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Visits to the Graveyard

Between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, one usually visits one’s ancestors at the cemetery. And so this past Sunday we found ourselves in both Hamilton and Toronto, wandering in the heat to say prayers to those who had lived and were now lost to us. 
The journey to the Beth Jacob cemetery or Gates of Heaven in Hamilton is about a 50 minute drive, eventually snaking over Snake Road, driving over a one car bridge that beneath houses a train track. The place itself edges on a mountain. Here we find much of my husband’s family, most lined up in almost straight formation and called to attention by their surnames.

Some visitors are overwhelmed by emotion. Sadly but neutrally I view my mother- in-law’s name in a double final resting plot, sharing it with her husband, Labol. I never knew my husband’s father who passed away at 42, but I imagine my husband’s finely tuned moral sense and art of the negotiator are derived from the man I’ve only seen in photos. In a bit of a mishmash on her grave is carved the wording, a marble marker that stands in place of the person. There is no suggestion of who she really was, her characteristics, personality or talents, the great affection she spurred in her nieces and nephews. Only the words “wife, mother, grandmother and great grandmother” .

Death is certainly the great leveller. Although there are a variety of stone types and shapes, manner of inscriptions and the odd quote here, there is an overall uniformity, perhaps reminiscent of the congregants at City Shul during these holy days . But in truth, I am dry- eyed, feeling little here. She is more in my thoughts and head when I attempt gefelte fish or am reminded of a shower she once hosted for her niece also long dead more than forty- four years ago. I recall she wore white and shone over the proceedings of cake and conversation. A butterfly, in deed.
Later in the day, it is the Toronto cemetery, Beth Tzedec, perfectly maintained and with a greater sense of symmetry than Beth Jacob as there is less choice between size and decoration and inscription here on markers: rules that the mourners will respect. Yet in spite of that, the graveyard is more of a park and one might imagine youths slowly wandering through the paths here, then meandering, stopping on a bench to reflect, gaze inward and connect with their thoughts. Even the flowers decorating graves are stipulated, not a hodgepodge, but a stately collected gathering chosen for memorials , for the eye and leg of those who frequent even as rarely as we do. As is the custom, we place a stone to signify we have come to visit. My husband reads the prayers, and it is done. I am reminded of Emily Dickinson’s poem( See below).

Hoping to come and go fairly quickly on this day, we arrive around 4 but spot a graveside funeral that is occurring so close to my parents’ stone that some of the mourners are actually leaning against it, the burial exactly in front. So we make a short pilgrimage to my aunt and uncle’s resting place which is easily locatable because their marker is surrounded by overgrown bushes.

But the funeral lags on, a group under large black and white umbrellas to shelter them from the scorchingly intense heat of early fall weather. We must continue to wait, bearing witness to the passing of a woman we did not know, but unable to move towards reciting our prayers and certainly not wanting to interrupt the sanctity of another’s passing. Finally when we are able to approach, I am- again- not feeling much, perhaps drained by the sun or the frequenting ghosts have flown further skyward to also escape the heat. I read the deeply engraved words on my parents’ stone , noting the familiar design I created of menorah and star particularly for them on the stone.
My parents have been abstracted in this moment, when they should have been most near, as usually in this place, I do conjure them with love, missing them strongly, but their faces or even a sense of them does not come to me; I cannot feel them near.  

The rabbi from the funeral reaches out and takes my hands and I am overwhelmed. As he reaches over the gravesite and our hands clasp over it, I experience a oneness with place, persons, a breaching of time. His is a warm thoughtful, action that extends beyond words as if to echo the “ Heneni” we heard discussed in the Dvar Torah. In a moment, all combines, a Mindfulness moment, “I am here, mummy and daddy.” The rabbi , looking tired, makes the visit real in a sense as the pressure of his hands and mine responding seem to affirm that we are both alive, sentient, reflecting and responding in the place of death. A strange compilation of longing for the dead, standing amidst compressed memories of my growing up life with them but also a bit like Robert Herrick’s Gather he rosebuds while ye may. Talk about T.S. Eliot’s time past, time present, time future! Only later here, I analyze. There, it is the sensation , the pressure of emotion, that is outstanding. Body not mind at all. How ironic as my parents’ bodies are no more, only dust.

