Beginnings and endings at Rosh Hashana
T.S. Eliot once wrote
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. ( The Four Quartets)
The season of autumn is perhaps correctly dubbed” fall”. It is that midway point between summer and winter, the leaves burnished, the flowers fading, the end of sunshine and the commencement of a more somber quiet time. Fittingly for Jews, it is Rosh Hashana, the new year, days that herald the excitement of new beginnings but also atonement and reflection on what we have been less than proud of during the year. Coupled with the fading light of the day, it is a sobering time. Yet, there is an anticipation that we can renew and improve ourselves.
For me, the days of food preparation for the big supper is a combination of old favourites of the perfectly stuffed turkey, but also another attempt to emulate my motherinlaw’s perfect gefelte fish . Mine either lacks correct spicing or is too watery. Usually the food receives compliments, but at my table, I believe the fish is consumed as part of the new year’s pattern that fish precedes soup which proceeds kugels, en route to multiple deserts.( I heard once of a family that had deserts for supper one night a week and thought that sounded delicious😋). I wonder if some special ingredient is missing from my fish.
My buby Molly was legend in her realm of cookery, but my aunt Goldi confided that the” family” cabbage rolls were transmitted to others without the squeeze of lemon so that the original recipe could go to the grave with the original chef who no doubt thought it a family secret to forget one ingredient. So like a story whose sections are embellished or deleted in the telling, some recipe are not transmitted – even between relatives- completely in tact
And because I always leap to other places, my mind flies to the whispered repetitions of coveted foods in women’s sections in concentration camps during the Holocaust where a scrap of paper or shoe leather was the repository for a special dish. This reconstruction of a lost moment, a treasured memory of a tangy smell, a delighted taste stimulated the beloved faces and cherished voices of family, and a necessary hope that life would eventuall resume. The food, the preparation, the coming togethers were only just stalled until mothers, fathers, children, the entire mishpucha could once again reunite for the holidays and be together, safely around the table clothed table.
At this time of year, I too hold close the memories of my parents and the Rosh Hashana dinners at their house. Never a thought was given to the work it took my mother to rise early in the morning or fall into her bed at night after the last plate was washed or dried. There were squabbles over who would sit next to my father who always commanded the head of the table. He quickly and quietly beamed at us, taking our families all in while saying the few prayers over apples and honey. My mother darted back and forth with food, serving and perching frequenting. Her mother, I recalled, disappeared into the kitchen to eat by herself, no doubt collapsing into whatever chair she could find: to suck chicken feet, I recall – if I glimpsed her behind the swinging door to their dining room where uncles wore fedora hats and aunts wore special dresses, and cousins waited expectantly for he moment when they could leave the table and play games without adult supervision.
We were not religious people but we came together as a family at the holidays. These suppers reminded me of Bella Chagall’s memoir Burning Lights as she narrated the annual celebrations in the shetl,Vitebsk, the end of the harvests, family arriving by horseback and carts and women labouring with heavy pots, and unending dinners that featured many many dishes.
Years ago my son invited his school friends from Vancouver and I set myself the task of seeing how many different kugels I could make: fortunately all but the potato could be frozen. From zucchini to eggplant to sweet potato with raisins, I scoured books that offered an impetus to create the puddings. Finally at table, we would chortle, attempting to identify the vegetables that all began and ended with eggs, onions and matzoh meal. Since then the meal has been pared down with only two potato kugel, one sweet , one plain, 3-4 fruit pies and of course a honey cake and at least one other completing desert contributing to eating ecstasy. Maybe the strangest event culminated in the sudden delivery of grandson two when the supper concluded. No doubt he could no longer battle all the kugels crowding his space and so decided to exit 6 weeks early.
But as well, this time of year holds unforgettable events- sad events that marked our life. My father succumbed to polio one labour day weekend when I was 18 months old. Interestingly, no one ever mentioned had Rosh Hashana been “early” or late that year. I imagined his family’s dinner seated more quietly than usual, especially my buby Molly at the edge of tears, and my mother clutching me as I squirmed in her arms. And my mother many many years later shortly after hearing the shofar blown in her hospital room passed too. She always was anxious around this period of transition.
