Wednesday, December 17, 2008

She's So Frum She Davens In Her Sleep

This past weekend both of my sisters came into town and we had a little Vixen Shabbaton (get it? Foxes…vixens…?). We don't get to see each other very often, so it was really nice to spend some time together, eat good food and talk about my mom. There was a lot of laughter, which was nice, but by far the highlight of the weekend was on Shabbat morning.

I was slowly waking up, and I heard my younger sister Renana talking in her sleep. At first I couldn't figure out what she was saying, but after a few seconds I realized she was reciting the Kaddish. She got through the entire Mourner's Kaddish without waking up, but she did wake up my older sister, Deena, who looked over at me and asked what was going on.
"Oh," I told her, "Renana's gotten very frum. She can say the Kaddish in her sleep."onetwothree.jpg

When we woke Renana up half an hour later she remembered having a dream in which she ran to shul and got there just in time to say Kaddish, but had no idea that she had actually said it out loud.

Sometimes, grief is pretty funny.

(The photo is of Renana, my mother, and my cousin Abigail and it was taken in June).

Cross-posted at Mixed Multitudes

Friday, December 12, 2008

A Letter Which Is Not Read

I've been dreaming about my mother a lot recently. A while back I wrote about how I'm not one of those people who plans to hang out with dead people in her dreams. I've always found that whole concept to be a bit cheesy. I stand by that, but I am also a little humbled/chastened by the last week and a half, during which I have experienced a seemingly endless supply of nightmares in which my mother dies over and over again. Variations include my mother coming back to life but someone else in my immediately family suddenly dying in a gruesome way, or my mother and me watching someone else die (once, strangely enough, it was the Crocodile Hunter).

I have tried a number of things to get the dreams to go away with varying levels of success. Drinking lots of whiskey before bed has proved risky, because I have to be able to get up pretty early in the morning for minyan. Sleeping pills freak me out. Sometimes sleeping with the TV on is a good antidote, though it doesn't make for a very restful night.
We have an article on dreams and the interpretation of dreams that just scratches the surface of the rabbinic understandings of dreams. The most famous and interesting discussion of dreams in the Talmud comes from Brakhot 55a:

R. Hisda also said: A dream which is not interpreted is like a letter which is not read. R. Hisda also said: Neither a good dream nor a bad dream is ever wholly fulfilled. R. Hisda also said: A bad dream is better than a good dream. R. Hisda also said: The sadness caused by a bad dream is sufficient for it and the joy which a good dream gives is sufficient for it. R. Joseph said: Even for me the joy caused by a good dream nullifies it. R. Hisda also said: A bad dream is worse than being severely scolded, since it says, God does it that men should fear before Him (Ecc 3:14) and Rabbah b. Bar Hanah said in the name of R. Johanan: This refers to a bad dream.

I love that first line, "A dream which is not interpreted is like a letter which is not read." It reminds me, in a gentle way, of the hundreds of letters and notes my mother sent me, and how many of them I still have. When my sisters and I were babies my mom wrote us letters that she stashed in our baby books, and we all read them for the first time during the week of shiva. In mine, written to me when I was two, my mother noted that she would often wake up in the middle of the night to find that I was awake in my room, and involved in some sort of "project." Since I still stay up until all hours of the night doing projects, this was especially moving and amusing.

That letter from my mother went unread for 22 years. And now the dreams I'm having--I'm terrified to interpret them, and I'm shaken by their presence, but in a small frightening way I don't want them to stop. A moment with my mother, no matter how real or upsetting it is, is still a moment with someone who is gone. Part of me wants to keep the letter unread, just to have it.

The Waking by Theodore Roethke

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me, so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

[The photo above is of my mother, about two years ago, with my cousin Nathaniel.]

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Eulogies, Truth, and Bad Memories

There are extensive rules for giving a eulogy, and we touch on them in our article on eulogies, though it's not a comprehensive look at halakhot having to do with a hesped, or a eulogy. I looked through those halakhot before I wrote what I said at my mother's funeral, and was interested to find that we are meant to say things at a eulogy that will "break people's hearts," and make them cry over the loss (Yoreh Deah 344:1). Also, at a eulogy one can exaggerate the accomplishments of the deceased (Rosh on Moed Katan 3:63), though it is a sin to outright lie (Brachot 62a).
These rules only apply to the eulogy itself, but I think about them a lot in terms of how we remember people who have died--how we lionize or demonize them, and how we hone our selective memory so that we come out with a particular understanding of someone who was likely more complex than we imagine.

