TRADITION, the theme of this month’s Hartgeschreven.nl is very deeply rooted in Jewish consciousness.Traditions are the cultural interpretations and applications of Jewish law and practices. They most certainly involve a reframing of time, space and location.
Last month I wrote about the spiritual initiation and preparation throughout the month of Elul, preparing us for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. This new year (5777 in the Jewish calendar) opens a series of Holy Days covering a six week span:
- Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year);
- Yom Kippur (Grote Verzoendag);
- Sukkoth (Loofhuttenfeest);
- Simchat Torah (the holiday celebrating the completion of the weekly readings of the Torah);
- Shmini Atzeret (the eighth day of Sukkoth).
Jewish law provides the framework for each holiday. Several considerations are:
- when the special day begins and ends;
- what is the intention of the day;
- what is expected of us as a group (people of Israel or Am Yisroel);
- how are we able to fulfil our obligations as individuals.
Other more traditional issues for Yom Kippur regarding obligations are for example:
- attend synagogue services;
- to pray collectively;
- listen to the shofar (rams horn);
- wear white clothes to symbolise standing before God and each other in purity;
- we do not wear leather attributes;
- we fast;
- we pay back our debts;
- we offer charity to those in need;
- we ask for forgiveness for those we may have ignored or neglected;
- we forgive others who may have ignored or neglected us.
These traditions are deeply embedded in the Genesis story of Abraham and the proposed sacrifice of Isaac, his son.
Sukkoth (Loofhuttenfeest) which commences with sunset October 16 and lasts for eight days, is reenacted each year with the building of a Sukkah, a little hut no higher than 3 meters, is built on the grounds of Jewish homes. This is to symbolise the impending mobility and flexibility of the Jewish people to be able to move quickly from one place to another. This sukkoth are as well a reminder of non-attachment to the material comforts of a settled-life in grand homes with all the amenities of modern life. It is the tradition to build a sukkah, to eat one’s meals in the sukkah, to invite the foremothers and forefathers to spiritually enter the sukkah, to invite guests to partake in meals in the sukkah, to invite those who have less than us to eat meals in the sukkah, to fulfill the commandment of blessing the lulav and Etrog (leaves from the date palm tree, leaves from the myrtle tree, branches and leaves from the willow tree and the unblemished fruit of the citron tree).
I would like to share my memories of this holiday of Sukkoth with you this day. Sukkoth for me is a soup cooking marathon.
- Vegetable soup with lochshon (egg noodles);
- Pumpkin soup with sour cream;
- Potato kummel soup (caraway seeds);
- Carrot parsley soup;
- Chicken soup with matzah balls (dumplings) and dill for the Shabbath.
My parents moved into my grandmother’s house on Philip Place Irvington New Jersey. We moved there after my brother Mendel Shmuel was born. This is the house where my father Paul grew up together with his brother Stanley. It is the house which became my home where my Grandmother raised me. I came to understand with the years that I had replaced the daughter my grandmother had to bury years earlier. I never knew her name, nor why she left her body so young. My grandmother kept many secrets to herself as did many of her generation. It is the house down the street from the synagogue that Louis, her husband/my grandfather whom I have never met except in stories or photographs, helped to build, Congregation Ahavas Achim Bikur Cholim (Congregation Love your brother and visit the sick).
It was in her tiny crowded kitchen with the yellowed formica table, two chairs, two pit stove and oven, juicer and mixer with three stainless steel bowls filled with rubber spatulas of all shapes, colours and sizes, that I learned to cook, bake and prepare the traditional Jewish dishes which have become part of my memory and present identity.
Sukkoth is a soup making marathon for me.
My grandmother would write out a shopping list on scraps of paper and used envelopes. She would always write with pencil stubs, often in Yiddish and sometimes in English. My grandmother despised making mistakes. Often words were misspelled, crossed out and then little words written in Yiddish would appear criss cross across the paper. She would hand me the paper each morning, together with a little leather purse filled with coins and folded dollar bills.“Go to the A&P, the closest supermarket and pick up these few things. I need them for the soup. Hurry up Sarilyn, and be careful. It’s a jungle out there! (my grandmother was famous for saying those last words).
I took my shopping missions very seriously. I remember walking briskly past the synagogue on the corner, turning left on Chancellor Avenue and heading off to the A&P supermarket, the shopping list secure in my back pocket. It took almost 12 minutes to arrive there. There was a kosher foods section carrying kosher sea salts, spices and yartzeit candles to commemorate the anniversary of the dead. My grandmother always needed yartzeit candles, especially during the Jewish holidays.
I pulled out the shopping list and read that I needed to buy kummel and bulbes (potatoes) with thin skins, parsley and smetene (sour cream) and if they had them yartzeit candles. And lochshon (egg noodles). You could never have enough lochshon in the pantry (another famous saying of my grandmother). Easily I found the ingredients and placed them in the little wicker basket. I went to the aisle to pay . Luckily there was enough money in the leather purse. An older man waited behind the cash register and packed up the goods in a brown paperbag for me.
