Mark Hetfield didn’t know why he was making a tuna casserole for Rosh Hashanah dinner, traditionally brisket and chicken, on Friday night.
But in the end he was glad he did. In the middle of their meal, he and his family and friends learned that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died.
Tuna casserole, in turns out, was the Supreme Court justice’s signature dish. According to her late husband, Marty Ginsburg, it was the only thing she could make.
Though he didn’t realize it as he was planning his menu, Hetfield’s dish became a tribute to her, as they sat eating and mourning.
Hetfield, who runs the Jewish refugee aid organization HIAS, said in an interview that he had never made a tuna casserole for Rosh Hashanah before: “It was a very weird coincidence.”
Even if Hetfield and his crew could take some solace in the symbolism of their casserole, Ginsburg’s death cast a shadow over a meal that was supposed to be a festive celebration of new beginnings. Many who got the news just before, during or after dinner felt the same way. When the wine was finished, Marc Melzer opened a new bottle of single-malt Scotch — Lagavulin 16 — to share with his family. Melzer lives in Teaneck, N.J. with his wife and two daughters.
“It was the taste of disappointment,” said Deb Wassertzug, who lives in Potomac, Md. and was celebrating the holiday with her mother, husband and two sons, one in ninth grade and one in fifth.
She got the news by just glancing down at her phone, which she’d left in the kitchen, when it lit up with a notification: RBG 1933 — 2020.
“I’m going to link this event to this meal that I made where I felt like everything did not turn out the way I wanted,” she said, lamenting failed brisket, challah and, most agonizingly, a potato kugel. “It tasted like uncooked latke,” she said.
Cold potatoes were on the table for Rabbi Jonah Pesner, too.
He had arranged for a catered steak frites dinner for his wife, Dana Gershon, because it was her birthday and that’s her favorite meal.
They ate apples and honey and said blessings with family on Zoom, and right after that, their 22-year-old daughter called them in tears.
Pesner runs the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; Gershon is the board president of the National Council of Jewish Women. The news meant they both had work to do — Pesner helping rabbis work through the news, Gershon talking to NCJW’s chief executive officer despite the holiday.
“It was cold steak frites,” Pesner said. “But who could eat?”
Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, found that even as he and his family mourned RBG’s death, they could enjoy their meal— brisket — and each other.
They discussed RBG’s legacy, and especially her impact as a role model. Halber’s 11-year-old daughter is a huge fangirl, with an RBG poster on her wall and an RBG bobblehead doll — which she placed next to her plate.
“She was like a Rosh Hashanah Elijah,” he said, referring to the prophet who according to tradition visits each Seder table every Passover. “She showed up unexpectedly.”
Tali Finkelstein, a Brooklyn mother of middle school twins, felt especially laid low by RBG’s death because her own mother died a few years ago, and she connected the two losses.
She made every item of her family’s meal — matzah ball soup, roasted chicken, steak, challah, honey cake, even cupcakes — and felt “so defeated” when her daughter told her what had happened.
But the next day, she took action. She signed up to write postcards for a women’s group, donated to the Democratic party and went to a vigil.
“It’s hard,” she said. “But I told myself to use this for good.”
‘The taste of disappointment:’ Learning about the loss of RBG over brisket and honey cake
Helen Chernikoff is the Forward’s News Editor. She came to the Forward from The Jewish Week, where she served as the first web director and created both a blog dedicated to disability issues and a food and wine website. Before that, she covered the housing, lodging and logistics industries for Reuters, where she could sit at her desk and watch her stories move the stock market. Helen has a Master’s of Public Administration from Columbia University and a BA in History and French from Amherst College. She is also a rabbinical school dropout. Contact her at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter at @thesimplechild .