Shabbos was always the best day of the week. Why? No school! No homework! No walking through pouring rain, slushy snow, or oppressive heat, schlepping a briefcase filled with heavy books. There wasn’t any bus or car to deliver me across Roebling Street in Brooklyn, to spare me the seven-block walk to school and back, four times a day. The mid-day walk home for lunch was preferable to enduring the putrid odor of the lunchroom in the basement of the Bais Yaakov school building. Fresh air, a notebook, and full pencil case was contentment. The scent emanating from the blend of paper, lead, and wood; of pencils tipped with rubber erasers; of wood shavings spiraling from a small sharpener, was intoxicating, but that was the odor of ordinary weekday activities, a daily scent, not meant for Shabbos.
What could be better than not having to wake up early and feel nauseated after a bowl of Cheerios and a glass of milk? What could be better than lying in bed, daydreaming, getting up to check the closet for something “Shabbosdik” to wear? And the aroma wafting from the pot on the blech perched on the stovetop that held my mother’s beans and barley chulent? And getting high on a piece of home baked chocolate kuchen and a drink, any drink that I chose, before Kiddush? Shabbos was, and still is, “meein olam haba,” a taste of the world to come!
Our family ate both Shabbos meals, Friday night and Shabbos lunch, in the large dining room behind the small kitchen. Fourth of five siblings, I was expected to dust the heavy carved legs of the dining room furniture on Friday afternoon and set the table for Shabbos; required contributions. My mother would scold me for setting the table with her newest set of Roger’s silver-plate flatware when there weren’t any guests. She reminded me that the new set was for Yom Tov, for guests, or special occasions. I would then quote my teacher (her teacher), my grandfather: “L’kuved Shabbos Koidesh!” In honor of Shabbos! And I continued to set the table with her finest flatware.
I remember my mother chopping eggs and onions Shabbos morning. She had a large bowl, not the wooden bowl for chopping the gefilte fish preparation. The eggs, onion, and a little chicken liver topped with chicken schmaltz and gribeness kept me hanging around the kitchen to lick the edges of the bowl of the “eiyer mit tzvibbel,” eggs and onions, our Shabbos lunch entrée.
Large rolls of yeast dough filled with oodles of chocolate and sugar rising on the countertop and then baked in the oven was by far the choicest aroma that drifted out of my grandmother’s kitchen. Her coffee cake, known as kuchen, babka, or Hungarian kokush cake, was addictive. Unlike detrimental drug addictions, my Baba’s chocolate kuchen was a blessed addiction.
How many traditions do we take with us when we leave home? How many customs stay with us when we move on, build our own nests, sometimes overseas, as I did when I left America for Israel with my husband in 1960, Parshat Lech Lecha? I wonder, did Sarah Imeinu learn to bake bread and prepare tongue from her mother and grandmother, before she followed her husband to the land that the Almighty promised to bless and turn into a great nation?
Tongue was the dish that Avraham Avinu served the three angels, his guests, when they visited to convey news of the son with which he and Sarah would soon be blessed. When we made aliyah, tongue was not available in Israel, so even if I had had a recipe, I could not have prepared the dish.
Years later, my in-laws flew in for a visit and packed two frozen pickled tongues in a handbag. When they arrived in Jerusalem, they discovered they left their tongues on the KLM flight. Telephone calls back and forth to KLM headquarters seeking two tongues left behind turned into a great Purim shpiel, especially after the tongues arrived two days later, still fresh, and in time to be served at the Purim seudah. Sweet-and-sour tongue elevated my husband’s spirits, it put him on a Purim high, similar to my Baba’s kokush cake on Shabbos.
Challah was a Shabbos staple. Plenty of fresh challah from local Jewish bakeries were delivered to my father’s grocery store every Friday morning, while many an American homemaker thrived on Stuhmer’s sliced challah. Yet every week, almost to her dying day, my grandmother baked challah. And every week she sent one to my mother.
Cooking and baking were foreign domains when I first married. I ate what others cooked or baked or placed on the table, any table, set or not. When I entered my own culinary domain, I resorted to tears. Tears have always been second nature. Laughter first. So if I wasn’t laughing, I cried, and I cried when I opened The Complete American Jewish Cookbook and discovered my recipe comprehension was at zero.
No telephones or cellphones or any communicative wires were available to most private families in the early years of the state; I couldn’t reach those I loved who could have advised or dispelled my tears and made me laugh. My husband served that purpose. He tried imparting instructions affectionately from the cookbook resting wide open on the table, his focus on his inexperienced wife. Ingredients listed at the start of every recipe set the tears rolling. Most ingredients were unattainable at that time: ketchup, tomato puree, varied spices, assorted meats and delicatessen, not to mention lettuce, apples, pineapples, cherries, and much more. I had to start from scratch, learning to cook and bake from the locals, with whatever was obtainable.
Last Friday night I had dinner with my daughter and family. She doesn’t serve gefilte fish, or any fish; her family doesn’t eat fish. Instead she started the meal with delicious homemade dips, hummus, salads and a gourmet liver and mushroom entrée. The Shabbat décor included my paternal grandmother’s simple vintage brass candlesticks, lit on the table that was covered with my mother’s hand-embroidered tablecloth. My daughter’s home-baked challot are superior to even those my grandmother baked. Her reading comprehension is far better than mine was, and her cookbooks more sophisticated. Apparently her challah baking skills are not inherited – not from my mother or me – neither of us baked challot. But the younger generations, those of my grandmother’s countless great- and great-great-granddaughters, they bake challot every week. Their tables are set “l’kuved Shabbos Koidesh,” their menus based on delicious local Israeli foods, the divrei Torah are serious, and zmirot sometimes turn to laughter, especially when the children impersonate Chassidic pop singers.
Still, I appreciate the moments that oftentimes spark tears as I realize how fortunate I am to see homegrown customs and traditions blending beautifully into future generations in the land that ancestors could only dream of reaching.