On the eve of Yom Kippur I came across Jonathan Gold’s latest feature in L.A. Weekly, in which he answers a reader’s query, “What kind of food would you want served at your wake?”
How appropriate. The central theme of this season is embodied in the Unetanah Tokef prayer, “Who shall live and who shall die?” We’re asked to contemplate our lives in the face of our uncertain mortality. You just never know when your number is up, so it’s never too early or too late to do some serious moral accounting. That’s what the Days of Awe, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippor, are all about. Is it a coincidence that Jonathan, the country’s preeminent food writer, faces the question in today’s Weekly? Hmm.
His long answer begins with running through the varieties of dim sum and Chinese cold dishes that his loved ones might enjoy over his cold, dead body. But after considering all the possibilities, he concludes:
But who am I kidding? In my family, funerals are occasions to stuff down truly heroic amounts of deli, and when I have to go, I will die as I lived: seen off with Langer’s pastrami.
Maybe it’s just the emotion of the season, but I was actually moved by Jonathan’s answer. At our most vulnerable—and our death pretty much defines us at our most vulnerable—we cling to the foods of our family, our past, our tradition. That alone has the power to truly comfort us, to sustain us, even to see us into the world to come. I mean, Jonathan Gold likely knows every permutation on appropriate wake food. I’m sure he once reviewed some Ouigar cafe that specialized in yak-based mourning dishes. But at the end of the day… the literal end of the day—he returns to the bosom of the deli.
And by the way, when that day comes, after Jonathan reaches 120, the sandwiches won’t be at a wake. They’ll be at a shiva.
Meanwhile, here’s something to enjoy before your Yom Kippur fast: