WASHINGTON, September 4, 2013 — The Jewish New Year 5774. Rosh Hashanah begins the Days of Awe, ten days of reflection, prayer and repentance that close with Yom Kippur.
Memory lays the path and forges the journey for the self-reflection and repair incumbent on Jews these high holy days and beyond.
Some 2,000 years ago, Rabbi Hillel said the words that many Jews reread in the liturgy: If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? If I am only for myself, then what am I? If not now, when?
These words have been quoted in modern times by Primo Levi and Robert F. Kennedy.
They provide keys to learning the power of who we are, where we’ve come from and the discovery that encompasses life’s limits, its gifts and the human need to repair our own lives and the world each day through both word and deed.
Here is a story:
I’m named for my grandmother, who died before I was born. Her recipes are in my mother’s three-ring binder, where the past is written down in cups of sugar and pinches of salt: soup with kreplach, coarse chopped liver, and rugalach.
The recipe for rugalach—a cream cheese and butter pastry filled with raisins, jam, and nuts, covered with cinnamon and sugar—is put down in more detail than most, including the two tablespoons of sour cream that make the difference. My mother’s pastries were born from the quick, solid pressure of her arms on dough that rolled out like unraveling tissue. She used her mother’s wooden rolling pin and board, darkened with flour and butter.
The first time I tried to make the pastry, when I was married with children of my own, the dough stuck to the board as the fat softened with the heat of my effort. My mother said, “Cover the board with cinnamon and sugar, more than you think you need. That’ll keep it from sticking.” But I didn’t have her arms, made strong with scrubbing the white marble steps of her house in East Baltimore, where she grew up and where she came back to live when my grandmother was dying.
My mother never spoke of the burden of that time. She told me instead the story of her mother’s journey from Latvia when just a girl. “Your age,” she said to me when I was just fourteen. “Imagine that. Traveling all alone with one valise. Leaving her parents behind. Her marriage to your grandpa was arranged by a cousin who’d also gotten out.”
I found it hard indeed to imagine all these things. I even hated going to camp. Arranged marriages were just beyond belief.
“My father was a good man, but tough,” she’d say. Then she’d look away as her eyes softened with thoughts of her mother. “Ah, she was an angel.” She’d turn that memory-warmed gaze on me. “What a name you have,” she’d say. And so my grandmother’s sweetness spread across me like a veil. An undeserved gift.
I had to make her rugalach for Rosh Hashanah. I bought a marble pastry board that holds the chill on the dough long enough for me to make the thin circle of pastry that I then cut into eight wedges according to the diagram scrawled at the end of the recipe. “Remember to roll the crescents in more cinnamon and sugar before they go on the baking sheet,” my mother advised.
And each year she graded the rugalach. “Almost.” “A little small.” “Roll the dough out thinner next year.” Or, “Use more cinnamon in your mixture.” “Be sure to pull the ends in a curl to get a good crescent shape.” My father was the ultimate judge. “You’re getting there,” he said a few years before she died.
And then I became obsessed with knishes. I can still taste the crisp dough as it cracked open in my mouth, the spices tingling on my tongue. My mother’s dough was like rice paper that she cut in squares filled with shredded, cooked brisket, seasoned with lots of salt and pepper and flecked with roasted potato. She folded the dough into pouches like little Chinese dumplings, but smaller and round, with the edges swirled down in the center like a belly button. These were nothing like the heavy concoctions in glass deli counters these days, filled with potato or spinach and called knishes. As I bit into one of these gut-bomb pastries one day, I realized my mother’s knishes were obsolete.
I scrolled through the recipe binder. “Sour Cream Schnecken,” “Mollye’s Milkadich Buns,” “Besse’s Noodle Kugle.” More recipes I’d never made, more family trademarks. The order of the recipes, a mystery.
And then I found “Knish Dough.” Below the list of ingredients were these words: “Mix tog. and work dough. (Meat, salt, pepper. Grind meat, gribiness, mashed potatoes all tog.)” What, pray tell, was gribiness? I stood in the middle of my Chevy Chase kitchen with copper pots hanging from my ceiling, a Cuisinart sitting powerfully on my counter ready to act as meat grinder, a brisket in the self-cleaning oven, and I cried over the word gribiness.
My mother cooked in a narrow white kitchen, like her mother’s, in a brick row house. Her apron smelled of garlic and starch. When she opened the oven door, I saw black and white speckled porcelain walls and felt the wave of roasted heat.
This is where I told her how my fourth grade teacher made me stand outside the class. How I’d been unjustly accused of running in the hall. How I couldn’t stop crying. My first experience with public shame. This is where she pulled me to her heavy bosom and let me lay my head.
Her hands moved quickly from cutting board to frying pan. Onions sizzling in the pan ’til they were nearly burned. The smell watered in my mouth for what I knew would come. This is where the holy days began.
And that’s how I remembered what to do. I fried onions and bits of chicken skin with their clinging yellow layers of fat that melted in the pan, leaving fragrant cracklings. I seasoned the burnished cracklings and crispy onions with kosher salt and fresh pepper and ground them with cooked brisket in my Cuisinart in the hope that I had deciphered gribiness through the haze of memory.
I rolled the little pouches filled with meat, browned them in a thin film of Crisco in the oven on one of her old cookie sheets, blackened now with use and age. My pouches were a bit misshaped and the dough not thin enough. I set my holiday table with her silver and her crystal and waited for my father to arrive for Rosh Hashanah dinner.
Before the meal, I served the knishes in the living room to my husband, who remembered well my mother’s cooking, to my grown children—one who popped the pastry in his mouth with no comment, the other abstaining in reverence to a vegetarian diet. My husband relished his. And then my father said, “You take me back,” as he reached for another and looked over at my mother’s youthful picture on the bookshelf.
In the picture her hair is dark and wavy like my grandmother’s, whose picture sits nearby. My grandmother who traveled here alone with strangers, who never again saw the parents who’d saved her from a pogrom by sending her away. And I thought of when my mother, an old woman, cried out for her as she faced death. My grandmother whose recipes come alive in my hands.
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May all, no matter your faith, find peace.
Note: “Rugalach” is a story from The Woman Who Never Cooked: Stories, Mid-List Press; Kindle version, Outer Banks Publishing.
Mary L. Tabor is the author of Who by Fire a novel, (Re)Making Love: a memoir and The Woman Who Never Cooked: Stories. She says, “I ferret out the detail, love the footnote, am never bored and believe it all leads to story. Best advice I ever got? ‘Only connect …’ E.M. Forster.”
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