I struggle a lot with how to deal with unhappy memories of my mother. When I unexpectedly think of one of the really good times--a Friday night in her apartment in Jerusalem, surprising her at home the week after she finished chemo--I get teary, but when I am suddenly ambushed by a memory of a bad time--one of any number of fights we had while I was in high school, or my birthday this year when she said to me, "Don't touch me!"--I think I might just pass out the despair is so great.

I don't know if I'm exaggerating my mother's warmth and love and all of the good things about her that I think about constantly. I don't think so, but I suppose I'm an unreliable source when it comes to these things. I wonder, then, if I'm also unreliable when it comes to the bad things. Were any of them as bad as I thought? If they weren't, as I expect is the case, then I should probably be slapped. Hard.

They say hindsight is 20/20, but it doesn't feel that way. Every memory seems like it should be interrogated--Was the light that warm? Was the hug that sincere and long? Did I really restrain myself from rolling my eyes in that moment?--but I'm not sure where I'm supposed to end up. I want my memories to be of my mother--my real mother, not some idolized version that towers over me, unattainable. But I want it both ways. I'd very much like the bad moments to be packed up in a newfangled Pandora's box, hidden in the back of my closet, never to be seen again.

(Cross-posted at Mixed Multitudes)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

What Happens Then?

Last week an older man who I know from various minyanim on the Upper West Side mentioned that he was about to finish his year of saying Kaddish. I opened my mouth to respond and realized I had no idea what was an appropriate thing to say in that situation. Mazal tov? I'm so sorry? I hope this year has been one of healing? In the end I simply said, "I don't know what to say," and he told me it was okay, he didn't know either.eema_lighting_thanks_candle.jpg

This is not something that I've thought much about, since I'm still so early in the year of saying kaddish, but it has become so central a thing in my life that the idea of stopping, of stepping back from the grief, is terrifying.

It has been an incredibly hard few weeks. I had been doing pretty well, I thought, but then I fell apart, and for more than two weeks I found myself on the verge of tears many many times every day. On the subway, at the gym, at work, in the shower--I just get so sad I can't get a hold of myself. Anytime I think of those last few minutes--the family standing around the bed and holding Eema's hands as she faded away-- I feel like hiding under the covers and never coming out. I am overwhelmed and exhausted by the idea of subverting my grief in order to get through basic interactions with others. Sometimes paying for a gallon of milk without dissolving into tears seems nearly impossible.

And then yesterday, at minyan, a woman was leading davening and she had a yahrzeit for her son, who died five years ago. It was eight o'clock in the morning and the room was perfectly still, everyone trying to make space for the sorrow that rolled in invisible waves off of her body and pushed against all of us. She was a stranger, no one I had ever seen before, but I wanted to tell her, afterwards, how sorry I was. When I approached her, the tears came quick and hot and I was humiliated. One of the things about grief that I find so frustrating is how selfish it makes me. I cannot see past this, I cannot get over myself enough to gently say something sweet to someone else who is in pain.

I've been thinking about all this in connection to Thanksgiving, which is coming up in a week. It's a holiday that's meant to be about being grateful, and about eating with a community of people who help each other through difficult times. This year it seems simultaneously profound and perverse. It's hard to imagine being thankful, celebrating a year of plenty when this year has been so soul-crushingly sad. Yes, we've had plenty of food, and plenty of support from amazing and lovely people, but it's hard to focus on the thanks when everything else is so horrifying. I think thanks is something that you can do effectively when you're either very close to something (thank you for giving me food because otherwise I would have starved) or have a lot of perspective (now that I'm an adult I can appropriately thank you for disciplining me in a way that was respectful and effective). When you're somewhere in between--not super-close , but a long way from having any perspective--it's so hard to be thankful.

Then, this morning, I read this poem. And I feel a little better, though no less confused.

