The tools of my most potent ritual practice are laid out before me: peeler, knife, cutting board, measuring spoons, glass measuring cup. I take two steps back and two forward. I turn to the left, turn to the right, bend over for a dishtowel, and begin. It is my private shmoneh esrei, nineteen prayers to completion.
A home movie from my childhood kitchen: I am four, fresh from a local synagogue preschool where I learned a song about making challah.
The sound of my four-year-old self singing that song plays over the video footage of my mother, grandmother, and me making challah together later that year. My mother tells me to pound the dough, hard, and the adults’ laughter crackles around me. I feel the sense of performance in this: My grandmother visits twice a year, and “three generations making challah together” is the name of this show.
The second act in the play —“eating sabbath dinner, with candlesticks and wine” — is a dimmer memory, though my parents light Sabbath candles every week, and often remind me that I will get the candlesticks as a wedding gift, the third generation to own them. There is an expectation of my wanting them: the candlesticks, the wedding, Sabbath.
Why do we eat challah on Friday nights? Why do we light candles, say prayers, drink wine? Because that’s what we do. Because we’re Jewish. Because 6 million Jews died to have the right to do this, and so this is what we do, what we are lucky we’re alive to do.
The candlesticks, the challah, the grandmother, the 6 million Jews: inheritance and responsibility.
At twelve my Bat Mitzvah looms. Each week I visit the cloudy office of my chain-smoking basso cantor and chant what I’ve learned of my haftorah. A quick learner and eager singer, I enjoy this part. For several years I’ve been singing with the children’s choir and invited onto the bima to recite the prayer over wine during Friday night services. I love the calm and music, and intuit that perhaps singing in Hebrew is actually how we talk to G-d.
At home, my mother pulls out a photo of herself at age twelve and tells me, “I was fat and pimply for my Bat Mitzvah. You should start being a little more careful about what you eat. I don’t want that for you.”
I quickly learn that the home preparation for my Bat Mitzvah is entirely about food: what food I should eat in sight of my parents, and what food they want to serve for the days of parties they’ll be throwing for out-of-town guests and local friends. The rabbi keeps kosher; Saturday night’s party will have to be vegetarian so he can come. The family from the east coast will hate it, we know, but they’ll enjoy the hot dogs at the next day’s barbecue.
At twelve, I learn that uppercase-F Food is the real deity in my house, a deity that requires constant adjustment to please Him. Food sometimes wants for us to compose Him of as few calories as possible, to take the kugel recipe and swap low-fat yogurt for sour cream and to be placed on a small plate, not a large one, to trick our eyes into eating less of Him. Food sometimes wants for us to organize Him for the pleasure and admiration of others, even — or perhaps especially — at the cost to our own enjoyment of Him.
The prayers to food were, “I think this is still delicious, even with no butter!” Amen.
“I can’t have any of this before my weigh-in, but go ahead, enjoy!” Amen.
“I’m not having any cake, I’m being GOOD.” Amen.
In fact, “I’m being GOOD” is the real “Amen” to all our prayers to Food. To be “GOOD” is to treat Food with the respect it deserves: to deny yourself Food, to deny yourself priority in choice of Food, to realize that, indeed, you seldom truly deserve Food. If Food only consists of one piece of low-fat toast with fat-free cream cheese, Dayenu, it would have been enough.
For my Bat Mitzvah I never receive a translation of my haftorah. I never discuss my role as a new Jewish adult with a single other person. Women do not read from the Torah at my synagogue; women join the sisterhood and handle the Food. For my Bat Mitzvah, I learn to be GOOD.
At fourteen I am one of only three students of high school age in religious school. With our new, young, Israeli rabbi eager to engage us, our religious training has no structure at all. We sit in chairs across the desk from him, and he lets us ask him anything we want. This is a radical departure from the rote learning of our early years, and we three are curious. This is the first opportunity I’ve ever had to ask my own questions.
We ask about marriage and dating, laws around modesty and touching. We ask about sex. The rabbi answers us matter-of-factly.
I ask about kashrut, the laws around food and holiness. I learn about the kindness implied by ritual slaughter, and go home to ask my parents if we can keep kosher.
“It’s expensive,” my mother answers. “New dishes and kosher meat. We can’t.”
“But you won’t let me date anyone who isn’t Jewish, you make me go to Hebrew school, you made me join a Jewish youth group, and now I’m saying I want to practice Judaism at home and you’re saying no?”
“No,” my parents say.
And so, I take the logical step of someone who is looking to honor both G-d and Food; I become a vegetarian. Unlike the traditional path — from animal ethics to vegetarianism — I stop eating meat first and learn about the morals behind it later. It is not until I am an adult and read Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals that I clearly see the connection between Judaism and my vegetarianism.
