Writing 101: Happy Pesach!

I’m not a picky eater anymore, but I still love the twice-yearly Passover Seder more than any other meal.  The Seder is an experience, not just a meal, celebrated for two consecutive nights in March or April by Jews all over the world.  It is both a remembrance of what God did for us as a people years ago when He freed us from slavery in Egypt and a celebration of what He continues to do for us up to the present.  My memories of childhood Seders are so rich and so entwined with who I am that it will be hard to consolidate them into one post.

My mother came from Austria and my father from Russia, both as children with their families.  Some of their siblings did well and others not so well; those who were successful lived in nice homes in Long Island.  We were on the lower economic end of their families during most of my childhood, and I grew up in a succession of apartments in Brooklyn.  Going to my aunt’s house for the Seder was also a treat because I got to spend time with my cousins whom I saw only at holidays and special occasions.

When I walked in the door, the smell of frying latkes enveloped me.  Crisp, greasy, hot – we would nosh on them, plain or with applesauce, while waiting for the Seder to start.  When everything was ready, we all sat at tables arranged in a T, with a short horizontal part at one end and a very long vertical piece going down.  The men sat up at the front, next the older boys, then the older girls, then the children and the women.  The table was always decorated with fresh yellow daffodils, and their sweet smell brought Spring into the room.  Small cut-glass bowls of salt water were placed along the table, along with plates of celery and carrot sticks.  Everyone had a goblet of water and a cup for the dark, sweet Manischewitz wine we had to drink at four different points during the recounting of the Passover story.  At the head of the table was the Seder plate, with various elements significant in telling the story, and at an empty seat was the large wine cup of Elijah.

Seder means “order,” and there is a definite structure to the progression of the Seder, a lot to go through before you get to the actual meal.  My father and uncles were experts at verbal Hebrew speed-reading, so things usually progressed fairly quickly.  The actual Seder meal came about two-thirds of the way through the Seder, so there was a good reason why the men chanted at such lightning speed. At different points there would be general participation, like when we all dipped 10 drops of wine from our fingers to represent the 10 plagues God visited on the Egyptians,  or tasted the horseradish root, the parsley, the charoses (a delicious mixture of apples, walnuts, and wine), and the matzo. The salt water on the table was for dipping: parsley, boiled potatoes, and boiled eggs.  I traded my yolks with my cousin for her egg whites.  There was lots of music – traditional songs, blessings, and the Four Questions chanted by the youngest child and answered by all the men.

Finally, it was time for the feast, and a feast it certainly was.  First there was gefilte fish with horseradish – I passed on that.  Then bowls of clear chicken soup with one or two matzo balls; my father fondly called them “sinkers.”  Meats – roasted chicken, beef brisket – and vegetables – carrot tzimmes and potato kugel – appeared next.  We ate until we were stuffed, and then went off to play until the adults finished their eating and conversation and it was time to resume the Seder service.  When we had finished the stories, the songs, and the last cups of wine, we had desserts, all made without traditional leavening.  There were sponge cakes light and fluffy because made with so many eggs, nuts, coconut macaroons, chocolates, pies.  After the desserts, when our eyes were heavy-lidded and our bodies lethargic, the last excitement of the evening roused us to pay close attention.

Part of the Seder involves hiding half of a matzo, called the Afikomen, in a napkin.  The Afikomen must be eaten at the very end of the Seder, the last morsel in our mouths.  The procedure was that one of the men would have the napkin on his knee, one or more of the kids would steal it and hide it, and then a committee of children would bring it forth and bargain with the men for a price to give it back.  Depending upon the condition of the Afikomen – it must be as close to a whole piece as possible – and the bargaining skills of the committee, we could end that evening with quite a bit of cash in our pockets.  After we prayed and ate the Afikomen, we always sang Hatikvah and God Bless America.

Our family has always been close-knit and the cousins kept up the Seder tradition each year for a long time after my aunts were unable to do it any longer.  We have had a few Seders at our home, done larger group Seders in our churches, and have been guests at others’ Seders.  All of them have been immensely enjoyable, yet none of them has quite captured for me the overall experience of the Seders of my childhood, when I was full of delight and anticipation, filled with good things to eat, and enveloped in an atmosphere of family, faith, and tradition.