My mother, of all people, is the one who is at the edge of my thoughts during these days. There is so much I would share with her, questions I would ask ( about knitting, for example), so many fears or doubts I would look to her for assurance : that all would be well and turnout fine. And yet, she was fearful herself, often struggling tenuously to hold our world together like a jigsaw whose pieces might suddenly fall and need to be reassembled by her able handling and rearranging of our lives, a task she completed , like The Little Red Hen story she never ceased to cite: “ALL by her self”, she would loudly affirm
If she were still on this earth and we were meeting at Tim Horton’s for Saturday lunch, I might behave slightly differently, not avoiding difficult conversations, attempting to banish them into non- existence, maybe probing deeper beyond the usual statements to really understand what she believed she had lost or forfeited throughout her life. Not merely scoffing at her refrain that she had been a failure and wished she had been a nurse or an interior decorator, “ I would not counter now, to change he subject,”Well, an orange cannot be an apple”. Often I was afraid to listen, not wanting to be touched or hurt by some detail.
Once while my parents were away on a little trip and I stayed behind, I opened the bottom door of a dresser in my parents’ bedroom. Heaped inside were the remnants of their life before and during my father’s polio. I read the barely readable postcards sent from Riverdale hospital where he spent 9 months when he was only 28 years old, robbed of the muscular power of his limbs. With my father’s right arm destroyed by polio, he had attempted to learn to use his left. In their exchanges, they write my name as “Paddy”, as an Irish person would. Or maybe the crosses on the t’s are sloppy and resemble d’s, but the postcards break my heart as I glimpse the broken communication between my parents. My tears overrun my eyes as I sense the immense difficulty even a few words had taken to produce their daily interchanges, but I sense in the scribbled half formed letters the depth of my father’s love for my mother: whose countenance even when he was in a coma could produce sensation on his face.
In my talks to my mother I did not want to re- experience these knives of pain and so we did not unshovel the past.Selfish as that may have been in my part.
So I approach new year with a mix of emotions, grateful but longing for my mother’s company, pondering my relationship with my father, but also anticipating a supper with most of my children and grandchildren present, observing their fingers coated with honey , and their chomping the Macintosh apples carefully chosen by my husband. I enjoy the look of the table with my grandmother’s silver and her fine dishes: ones I continued to refuse from my mother, but am so glad I finally belligerently accepted, even as they are ornate, and not my style at all. Still I can appreciate their quality and ruminate on their history as evidence of immigrant acculturation in Toronto. I wonder what stories the plates hold, remembering what my mother had related to me: that a peddler would come to the door weekly, selling one precious spoon – and my grandmother would save and save until she could afford to purchase one here, one there , until she had enough to complete a full set.
No wonder that even at 90 my mother stooped to pick up a penny!
In a recent Canadian Jewish News story, I read of a family setting aside their “ brogus” at holiday time so that bad feelings could be relinquished as the new year arrived. Yet, my mother and aunts related the weekly family gatherings of my father’s Rumanian family where everything new was mocked, such as the washing machine and refrigerator, how my grandmother was squandering money in pursuit of modern appliances, and how the brothers and sisters closed ranks on my buby Molly, making her daily existence so much more difficult.
I wonder what my grandchildren will take from my suppers. Will they joke about the kugels, the unending offering of deserts, some strange detail that I recalled such as my own other grandmother’s delicious handmade wine from purple plums or the rollicking fun I shared with my cousins. Or the disgusting slurp of sucking chicken feet? With part of my family in Philadelphia, I feel the circle is incomplete, a gap between the beginning and the ending. We will fill that absence at the end of the week when Thanksgiving fortunately intrudes, but of course it cannot be the same. It is not that I am a religious person who looks to the suppers that fall at dusk as the commencement of the tradition.Rather, it is the meaning of passing down a closeness, a memory of what it means to participate in an event- even briefly -that is initiated by an old story, be it true or exaggerated, a story that interrupts the workday to stress what is the most important in life, that “time out of time”,as Eliot might conjecture,
” at the still point of the turning wheel”.