My immediate family isn’t especially religious.
In a year, we celebrate only two of the Jewish holidays with any real fervor: Passover and Rosh Hashanah. And if you know Jewish holidays, you know there are a lot more of ‘em. Our celebrations tend to be more focused on the meal than on the ceremony. This is mostly because my childhood was filled with holidays spent with my religious family that dragged on and on until I was catatonic. Turns out my parents felt much the same.
As my mom has aged, she’s become less and less responsible for the meal, while my contributions have increased. So too the size and make up of our passovers has grown. It now includes a fun mishmash of 3 generations of our biological and chosen family, children, original spouses, new spouses and more. Somehow, our little 4 person nuclear unit turned into 20 in a good year, and there’s little that excites me more than seeing everyone together, eagerly anticipating some tasty food.
I’m not the only one who can and does cook though. My 2 chosen sisters are great in the kitchen. Though they live 300 kilometers from Toronto, they still manage to bring trays and trays of tasty sweet and savory things to each meal to round out the already heaving spread.
My mom still always makes a couple of things, particularly her favorites. This always includes a chicken soup, which she’s managed to make even in her worst health years.
“Gabika, does my soup taste ok?” She asks in her thick Hungarian accent, adding, “does it need more salt?” I don’t know why it’s always salt she’s worried about, but that’s the way the soup mandeln crumble, I guess.
Beyond this, she loves to contribute some specific odds and ends. On Passover, this means matzo balls for the soup and her famous matzo buns which — until the advent of Keto baking — were the closest you could get to bread on this lowest fiber of holidays. For both Rosh and Passover she always makes schnitzels for my niece and nephews (and everyone else…who doesn’t love fried chicken?). Invariably, she’ll also make a couple of sugar-free desserts for the diabetics — of which she is not one.
As the demands on me to cook for the holidays have grown year by year, I’ve pressed others into service. My ex-boyfriends have been enlisted to cook, of course. My most recent ex is himself an amazing chef, and he definitely upped all our game. It definitely surprised us that such a goy was so good at making hummus and chopped liver. Even my former business partner and various friends have come home and made holiday meals with us. I can still see an assembly line of non-fam peeps peeling eggs to prep them for a wide range of uses. Deviled eggs, obvi — but we’ve made Passover scotch eggs before (endorsed by our British representative — the partner of one of our sibs), chopped egg salad, and my grandmother’s famous liver and eggs app.
As we are Eastern European Jews, and a sizable part of our family is Russian, the appetizers and desserts are really the stars of the show. On a good holiday, you might find 6–7 different dips, spreads, snacks and pickles to start. We follow this up with our mom’s soup — brought from the kitchen in an assembly line style that engages even the least culinary of our family. This is then followed by a few mains (brisket, schnitzel always, etc etc) and a range of sides — from vegetables to potatoes and from potatoes to vegetables.
One of our sisters has married a man of Caribbean origin, and so rice has become a staple of the meal as well. Our dinners have evolved dramatically over time as new spouses, children and health conditions have entered the family. Schnitzel for the kids, rice for a husband, British food for a partner, beets for the Russians…it’s truly a melange. What began as my mom’s strict traditional take on Jewish eating has shifted, incorporating more international — and sephardic — influence. Because, hey — that shit is tasty too.
My mom of course, still objects to the slow shift of the meal away from Ashkenazi classics. Every year the eldest sister and I do a little menu planning, circulating our decisions to the elders for their blessing. And every year, as we experiment and add more things to the menu, my mom fires off the same salvo aimed squarely at our newest ideas. Recently, it was:
“Gabika, why are you making Chinese dumplings for the holiday? We’re Jews and this is not traditional.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that our people are perpetually hungry and very omnivorous, and there are few cuisines that haven’t become part of the extended Jewish diaspora’s cooking. Sidebar: the specific Chinese objection never made sense to me because…well…Christmas? In fact, Chinese food may be the thing that unites the Jews the most. Sure, we love it when a famous Jew wins an Olympic medal (We’re still talking about Mark Spitz even now) but a deep discussion of the best chow mein will unite even our most fractured communities.
The meal always includes a salad because — health — but suffice it to say it’s rarely polished off. By the time we get to the end of the main course, and people have stuffed themselves with two heaping plates of food, there is a collective plea to delay dessert a bit. This gives our smoking elders a chance to go outside and “get some fresh air” as they like to say, while the rest of us complain about their smoking, crack jokes, and get a head start on cleaning up.
