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Meatloaf for Mourners

Meatloaf for Mourners

What to do (and not to do) after a death.


When I heard that Leslie's father had died, I thought, hmmm, what should I do? I honestly had no idea. Leslie and I belonged to the same congregation, but I didn't know her well. All I knew was that she was more religious than I was. Then again, who wasn't?

We had recently moved from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon and had been hunting around for temples. Back in L.A. we had taken an Introduction to Judaism class because we realized that we had to pass down something to our new baby.

The class required regular attendance at a temple of your choice, so we went to a Reform one where we felt comfortable. Due to events that I won't bore you with, we spent a year in Vancouver, BC where Reform is more like Conservative. In this Reform "shul," they called it, you wrapped tefillin. To me, that was the height of piety -- strapping those black boxes on your forehead.

We were suddenly too religious for the Reform temple; us, who knew practically nothing.

When we moved to Portland, we were suddenly too religious for the Reform temple; us, who knew practically nothing. I thought of my father intoning the ultimate Yiddish put-down to all pretentiousness: "Ka-nocker." Look who thinks she's such a big shot.

The next weekend we went to the Conservative shul. Too big. We tried Reconstructionist. Instead of a rabbi, services were led by people like us, only wearing Birkenstocks. Jewish Revival? Too much music; I wanted to grab one of those infernal tambourines and break it over my knee. There had to be someplace for people like us.

"Oh no, not me! If you want to go there, you go alone!" That was my loving reaction when my husband suggested going to the Orthodox shul. He had taken a class given by the new rabbi there.

"He's really a nice guy. Let's try it," pleaded Adam.

"But it's got one of those..." my hand made a frantic chopping sign. "Those things down the middle that separate the men from the women."

Long story short, I went and I HATED IT. I went again, and I cried through the whole service. "I miss L.A.!" I sobbed into my prayer book turned to the wrong page. I went again, and asked the woman standing next to me, "How do you know all these songs?"

She answered, "You just come." Oh, so easy. I heard my father's voice -- "Ka-nocker." Nothing's ever that easy for me. I can't whistle, I can't knit, and I sure can't learn to sing songs in Hebrew.

But we kept coming back, and not just because we'd run out of choices. I had never seen people pray with such sincerity. I knew I'd never be that woman in long sleeves rocking back and forth, but I envied her intensity, her belief that God was actually listening.


We had been going to Kesser Israel for about six months when Leslie's father died. Not knowing what to do for her, I called and asked. "Do you guys need anything? Dinner or..."

Her husband saved me, "No, thanks, we're fine."

I was off the hook, that is, until I heard that people were visiting Leslie while she sat shiva, the seven days of Jewish mourning. Cold as it may sound, I was not in the habit of doing things for people I wasn't close to. I was a good friend to my friends, and I did volunteer work for strangers, but this in-between status threw me. I forced myself to visit her, unsure of what I should do or say.

As I approached Leslie's door, I saw Sarah, another congregant coming up the walk. She was carrying a large tin-foil container.

"What did you bring?" I asked, ashamed of my empty-handedness.

Sarah smiled. "I made lasagna."

"Oh, I would have brought dinner, but Michael said they didn't need anything."

"I know, people never tell you."

"You just come," the singing woman had said. "You just do," Sarah didn't need to say.

"You just come, you just do."

Sarah walked in without knocking, like Snow White, and put her lasagna unannounced in the refrigerator. She had trouble finding room among all the other dinners that had been brought without being requested. I followed her into the living room where Leslie was sitting on a low stool. Sarah quietly hugged her and sat down. To compensate for this curiously mute moment, I told Leslie how very sorry I was for her loss. She smiled and thanked me.

Several months later I lost my own father. It was then that I learned about the custom of entering a shiva home without knocking -- to spare the mourner from having to get up to greet you. I also learned the reason for Sarah's initial silence; visitors let the mourner set the tone. She can speak or not speak. Or she can just cry. She's not a hostess at a party.