Praise Song By Barbara Crooker

Praise the light of late November,
the thin sunlight that goes deep in the bones.
Praise the crowd chattering in the oak trees;
though they are clothed in night, they do not
despair. Praise what little there's left:
the small boats of milkweed pods, husks, hulls,
shells, the architecture of trees. Praise the meadow
of dried weeds: yarrow, goldenrod, chicory,
the remains of summer. Praise the blue sky
that hasn't cracked yet. Praise the sun slipping down
behind the beechnuts, praise the quilt of leaves
that covers the grass: Scarlet Oak, Sweet Gum,
Sugar Maple. Though darkness gathers, praise our crazy
fallen world; it's all we have and it's never enough.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Good and Welfare

Up until very recently I've been shocked at how simple my grief has been. I'm just sad all the time. There really isn't much more to it than that--just the sadness, like a thin blanket over every day.

But recently the sadness has retreated a bit. I'm doing work I like, living in a nice apartment with roommates I enjoy. I have friends who take care of me, good food in my fridge, and sisters on speed dial. Good days have begun to stack one on top of another, and I feel flustered, confused by the smiles that come easily, the lightness creeping into my chest and behind my eyes. I sometimes catch myself in a good moment and recoil in horror. How can I be happy while the grief still hangs low over my head? How can it be that my mother is dead and I am giggling at a stupid commercial, enjoying a new book, joking with friends over beer and cookies?

I don't expect that I'll be sad forever, but I expected it to be weightier than this, to cling to me more steadfastly than it has.

And then, of course, there is the guilt. Maybe I shouldn't be happy. It is, perhaps, disrespectful to clink glasses and tell dirty jokes and accidentally smear frosting on my face at a party when my mother has been dead for just over two months.

When I am feeling good, when my life seems to have steadied around me, and I am caught up in a simple moment of routine--making the bed, walking to shul, stirring a pot of soup, opening up a newspaper--that is when the sadness rushes back at me like a wave held back too long. There is no trigger, just the sudden ambush of grief as I try to hold myself together, get to someplace private where I can cry and then stop.

I thought it would be more gradual than this, but it's not. On Sunday morning I was in the kitchen making French toast. The coffee maker was mewing behind me, and I stood in the middle of a parallelogram of light that came in through the window and lay like a warm yellow rug on the tile floor. I felt calm and happy, cracking the eggs and whisking in the milk. But then, for no reason, something crumpled inside me. The happiness just gave way. And there, in its place, was the cold clear sadness. For the rest of the day it lurked inside everything.

I was still wrestling with the sadness, trying to keep it under the surface, when I had a discussion with The Boy about going to concerts and performances during this year. Last night one of our favorite musicians was playing, and he wanted to take me. I was also invited to dance at a friend's wedding. I didn't really feel like going to either event, mostly because I couldn't imagine pretending to be happy for very long. For a few minutes we talked about the rules of this year, and why they're hard, but good for me. I think there's too much back and forth this year for those true expressions of joy.

This morning on the subway I was reading a book of poems by an Irish poet named Ben Howard. The book is called Dark Pool, and I had paged through it once before, but the bottom of a poem called "Shutters" caught my eye today.

Where will it end, that cycle of disclosure
and closing-up, advancement and retreat?
Within the moments of your timed exposure

I see a lens preparing to be shuttered,
as though the truest movement of your heart
were systole, your truest words unuttered.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Counting to Ten

This morning I went to a different minyan than usual because it was a friend's last day in NY, and I promised I'd show up at the shul he usually goes to for minyan, even though they were starting forty minutes earlier than the place I usually go, and was ten minutes farther away. When I arrived, I was only the sixth person in the room, and because it's a Modern Orthodox synagogue, I didn't count towards the minyan anyway.

It took another twenty minutes before we finally had ten men, and though we did move forward in the davening while we waited, I spent those twenty minutes paralyzed with fear that we wouldn't have a minyan, I wouldn't be able to say kaddish, and I'd have to try to run to another minyan once we finished.

I hadn't thought about this much up until this point, but one of the things that I like about saying Kaddish is the way it forces you to depend on your community. You have this obligation, and in order to fulfill it you have to get nine other people to help you out, and fulfill an obligation of their own.

