It is stunning what races through your mind in a moment of shock, staring down at the dead body of the man you love, the person you’ve spent two decades sharing a home with.
My husband died unexpectedly in November 2018. I couldn’t reach him and came home to find his 6-foot-10, 315-pound body in our entry. Even in those first jarring minutes and hours, I understood that in his death, I must navigate a new life supported by the old.
Questions quickly arose: Who and what would I need, both in the immediate and in the long term? Who would show up and support me? What would bring me comfort when my soul had been ripped apart? I instinctively knew that when my own living body was ready to eat, I’d want my favorite Jewish foods, the ones first prepared for me by my beloved Grandma Belle: matzah ball soup, stuffed cabbage and rugelach.
Grandma Belle, even 33-plus years after her death, is the one person throughout my life who has given me the greatest comfort. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about her. Born and raised in Brooklyn with Yiddish as her first language, she embodied the quintessential Jewish mother. She took me in at 6 months old when my biological mom proved incapable, and raised me in New York until I was 3 and a half. Grandma Belle introduced me to the Jewish traditions that mark the passage of time. My first memories of Passover and Hanukkah are at her house, sitting around the dining room table with her mom who had escaped Poland as a young girl.
Whenever I’d visit, the smells of her cooking greeted me with delight. There was nothing better than her flanken soup or salmon croquettes. She always put me on the plane back to California laden with bagels, bialys and white fish. We joked that I needed a cabbage knish perfume because I found the smell of hers so intoxicating.
Because I’m not religious and married a goyish Viking, I didn’t require the Jewish rituals that surround death like sitting shiva. Yes, my husband and I celebrated Jewish holidays, had a ketubah and nailed a mezuzah to our front door, but we did not belong to the local synagogue. Our son had no interest in becoming bar mitzvah. The day my husband died, there were no guidelines for how to grieve, or what to do.
So I called my dear friend Natasha, who rushed to me and held me close. She volunteered to pick up my son from school and bring him to me when it was time to tell him that his beautiful papa had died. Before she left, I requested those three very specific food items. I asked for matzah ball soup, just like the one she served me for lunch in the middle of our kids’ first epic playdate that lasted six hours. I asked for her husband’s, Boaz’s, delicious stuffed cabbage rolls. I asked that she and their daughter prepare their chocolate rugelach with the flakiest dough.
Natasha delivered the soup in just a few hours, bridging time and space and blanketing me with the love of Grandma Belle, who wasn’t there to cook away my tears with my favorite Ashkenazi dishes. While the flavors differed slightly from my grandma’s, the foods brought me home nonetheless.
As I navigated my new reality, Jewish food continued to wipe away my tears. The local Jewish deli sent bags of bagels, lox and babka. I shared Shabbat meals with Natasha and Boaz. Oddly, losing Terry, my 6’10 Viking, called me back to my Jewishness. Or maybe it isn’t so odd that when my world came completely unglued, I clung to 6,000 years of tradition and the people who share it.
Dinner is the hardest time of day for me now because I miss making the meal for Terry. One way I’ve sustained myself on the darkest nights is to cook for those I love, introducing them to the Jewish foods that connect my past and present. When I put a bowl of my matzah ball soup before a guest, I do so wrapped in the arms of Grandma Belle.