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October 7, 2009
In 2005, I attended with my then-boyfriend (now husband) an unveiling service for his late grandmother. Or, as I described it to my family, "The funeral, part deux." This was foreign to me; I had never even heard of an unveiling. My darling boyfriend, Dan, explained to me that Jews do not visit the grave of a deceased loved one for the period of about one year after his or her death. "What?" I asked, wondering who decorates the site with pumpkins for Halloween, a mini evergreen tree for Christmas, a tulip plant for Easter, a flag for the Fourth of July … er … never mind. He said that after one year, the family returns for the unveiling. "Unveiling?" Yes, we unveil the headstone.
Then he unveiled the part of the day I could relate to: "Then we'll go back to my parents' house and eat." Ahhh, yes, ding ding ding, we have a winner! See, I was raised Catholic by parents who are 75 percent Italian, 25 percent Irish. So, basically, it was all just a means to the food and drink. Alright, I think, we'll go, we'll do some unveiling, and we'll return in time for lunch, or as we call it in my family, Sunday dinner. Yes, on Sundays, dinner is at noon and it's a medley of pasta, cheese, bread … basically enough comforting carbs to last you all winter, or at least all week.
So, on a gorgeous October Sunday we drove to the cemetery with the same cast from the funeral, including the rabbi. Now, I didn't imagine a literal unveiling. I sort of thought we were using the word loosely. But when we got to the grave site, there was a sheet over the headstone, sort of like a curtain. The rabbi said some prayers in Hebrew I didn't understand, we stood by the gravestone, some shed tears. Then there was some hustle and bustle and whispered choreography, and then my father-in-law and his sister pulled back the curtain, or sheet, and revealed the headstone. Well, I damn near clapped. I mean, it felt like theater. Or like the "reveal" portion of a home makeover show. I swear, I heard the words "ta-da!" in my head at this moment.
To be honest, I still don't really understand the purpose of this. And in researching the ritual for this piece, I didn't find much in the way of reasons why this ceremony exists. It felt somewhat like closure--a period at the end of the mourning, I guess.
OK, unveiling, check. We got back in our cars to go back to New York from New Jersey, and during the car ride home, I got ready for some food. Lunch time is here, and I was thinking that while my Grandma's lasagna and meatballs might not be waiting, I had a good shot at some yummy bagels, muffins, maybe quiche, or even sandwiches of some kind. Oh, what a young, sweet, naïve gentile I was.
The curtain was pulled back for me yet again. Except this time, it wasn't a marble stone that was revealed. It was something called gefilte fish. Fish! That comes in a jar! In the form of a loaf. How is this scientifically possible?! Wait, what's that you are spreading all over it, Grandpa? Horseradish?! I certainly had heard of gefilte fish before. But I can honestly say I had no idea what it was. Where is the Italian bread?! Where is the antipasto platter?
Next to the "fish from a jar" display was what I can only refer to as the mayonnaise buffet. Egg salad, tuna salad--if it had mayo in it, it was there. We were not only unveiling the stone, but apparently honoring Hellmann's as well. This was my first immersion into this type of food. The textures, tastes and smells were all so strange to me. I suddenly felt a bit out of place and felt like I was never going to fit in to the family of this boy I really, really loved. Panic was creeping in.
So, I stepped back. I took a breath. I asked for a bagel with butter. And politely declined the fish loaf as it was passed by me. I know Dan sensed my trepidation. He squeezed my hand. He let me know it was going to be OK, that I didn't have to try the gefilte fish and that I didn't have to like the egg salad. I love my in-laws and have come to love many Jewish traditions. But they've lost me on the food. So being the loving people they are, whenever we have had events like this since, in addition to the fish loaf, mayo smorgasbord and salmon display, they serve something else. A quiche or a pasta dish. It's very dear of them. And sometimes I bring a dish they enjoy.
I have come to love my mother-in-law's noodle kugel and look forward to it at the holidays. And man, there is nothing like a beautifully cooked brisket. They love my almond cake and we all go out for Italian food all the time. You say potato, I say opportunity to share cultures. Even if we aren't sharing the (gefilte fish) loaf.