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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”.

What’s ( so) good about Rosh Hashana ( Part 2)

We were never shul goers in our family, strange in a sense since on both sides, the family were founders of both Beth Shalom and Adath Israel. In the latter, my grandfather’s steely haired and aristocratic looking brother lays claim to being one of the earliest presidents.

We lived across the street from the synagogue and my father, feeling betrayed by G- d when he lost the power of his legs to polio, refused to worship in the sanctified halls. Instead he would decry his credo and ethics as a good man, quietly instilling in us that a good person does not need to go to shul. And never was there a more honest, truthful or hardworking person than our father.

So growing up, In spite of having to attend Hebrew School three nights aweek, our true religious immersion consisted of the family celebrations of family feasts usually held at my grandparents house on Atlas, many children and grandchildren somehow fitting into a tiny dining room encircling a table that usually sat a handful now expanded to fit the needs of more than twenty, the men in hats, the women wearing bright lipstick and holding squirming babies. Only my grandmother after cooking and serving sat by herself in the kitchen, sucking chicken bones or just resting.

So perhaps it is the inheritance of family gatherings that has translated into my own enactment of the family meal:

I buy fish that is all ready chopped to craft my gefelte fish. I use a mixer to whip the whites of my eggs for my matzoh balls and I wonder at old stories of people who kept live fish fresh in their bathtubs for their appetizers, not wanting to think how that squirming fish was somehow subdued onto special holiday plates garnished with a medallion of carrot. I cook and freeze several weeks before, only leaving three days before the actual supper for the perishables such as potato kugel which must be made the day of. I ponder, truly amazed, how did they manage all of that exhausting work, standing, hucking, stirring, etc?

I love my Rosh Hashana table. It is set with heirlooms of my mother and grandmother, sparkling, glistening, light catching silver and treasures upon which I mount countless offerings. And always at the center there are purple orchids, pink roses and snowy dahlias, for me, the stars of the evening. The tablecloth is crisply linen and much like Downtown Abbey I try to align the forks and spoons, eyeballing them from the edge of the coordinating napkins.

When I was young, the grandkids would drop to the basement rec room at my grandparents as soon as possible , the oldest cousin ordering us around. And we adored him. Here at my table are only part of our brood because some live far away and others have not arrived into our earthly realm yet. My heart longs for those missing.

The day in synagogue also differs. Once members of a large synagogue, we have now departed, modern day nomads for a congregation led by a woman who can make any ragtag group feel like family. Whether a service is held in a gymnasium with basket ball nets festooned by garlands of flowers or in churches where the aleph bet cleverly hides Christian icons, she has magical ability to create community of diversity. We listen to two devor torahs that are so sensitive we want to wrap our arms around the speakers and hold them tenderly. My husband turns to me and whispers, These people are thoughtful; They are thinkers. Imagine the chutzpah to publicly interpret Sara’s treatment of Hagar as cruel or proclaim Avraham’s disobedience to G-d in sacrificing Yitzhak as his greatest moment, announcing that doubt in religion tempers fanaticism. I do not know any of the people who sit side by side with me but their greetings, their smiles are sincere and welcoming. I sometimes think I might join a study group here, but never do.

Yet my High holiday experience here brings me deeper into what I think a religion should be, with people who do not just repeat or spout paradigms, wagging their fingers and accepting without question the ways of the old and well troden.

Now I do not mind sitting longer, singing barely audible or nodding amicably to the participants here to whom I am joined. It is a happy pleasure I embrace every year. The blowing of shofar is long and sweet and I nod in delight, feeling this may in fact be a very good year.

Saying Goodbye to Maury

I read obituaries.

At first, it was to ensure my name wasn’t there, but then to watch for people I knew or may have known. Others must do this too as I was surprised by the unexpected visitors at my mothers’ funeral and subsequent shiva. Maybe obituaries established one of the earliest forms of social media, a written town crier or play on posting of bands at religious institutions: getting the word out anonymously.

Which is kinda creepy as you never know how many or who is reading your posts or reflections, but I guess that is the point- of needing to impart something to someone beyond yourself and your immediate circle.