Sometimes grieving feels so private that it can seem bizarre to have to say Kaddish in front of a group of people. But having those people around forces you into a community, forces you to care about other people when you might otherwise be consumed with a more selfish and all-encompassing grief. It's not fun, really. Waiting for a minyan can actually be quite stressful, but I think it gives a new perspective in a time when it's easy to be too inwardly focused.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Mourning and the Right to Lead Davening

Some of the rules of being a mourner seem obvious to me. I understand why I'm prohibited from going to see a live music or theater performance, and I appreciate that restriction. It makes sense to hold back from such public displays of jubilation and drama when I'm still, internally, an emotion basket case. It also seems like a sign of respect to

But when I first heard that mourners had a greater hiyuv, or obligation, to daven, than other people attending a minyan, and were thus the preferred choice for leading services, I was surprised. It's one thing to require that we show up every day and praise God despite the raw grief we're feeling, but it's another thing entirely to say that we should lead others in long expressions of thanks every morning, afternoon and night. That seems almost perverse. Of course I can go through the motions, but should I--or any mourner--really be leading davening when they're likely having a crisis of faith, or at the very least struggling with loss and acceptance?

That's what I used to think, but I've changed my mind.

Some days I feel like I am in a constant one-sided conversation with God. That whole bargaining stage of grieving? It's for real, people. So it makes sense that I'd be the person to lead the plea for his goodwill. But also, and perhaps more importantly, when you're a shaliach tzibur, you have to pay close attention to what's going on. You have to be more present in the moment than if you're just answering Amen to someone reciting a blessing at the front of the room. Grieving can feel like being very far away from the world, and from everything that's happening in it. Standing at the amud calling out words of joy and gratitude to God--it requires you to focus yourself, and it focuses others on your words. You can't be far away.

I didn't think I would feel this way, but especially in the past couple of weeks I've been itching to lead davening. I have a few things to say to God. I can't wait to stand at the Amud.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Getting Back to the Routine

Now that Simchat Torah is over the Jewish holiday season finally comes to a close. After a month on the job, I’ll have my first whole week at work starting on Monday. Soon I will be getting up at basically the same time every morning, going to work, going to the gym, coming home, and seeing my friends. I have been looking forward to this for months, but it’s also terrifying, and incredibly sad.

I’ve always been the kind of person who flourishes when given some kind of routine, even if it’s a very loose one. Last year I was immersed in a schedule of teaching, taking classes and writing. Every morning I davened, wrote for the website where I worked, took a yoga class, and spent some time on my thesis. And then when Eema got really sick, in March, everything shifted. I returned to Chicago to spend my time with Eema. I stopped going to yoga, and stopped davening every morning. My work at Jewcy became spotty, and my thesis was moved to the bottom of my list of priorities. For the next several months, my days were unpredictable and chaotic. There were appointments with doctors, visits with friends and guests from out of town, bathing, shopping, reading, and massaging. Most days were a hodgepodge of activities depending mostly on how Eema was feeling. I was so happy to be able to help Eema, to be with her, but I felt miserable and unmoored by my lack of routine. I clung to the few constants—coffee with Laura in the mornings, time at the gym, and working—but mainly I coached myself that sometime soon I would have a routine again.

After Eema died there was a week of strict routine in shiva, but then everything shifted and opened up again. I thought moving to New York would finally give me the anchoring that I craved, but as soon as I got here the holidays took over, and I bounced from work to holiday to Shabbat, as anxious as ever. Now that stage is finally, mercifully, coming to an end.

But I don’t feel happy, or even relieved. Part of grieving, I’ve noticed, is getting to the next stage where things should be easier, and realizing that it’s farther away from the person you miss. Of course, I’m thrilled to have reached the point where I can really get into the groove of my routine. But I’m also horrified that my mother has been dead for a month and a half. How did this happen? I want to freeze the world at this point. I want to stay as close to her as I can (though really, if I’m making time travel wishes, I’d rather go back a year and a half and do a whole lot of things differently, and not stay here in the year of suckiness).

I appreciate that saying kaddish is one element of this year that is a constant, a helpful daily piece of routine. But as the days go by I can’t help thinking that maybe I don’t want a routine as much as I thought I did.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

I’ve always been a very vivid dreamer, and it’s actually one of the things that I shared with Eema. We both would have long strange elaborate dreams involving all kinds of strange people, and we liked to talk about them, to tell them as stories. Yes, I’m aware that many people consider listening to other people’s dreams to be horribly boring, but Eema and I never cared.