Perhaps for the rabbi, it is a means to provide comfort for the mourners, perhaps to him as well, a verification that he stands in the realm of the living when his service that day is to walk among the dead, move as an agent of G-d to dispense comfort, reassurance that life will continue on. The hand holding moves into another dimension for me, the squeezing, the warmth even on a day so hot that flowers wilt . It seems to attest to the ability to be able to draw breath, move in this dimension of life, at least until we no longer are able. I ruminate at the simplicity of the gesture, no elaborate words, no soulful looks, mere touch that supersedes all else in that moment. It connotes kindness, respect and care. I appreciate it, especially as I am bereft of tears.

I’m reminded of the military gravestones in San Diego, all in strict accordance for markers of service people, small rectangulars standing at attention, much like a frozen wall of waves that stretches on and on, indistinguishable, one from the other. Yet even here on this Sunday, we in this place, must hunt a bit among the dead to scout out our loved ones.

Some people visit cemeteries as in the ones in Paris like Pere Lachaise that is home to famous writers and writers. Occasionally we have also veered off the beaten track of cities to also honour the dead. As in Buenas Aires to see Evita Peron’s family tomb- where she may or not be contained. There unending sculptures of angels in pink marble, some the size of tiny houses. The rich are celebrated in death as they did in life.

In New Orleans, St. Louis cemetery in the French Quarter, showcases an interesting arrangements “ a city of the dead” because of the high water level, so corpses are baked in their family graves- the dust of generations mingling as family member after family member share the same final resting spot.Ashes to ashes..all shattered urns…

In Prague, the magnificent 14 th century surviving Jewish cemetery where the intermingling of rural and urban traditions coalesced. Usually there is no human depiction in Judaism as the Bible forbids “ images”; however here, if my memory serves me, we view depicted on the angled surviving almost toppled tombstones the profession of the one buried: a baker with his bread, for example, not just detruncated blessing hands or a flame, or menorah marking the spot, deemed acceptable by the faith.

Years back there were benevolent societies that were set aside for Jewish burials. Immigrant and even resident Jews formed groups to assist their kin: no doubt spurred in by the antisemitism they encountered at work, school and university quotas and restrictive practices and attitudes of their neighbours. Their aim in building a better society resulted in the Mount Sinai and Western hospitals in Toronto. My father once told me that his mother sold bricks to raise money for the later. Near my house, on Roselawn, precious real estate space was once the outreaches of the city, far from Kensington Market and so here far from city core was the resting place for Jews. I visit my progenitors, Molly and Sam, this week, taking with me implements to tidy their graves. Maybe once , I had visited the graves when my mother was in her middle years although on the passing of my father, I stood outside the gates and called in through my tears, “Buby Molly, do you know? Your son has died.”

There is a taboo of graveyards as if the dead will pull you in and mark your days so even the recitation of Kaddish or prayers for the dead at the conclusion of services at synagogue incites the gong that ushers those with living parents quickly out of the congregation. We wash our hands as we leave the cemetery too, water taps installed within the gates, metaphorical again perhaps.

Although we do not ruminate on the dead, during our high holidays, the visits to cemeteries stimulate sobering thoughts reminding us to put life in perspective.

Emily Dickinson’s “ Because I could not stop for Death”,

Because I could not stop for Death –

He kindly stopped for me –

The Carriage held but just Ourselves –

And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste

And I had put away

My labor and my leisure too,

For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove

At Recess – in the Ring –

We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –

We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed Us –

The Dews drew quivering and Chill –

For only Gossamer, my Gown –

My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed

A Swelling of the Ground –

The Roof was scarcely visible –

The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet

Feels shorter than the Day

I first surmised the Horses’ Heads

Were toward Eternity –

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Holiday Food

It happens every September: the holidays.

