For Jews, there is no greater symbol of mourning than the drab deli tray. No weeping and wailing and somber recitation of the Kaddish, no torn cloth, no spreading of the soil can compare with the strange combination of comfort and absolute grimness of watching your relatives pile austere scoops of tuna salad onto Kaiser rolls, maybe with cucumber because the crunch means you get to feel something other than grief or numbness, and devour them with an assassin’s intensity in between the ‘it’s-so-nice-to-see-you-again-but-I-wish-it-were-under-better-circumstances.’
There’s always a hint of self-referential laughter around the pile of bagel halves, smoked salmon and sliced onions and tomatoes. “This is how we Jews deal with grief,” my friend Daniel said at a gathering for his recently deceased grandfather between bites of a sprinkled Kosher deli cookie. “We eat our feelings.” The funeral-observance deli sandwich is our version of the medieval loving cup, a two-handled vessel that required its drinker to use both hands, rendering them unable to stab those around them, except the sandwich keeps our mouth occupied, ensuring that we don’t have to speak to anyone.
The Passover ritual requires, per the teachings of Hillel, the making of a sandwich. Matzah, the dry, intestine-savaging ‘bread of affliction,’ slathered with maror (horseradish) to remind us of the bitterness of bondage and charoset, a mixture of apples, red wine, cinnamon and nuts to emulate the mortar used to build the pyramids. If made well, it can actually be quite tasty, the bite of the horseradish cut just enough by the boozy sweetness of the charoset. In a way, Passover and Jewish mourning rituals are an inversion of the other: Passover will inevitably feel regimented, somber and dwell on human suffering when it is meant to be a celebration of freedom and triumphs of spirit, whereas when a loved one dies, we try to act all grateful and pretend to focus on celebrating their life and cherishing the good times when really we’re just all miserable as hell. For two occasions so ingrained in reiterating the values of life and the ability to enjoy it, there sure is a lot of restraint in feeling what we need to feel. We let the sandwiches feel for us, when we should be less restrained.
Prior to Passover, practicing Jews are supposed to burn all the remaining leavened bread in their house according to custom. When my aunt died—heart failure at 54—my mother began purging the house of anything with gluten, anything processed, anything with sugar or simple carbs, as if trying to purify the house for some sort of ritual. For her, perhaps, the sandwich was a stand-in for grief in a different sort of way. Ascetic practices are common in mourning. Self-improvement as coping mechanism.
My grandmother took me for a beer and a burger on my 21st birthday. At her Shiva, the ritual funeral observance, my mother glared when I went to slather an extra layer of tuna salad comfortably across a bagel half to serve as the mortar for my sandwich of affliction. I was the one who didn’t cry (at least not in front of other people), the one who gave the eulogy calm and composed, Star Trek references and all, the one who kept it together. I looked down at the deli tray and remembered that birthday lunch—I wanted that experience back, the perfect one-two of Sriracha sauce and cold pale ale, the back patio in July and our tattooed roller derby bombshell waitress, Grandma having to get hers with no cheese because she couldn’t have dairy (Kosher practices were never really big in our house), everyone enjoying each other’s company. That was one of the last meals we shared together where everything was really, really wonderful. No need for sandwiches to fill the silence. No deli-tray tuna, no matter how filling, could serve as the loving cup, the stand-in for the longing for that day, that perfect sandwich and the memory to which it connects.
In times of loss, I like to recall the words of one of my favorite Jews (half-Jew-half-Mormons, anyway), Mr. Warren Zevon. When Dave Letterman had Zevon on his show, he asked the singer if there was anything he realized now that he was face-to-face with his own mortality, waiting for lung cancer to do him in: “Just how much you’re supposed to enjoy every sandwich.”
I wish I could say I have savored every deli turkey creation or banh mi or veggie wrap with the veneration they perhaps deserve, and I could certainly say the same about moments with those loved ones who are now enjoying company in celestial cafés. But forcing self-aware joy will not solve anything just as self-denial, particularly with Big Scary Emotions, won’t make anyone feel better. Serious occasions call for honesty, with our loved ones, with our stomachs, with our selves. Our best defense then, perhaps, is to swallow the horseradish with a smile, go to the deli tray for comfort but not as a proxy for what needs to be felt or said, and enjoy what we can, while we can, with plenty of spicy brown mustard and a pickle spear on the side. Dayenu.