parents.

The friends come by before Shabbat to say hello and share a cold soda… they invite themselves over for holidays… they include one-another in family celebrations. And it's not a one-sided thing... the parents of the deceased seem to seek out the friends as well.

I’m not talking about dropping by a few weeks after the funeral, or sending cards at holiday time. In each of these cases, the friends (schoolmates, army buddies, neighborhood playmates) have continued, for years, to stop by for ad-hoc meals, to introduce boyfriends, girlfriends, and eventually spouses and their own children. When I asked an Israeli friend about what I had observed, she said it was not at all uncommon … although having no other frame of reference; she couldn’t begin to imagine why it would be any other way.

To an outside observer, it seems as though a surrogate relationship has developed which allows both the friends and the parents of the deceased to partially fill the jagged hole in their lives. However, as an American, I can’t fathom why the parents and friends would actively seek out a relationship that would constantly remind them of the missing friend/child.

I’m stumped. I can't figure out why seeing their dead child's friends going on with life... going to university, getting married, having children of their own, is a comfort rather than a horrible reminder of things that can never be. I don’t necessarily think these relationships are a bad, or unhealthy thing… on the contrary; this proxy relationship seems to provide a powerful salve on an otherwise unbearable wound. But for someone who was raised in a culture where every reminder of death is banished from sight, this is somewhat bewildering.

If you’ve had similar experiences or can shed some light onto this phenomenon of surrogate relationships, please feel free to share.

* The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition Copyright © 2003 by Houghton Mifflin Company

Posted by David Bogner on June 28, 2004 | Permalink


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I've never heard of such a thing. It sounds incredibly healthy. Focusing on life and community and caring, instead of death and loss and distance. Far too healthy for the US. I wonder sometimes if this is the only country in the world that has entirely lost the village mentality. I would guess that it's not so much an Israeli thing as a non-US thing.

Posted by: Tanya | Jun 28, 2004 11:22:52 PM

From experience, I think it is quite an Israeli thing; not really only Israeli, but I strongest felt it (t)here.
At some time I would ask myself if it's the religion: though one doesn't necessarily need to be observant, it simply has become a part of the culture/society and may therefore not be related to religion anymore [it would be interesting to read what your rabbi thinks about it; have you asked him?].
Then I think of early Kibbutz years and possible social influences - children were put in the kindergarten early, and after that they were living in their own blocks [as teenagers]; so maybe consequently, this developed a sense of communal responsibility, with the effect that family borders were much loser than in other places? [grant me the bonus of a non native-speaker when it comes to the explanation of complex psycho-social thesises...]
And then, there is yet what is called "collective memory".

For me, it seems strange to think that through death, social connections should suddenly end, because life goes on. Also, I think the issue of how death is perceived is important here. Think of 1991 - Israelis, besides leaving Tel Aviv okay, were celebrating parties. I heard my friends singing and partying over the phone.

Oh, this issue is interesting. There should be a follow-up on that.

Posted by: mademoiselle a. | Jun 29, 2004 1:11:58 AM

I have no basis for agreeing or disagreeing with you on this, however, I wonder if it's just that you are more aware of young adult children dying since being in Israel. Perhaps you didn't have as close relationships with people who have had this situation in the States and therefore it just seemed unheard of.

I guess I'm getting a tad tired of hearing how different/'better' it is there in Israel, as it somehow makes it seem that it was horrific in the place you left behind. It sounds wonderful where you are, Dave, but I think that it is that way more because you want to be there and the culture is supportive of how you want to live your life. For you it might be better, but here in the States, it's not so bad.

There certainly is a sense of community here in my town and definitely in my neighborhood.

Sorry to sound defensive - - - don't mean to. I guess I felt a need to stand up for my Americanism... :)

Posted by: Val | Jun 29, 2004 1:33:47 AM

Dave, you are so correct- what you witnessed is NOT the norm here in the States.

Death is painful, by necessity. It would seem the Israelis you encounter have a different take on death than we do. I grew up in a family where death was not hidden (part of the family had a multi-generational funeral biz), but I have seen the "remove all memories" approach many times over.

I'd like to think that people maintaining ties with the decedent's friends would be a good thing, but I know that for some, it would be something unbearable.

A very thoughtful post; thank you for sharing.

Posted by: Lachlan | Jun 29, 2004 3:20:58 AM


I too was amazed by this. For a few months I dated a guy who was a real, live Israeli. And when he was 20, one of the guys in his very close-knit chevra was killed in Lebanon. I was amazed how every Shabbat afternoon a few of the guys would go over to this friend's parents house to visit. Every Shabbat. It wasn't like there was a rotation, but if one of the guys realized no one was going to make it that week, they would rearrange their schedule. Every week.

As the years went on since this guy's death (now 6 years) the friends who visited started bringing girlfriends, who became wives. At each of their weddings, the father of their friend was given an honor (usually eid) -- the same honor they would have given to their friend if he was still alive.