As a teenager I am learning how to draw hard lines. I am making Food mean something different. Somehow, I am drawing a protective circle around Food, raising it closer to G-d.
When I am fifteen my family goes to Israel so that my brother can read his haftorah on a kibbutz among strangers. My brother hates the idea of the trip, hates reading Hebrew, and wishes for a big party instead — a wish sternly denied.
I take my first breath of Israeli air as I get off the plane, and to my surprise, feel immediately at home. I reach down, touch the tarmac next to the plane, and whisper “hello” to Israel.
Years later I remember that moment, the big oval sesame rolls we bought outside the Old City, and little else of that trip.
Sitting next to my fiancé in the same office where I’d asked my rabbi about kashrut a decade before, I now ask him, “Why do women circle their husbands under the chuppah?”
My rabbi tells me that women are inherently holier than men. They are born that way, already ascended to a higher level of spirituality, already closer to G-d. The rabbi explains that this holiness is the reason that we are not required to pray as men are. It is this holiness that we wield like a protective shield around our husbands, walking seven times around them to wrap them in our power.
I look at my husband, his history of traditional practice lost after his father’s death, and fall in love with the idea of protecting him. It is the first time someone has told me something about a woman’s part in Jewish practice that has nothing to do with cooking.
Meanwhile, my mother has begun her scholarly studies of genocide in earnest. She reminds me of the importance of the Holocaust as it pertains to my obligations as a Jew. She mentions it at every bridal shower. Later, she will mention it in her toast at my wedding.
I’m secretly tired of hearing about the Holocaust. I feel ungrateful every time I wish that she would stop talking about it. I am growing tired of a Judaism made of only the Holocaust and blind allegiance to Israel and Food. So I ask her to accompany me to the lake the morning before my wedding, to help me submerge in fresh water, say the blessings, and come to my husband brand new. She is bemused, but she comes.
I circle my husband seven times at our wedding. I feel elegant, elevated, connected to the divine.
In the early years of my marriage, I grasp for the strands of faith made for a young couple. We try on practices: lovemaking on the Sabbath, visiting my parents’ home for the high holidays, hanging mezuzot on the door frame of our apartments. One year, we attend high holiday services at a magnificent synagogue in a forgotten city neighborhood, and we are the youngest worshippers by three decades or more.
We are living in proximity to my husband’s huge interconnected family, all of whom seem disillusioned by decades of rote practice for the sake of children long grown. No one is hosting a Passover seder or a Hannukah party. I bind myself to both.
My husband’s two grandmothers, my favorite new family, give us a full set of china, which offers me the chance to host Passover the way it appears in magazines, on an elegant long table with a white tablecloth with the china and Passover prayer books issued by Maxwell House. Grandma and Nana tell me I shouldn’t have gone to all the fuss of using china; the next year, when I use paper plates, they chide me for neglecting my beautiful china. Both scoldings come with winks and love. I feel like a proper Jewish hostess — magnanimous, coaxing a moment of meaning from my guests before they dig into the chicken I’ve learned to make. I eat the charoset and vegetable soup, stare around the table, daydream about adding children.
For our huge Hannukah parties, I put my parents to work on latkes they refuse to share with anyone until the ones at the bottom of the pile are cold and dark grey and bitter. The party goes on around them. I make egg salad with fried onions and mushrooms, and blintz soufflé with a tart strawberry sauce. Everyone gets chocolate coins. My mother is good, and does not eat any.
After a few years my parents stop joining in with the boisterous crowd of my in-laws, and I begin to make and eat latkes with abandon, learning on my own that making and eating them within minutes of their emergence from the pan is far more rewarding than the restraint of nearly every prior moment of my Jewish culinary life. I forgive the latkes’ previous transgressions.
My first daughter is born and named for my husband’s father who my husband once said was killed by G-d; and also for the oldest ancestor of my father’s we could identify, whose entire family was obliterated in the Holocaust. We name our daughter in defiance and celebration and honor. She is everyone’s greatest joy: the first grandchild and niece. We name her in a big, sterile synagogue we joined on reflex. She is everyone’s greatest joy: the first grandchild and niece.
When the time comes, she embraces food as she embraces everything — mouth wide open, legs kicking beneath her high chair. Everything delights her, from yogurt to rice cakes to raw onion.
I look into her laughing eyes, and know that I will check myself on the subject of food and goodness, know G-d gave her to me and me to her for learning from each other. I will get this right with her, I promise.
Our second child is born and everything falls apart.