Yet, somehow preparation seems less this year, Rosh Hashanah always providing an opportunity to try out new recipes, but I’m feeling laid back and so in contemplating deserts, the end rather than the kickoff to the meal, I revert to a low fat chocolate cake. Truthfully, it is sweets more often than the savouries that entrap me. The Canadian Jewish News presents, as always, an tempting array of apple cakes in multiple ways so I decide to combine two recipes. But one delectable desert offering will never suffice as my eaters will groan, but actually anticipate at least a second or even a third. My friend a thespian from Stratford, a superlative chef once made a plum cake, explaining the purple- blue plums are only available at this time of year. So instead of the Silver Palates’ great apple pies, I take the road less travelled by and hope that doesn’t result in lesser taste: even though the firmness of peaches this year calls out for a home in a pie. I’m excited to see if Joe’s plum tart is as delicious as I remembered it to be. I do worry that freezing may play with the flavours, but I have no choice but to shuffle down to the basement where our discarded unit lives besides the Whirlpools. 

However my continuing motto is to have more than just one happy ending and so, if fruit is not to your taste, or if the result is less than anticipated, there’s that backup chocolate although I’m not sure how different kinds of sugar renders it “low fat” as decreed by its title. I seem to recall this recipe was also clipped from the newspaper when Mike Harris tightened and destroyed our economy . Something ironic like a play on Marie Antoinette’s Let them eat cake, I conjure. But I know at least that this concoction , in spite of its labelling , is tasty, tried and true.

The starters are typical for a traditional meal: gefelte fish, never a choice for my son in law. Maybe it is the naked look of poached palish yellowish fish that turns him off. And of course, the menu must contain chicken soup- which reminds me I need to make another set of matzoh balls as mine from the Lillian Kaplan recipe book were so light that I fear they will disintegrate into greyish globs in the soup. Maybe the peaks of the frothy egg whites painstakingly separated deserved more time at the mismatched prongs of the mixer.

 

Gefelte fish is the true challenge. Although I’ve attempted it for years now, it does not resemble my mother-in- law’s in spite of her bequeathing her recipe. I recall quizzing her about a stage in the process because I was afraid the balls would glom together as they cooked. Her response was“ You’ll see. They won’t.”
I do order the finest freshest chopped fish although she would always comment that the fish were kept really fresh in her family’s bathroom tub in Hamilton. My fish shop may wonder why I only appear at their store only once a year, but no matter, as the exorbitant cost results from hand chopping of several varieties of white fish and pickerel and a touch of salmon, bloodied heads and bones included in a separate plastic bag. But my issue revolves around the flavouring as I tend to go light on spice, afraid of overwhelming taste buds. When I first attempted it, I despised the smell. Over the years, I’ve learned to embrace the aroma, feeling it impregnates with the sweet smell of the fish gently poaching in the shallow pot for two or more hours. Although the smell is long gone by the time my guests come to the table, perhaps it is this imagined odour that causes my son- in- law’s lips to curl.

I am aware that the latest fashion is to purchase a gefelte fish loaf and cook it in the oven but, I am a hard- nosed purist, wanting to know exactly what is in the product. Except for my children’s insistence on Kraft Dinner, I have always cooked from scratch. I followed Adele Davis when they were young, so aware of preparing their baby food from vegetables and meats purchased only hours before to preserve their ingredients.

 And in truth, many of those loaves are delicious although none meets the standards of my mother-in- law’s fish, now passed away.Alough she does not people my thoughts on a regular basis, her ghost frequents on Rosh Hashanah. Similarly, it is Friday nights with which I associate my mother, jumping from the table to fetch and serve, her fricasse and simple roasted chicken the stars that teased our drooling mouths. Good on Friday, but so delicious on Saturday as the leftover carcass and potatoes allowed to deepen their flavours over night.How she completed an entire meal was astounding as the oven door never closed completely and she knew not to even try to bake as customers to our hi fidelity store, situated in front of our living quarters, would inevitably appear at the crucial time of removing the cake from the oven. But the memories, naturally, differ between my mother and my mother-in- law, my mother, a gentle hovering spirit surrounding the meal with her presence.

