Irving, my beloved husband of 34 years, was taken from us just yesterday. His system was ravaged by the mercury poisoning he developed from eating too much gefilte fish. (Not my home-made gefilte fish, God forbid. My sister brought it over. It looked a little funny but what, I shouldn’t serve it at my Seder table? She would be furious!)
I will miss my Irving for the rest of my days. But first things first: who should I invite to the shiva and what should I serve?
— Bereft Bubbe
First, my condolences on your loss. As Jews around the world say when they hear of a death, baruch dayan emet, which means, “Blessed is the Lord who took that other poor schmuck instead of me.”
Now to your issue. I’m afraid your question betrays a lack of understanding of an important basic principle. You ask, “Who should I invite?” but that is the not the right question. The right question is, “whom should I invite?”
Our sages have taught that the practice of shiva dates back to the earliest days of the Jewish people. But, let’s face it, in the old country, when somebody died it wasn’t exactly a secret. Mottel would tell Shayndl who would tell Menachem who wouldn’t tell you, because you and he haven’t spoken since that ganif cheated you at cards, but he did tell Dovid who told Golde who told you. (Little known fact: eventually, this rapid transmission of information became known as “going viral.” If somebody went from a virus, everybody in the shtetl got the news within minutes.)
In modern times, we are blessed with Facebook, a sophisticated electronic platform for publishing death announcements for Jews worldwide. For this purpose Facebook is so well-suited, you’d think a Jew invented it. One post to the Facebook wall of the recently departed, and all of his “friends” will learn the tragic news instantly, and without the awkwardness of having to come up with something comforting to say. Inexplicably, some people may not use Facebook. So, to maximize attendance, have your sister (if you’re still speaking to her) call the town yenta and tell her confidentially that you’re having a small, exclusive shiva with only your closest friends. If you whisper it, they will come.
The rules surrounding shiva can be daunting, which is why you ought to ignore them entirely. You’re in mourning – you don’t have enough to worry about already? You’ll want to lay out your nicest silverware, and wear something attractive, though it is best if you avoid a festive look, as people may talk. (Flowers are always nice; often one of the departed’s goyische friends will have thoughtfully sent some along. But balloons should definitely be avoided.) Remember: unless Irving had a whole life policy (such a provider!), or you are blissfully unaware that even as we speak, the president is stealing your social security to pay for breast implants for schnorrers who haven’t worked a day in their pitiful lives, it’s never too early to think about remarriage. Odds are that your next suitor is somebody you already know, which means he is likely to visit during shiva. Make a nice impression.
Planning the shiva menu is always a challenge. Sure, there are those who would say that it is up to the friends of the mourner to provide the food at the Meal of Consolation. That it is unfair (and contrary to centuries of tradition) to expect the newly bereaved to shop and cook for themselves, much less for dozens of condolence callers. That when comforting a friend in a time of loss one should not be motivated primarily by the smorgasbord that awaits.
To such puritans I say: narishkeit! Everything from the casket to the service to the shiva is a reflection of the depth of your feelings for the recently departed. Does a box of Entenmann’s and some bagels (without lox, yet) say “this is somebody I loved?” Of course not. You wouldn’t bury Irving in a cardboard box; don’t serve your shiva guests from one either.
Finally, for such a quintessentially Jewish occasion, you should be sure to keep the dietary laws in mind. If you are putting out deli meats, for example, it’s important that you not offer a dairy dessert until after the rabbi has left. And, Bereft, in your particular case, I think I would avoid serving the fish.
— N. Troyer