I first wrote this column back in September 2011 as a contest entry, but in the months since, it’s become strangely prophetic. As people all over the world do, my family celebrated the Passover holiday about a month ago—no burning of the leavened bread this time around; in fact, we recounted the ten plagues with beer in plastic cups. My grandfather tried his best to lead, to assign readings from and relating to the Exodus story. The word “seder” translates to “order,” and I think at that point everyone was just looking for that very thing. My grandparents could still sometimes finish each other’s sentences.
My grandmother passed away less than 48 hours after our return from DC, and so we turned right around on planes to Reagan and BWI, for three days of stretching out those same drab deli trays I described in that column. Smoked salmon, garlic bread, matzo for those still observing the festival week. We ate and tried to make each other laugh, danced around the kitchen like Muppets after the condolence callers left because it seemed like the right thing to do. It was exactly the parallel I’d mentioned earlier: Passover, the freedom holiday, a stifling affair meant to maintain tradition and stability; the funeral, doing our best to turn it into a celebration when we were all just trying to keep it together.
My grandmother knew everybody, or at least wanted to know everybody. She maintained friendships she’d had since the fourth grade. She treated acquaintances from the apartment complex and the flea market like celebrities. She also had a love for good food, which manifested itself among her relatives during the week when debating whether or not to eat the goddamn brownie (“She would have wanted us to,” tended to be the verdict.).
This all intersects in one particular sandwich-related instance.
My grandparents were driving around DC one day, when she insisted they had to go pick up a present. When my grandfather asked for whom, she replied with a name he didn’t recognize. Turns out, this woman was the manager at the McDonald’s they would go to pick up lunch after her hospital visits. That’s not to speak very sentimentally of the Golden Arches or their burgers, but my grandmother genuinely enjoyed them, up until the end, and the whole situation, in a rather unexpected way, speaks to who she was. She was on a first-name basis with the manager at McDonald’s. More than that, she valued her relationship with the manager at McDonald’s. Everyone around her was important, and made to feel important. This probably seems like a strange thing to share as an epilogue to this column, and perhaps an extreme example, but if she taught me anything, it’s to treat everyone with veneration and human dignity, to live with unbridled joy, to be on a first-name basis with everything around you. To thank the people who prepare your food. And I know you probably know these things, dear readers, but it seemed like a good time for a reminder.
So with that, I hope you don’t mind the re-run of this column. If you do, I apologize. Enjoy every sandwich.
The Bread of Affliction
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.