Because of my tendency to remember my dreams I was hoping that I might have one about Eema. I don’t really believe in that stuff—that dead people can visit us in our dreams, or whatever—but I wanted it anyway. I have been having lots of dreams lately, but Eema wasn’t in any of them. And then a few days ago I dreamt that I was having a conversation with Abba and Deena, and we were talking about Renana needing to be picked up from somewhere and taken somewhere else. We were discussing who could pick her up, and I asked, “Well what is Eema doing?” And then I realized, and then the dream was over. It was—unsettling. Embarrassing. How could I not remember, even in a dream, this huge and horrible thing?

The day after I had that dream was Friday, and after work in the afternoon I was back at the apartment cooking and cleaning and getting ready for Shabbat. I spoke with Renana just before candle lighting and she said something that suddenly made me realize I hadn’t been thinking about Eema at all for a while. I can’t say how long, really, but it seems like it could have been hours since I had last thought about her, and about my own sadness, and I was simultaneously shocked, appalled and impressed by myself. How had I managed to do that? Would I just continue to do it, and that’s what it means to move on? I hope not, because it wasn’t a particularly healing experience. I didn’t feel any better, I just hadn’t felt horrible for a little while. It feels like a sin of omission.

I’ve always thought that recovering from a broken heart is that dealing with a really nasty fall. For a while you cannot go anywhere or do anything without being reminded of the pain, and how different you are from everyone else who’s able to just go on with their lives normally while you hobble around feeling like shit. And then you get better at hobbling, and maybe stronger, but mostly probably just used to it and you still feel crappy. And even though it’s nice not to be doing quite as poorly as before you still wish you were getting the pity you got when things were at their worst. But slowly things get better and better, and then there’s a long stage where there’s a visible bruise, and you keep touching it to see if it still hurts. And for a while it does, and then suddenly it doesn’t. And eventually the bruise goes away.

I don’t think grief works entirely the same way. There are similarities, but I think that when you have your heart broken in a romantic sense, you can console yourself with the knowledge that there are other fish in the sea, and you are likely to fall in love again. I feel like most people suffer from broken hearts and recover and go on to love other people. But when your mother dies, it just doesn’t work that way. There is no other mother that’s going to come along. And I guess partially because of the permanence of the loss, and the way it can never be smoothed over by some other character playing a similar part, I was just so surprised and disappointed in myself.

Friday night I had a dream about Eema. She and I were sitting on a couch somewhere looking at old pictures of her, and she was sick, but she was well in the pictures, and we talked about them and she gave me a hug and I cried into her shoulder. When I woke up, I kept my eyes squeezed shut and stayed in bed for another hour, hoping I could make it come back.

The hope for coming back—it’s so complicated and strange. There’s a whole facet of Judaism focused on what will happen when the dead are revived, if they’re revived, and what various Jewish texts seem to say about reincarnation and revivification. When I was home in Chicago last week I spoke about it with Abba and Deena and felt as confused about it as ever.

It’s not something that I ever spent much time thinking about before. I thought it was kind of wrong to think about it, because if you just banked on being brought back to life after death then what was the point of getting anything done in this world? And I still feel that way, but I also feel strongly that there’s no way to escape wanting someone to come back when they die. And it isn’t really an abstract kind of wanting, it’s a specific, direct and sharp desire for something that seems like it should be attainable. Someone was here a month ago, a week ago, yesterday—how can it be that they are no longer capable of coming back?

Dreams seem like a middle ground. They’re not real. They’re created by our brains trying to process the mental work of our days. But their perceived realness makes a dreamt reincarnation less threatening theologically, and very comforting psychologically.

And with that—bedtime.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Not There Yet

I’ve always been a person who stands during the mourner’s kaddish. My father always stands, so I always have, too. I actually stand for any kaddish, which means that I hear ‘yitgadal’ and automatically get to my feet. Maybe it’s because there are so many permutations of the kaddish in every service, but for some reason I’m still sometimes surprised when we get to the mourner’s kaddish. Occasionally I miss the first few words because I’ve been zoning out, or I wasn’t done reading whatever came just before it, or I was waiting for someone to say, “Mourner’s Kaddish, page 81.” In any event, it sometimes takes me a few seconds to catch up to the other people saying the Kaddish, and it’s unnerving and embarrassing when this happens.