I deeply appreciated not having to hang up people's coats and offer them something to drink. My father was dead, I was sad, and they were there to support me in my grief. "They" were all the people in my congregation, people I loved, liked or barely knew. It didn't matter. They came because "You just come, you just do."

My refrigerator was full. If I hadn't been so depressed I would have enjoyed peeling back silver foil to reveal dinners I hadn't had to make.

Grateful and humbled, I realized what I needed: my own moment's notice shiva recipe. The answer appeared on page 117 of the kosher cookbook my best friend, Meredith, had given me: Meatloaf. It was quick, easy and best of all, comforting. I vowed to always have ground beef and aluminum tins on hand, and over the years, unfortunately, I've had many occasions to make it. Incredibly, I've also learned a few Hebrew songs along the way.

Five Star Meatloaf
(from Beyond Chicken Soup, Jewish Home Auxiliary, Rochester, NY)

2 lbs. ground beef
1 c. regular oatmeal
6 oz. tomato juice (or sauce)
1 onion, chopped
2 eggs, beaten
2 tsp. paprika
1/4 c. horseradish (the red kind)
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. dry mustard
1/2 c. ketchup

Preheat oven to 375. Mix beef with oatmeal, juice, onion, eggs and spices. Place in 9x5x3-inch loaf pan and spread ketchup on top. Bake for 1 1/2 hours until top is browned and meat is firm. Serves 6-8.

July 30, 2013

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Visitor Comments: 39

(36) Free, August 5, 2013 3:37 AM

Beautiful and thoughtful artical but please keep in mind that in some community's ppl don't eat meat in shiva you might want to find out if they do or not. Bec you wouldn't want it to be taken the wrong way !

(35) Andrew Stiller, August 2, 2013 6:19 PM

Another Great Story from Aish

I really appreciate the honesty and sincerity of this story. Thank you so much for posting it.

(34) ruth berkovits, July 31, 2013 4:11 PM

Scheduled meals

Thank you this beautiful article. I lost my father on Shabbos Parshas Vaeschanan July 20, 2013. My daughters created on paper a meal planner. Friends and extended family called to tell them what there were sending so that there would be no waste. We asked a sheilah regarding the extra food sent and were told we can send it to our spouses or donate the left overs.

(33) Anonymous, July 31, 2013 2:02 PM

some pragmatics

A very lovely article.
I just want to point out a few things that people don't realize. I have unfortunately sat shiva twice as a wife and a daughter. While it's nice that people are thoughtful, and want to bring food for the mourners, it can also be a little too much. Sometimes there is too much of a good thing and it is a terrible feeling to spend the first day up from shiva trying to clear out the kitchen that has been overrun by people who meant well. Firstly, please respect the level of kashrus of the mourner’s kitchen. Better to ask questions of the mourner about what their method of organization (meat dishes vs. dairy etc.) than to leave the mourner with questions about the way the dishes have been used and left later. Also some people have the custom that food brought to the mourner's house may only be used by those in mourner's home. That can leave the mourner with too much on their hands to deal with. I speak from experience. While you may feel the need to "do something" your focus on what to do should rest on the mourner’s needs rather than your own. If you feel the need to show you care in a food form and you have no way to know the meal accommodations of the mourners, bring nonperishable items. A woman of my acquaintance in the community brought a grocery bag full of nonperishable breakfast foods such as instant oatmeal and cereal items. I felt that was truly thoughtful as well as useful. Also bear in mind that life can be a tough adjustment after shiva. Give them a gift certificate for a takeout place or come 3 weeks later when the shiva leftovers are gone with that pan of lasagna. Frankly it would have been more helpful to me then.

(32) Suzanne, July 31, 2013 10:10 AM

very timely

Yesterday was the start of my dear aunt's mother's sister and I was able to relate to the writer from my experience. Although, this part of my family belongs to a shul and I do not, I was conflicted with how they were following shiva ritual which to me was non-traditional and not what I learned through always following and learning by traditonal and orthodox customs. However, in the end you could not doubt the love that was in the room and the happy memoriea that were being shared. I know that this ia also what the shiva period brings. Thanks for sharing.

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