For­get Prayers, Bring Cake: A Sin­gle Wom­an’s Guide to Grieving

  • Review
By – July 28, 2021

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.

Deb­by Miller is a long-time board mem­ber of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil, serv­ing on its Fic­tion com­mit­tee, and lat­er found­ing the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award for Book Clubs. She is cur­rent­ly a Vice Pres­i­dent of the orga­ni­za­tion. Deb­by is based in Greens­boro, NC and has been involved in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty through Nation­al Coun­cil of Jew­ish Women (NCJW), AIPAC, B’nai Shalom and the Fed­er­a­tion. She was pres­i­dent of the local Women’s Divi­sion and cam­paign chair, and also got involved in the Nation­al Women’s Divi­sion. One of her pri­ma­ry phil­an­thropic endeav­ors is her work with JDC, where she has been a mem­ber of the board since 1994

Discussion Questions