I am not used to being a mourner yet. It has been over a month, but I’m really not accustomed to this new frame of mind.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the placement of the mourner’s kaddish, the way it comes at the very end of davening, as a final period to the whole service. Logistically that makes a lot of sense to me. Mourners can show up pretty late to davening and still fulfill their obligation. But more often than not it seems like the kaddish is something we’re trying to get through so we can be done already. People are packing up their tallitot, and whispering, and as soon as kaddish is over there are the inevitable and boring announcements. Somehow the kaddish has been unmoored from the rest of davening, and I find that disconcerting. Of course, it does feel isolated to be a mourner, but isn’t the whole point of the kaddish that even mourners still believe in God, that they have to continue to proclaim their faith and their steadfastness in the community even when it feels a little disingenuous?

There is, of course, a kaddish much earlier in the service, and I like that one better, though I don’t always make it to shul in time to say it. I think sometimes I’m more ready to say the words early on in the service. By the time I’ve gotten to the end of davening I’m worn down by the whole thing, the hugeness of my faith staring at me as I try to say words I have trouble believing. And the members of the minyan are beginning to shift their focus to whatever comes next in their day. But that first kaddish is easier. It’s like a gulp of fresh air taken before a sprint. Frightening, but instinctual. I’m always ready for the kaddish in the middle of services, and I never feel ready for the one that comes at the end. I wonder if I ever will.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Pink Ribbon Frustrations

I’ve been reading a lot of letters lately. I save all of the letters I get, and even have them fairly organized, so I was recently able to look through all of the letters that my mother gave me, from my fifteenth birthday card, to a note that seems to be the result of a disagreement we had last summer. Inevitably, upon reading the letters, I cry. One letter in particular she sent to me in Nashville shortly after her mastectomy last October. She thanked me to helping her during the recovery process, and wrote how confident she was that she would get through her illness “with flying colors.”

Reading the letter last night got me thinking about how this is breast cancer awareness month, and so every other product that’s for sale, from Cheerios to body wash to sandals, is available with a pink ribbon on it during the month of October, and everyone seems to be raising money for breast cancer charities. It’s a great cause, but I also find it to be a little frustrating and sad. The ad campaigns always focus on survivors, and there are pictures of women walking scores of miles, leaping for joy, proudly baring their bald heads. It’s nice, but it’s also so far separated from how my family experienced breast cancer, that I find myself recoiling from the pink ribbon as often as I embrace it. Breast cancer was not exercise and joy and pride for us, it was gruesome and slow and horrifically cruel. Buying a pink bottle of shampoo might technically support breast cancer research, but it seems a little…inappropriate?

And then, too, there are the incredibly thoughtless things people say about cancer. I’ve heard survivors telling others that they had to survive, they were fighters, they were determined to beat this thing! Well that’s good, but what does that say about my mother? She wasn’t a fighter? She wasn’t determined enough? And is the logic there that if someone isn’t fighting with great determination, if someone loses hope at some point for some reason, then that person deserves to die?

There's a narrative that we all have in our heads about certain types of cancer, and probably breast cancer most of all. I think the pink ribbon has been instrumental in making breast cancer out to be this rough but ultimately okay patch in most people's lives, and I feel a little cheated and misled by that. Rough and misleading is doesn't even cover what we were feeling on the best days.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Jews Bring Too Much Food? Waste During Shiva

(Cross posted on The Jew and the Carrot)

A few months ago I wrote some tips on appropriate and helpful ways to bring food to someone who’s ill or grieving. At the time, my mother was in treatment for terminal cancer, and though we were grateful to have an amazing community providing food for us during such a difficult time, I often found myself guiltily throwing out some leftovers that had gotten shoved to the back of the fridge to make room for new offerings. I suggested that people try to bring smaller portions.

Then, on September 9th, my mother passed away, and what had been a slight excess of food transformed into a mountain of baked goods, stacks of trays from kosher restaurants, and Tupperware as far as the eye could see. From the very first day of shiva we were completely overwhelmed with food, and the same women who were coordinating people to bring us meals were having to sort through the fridge and toss or freeze the obscene amount of casseroles, cakes and random snacks that people were bringing when they came to visit with us.