Blogging 101: Be Inspired by the Community: Hospitality

I enjoyed reading the post “The Hardest of Christian Dispensations” on the blog Tantoverde, which discussed judging others.  Although I could have shared my own experiences of being judged and found wanting, I commented instead on one of the things we did in our family to encourage our children to love and respect people; we practiced the Christian virtue of hospitality.  I believe that hospitality is a gift that can be nurtured.  In my childhood and earlier adulthood, I did not have this gift. I witnessed it in action with my first mother-in-law, Mamita Edith, who would welcome any one we showed up with at her house, with no prior notice, and feed us all.  Her motto was: “Donde comen tres, comen cuatro,” literally, “Where three can eat, four can eat.”  Pots of rice and beans were extended to make food for all.

While I admired this philosophy, I did not, in the early years of my second marriage, have the aplomb to carry it out myself.  I remember the first time we invited a pastor and his wife to dinner.  I was so nervous that, when I leaned in to take the chicken out of the oven, I singed the hair off my forearm; the smell of scorched hair added nothing good to our meal.

Somehow, though, as our four younger children were growing up, our family started reaching out to other people with food.  First it was bread.  I had learned to bake bread with my ex-husband, when we had a bread baking business first on the Lower East Side and then in Woodstock, NY.  I scaled down some of the recipes so that I made six loaves at a time instead of twelve, and my children eagerly got involved in the baking process.  One loaf disappeared as soon as it had cooled enough to eat, and we kept another one or two, but the rest we gave away.  We evaluated the loaves together, giving away the best looking ones and choosing on whom we would bestow them.  Sometimes we would take bread with us when visiting a friend, or pick someone from the list of our bread fans; occasionally we realized that a person totally unexpected needed a loaf of freshly homemade bread.   I remember only three times in about 30 years when the offer of fresh bread was refused.

Our son Matt was attending community college when he heard of a church just beginning, comprised mostly of young singles and led by a young pastor whose messages were good.  We went as a family to check it out – my husband and I the only people of our age there, and our three young girls some of the few children.  We ended up becoming part of that church community and found that we could invite young people from church over to our home for dinner on a moment’s notice and they would gladly come, eat a lot, and take home leftovers.  It warmed my Jewish mother’s heart and was so casual that it never made me nervous.

At some point we decided as a family to institute a monthly Saturday evening open house.  We made a big batch of bread and a big pot of soup, usually black bean, minestrone, or chili, and sometimes had dessert or salad. Then we put the word out, and people started coming, perhaps bringing more food, perhaps not, but all welcome.  The most fun part was that often people would show up whom at least some of didn’t know….some of these people became very much a part of our family.  My son Matt and daughter Cathy were both in college at the time.  When they came home for a weekend visit while we were having an open house, they remarked with some irritation that they’d been greeted at the door by people they didn’t know, welcomed into their own home which was crammed full of people, and asked how they knew our family!  Matt also said that he was getting really tired of that ever-present minestrone soup….

We have had many other opportunities to open our home to welcome guests wherever we live.  Each opportunity enriched our lives and taught our children to minister to other people, to share what we had, and to learn from and respect our differences. One Thanksgiving we invited some Chinese international students and friends who had triplets, among others.  The Chinese students had not known it was a meal and had eaten before they came.  Our friends were worried about their kids eating too much, so they’d fed them first.  We’d never had so many leftovers from a Thanksgiving meal before, but the meal became not the focus of the visit but the excuse to bring us all together to enjoy each others’ company

When we moved to the South, we thought we would find that Southern hospitality would take the form of ours, and that we would be invited to eat and to fellowship frequently.  That was not the case, and we realized that, if we wanted to experience the kind of hospitality and fellowship we’d left behind, we would have to initiate it.  We started inviting people to drop in and got a pleased yet surprised response.  The idea of the open house seemed strange to people, yet they enjoyed it once they participated.  Picture this:  tables laden with fresh loaves of bread and butter; a huge pot of soup on the stove; desserts, salads, and snacks set wherever there was room;  water, juice, coffee and tea up high where the little ones couldn’t reach.  Rooms full of people, sitting, standing, conversing, eating, in a shifting kaleidoscope of relationships.  Children everywhere, playing with each other, with adults, being held, being fed.  Age no barrier to interactions, as children might get involved in a conversation with adults, and adults would get into playing games with the kids.  People of all ages, colors,  backgrounds, beliefs coming together in a shared experience of food for the body, the soul, the mind, and the heart.  That is the community that hospitality fosters, where cold judgment stays outside and warm fellowship reigns.