She is born medically perplexing — late and tiny, with a powerful nursing mouth and a constant wet wheeze. She is always getting sick, always on her way to or from the hospital. I feel useless to her more of the time than I want to admit.
We finally name her in the same sterile synagogue where her sister was named. She never sleeps, and I secretly lock myself in the shower and pound my fists against my head under an icy stream, convinced that one of us is a punishment for the other. I know the story of unborn babies hearing the whispered names of their bashert and wonder how G-d matches babies with mothers, specifically how she ever got matched with me.
She needs cardiac surgery just after her second Yom Kippur. At the big, cold synagogue I cry quietly throughout the al chet, and ask the rabbi to add her name the refuah shleima list, prayers for healing. We never hear from them.
I wonder where my Jewish community is. I wonder why we’re doing any of this. I stop marking time in holidays, and start marking it in hospital visits, cold season, specialist appointments.
We move houses and, out of habit, bring our mezuzot.
Our little daughter struggles. Food is an annoyance to her, and we are threatened with feeding tubes. As our lives at the dinner table become ridiculous — two hours for a meal some nights — it ceases to be a place of reconnection, let alone devotion.
My husband’s grandmothers have died; no one cares whether I ever use the china.
Our younger daughter turns five and collects another diagnosis. Food begins to subtract itself as we eliminate major proteins from her diet and — when we’re together — ours.
My kitchen is a science laboratory. I cook for what I jokingly call the “joy-free diet.” When I’m not joking, I cry in the shower again about all the food I’ve fed her until now, food that may have been slowly killing her. I read Christian writer Anne Lamott: “I wish grace and healing were more abracadabra kind of things. Also, that delicate silver bells would ring to announce grace’s arrival. But no, it’s clog and slog and scootch, on the floor, in the silence, in the dark.”
I slog and scootch on the floor a lot that year.
One day, after the introduction of eggs back into her diet, my little daughter says, eyes shining and mouth grinning, “Now can we have matzo balls?”
We are missing dairy, soy, nuts, and wheat, still. I look at her and wonder at her request. I consult the internet and concoct a potato-based “matzo” ball which takes three hours to make. She is utterly thrilled.
I begin trying other things: can I make a gluten-free challah? Again to the internet, where I buy a pan shaped like a braid and four separate gluten-free flours from which I make a challah-shaped loaf of strange, eggy dough.
“Challah!” she says. “Challah back!” we all yell.
Latkes taste fine with gluten free flour, we learn.
Passover arrives just as gluten returns to her diet. We have a seder, and “freedom” has a new meaning. I ponder the difference between freedom from and freedom to.
X. Gathering the Exiled
We commence a search for a new synagogue, having suspended our dues from the big cold one. No one has said my name in a synagogue for years, not since the synagogue of my youth was bought by a church and my parents moved across the country. We choose a synagogue with a denomination we’d never encountered before, “Reconstructionist,” based largely on proximity and friends who are already members.
A secret deciding point for me, though, is the sanctuary itself, a sustainably designed, airy, windowed space I never imagined I needed until I see it and think, here is the kind of space where I can could commune with G-d. I muse about visiting in the bright middle of a day just to sit and think in the sunshine.
Our family’s challenges with food pause for several years, enough time for me to fall in love with an unrestricted kitchen, to wholeheartedly embrace huge boxes of organic produce from a farm, to pick mint leaves from the cracks in my back patio. When restriction returns after a second cardiac surgery, it comes in the form of a fat-free diet designed to protect my little one from the broken valves in her chest. I think of the asher yatzar prayer:
Blessed are you, THE ARCHITECT, our G-d, the sovereign of all worlds, who shaped the human being with wisdom, making for us all the openings and vessels of the body.
It is revealed and known before your Throne of Glory that if one of these passage-ways be open when it should be closed, or blocked up when it should be free, one could not stay alive or stand before you.
Blessed are you, MIRACULOUS, the wondrous healer of all flesh.
My daughter’s cardiovascular and digestive systems have had improperly closed passageways for her entire life. When they work, it is indeed a blessing. As the broken spots inside her mend, I am filled with a gratitude that freezes me in place. We sit in sabbath services at our synagogue surrounded by trees, and watch her sing in the children’s choir. And I am sometimes overcome by all the magic that has to happen to keep her standing, her blood pumping, her lungs opening, her song lifting from her mouth. To hear shehechianu or mi chamocha is to feel it poured over me again every time.
O Architect, blessed are you who makes all of this work.
