How does a single thirty-something Jewish woman mourn the loss of her beloved father? This is the central question that author Merissa Nathan Gerson presents in her part-memoir, part “how-to” guide, Forget Prayers Bring Cake. Ultimately, however, Gerson asks much more complex questions about the assumptions we make about mourning, challenging her readers — both those who are actively grieving and those who seek to care for them — to reconsider what mourning can look like in contemporary American and Jewish culture.
When we meet Gerson, she has just moved to a new city with no family and few acquaintances and is about to embark on a new job. In this midst of her geographic, social, and economic displacement, she receives the news of her father’s terminal medical diagnosis. Gerson quickly realizes that her marital status as a single woman in her thirties defies the cultural norms of grieving. Isn’t she supposed to have an intimate partner to hold her, stroke her hair, and stand by her side through this nightmare? Isn’t she supposed to have a private sanctuary in which she can express her grief, behind closed doors? Well, she doesn’t. And as a result, Gerson embarks on a quest to build the support network she needs, and in the process, she experiences some difficult truths about the lonely and vulnerable work of grieving.
Gerson’s book functions best as a memoir. Her sense of isolation while reconstructing her need for belonging to community and connecting with meaningful rituals across a diverse landscape of family and friends is easily relatable to her generation. As a former rabbinical student, Gerson is well-versed in the formalities of Jewish mourning rituals and writes movingly about how her Jewish identity shapes and is shaped by her grief. From food to exercise, sex, homemaking and paperwork, Gerson paints a vivid portrait of the ways her relationship with her father, and the process of her grief, redefines the contours of nearly every aspect of her life.
Even with the subtitle of “guide to grieving,” Gerson acknowledges the limitations of her book to act in this capacity. She is likely accurate in her caution to readers that this densely packed narrative could be overwhelming to another active or new mourner. This difficulty is somewhat alleviated by the excellent organization and chapter highlights and checklists, which would allow anyone in need of such guidance to find it easily, glancing through quickly to satisfy the most immediate need. But where the book truly shines as a “guide to grieving” is in showcasing the abundance of ways that readers can be in nurturing relationships in which they are called to care for mourners. This book is significant for anyone who may be accompanying a grieving family member, friend, or acquaintance and wants to do so with compassion. Gerson’s gift is to illustrate that mourners need not rely on a single person, and need not do their grieving in private, if there are partners, of all kinds, who are willing to meet them in their pain.
Deborah Miller received rabbinical ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and daughter, where she serves as a hospice chaplain and teacher.