Whenever I’m away from my home in Melbourne, wherever I find myself on a Friday night, I love nothing more than to sit down with the local Jews at their Shabbat table. Ideally with some kosher meat to break the traveler’s drought.
Sometimes though, simply being a hungry-eyed, friendly stranger at a Kabbalat Shabbat service isn’t enough to attract a dinner invitation; and normally, I would have thought, a linguistically deficient stranger notable from across the room for his rivers of tropical sweat would have been distinctly unattractive.
Yet, such is the hospitality of the Jewish community of Tahiti, that one balmy Friday night almost two years ago, as I was leaving the Papeete synagogue that my fellow worshipers fought over me. I was able to decipher that much French. “Where is he sleeping?” “He can stay with me.” “But where is he eating? He can eat with us.” “No, I’ll have him.” “No – I’ll have him. Who speaks English? He doesn’t speak French, who speaks English?” Merde. (My own little embellishment) And then it was settled: “Chichiportiche, your son speaks English.” “Oui. D’accord.”
My maternal grandparents had come to America from Eastern Europe; my grandmother from Minsk, my grandfather from Riga. While the reason was religious persecution, their houses and apartments they set up felt void of Jewish rituals. But of course, they were Jewish to their cores.
Friday night dinners at their enormous penthouse near Beekman Place in New York City in the ’60s were elaborate, as were meals every other night of the week. My blond, petite Belarusian grandmother was a stickler for manners and Friday night felt more Masterpiece Classic than borscht-belt buffet. Sam, my grandparents’ chef, butler and maitre of all apartment-centric matters, created rich, decadent dishes. This warm, wonderful man, always dressed in a serious white coat, was constantly thrilling us by putting a down-home spin on my grandmother’s sophisticated menu — especially desserts.
In the almost feudal state that Nicaragua was 90 years ago, daughters of wealthy families were taught French and needlework, and were expected to marry well. They knew nothing about how their food was cooked, their clothes made, or their households provisioned. They weren’t allowed to associate with the servants, or even to enter the kitchen. Finishing school in Switzerland, then marriage to a suitable boy — those were girls’ expectations in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, back when my Mom was growing up.
My mother’s parents, descendants of Spanish Jews, owned sugar-cane and coffee plantations. They were proud of their Sephardic heritage, but for the exception of lighting Shabbat candles and abstaining from pork and shellfish, they had dropped Jewish observance. Sad, but maybe inevitable in a country where only a handful of Jewish families have ever lived.
The Shabbat dinner tables of my two grandmothers were never complete without noodle soup. Each grandmother made it on a weekly basis — it’s such a basic staple of Jewish cooking. Nana, who was from Eastern Europe always made chicken soup (hers was like liquid gold), while Oma, from Germany, made beef soup, a base of so many soups in the German-Jewish cooking tradition. As different as they were, I loved both versions and I have always felt lucky to have two distinct cooking traditions in my background.
When my parents met, they were each introduced to the food traditions of the other’s family. My mother, whose family rarely cooked chicken, remembers eating a glorious roast chicken the first time she was invited for a Friday night meal cooked by her future mother-in-law. Conversely, my father remembers the first time he visited the Rossmersfor a Shabbos meal and being surprised by the berches, the German-Jewish version of challah. It looked totally different than what he was used to: it was longer and narrower and was sprinkled with poppy seeds. It was that night that he also came face to face with Oma’s beef noodle soup for the first time.
Friday night dinners at our home were inviolable.
We rarely ate dinner out the rest of the week, but there were exceptions: good pasta con ceci at the Italian restaurant in the mall where my father drank sambuca with coffee beans floated in it, adventures in the city to find Peking duck.
Friday night dinner at home was an unbreakable rule, though. It was an amazing one in inciting no protest, even as my brother and I grew, and adolescent imperatives began to press against parental constraints.
It would not be inaccurate to say that I have the palate of an octogenarian Polish Jew, despite the fact that I’m a 27-year-old Australian living in Brooklyn. Whenever I hypothesize with friends about what my final meal would be (you know the game), my answer is always the same: Shabbos dinner, Ashkenazi-style: challah, schmaltz herring, gefilte fish, chicken soup with kneidlakh and lokshen, roast chicken with potatoes, poppyseed cake, and a finger or two of Johnnie Walker, neat. I get misty-eyed just thinking about it.
