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Jewish Friend whose mother has just died: Erin, don’t you run out of ideas for your i hate cilantro blog?

Erin: No, check this out — shiva: cilantro-free.

JFWMHJD: Got it.

Here’s one thing the world’s great religions (by great religions I mean the ones I like, not the ones that are big; see, as I carry a minor in religion I’m equipped to have these sorts of opinions) have in common, despite seemingly limitless differences: they realize the importance of food and drink in not only everyday life, but especially in major life events, as part of the mourning process very much included.

Last week I attended my first shiva and before going, everyone that mentioned the event and their experiences with them in the past pointed to exactly one thing and nothing else: food. At shiva there will always and forever be copious amounts of food. Is it, we wondered, somehow irreverent to serve a hoagie on such an occasion, as one friend had seen during his grandfather’s shiva? Well, what is it that somehow makes casserole more holy than a hoagie, another friend questioned. Good point. And who doesn’t love hoagies?

Upon arrival at my friend’s home last week, I did immediately notice a wide and diverse spread of food. I particularly enjoyed the juxtaposition of the large boxes of coffee sitting next to the handles of single malt Scotch. You gotta figure, everyone wants one or the other (or both). Then, on to the food: mixed green salad with nuts, fruit, cheese and an impressively emulsified balsamic vinaigrette (on the side); lots of bread; grilled vegetables; cold cuts and cheeses; cake; gluten-free cupcakes; cookies (full of gluten); Whole Foods’ mezze platter; macaroons; fruit; no hoagies. In this diverse spread, what was, to me (and I’m quite certain no one else), noticeably missing was cilantro, or any food that might reasonably contain it.

According to the McCormick “Enspicelopedia”: “Ancient Hebrews added Cilantro to an herb mixture in the ritual of Passover.” According to my modern-day Jewish friends whom I’ve consulted on the issue, what with their constant reading of the Torah, obsession with regular temple attendance and relentless shunning of bacon, experts on and representatives of Jews everywhere, cilantro really has no presence in foods traditionally (read currently) eaten during rituals like Passover, Hanukkah, etc. While a lack of cilantro might not save the Jewish cuisine from crimes like Gefilte fish, I never met a latke I didn’t like and even the most ardent cilantro supporter might agree that cilantro’s presence would bastardize and ruin the perfect condiment vehicle that is the latke.

See, the thing is, that as unmitigatedly sad/tragic/existentially unnerving as death is, especially to those closest to it (friends are just sort of fumblingly along for the ride) I conjecture, to me it isn’t religion’s ability to really alleviate any of this through its dogma, theology or words of wisdom. Instead, it’s its insistence that one eats, that one’s friends bring and prepare the food that one eats. That it is through this bringing and preparing of food that people are able to show, in some small measure, that they care. And that, yes, in the case of my first experience with shiva, this food is not only ample and diverse but provides no unwanted herbal distractions from the matter at hand — eating, searching for the right words.


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