Writing 101: Death to Adverbs

Sitting cross-legged in my old brown armchair in early Fall, I glance out the glass storm door, which, facing west, admits the evening light.  The setting sun strews wisps of gold across the cobalt sky, behind tall trees that stretch green leafy branches toward the dying light.  Tiny brown birds, chirping and chittering, flit from branch to branch, zoom toward the grass to pick up worms and crumbs, spiral back upwards.

Inside my living room a house fly circulates, buzzing and banging into walls, seeking an escape route.  The fan whirrs and the water heater cycles on with a chuffing sound.

The sky darkens, visibility decreases.  The leaves of the trees show black against the indigo sky.  No late pedestrians meander by and fewer cars shoot past.  The homing birds nestle in the tree branches.

I close the front door, switch on lights, eat my black bean soup and rice.  A comfortable silence settles in…….until my hard-of-hearing neighbor blasts his stereo.  Bereft of the silence, I wash the dishes, pondering on the insipidness of a world without adverbs, lacking the descriptive how’s, where’s, and when’s of existence.

Writing 101: Be Brief: A Love Story

We found the packet of letters after my mother died. During my childhood, the differences between them stood out, there were arguments, and I wondered about divorce.  Then I read their letters to each other. The letters revealed their desire to marry and  the love growing between the quiet, educated, curly redhead who wouldn’t risk her father’s disapproval and the darkly handsome, mustachioed rebel who had gambled away the money saved for college.  My parents, and I never knew that about them until they were both gone.

They had come full circle, though.  During the ten years before my father’s cancer slowed him down, they traveled together in the summers, leaving us behind.  The romance was rekindled, and the letters are a legacy to their love.

Writing 101: A Character-Building Experience

My emotional connection with him is so strong that, before I’d ever met him face to face, I left my husband, my job, my friends, my dog, and my cozy single-wide home in the North Carolina countryside to be with him in Indiana.  I don’t really like Indiana, but love makes a mockery of other likes and dislikes; the desire to be with the beloved trumps other commitments. Although I was supposed to get here a week before he arrived, he decided to come early. This disruption of the plans of others might have indicated a selfish personality, but, in fact, his timing was perfect.  When I actually met him for the first time, he was literally glowing; the UV blanket he had to sleep on to decrease his bilirubin levels gave him an unearthly purplish aura.  He lay on my daughter’s bed, next to her and his six-year-old sister, pretty much unaware of my presence.  That did not stop me from picking him up, cords and all, and holding him close….the bonding started at that moment and increases exponentially with each day. I was unable to be with my other three grandchildren for more than a few weeks at a time, scattered throughout the years, so I was determined to be the caretaker for this fourth one, since my daughter has to work.  I can only give him a year; I must return eventually to my home in North Carolina and pick up the life I interrupted there.  I don’t even want to think about how hard it will be to leave, so I treasure each moment I can spend with Ruben. There was a time during my graduate school years in Cincinnati that I realized I am a baby person and not every one is.  Often I hear people say they prefer the older years when they can interact more, when they understand more of a child’s personality.  I find that the daily life with an infant is a rich experience.  At first, there are simple needs to be met, for food, for warmth, for sleep, for comfort; personality makes itself known very early on and a relationship is built quickly when the hearts are connected.  That is what I feel when I hold Ruben – that our hearts are connected with an indissoluble bond. IMG_0676Ruben has been an easygoing baby.  Of course he cries in frustration and  anger, but mostly he is a lover:  a lover of people, a lover of music, a lover of colors and patterns, a lover of movements and shifting shapes.  Each day brings a new discovery, a new achievement, and his primary response is a hugely dimpled smile, which easily mutates into a laugh somewhere between a coo and a chuckle.  He expresses himself with a wide range of sounds and has the facial expressions to match.  At five months, he is a big baby, with fat cheeks and several chins. He is strong, pushing hard to stand on his chunky legs, lifting himself on his arms, sitting up with minimal support. His almond shaped brown eyes and fuzzy brown hair are several shades lighter than his sister’s, and he downs twice as much milk as she did. I love words, but I am frustrated with them right now, because I don’t see Ruben’s essence in these descriptions.  It may not only be my own creative limitations but also the fact that, because babies live so much in the moment, any word picture is old almost before it is written.  Pictures and videos help catch the personality, but I suspect that the only way to really see and know Ruben is to spend some time with him.  Being with him gives me joy, and joy must be experienced to be understood.

