death

How Jewish Humor (and Food) Can Save a Family

Two female friends with smartphone, smiling. Young woman holding phone, mid adult woman looking at her and laughing

Fifteen years ago, my dad died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 58. First there was shock, then disbelief—and once there was acceptance, of course the sadness and grief kicked in. Sleeping was replaced by thinking and crying. The next day, I did a lot of calling, everyone in my mom’s phone book, which was brutal.

Later that day, we went shopping.

For Jews, things move very quickly as far as having the funeral and the burial. So logically, we had to go shopping for caskets. My mom, sister and I went. Everyone was just on autopilot, trying to get our task done while somehow keeping it together, if we could.

I’ll never forget walking into that big room with all the caskets. There were so many of them, including a big range in color, style, and shall we say…quality. I remember walking over to one, looking at it and saying, “If dad wasn’t already dead, he’d kill us if we stuck him in this shitty crate.”

My mom and sister looked at me, and for the first time since it had happened, we all started laughing. Pretty hard too. Look, I totally understand people have a budget (we most certainly did), but I’m telling you this “casket” looked like it was perfect for storing avocados.

While I don’t remember what casket we eventually chose, I do remember that first laugh, the first release from all the stress, sadness, and uncertainly. It was incredibly therapeutic and in a weird way, a relief. My dad was the funniest person I knew, with his own brand of humor which I not only loved and appreciated, but also inherited. And I couldn’t be more grateful for it, then and now.

I decided I wanted to give a eulogy at the funeral, though I knew it would be tough. I only had a day or two to write it, but I wrote from my heart, and not surprisingly, a lot of what came out was funny. I wanted it to represent my dad, and the relationship we shared. And while he had many words of wisdom for me over the years, and important life lessons, the piece of advice he gave me that’s been the most integral to any success I’ve had is: “get your head out of your ass.” If I had a dime for every time he said that to me, I could’ve afforded to buy a casket good enough for the damn Pope.

Anyway, the eulogy was emotional, and I had a few moments where my voice was definitely cracking, but there was also enough laughter that propelled me through it. Like I said, I wanted it to represent him accurately, and you couldn’t do that without saying a whole lot of funny shit.

Then we began sitting shiva, the week-long mourning period where family members gather in one home and receive visitors. It’s a nice tradition in that you always have people around, and you can share stories about your loved one, laugh together, cry together, and of course…eat together. That’s another thing about Jews. It doesn’t really matter what the occasion—happy, sad, big, small—you’ll always be greeted with an exorbitant amount of food. Jews believe there’s no problem that can’t be solved with thinly sliced corned beef, and no celebration is complete without copious amounts of pigs in blankets, kosher of course.

When we were sitting shiva for my dad, it was heartwarming to see a large outpouring of love and support for us and him. But since the loss was so sudden, and the shiva was so soon after his death, it was also overwhelming. Seeing all those people who loved him for the first time in a while brought up a lot of emotion

There was more food than you could ever imagine. I think it was the 4th day of shiva, the day was wrapping up, and we were all drained. We were sitting in the kitchen, quiet and definitely somber. I started to look around, and it seemed everywhere I looked there was a rye bread.

I suddenly realized that there had to be a rye bread shortage in Long Island because it was all in my house. So, I broke the silence and said, “Has anyone else noticed that there are about 47 rye breads peppered throughout our kitchen?” They looked around and we all started hysterically laughing. My mom laughing was by far the most important part of that moment. She turned 21 on her honeymoon with my dad and they had 33 years together. Seeing my mom able to find comic relief by way of rye bread meant so much: laughter to help heal a broken heart.

The past week has been tough. I have my own family, including a fantastic husband who I’ve been married to for six years. Talk me again when we hit 33 years, but we share a sense of humor, and it’s always been the thing we come back to when times get tough. He says, “Babe, we’ll always have yuks.” which makes him sound like an old Jewish man, which makes me think about us shoveling free dinner rolls and sweet-n-low into my purse at the early bird special in a few years. I look forward to it, but I refuse to let him wear white loafers like my Grandpa Murray did.

Then there’s my 4-year-old daughter who’s the light of my life—when she’s not driving me insane. She reminds me so much of my dad, and she seems to have a special bond with him. She calls him “Grandpa in the sky,” and once a week or so, when we’re driving in the car she asks me to roll down her window so she can tell him something and obviously he can only hear her if her window is down. Sometimes she gets frustrated because she doesn’t understand why he doesn’t “come down to see her.” She recently asked me if he made me laugh.

After a really tough day a few days ago, I was lying in bed and my daughter came in. She was hysterically laughing and said, “Mom can you take a picture of my butt?” I immediately flashed back to my dad at multiple bar and bat mitzvahs when we were kids, seeking out the videographer and “mooning” the camera which always made everyone, adults and kids, laugh. As Lily handed me my phone so I could take a picture of her butt, I couldn’t help but think he was there too, through her, making me laugh when I really needed it. Her loud, exuberant, infectious chuckle was contagious.

She had no idea how much that moment meant, but one day I will tell her. I will tell her more about her “Grandpa in the sky.” I hope that she grows up, as I did, understanding that besides to love, the greatest gift, is to laugh. Like food, it has nourished our family and our people.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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