One of the rules of sitting shiva is that the mourners should not prepare their own food, so we had expected to have meals for the week made and prepared by others, but we were not prepared for the sheer quantity of what we ended up with. Among other things, we ended the week with an ant problem in our kitchen because there was so much food sitting out all the time.

Over all, I found shiva to be a difficult but incredibly healing week, and it was wonderful to have so many people showing us their support in so many ways. Still, it frustrates me to see so much food go to waste, and some of the craziness that resulted from having other people run my kitchen for a week was no fun at all. So, here’s some new tips and thoughts on bringing food to a shiva house.

Call ahead
Typically meals are arranged for a family sitting shiva, so if you want to contribute, it’s best to find out who’s coordinating the meals, and ask when you could sign up to bring something instead of just showing up with something at random. Unplanned dishes are the ones that tend to end up in the compost heap first.

Plan (farther) ahead
It was a pretty huge shock to go from having so much food we didn’t know what to do with ourselves, to being all on our own as soon as shiva was over. No one really did this, but it would have been so nice to have someone offer to bring us a meal a week after shiva ended, or even two weeks later.

Be aware of kitchen etiquette
If you’re going to be bringing food or helping out at a shiva house, try to be respectful of the kitchen you’re dealing with, and if you don’t know, please ask. At one point during the week my sister walked into our kitchen to find that someone had taken a sharpie to our Dairy drainer and carefully labeled it ‘MEAT.’ A few days later I noticed that the bin we usually use to store potatoes contained a 9x13 pan, some measuring cups, some silverware, a paring knife, and a sauce pan. Though we only left the house once the entire week, no one who was involved in dealing with the kitchen ever came to us to ask where something belonged, or if something was meat or dairy. When the shiva was over, the amount of reorganizing we had to do was really epic.

Consider a healthy treat
If you really want to bring something unsolicited, consider something homemade and healthy. By far the majority of the food that we received was some variety of baked goods. Now don’t get me wrong, I love cake, and I love bagels, but at a certain point it was just out of control, and in the end, many cakes were tossed half-eaten. Some people opted to bring more unusual and healthier offerings, and those tended to get gobbled up because we were feeling a little overwhelmed by how much sugar we were all consuming. When a friend brought over homemade guacamole before Shabbat, it went quickly. We loved the fancy cappuccino torte and the vegan mango cheesecake was delicious, but every once in a while I just wanted a carrot.

Share a food memory
If someone from the family indicates that they want to talk, consider sharing a food-related memory. I know how uncomfortable people get at shiva houses. It is sad, and can be awkward to try to express sympathy without resorting to clich├ęs. But food can be a great vehicle to beginning a conversation about the deceased. I was so touched by the number of people who mentioned wonderful Shabbat and holiday meals they had with my mother. People told us about being new in town, and how my mother invited them to eat with our family. They remembered specific dishes she was famous for, and told us about times she brought food to them when they needed support. Those conversations were incredibly meaningful and always so nice to hear; a great improvement over “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

You're Not That Special

During the week of sitting shiva, it feels a little like being the star of some kind of bizarre show. There's an audience hanging around all the time watching you, and everyone has lines that they say to you and lines they expect you to say in return. It feels, in a strange way, like being very important. And then the week ends, and suddenly the show has been canceled. There are people who still check in on you, and ask anxiously how you're doing every time they see you, but for the most part, the world around you shifts on to whatever comes next.

One of the few things that I actually like about saying Kaddish is that it asks the world (well, the minyan at least) to focus back in on the mourner, to allow us to be important again for just a few scattered minutes every day. But even then, it's all of the mourners collectively who get the attention, not one person specifically. I partially resent this--I guess I feel strongly that my grief is greater than anyone else's and I just want people to know that I'm feeling crappy--but I also appreciate that it makes me notice that there are other people going through similarly crappy times. There's this moment that I've noticed in most minyanim when the people who are saying Kaddish surreptitously look around to see who else is saying it, too. I've never approached anyone after Kaddish to ask their story--"So, who died?"--but there's a delicate thread of kinship that's built in that first moment of 'Yitgadal.'