Mission accomplished, I quickly rushed home to my grandmother. I knew she would be concerned that I had taken too much time away from home in the jungle. Standing before our house, I saw her peering out of the window. I waved to her and climbed the cement steps to her doorway. There I rang the doorbell three times so she knew it was me. Upon entering I climbed the grey carpeted steps to her living space. Grandma took the brown paper bag from me and brought it immediately to her already filled kitchen table. She then came to me asking for the money purse. She shook it up and down a few times. Then she knew how much the groceries cost. Satisfied she put the purse into her apron pocket. “Gut, Gut. gay (go) and wash your hands and we get on with the soup.”
Grandma had three soup pans, two aluminium ones and one with white enamel coating. This was for the meat dishes. The large aluminium pots were on the stove, so I knew we would be making vegetable soup with lochshon. We cut up the vegetables together, my grandmother’s heavy upper arms wobbling a bit back and forth to the beat of her cutting. She always wore a net over her short salt and pepper coloured hair. Her nails were painted frosted white. Her fingers hardly ever stopped moving as she cut, peeled and grated the vegetables. She would tell the stories of how she learned to cook soups from her grandmother in Russia, before she came to the United States in 1913. I devoured her words as she stirred the soups. She even knew how much salt was needed just by smelling the steam!
When the soups were finished, she would wipe off her hands on her apron, check that her nail polish was not chipped and then take the cookie box from the shelf. It was filled with hand rolled rugelach and mandelbrot. A pot of tea brewed from leaves in a sieve appeared on her little table. The fun began. Freshly brewed tea with chips of brown sugar cubes, cookies and the next step were explained. She did this every Sukkoth, so I knew the game plan.
“Nu Sarilyn, we have to look nice. Go and wash up a bit in the bathroom. I will cover the pans and then you can help me to take this soup to the sukkah by the shule. There are people waiting for this. It is almost sunset and Sukkoth is starting. I will fix my lipstick and slip into another dress. Hurry up and I will too!”
My grandmother sewed all of her dresses, with aprons to match each dress. She also made little hats to match, which never slipped from her head. Bobby pins were the trick she taught me. She stepped out of her sleeping area in a navy blue and white laced dress. Yellow and orange coloured leaves covered her well filled bodice. My Levi jeans, Ked sneakers and purple tinted batiked t-shirt made my outfit complete. We both walked into the kitchen area, took out clean kitchen towels from the cabinet under the sink and wrapped the still hot pans with them. She placed the two pans in a wooden crate and we both managed to make our way way safely down the stairs, onto the porch and down the cement stars without spilling a thing. We must have been a sight to behold. My grandmother in her yom tovdika sukkoth dress and me with my hippie gear. She was never embarrassed of how I looked, as long as my hands and nails were clean. If she ever was embarrassed she would talk to me about this over some sweet tea and mandelbrot.
We carried the soups, the wooden crate and ourselves to the shule. A group of men were gathering by the sukkah. The smiles on their faces when they saw us coming I will never forget. Many of these men had broken teeth. They wore their Shabbas jackets and pants. Some even wore sneakers. They came towards us to take the heavy crate out of our hands. These same men attended the Shabbat services. One man would always pat on the seat next to him in shule. I would be happy to scoot over to sit next to him in the men’s section. He called me sheinah meidelach (pretty girl) and spoke to me in a Yiddish I could barely understand. We did develop a special friendship throughout the years. He would attend the morning services every day and would always save a piece of cake to give to me after the kiddish (little meal after synagogue services). He would wait for me by the stairs to the shule and give me the cake as I was running to catch the school bus across the street. I never knew his name or understood his stories until he no longer waited to give me the cake. May his memory continue to be our blessing. Amen.
Years later, when I was older and not so rushed or impatient, I understood that many of the men who came to the sukkah, attended the Shabbas services and ate up most of the pickled herring and chickpeas sprinkled with seasalt on Shabbat afternoon, were concentration camp survivors. No one spoke about IT (the humiliation, the torture, the deception, the murders) in those years. There was still a hope that somehow the fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters wives and husbands, sons and daughters would miraculously have survived and returned to the living. For many the foods they would devour at the shule or in the sukkah were the only link they still could hold onto with a homeland, with family with a tradition. I understood only later in my life that my Grandmother Bertha Bryna Zinger Bosner z”l preformed a tremendous mitzvah (good deed) each Sukkoth with her soups.
The tradition of doing what needs to be done. The ability of doing the right thing when needed, without expecting anything in return is for me the essence of Judaism.
Further I will be grateful for having been loved and guided by my grandmother. I will be eternally grateful to the man with the broken teeth who saved me a piece of cake and spoke to me in Yiddish.
Memory is tradition. Storytelling is tradition. True life stories are our rewards.
Wishing us all a meaningful Sukkoth and a healthy and prosperous New Year.