It isn’t as though I don’t ask why. I ask it constantly. Why and how do I find myself here: in the window of a coffee shop, standing on the beach, wrapped in blankets on my couch with a daughter on each side, in a dark room at night with my face pressed into my husband’s back as he dreams. I am often almost breathless with the providence that finds me here, still: alive. My daughters: alive. My husband: alive, here.
Why? How? Who?
When the restriction eventually lifts, I use the reclaimed cooking space in the day to begin to run.
My legs move. My lungs expand. Food which I put in my mouth is digested, converted into the energy which propels me into the world full of flowers, and a vast lake full of humans moving past through their own lives, where their bodies, breathe like mine: digest, grow, propel. The miracle of the world waking up every spring is a wonder to me, every year. I feel the universe, love, fate, energy, G-d in every step.
Is this who?
My little daughter stretches her neck as she stands, naked, in the mirror to admire the scar running down the length of her shoulder-blade.
“It’s getting white,” she says, reaching with the opposite arm to touch it. “Is it going to disappear?”
“No,” I answer. “We’ll probably always be able to see it.”
“I can’t feel it,” she says.
“Your arm isn’t long enough,” I answer.
“No,” she argues, “I can’t feel it. I can’t feel when I touch it.”
I think of all the things it could feel like, and am glad that it doesn’t hurt. She is frustrated, though, because she wants to feel it. If she can’t, it doesn’t seem connected to her, as though she has been rebuilt out of non-human parts, and what she can’t feel isn’t really hers.
Numbness, it turns out, is only good if you want to feel numb. If you want to connect to your scars, to remember, a little sensation is helpful.
Before my daughters were born I carried a creased and worn poem by Gail Mazur, creased and worn, in the back of my wallet, torn from an old Atlantic magazine. Called Young Apple Tree, December, it reads in part, “What you want for it, you’d want | for a child… that change | not frighten her, rather that change | meet her embrace; that remembering | her small history, she find her place | in an orchard; that she be her own | orchard; that she outlast you…”
I ask two friends to read it to my older daughter — glorious and kind and patient — on the day she becomes a Bat Mitzvah. One friend, the wife of a Lutheran pastor, and the other, a Reiki master, read with tears in their eyes. I watch from the seats in the sanctuary, clear-eyed and heart-full, as the trees outside nod and radiate their approval.
After she chants and sings and is blessed, we eat the kugel found from a recipe lost for half a century, the kugel of my grandmother who died before my father’s Bar Mitzvah and whose presence in our lives is restored by a pack-rat aunt. I wait for him to be touched by the gesture, but am instead taken up by my congregation, surrounded in love and affection and prayer and the kugel, which is delicious.
May I find a place in an orchard. May I be my own orchard.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in my sight.
I release into the unknown and the mystery, hold the energy of my warm hands to the prayers of the Sabbath, of the gratitude for openings and closings, for healing, for peace. I circle my husband in my dreams and my parents in their aging and discomfort. I take my children to volunteer at food pantries and beach cleanups, rest them against my shoulders during Kol Nidre, read them the stories of Chelm.
My sweet family: loved, known, blessed, whole.
Each carrot begins as a seed. Someone sets it in the ground, where it germinates. It becomes a thick root, under the surface, with only frilly fronds above marking the site of something nutritive below.
Sun and soil mingle, water seeps, and the carrot becomes itself.
The farmers know just when to pull it out of the ground, thickly covered with dirt, and roll it gently until it is protected but not muddy. Everywhere there is a carrot on a dinner table, there was once a farmhand, a farmer, a truck driver to bring it to us.
I pick up each carrot and feel the universe pulse through it like magic.
I wash the carrots, peel them gently, and chop them, along with deep red beets and white potatoes, and the scene on my countertop is a bright, color-drenched miracle, the work of G-d’s creation and the humans that cultivated it. Now I will make it into a salad, mix in rich mayonnaise and Israeli pickles, to grow my children and move the bodies of my husband and I through the world.
We will eat it for Shabbos dinner, with fresh challah — a recipe from my friend in Israel — and a quiche, and peach cake for dessert made with peaches from my favorite Michigan fruit vendor. We will say the prayers because, as my children know, wheat and vegetables are miracles. Also, making light in the world is important. They are treasured, and we are lucky to be here with each other, with our bodies functioning, blessed again for another week.
It’s all amazing. Our bodies, our love, and our creativity are gifts from a universe which put us in exactly this place in exactly this condition, in exactly this moment, with exactly this wisdom and among exactly these souls. I pray at my kitchen counter with the breath of gratitude; in my synagogue’s sanctuary with the songs of those who came before me; at my table with the family I’m bound to protect; and in my heart, which beats on.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Chris Dillon