To that list I’d add something incongruous, though no less essential: my mother’s avocado, egg and onion dip. There was no avocado in my grandparents’ respective shtetls, certainly, but it’s as native to Shabbos dinner in my Australian family as hummus is to an Israeli lunch. We ask for it in one breath, not bothering to enunciate the words properly: “pass-the-avocado-egg-n-onion.” No please, no thank you. (Ours is an etiquette-optional table.) My father, who is unfailingly generous with food — always insisting that everyone else serve themselves and eat before him — only ever seems disappointed when he misses out on avocado-egg-n-onion dip. Occasionally, when ripe avocados prove elusive, there’s no dip at all, and dinner feels incomplete.
It happens the same way each year. Just as the leaves begin to turn colors and the crisp fall air fills my lungs, I get a frantic phone call from my mother.
I hear the desperation in her voice, and I know it can be about only one thing: pareve ginger snaps. These little trinkets of goodness are the heart and soul of my mother’s beloved stuffed cabbage recipe, and each year, we go on the same wild goose chase to find the cookies. We’ve had a series of very funny experiences: Once we found the cookies in Texas (we’re from Boston), and another time we found them online but didn’t realize they were available only by the case (yes, that’s 12 boxes). After hours of googling, the situation always ends in the same way: We are able to find the cookies, and we breathe a sigh of relief knowing that once again we’ll be able to enjoy the same stuffed cabbage of our childhood Shabbat dinners.
I spent most of freshman year at Harvard threatening to transfer. I quickly realized college wasn’t going to be a delightful blur of Solo cups, but rather, a lot of solitary lunches. I was tired of the awkward icebreakers, and all I desired was the comfort and familiarity I had enjoyed at home.
Luckily, I discovered a reprieve from my loneliness once a week at Hillel Shabbats. While my family is not shomer Shabbat, we lit candles, said blessings, and enjoyed a meal to celebrate the end of a stressful week. I never expected to attend Hillel Shabbats regularly, but they allowed me to relive a ritual from home. As a result, they became a core part of my social life.
The quintessential Shabbat experience at college was the tisch, which literally means “table” in Yiddish. Traditionally, a tischinvolves Jews gathering around their Rebbe at a table, hearing sermons, singing songs and enjoying food. At our tisches, we strayed far from that tradition. Men and women sat together, and in addition to schnapps, there was Smirnoff Ice. It was an odd combination of traditional spiritual joy and collegial spirits-induced boisterousness.
Most of the Shabbat dinners at my home are seasonal. Usually this means relying on what I find fresh in the market to inspire the menu that I make. This week however, I’m taking my inspiration from the seasons of the Torah. In the story of Noah, this week’s Torah part, the tale of the Tower of Babel is told in nine short lines, which provided the inspiration for my Friday night menu with dishes from around the globe.
In the story, the people of Shinar, you might recall, got it into their minds to build a tower so high that it would reach into the heavens. They were trying to make a name for themselves, but clearly this was not what God had in mind. As the tower grew in stature the people found that they could no longer understand each other, having each been bestowed with the ability to speak a unique language. The project was abandoned and the people scattered. The name given to the tower, Babel, shares a root with the Hebrew word for confusion and the English word babbling. The story’s message is simple: many languages leads to confusion and breaks down our ability to connect.
Growing up in Mexico City, each Sunday Susan Schmidt would stand on a chair a few feet behind her Hungarian grandmother — who emigrated from Budapest to Mexico in the late 1920’s — and watch her prepare nokedli, Hungarian dumpling, served with chicken and paprika. But, Susan didn’t start cooking on her own till she was married to a fellow Mexican Jew and moved to L.A. where she still lives today. At that point, her cuisine was not only influenced by her grandmother’s Hungarian heritage and her own Mexican upbringing, but by her mother-in-law’s Polish cooking and her family’s decision to start keeping kosher. Now, she melds the Eastern European roots with her Mexican childhood creating recipes like schnitzel tortas, schnitzel served on a Mexican roll, and fideos, which she calls “Mexican lokshen,” on the cooking blog Challa-peño, that she launched this summer with her oldest daughter Alex.