My chicken soup I admit is divine. A concoction of carrots, celery, onion, parsley and parsnips passed through cheesecloth is based somewhat on that supreme dowager of Jewish cooking Lillian Kaplan.For some reason she suggests adding and then removing an eggshell, which often I do, rosemary and tomato paste and accent, which I don’t. I make the soup the day before so all, well at least, most of the congealed fat, can be skimmed from the surface in a hard piece, where it has risen after a night in the downstairs refrigerator. Into fine teacup shaped soup bowls of the finest porcelain that once belonged to my mother’s mother, I will spoon a matzo ball, egg noodles, sliced carrots confiscated from the soup and possibly a chicken kreplach. One of my forever guests nibbles only at the kreplach, the one store bought commodity of the meal and apparently the only part of the meal she finds appealing. I note this but do not enquire why. But I notice her plate rearranged to suggest eating.

As we move to the main course, it is a beautiful turkey stuffed with a combo of freshly made cornbread and shitaki mushrooms. My mother combined rice and button mushrooms and it too was very pleasing , but my husband’s concoction from the Frog Cookbook is the best, a lovely combination of slight crunch from the cornbread and velvety smoothness from the mushrooms. Herbs of course are purchased fresh, not dispensed from a container or jar. I believe they enhance with their pungent flavours. I do a combination of cranberries and oranges for the sauce although again I note many eaters go for the canned variety. The Frog salad has also become a staple although the croutons, first cut then baked in the oven, then sautéed in loads of butter with fresh thyme, salt and pepper are only one of the several ingredients in this assemblage of romaine, artichoke hearts and cherry tomatoes. Often time I serve it in a bowl my aunt Marion once gifted me so her presence also hovers near.

Most Jewish people I know opt for brisket, but something about the stringiness of the meat puts me off. I’ve overheard people say that either marinating it or cooking it in Coca-Cola makes a fantastic dish although most prefer hours of slow cooking. I’m unaware of where my aversion to brisket is derived. I don’t recall my mother cooking or overcooking it. And even I have glimpsed its presence in the showcases of butcher shops,  where truly it looks quite nice and entreats me to give it a chance in my menu. I ignore its pleas.

In years passed, my son’s friends from Vancouver would also come to our house. One year I made as many pancakes as I could find recipes for: zucchini, potato, yams, whatever vegetable was available. We laughed at the mounds of colours, shapes and sizes that were continually pouring out of the kitchen. In other years, chicken wings, various kugels, raw Brussels sprout salads, chicken wings, carrot and raisin combos and an attempt at stuffed knishes: whatever caught my eye in a magazine or cook book. Now with the addition of Harvard beets, the dinner is scaled back to fish, soup, two kugels, salad, turkey, stuffing and the deserts.

Perhaps the original concept of the huge supper had to do with a long journey into a new year where one should be fortified for the trials of the excursion by food that would support long walks to the market, through the shetl and on to see the mischpuka. As well, I’m sure it was Jews who lauded the notion of brain food- schmaltz greasing the wheels of cognition. As well, Marc Chagall wife’, Bella’s memoir Burning Lights is never far from my thoughts as she described the family suppers that punctuated the seasons with family arriving in Vitebsk, Russia, with  pekalah of food on their backs, days of walking in order to join family in supper prayers for the new year.

So it is that I prepare for the supper, a gathering to herald a year that we all pray will be kind , peaceful and prosperous in many ways. Best of all is to have the family all together, though longing for my grandchildren in Philadelphia to be present at the ritual dinner, to be able to romp with their cousins, laugh at the misshapen matzoh balls, wrinkle their noses at gefelte fish, chomp done on turkey. Yet, I am blessed to be able to provide food, company and support to those who come, welcoming the others away to the entourage in my head : reminders of what is truly important in the times to come. 

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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