One of the things I love about Judaism, and being Jewish, is the subjectivity of it all. Yes, there are rules that say do this, don’t do that, but there is also a lot that is open to interpretation. How you go about your relationship with God, your relationship with your family and your community is left up to you. Within the circle you have chosen to live in, your religion is your own.
Growing up in my parents’ house I was shown both side of the religious coin. My father grew up ultra-Orthodox, he had the requisite peyot (side curls), the right intonation when he prayed and he was a rabbi who taught small children to love the Torah. He lived in a small village in Hungary where everyone knew everyone else. And then his entire world was ripped apart. He lost his family, he lost his community, his livelihood, and as the Holocaust did to so many, he lost his religion. He took off his hat, cut off his peyot, and lost his faith in God.
My mother, on the other hand, grew up in a home that didn’t have the relationship with God that my father had. My mother grew up in a secular household, where there was a Jewish tradition, but as they say, it was more of a guideline than a rule. She lived in Vilna, the capital of Lithuania and the center of Litvak culture, a cosmopolitan town. And then her entire world was ripped apart. She lost her family, she lost her childhood, and she lost her trust in everyone, especially in God. The Nazis did such horrible things to my mother, that when she was liberated she was malnourished, ill, and would never be able to have children.
She and my father were both refugees in Sweden. How they met has become family legend. My mother was keeping house for my grandfather, a furrier. My father was living with his 4 surviving brothers and sisters and they decided to get my Aunt Toby a fur collar for her coat for her birthday. My father was the one who stopped by my grandfather’s house to place the order. He saw a picture of my mother on the hall table, and my grandfather couldn’t help but boast of his daughter who took care of him and cooked him the most amazing meals. My father was told to come back a week later… which he did… at dinner time. My parents were married a year later.
For 13 years they took the ashes of their lives and rebuilt them into a life together. They immigrated to the States in the late 50s, and then, one day, I arrived in their lives. The adoption of a daughter changed them forever, and my father, who had lost his faith, found it again. But my mother, who didn’t start out on the same page religiously, was not ready to follow. My father let her be, and she let him be. I grew up in a home where religion, as well as secularism, was not only tolerated, but respected. My mother kept a kosher home for my father, and he let her live her life in the way she felt she needed to live. I have very interesting memories of my mother making the blessing on the Shabbat candles, and then lighting her cigarette off those very candles. There are those who will be shocked at this, but in our house, that was how we all got along.
What happens when two irresistible forces meet? The forces can’t resist each other, so they combine into one irresistible force. This irresistible force became our family, and the interpretation of religion in the end always centered around the table. My mom was the most amazing cook, and no matter how you felt about God, Judaism or life in general, her dinners took you to heaven.
This past Shabbat was the first yahrzeit (anniversary) of my mother’s death. I’ve written before how I’ve subjectively taken this year of mourning to be meaningful to me. My father died eight years ago and every year on his yahrzeit I celebrate his life with a Hungarian dinner. This year, the first yahrzeit for my mother, I cooked a dinner in her honor which I hope would make her proud of me. We had good friends over for dinner on Friday night, my daughters Tinky and Didi were there, and Ju-Boy gave a wonderful speech about a woman he never met in life, but knew so well through the love of cooking she passed on to me. He mentioned how the irresistible force of my father’s faith and the irresistible force of my mother’s lack of belief met together to create an irresistible force of respect. My father taught me to love books, my mother taught me to love cooking (and feeding), but together they taught me to respect your partner, your children, your family and your fellow travelers in life.
My mother served this at least every other Shabbat. The wonderful nutty flavor of kasha (buckwheat) will always bring me back instantly to the warm Friday night table, candles lit, my father making kiddush on annoyingly sweet wine and my mother hovering over the stove, ready to serve up her amazing food. I suppose you could say she found her religion in the kitchen.
- 2-3 tablespoons oil (my mother used shmaltz)
- 2 large onions, diced
- 1 cup kasha
- 1 egg, beaten
- 2 cups chicken soup
- salt and pepper to taste
- 8 ounces (250 grams) bow tie pasta, cooked
- Heat the oil in a large, heavy pot. Add the onions and cook over medium heat, stirring often, until brown and caramelized, about 15-20 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and cover to keep warm. Do not clean the pot.
- Combine the kasha with the beaten egg until completely coated. Heat the pot over medium heat and add the egg-coated kasha. Keep stirring to keep the grains separate and cook for about 3-4 minutes until the kasha becomes dry and toasted.
- Add the chicken soup and stir. Add the salt and pepper to taste. Lower the heat and cook for about 10-15 minutes until the kasha is tender and all the water has been absorbed. Stir with a fork to fluff.
- Add the onions and mix well. Add in the cooked bow ties. Toss well and serve.
One of my subjective interpretations of Judaism was how I went about my year of mourning. One of the traditions I took upon myself was not to cut my hair for the whole year. When my mother died my hair really needed cutting to start with, so you can imagine how long it grew. Tonight my daughter Tinky cut my hair. She’s been studying hairdressing at one of the most prestigious schools in Israel, and since I’ve been paying the tuition I suppose you could say this was my most expensive haircut ever…