I went to the 5 year azkara of this friend, and the father told me (in tears) "I am no good at these events. I'm much better at weddings and happy events. I'd rather dance at the weddings"

I think they sort of live vicariously through their son's friends. All of whom remain in strong relationships with the parents. The parents become the surrogate for their son, and the friends become the surrogates for the parents. I saw them at these weddings and they seemed genuinely happy. Like you, I wondered -- isn't it painful for them to be here? If I were in their place, I'd probably never want to see the friends again. I mean, why did they get to live, and marry, and have kids, while their son didn't?

And I think that the pain must have somehow been mitigated in these frienships. If the friend was still alive, would they have made sure to visit every week? Would the parents be invited to all the weddings? It seemed to be a mutually beneficial relationship. It sort of makes sense, most of the time, when a senator or congressman dies in office, isn't his wife usually elected to ride out his term?

Sorry this is so long

Posted by: Noa | Jun 29, 2004 9:59:13 AM

Thanks to everyone who has shared comments and e-mails on this topic. I would love to hear more, so please feel free to continue with your observations and opinions. I'm jumping in here only because it is beginning to appear (from your responses) that my very unscientific sampling of 3 Israeli families, may indeed be an indication of a social trend. The question is: Is this an Israeli trend, a non-American trend, or a universal trend that I simply wasn't aware of?

Next, I will say for the record that if anyone in one of the mental health fields wants to research a paper on this topic... I will gladly file, staple, photocopy, whatever... in order to help out with the project.

and lastly...

One of the hardest things about being in a new place is having to constantly resist the urge to say, "In the 'states' we did _______, how come they don't do that here?" Having grown up within American culture, it is very tempting to become the 'Ugly American' abroad... criticizing things that are different.

Instead, I have tried very hard to look at the things here that are different with an eye to finding a good reason why they should be so. Most (but not all) of what you'll find here is an attempt to do just that. Please rest assured that I am not trying to put down my past life in the U.S. as somehow defective. I just happen to be incredibly happy with most aspects of my new surroundings.... and I can't (won't) turn a blind eye to happines now that it has come along.

Posted by: David | Jun 29, 2004 1:27:44 PM

As another thought, not closely related to the actual topic, I think it's just in our nature to compare upon the confrontation with the new.

When we're moving to another place, we compare. Boy friends like to talk nights about how their respective ex was [to their new girl friend, he]. When we're on travels, we compare new sensations with those we're used to from home/our culture.

So why are we doing this? Are we being bad? Are we being the eternal criticaster? I'd rather like to think that it is a product as we're actively growing into the new social frames we are encountering. It doesn't mean we suddenly despise the things that lie behind us. It means we're starting to see things with different eyes, from a new perspective. This, in turn, has us revising our past, sometimes critically, sometimes evenly. It's not easy at all, and at times it is very confusing.

Posted by: mademoiselle a. | Jun 29, 2004 2:35:23 PM


Our 24 yr old daughter died of a brain stem cancer almost 15 years ago. Several of her girl friends continue to drop in to visit us occasionally. While there are times when her death suddenly hits me almost has hard as it did back then, nevertheless I enjoy talking with her old friends who share what's been happening in their lives and take the time to learn how her now 17 yr old daughter is doing (just graduated from high school, as a matter of fact). I think I find it comforting that she made enough of an impact on their lives that they remember her with affection and stop by just to show that they still care.

Posted by: Carole in Hawaii | Jun 29, 2004 2:40:26 PM


Thank you so much for sharing such a powerful, personal account. I can't imagine the pain you suffered (and still suffer) at the loss of your daughter.

At the risk of intruding, may I ask you a question related to this topic? You mentioned that you found it comforting that your daughter (A"H) made such a profound impression on her peers. How has your ongoing relationship with her friends effected you? Has it helped or hindered the process of continuing to live your own life?

Please excuse me if I'm being insensitive by asking you the basic question that inspired today's post.

Posted by: David | Jun 29, 2004 3:24:55 PM

The question doesn't bother me at all, David, because it brought out a line of thinking that I hadn't even considered. After some reflection, I'd have to say that their continued interest has helped both my husband and I to look to the brighter side of life and not dwell on the pain that her death brought. Their visits and letters get us to remember the fun and the happy times she shared with us all. Heaven only knows, we need more cheerful things to think about with the world in the crazy condition it is now. So maybe it's easier for us since we see her friends only once or twice a year when they come back to the Islands to visit their families here. I might have a different point of view if they lived closer and I saw them a lot more. You are definitely right about one thing, though. Some budding psychologist should be working on a paper about this phenomenon. Either a paper or a best seller of a book, one or the other. I'd sure buy a copy.

Posted by: Carole in Hawaii | Jul 1, 2004 1:29:53 PM

I have noticed the same pattern - actually, now I come to think of it, I have acted accordingly ...

One of my brothers took his own life at the age of 19 in 1986. I went out of my way to meet his friends and I am still in touch with one of his friends. This happenend in Europe - from where I have immigrated 10 years ago. Our parents were less active but never objected. In fact when I go to see my parents I meet this one friend at their home.

I think that the attitude is basically the Jewish approach to death: emphasize life!

Never have I felt anything like envy or resentment for seeing my brother's friends alive, although I specifically thought when seeing his former girl friend's kids how lovely it would be if they had been his. How could I grudge anybody to be alive and to get on in life?

Posted by: Ruth Bracha | Jul 4, 2004 1:39:27 PM

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