The blog allows me to “write a memoir in the context of food,” says Susan, explaining that it contains more than just recipes. But, as someone who is used to just adding a pinch here and a pinch there, writing recipes has proven challenging for her. She looks to Diana Kennedy, whom some call the “Julia Child of Mexican cooking” for guidance. Once she and Alex have enough recipes, they plan to create a cookbook “to preserve and continue the culinary traditions of our family,” she writes on the blog. She hopes to combine the traditions of her grandmother and her mother-in-law with the ingredients and recipes she encountered in Mexico, creating what she calls “a fusion of flavors.”
(Watch the cooking video below)
While Sabbath is a day of rest, some prefer unrest. Dan Sieradski, a new media activist, organized a Shabbat dinner last Friday amid the hubbub of the Occupy Wall Street protest taking place in Lower Manhattan.
Around 20 gathered in a corner of Zuccotti Park to welcome Shabbat, not far from the din of protestors and the soft “ommmm” of a few people meditating.
A couple of hours before Shabbat, Sieradski, 32, sent messages on Facebook and tweeted: “This is what shabbocracy looks like,” inviting Jews and non-Jews to join him.
My most memorable Shabbats were at summer camp, in Wisconsin. They began after pool time with a run-around process of my cabin-mates and I straightening our hair, blowing a fuse, sitting in darkness as we freaked out until the fuse was reset, and then repeating. We wore one of the four dresses that were reserved for our four Shabbats, and if we were lucky, one of the older campers would offer to do our makeup. Friday nights ended in the gym, dancing in circles and singing our favorites, which always included “Lean on Me” and “Brown-Eyed Girl.”
In between hair ironing and song singing, there was a beautiful outdoor service… and a terrible meal in the dining hall. Chicken swimming in a pool of its grease, rice pilaf minus the pilaf and probably an almost steamed vegetable. In fact, I’ve blocked most of the food out of my mind with fonder memories of grilled cheese and tomato soup Tuesdays.
In February of 2008 I was living in Nashville, finishing up graduate school at Vanderbilt University. One Friday morning in February I boarded a plane bound for Chicago, heading to my parents’ house to surprise them for Shabbat. My mother had just finished chemotherapy for breast cancer, and on the phone she sounded worn out and depressed. An automatic fare alert had notified me that I could get amazingly cheap tickets to Chicago for the weekend, and on a whim I decided to go.
In the days before my trip I made up an elaborate plan. My uncle would pick my up from the airport and drive me home. I planned the menu and coordinated with a family friend who went grocery shopping for me, and left the groceries at our next door neighbor’s house for me to retrieve when I arrived.
Like many modern American families, the faces around my dinner table have changed as family members pass on, others leave for, and then return from, college and new members join our family through marriage. With each of those alterations, our religious and culinary traditions transformed, morphing to fit our new family. But, Shabbat dinner — the one sacrosanct observance in our family — remains.
When I was little, our Shabbat table was filled with singing and numerous sets of Shabbat candles. Each dinner started with the telling of a Jewish fable like those of the fools of Chelm. Despite being able to trace our Ashkenazi ancestry back generations into eastern Europe, our meal never included the chicken, tzimmes or kugel that my friends ate. Instead, each Shabbat was celebrated with a filet or whole fish that was picked up from the fishmonger that morning. Glistening pink salmon, pan-seared tuna topped with mango salsa, brilliant red snapper or shad doused with lemon juice and onions took center stage in our elaborate feasts. During high school, homemade challah that I baked after school graced the table each week, while seasonal vegetables and sliced melon with berries rounded out the meal.
Thanks to my boyfriend Matt, I am now completely addicted to the Food Network. Matt and I often spend time glued to the television, brainstorming what we might create on “Chopped” with a certain mystery basket of ingredients. We get excited about what Canadian chef Chuck Hughes whips up on his day off. We even try and guess which celebrity chefs might be hitting the bottle a little too often.