For me, I express my thoughts as a personal need to write, rather than to communicate and anticipate others who will read my words ( although I am delighted by a comment, even disparaging ones as prompted by my own near and dear: for example last week’s regarding the commercialization of parenthood. Yikes). Guess it’s much like a Catch 22. Put yourself out there and take a chance because not everyone is going to agree with your version of life.

When I searched the Obits onE Friday I read that a second or third cousin had passed away. I knew him only briefly, one of those many relations that you encounter at a pretzel bar at a bar mitzvah or wedding, a quiet, lanky fellow, the late arrival of a bouncy, chatty woman and her silent sam of a husband. They were lovely, lovely people, my father’s first cousins, always welcoming, smiling, accepting: the kind of family people write books about when they idealize a friendly Jewish family. And both Fanny and Bella, my father’s aunt and first cousins, were the perfect stereotypes of a clan you would want to belong to, and great cooks as well, mavens of the artistry of matzoh balls, rugala, gefilte fish. At least that was how I drew them in my mind.

Likely shyly, I was introduced to Bella’s son once or twice, the cousin who passed away, now grown up: a husband, a father, a soul taken too early. I can mythologize him too because I didn’t really know him, but I had a sense of how much his parents adored and deep down loved him, one of those change of life babies, a delightful surprise to his very reserved and gentle parents.I could fantasize a little about Maury because my remembrances of his parents were so dear and palpable; and likely, if he followed in their footsteps, he, too was likewise good, kind and undeserving of an early death.

Ascending heaven, I imagined his adoring welcoming mother gather him to her arms and murmur “… enough suffering, my darling, come with me. “ Yet, having read Dr. Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven , I could also hear Alexander’s son imploring his father back to life, “Dad, dad, don’t go, come back.” And Alexander did miraculously return. But in the distant- cousin’s, Maury, case, his illness did not subside and Maury had to leave-even though as the obituary stated : his children were his life. As he was Bella and Sam’s: you could read it in their faces.

Last weekend when I had dinner, the first time in more than thirty years with my sister-in-laws, our talk focused on the passing of our mothers, theirs most recent in February. I shared with them an image from a film- whose title I cannot recall, but it had stuck with me: an aged grandfather succumbs in his wheelchair, but as he is passing, he props himself up to standing, and his physical frailty begins to recede so that soon, he is carefully walking, then gliding, then blissfully running as the years fall away. He gallops and gallops and then smack! he is encircled in his mother’s loving arms as she hugs him tightly to her body and his face is blissful.

Do I believe in an afterlife, I don’t know, yet I do not think we can possibly know everything there is to know in this realm and beyond. Far greater minds have grappled with an afterlife or spiritual ascent of our souls! Whether yes or no…but here is the time and place to enjoy: Gather your rosebuds while ye may, Robert Herrick implored all those dancing girls in the light of day.

Russell Smith in The Globe and Mail recently opined about the difference between life happening and being haunted by it. Better to be part of The Happening (with apologies to the existentialists and Alan Kaprow back in the boomer’s haydays) rather than the lament the many years passed that might have been, sighing for moments that could have but didn’t occur.

That remembrance of our earlier days enchants me a little as I envisage myself jumping on trains in Europe,hitchhiking, following paths with no idea where they might lead, footloose- but always a guardian angel at my back as I- even to my own surprise, returning time after time home safe , full of stories and excitement at what I had seen and done. Perhaps the world was safer 40 years ago and you could trust and be naïve and wander into dark streets by train stations reeking of city and encounter people at hostels and become part of their travelling bands, taking on their routes, abandoning them and picking up someone else’s when you got bored or tired or annoyed. A slipshod life without direction only a framework of addresses where to find your parents’ mail that might corral you.

I look out at the flowers this summer, the dark lilies in particular and I see their trajectory of life from bud to shrivelled carcass, the moment of full glorious bloom, and I foolishly hope it will endure to light the days and nights to come. Maybe that is partially the draw of San Diego for me- flowers in continual bloom, ravishing birds of paradise, ever blooming agapanthus, cacti that ignore the scorching heat so they manage to endure and survive.

And perhaps that is the blessing, the ignorance of youth, to scoff, to try, to fly before you learn your wings may melt.

For Maury, I hope that his life was filled with the sweetness his parents would have wanted for him; and now I hope he rests with them., embraced by that fierce love.

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