Serially Lost, Part One

“Here, Em, let me fix your hair in a ponytail,” my big sister Linda said to me one summer day.

She gathered my hair together in her hand, and suddenly, I heard the snip, snip of scissors and felt that ponytail of hair detach from my head in one great clump. I was probably about eight or nine years old, with thin curly hair that got tangled when brushed or combed. The days of leaving curly hair unbrushed and uncombed had not yet arrived; vigorous daily brushing was still quite in vogue.  There was a struggle each morning with much whining and protesting on my part when my mother dealt with my hair.

We were in our summer place, Muldavinville, and my sister and her husband had their own bungalow there that summer, with my two little nieces.  My sister is 13 years older than I am, and she was the heroine of my childhood and teenage years.  She wasn’t bound by the religious rules that I fearfully tried to keep within: she colored pictures with me on the Sabbath and served bacon and shrimp in her apartment.  When we went shopping, she casually engaged in conversations with the salespeople and cashiers, while I, shy and tongue-tied, looked on in envy.  She was everything beautiful and accomplished in my eyes, and that was why I still remember this hair-cutting day.

I’m sure that my sister just wanted to help end the hair brushing wars, tired of my whining and probably of my mother’s complaining about it.  She must have known I didn’t want my hair cut, so her solution, in her efficient way, was to do the deed and end the struggle.  What she didn’t realize was that I didn’t just lose my hair that day; I lost my trust in her.  I understood then that she was capable of deceit in order to accomplish an end she felt was valuable, and I felt betrayed.

I am sixty-six today, and my sister is seventy-nine.  We live about 4 hours away from each other in the South, and we are all that is left of our immediate family.  Our parents and two brothers are gone.  We keep in touch and enjoy each other’s company; we are friends as well as sisters, now that we are on a more level playing field.  I still have tremendous respect for her and love her dearly. I suspect she would not remember this incident from my childhood and would be surprised that I do.  Why do I?  I lost my hair and my trust that day, but they both eventually grew back.  What remained is the experiential knowledge of how dishonesty can damage a child and a commitment not to betray a child’s trust.

Absolute Beauty

So often we try to pose our questions as either/or questions.  Is “Beauty” a subjective concept or an objective one?  The question presupposes that one must make a choice in evaluating the idea of beauty, but I suggest that “Beauty” is both an objective and a subjective idea, a combination of universal principles which delineate in our minds what real beauty should consist of and, at the same time, a very subjective reaction to that which a given individual would consider beautiful.

Unfortunately, both the universal concept and the individual perception are alike influenced and clouded by the current societal norms, especially in relation to human beauty; it is rare for someone to be able to independently enjoy a beauty that has not first passed the approval of his society.

For example, I think most people react positively to the beauty of natural objects, such as sunsets, trees, flowers, the ocean, and much animal life. That is an inherent human idea of beauty.  However, not so many find a spider gorgeous, no matter how beautiful the patterns of color; the web may be considered beautiful more often than the arachnid weaving it.  In terms of humans, we expect the basics in evaluating beauty: all body parts arranged in harmonious symmetry.  The societal norms then elevate one type of body, hair color, skin color, above others.  To see beauty in those who do not fall into the ideal categories-which, frankly, consists of most of us-requires either the artist’s eye or the lover’s heart.  The artist looks at someone and sees a story to be told; the lover views someone through the lenses of affection and sympathy.  It is possible to say about someone: “She is not really beautiful in the classic sense, but she is beautiful to me.” The universal construct, the societal norm, and the personal relationship all combine to define what beauty is.