A few weeks ago, I set out to put my newly gained food knowledge to good use and planned to make something special for Shabbat dinner. I prefer to keep my apartment’s kitchen meat-free (it makes keeping kosher much easier, especially in a small space) and admittedly, I was getting a little tired of trying to come up with new recipes using fake meat, which often didn’t suit a fancier Shabbat meal. I thought about some options and tilapia popped in to my head. There was just one problem: I had zero experience cooking fish that hadn’t come from a can or frozen in a box.
Savta Zarifa is the paradigm of a fairy tale grandmother; plump, patient and never far from her kitchen. Unlike characters from Mother Goose stories, she did not bake gingerbread cookies but simmered tangy tomato dumpling soup over a kerosene stove or rolled countless grape leaves with herbs and rice. On Friday she also prepared hamin, a slow cooked stew of wheat berries and meat that permeated the house with the aroma of Shabbat and was enjoyed the following day for lunch.
As a child, I remember Shabbat lunches at my maternal grandmother’s house as boisterous affairs that always ended with lively singing and platters of cold watermelon. Aramaic and Hebrew were spoken interchangeably and every five minutes another guest walked through the door. After double kissing their guests, chairs were scuffled to accommodate them and another voice was added to the banter. These meals replicated a sense of community that once existed in her native Kurdistan before the entire Jewish population immigrated to Israel. Like a mystical shaman, she transformed a few core ingredients, tomatoes, onions, wheat… into a feeling of home. This was what her mother taught her, the knowledge not only to create but to give.
Growing up as Jew in Ogden, Utah, I attended a synagogue the size of a small house called Brith Sholem. When I was in kindergarten, Brith Sholem was the target of an arson attack that nearly gutted the entire building. The police never found the perpetrators, who lit two American flags on fire but left the Torah scrolls untouched.
Two months after the fire, a group of Mormon dignitaries pulled up to the synagogue in white Lincoln luxury vehicles and delivered shoeboxes full of cash to the temple leadership, all told, about $45,000 from Mormon church goers all over the state. This was enough to cover the amount the synagogue had to pay out of pocket for renovations after its fire insurance kicked in.
Early in my marriage, I would alternate Shabbat dinners between my parents and in-laws, who were both from Syria. They continued the custom of setting the Shabbat dinner table with loaves of Khubz ‘Adi, a Syrian flatbread to symbolize to the twelve loaves of shewbread that were the centerpiece of the altar in the Jewish Temple.
Years later when my children went to yeshiva, challah replaced the Khubz ‘Adi on our Shabbat table. However, as a couple of decades passed, I returned to my roots. I decided to prepare Khubz ‘Adi, just as my ancestors had baked for Shabbat centuries before me. In my heart I knew that food defines who we are and that I was preserving a culinary legacy for my family, and strengthening the heritage of my community.
Of all the salads that you can find in New York City restaurants today, none is more ubiquitous than the beet and cheese variety. Which makes it all the more surprising that I had never eaten it until I was a teenager.
Despite the prevalence of beets in the Ashkenazi Eastern European culinary traditions of my ancestors, they were banned from my family’s dinner table. My father hated the ruby spheres, so we never ate them.
Imagine my delight when I first tasted the sweet, robust flavor of a perfectly roasted beet. I sighed. How had I been robbed of this pleasure for so long?
When my boyfriend, Matt, was called back into the Army to spend a third year at war, I moved into a tiny Brooklyn apartment alone.
His recall had been a surprise. We were both working as journalists in New York at the time and had been together for almost two years. He had left active duty months before our first date and so I’d never seen him in uniform. I didn’t know a thing about the Individual Ready Reserve. Hell, I didn’t know a thing about the Army until the day he received a FedEx package with his orders in the mail.
When Matt left for Afghanistan, in 2009, I spent a lot of time cobbling together care packages filled with homemade cookies, magazines and books. Skype became our new best friend. The sudden solitude came as a shock, however, and the streets of New York City took on a new hue — a deep dark blue, one pulsating with fear.