As the dinners have become so big, food is almost always dished out buffet style from my sister’s high-top dining table in her living room. Though it is normally used as a horizontal storage facility for their detritus, the table suddenly becomes important to my sister and brother in law come holidays. So we clean it. And every year I hope they will take the opportunity to use the clean table for family meals. And every year when I come back, it’s once again covered in piles of shmutz.
To convert what is normally a kids play space for the holidays each year, our extended family brings over a bunch of dining chairs, and my brother in law fetches the tables from the basement. He usually takes the lead in organizing the layout of the room, assembling the long table that will hold us and our plates, cups and side dishes. Though I once thought of him as contributing more muscle than meat to the event, recent weeks have shown that he actually has a cook’s instinct lurking beneath that dude-ish exterior. This is lucky for my family, currently under Corona lockdown, because my sister — his wife — didn’t get the culinary gene. Next holiday, we’ll get my BIL involved in the kitchen. I’m sure this will make my mom crazy, but I’m always happy to add another set of hands to the process. Since I’m very single at the moment, I can’t quite count on a boyfriend to help us cook, can I?
It’s not much of an overstatement to say that my family lives for sweets. Though we are all different, dessert unites us and the last course is always the one with the most oohing and aahing.
If you watch my dad throughout the whole affair, you’ll also notice his particular version of this rapacious sweet tooth. He’s a slight man, but has a good appetite (you’d have to, if you grew up with his mom). During the first two courses, while everyone is Las Vegas buffet-ing their plates and ramming themselves with meats and vegetables, he’s often serving himself on a side plate and picking at his meal in a way that Heidi Klum would approve of. Ja, Königin!
But come dessert time, he’s like a 75 year old morbidly obese Southerner ready for buffet breakfast on a cruise ship. He stalks the table early, making a couple of low-altitude fly-bys for recon. He then puts his Jenga master skills to work, crafting a sky-high dessert plate without causing any international flavor-mixing incidents. He always smiles when he eats desserts, and knows to be very complimentary (again, necessary to survive his mom). But when it comes to sweets he’s easy to please and it gives me great pleasure to make him happy.
Coffee is then judiciously poured, and because we’re not a big drinking family (well, for the most part), alcohol doesn’t play a huge role in the holidays. There’s wine, of course, which my sisters have taken to bringing because their tastes lean to the less Manischewitzian. I’m grateful for these contributions as well, as I’ve spent days on my feet cooking, tasting, packing, prepping and reheating food, and by the time we get to dessert I’m completely exhausted and overwhelmed. The last thing I need is a toothache from the wine.
Most big Jewish holidays involve complex before-and-after prayers and readings to sandwich the main meal. Smartly, Jewish elders knew they’d have to lead with the annoying stuff and push the meal closer to the end in order to get compliance. Though we appreciate the cultural benefit of being Jewish very much, we’re a less religious confabulation. Therefore my other job — as MC for the proceedings — is always to make short work of the essential readings and prayers so that we can get to the main meat event.
I try to make it humorous and educational, repeating the same stories of the exodus from Egypt and the weirdness of the bible and our traditions each time. Every year the room quiets, and people listen. Children are calm and attentive, and adults who’ve heard these stories hundreds of times stop talking so that we can share in a little bit of our cultural heritage. I am constantly amazed at how seriously everyone takes this part of the holiday, and I guess it gives me a bit of happiness to know our traditions are being maintained.
After the coffees and jokes, it’s not long before folks begin the great migration home. They might have a long drive or just be exhausted from so much eating and laughing, but within 60–75 minutes of the meal’s end, my sister’s house is once again quiet-ish. All you hear is the clang of pots and dishes being cleaned, and the screams of her children unwilling to go to bed while high on so much sugar.
After the meal is over, I leave my sister’s house exhausted. I go to wherever I am staying (my mom’s or an AirBnB), shower and climb into bed in great spirits. In busier years, I would leave the next morning, and though I used to only go for 2 or 3 days, the last few years I’ve been able to spend more time in Toronto.
As I’d fly home or onward to some keynote speech somewhere around the world, I’d smile and think about the nice time we had. My mom and I might debrief and talk about the best dishes, and I’d hear about my Brother-in-Law’s late night fridge raid. It was fun, but done, and I was soon moving on to the next event or trip.
I guess in a sense I’d taken this for granted — that there would always be another holiday in a few months. That I’d be able to see my family, hug them and have a great meal together. That I could spend 3 days doing nothing but cooking, exhausted and oddly happy to have fed people I love and care about so much.
This coronavirus panic has — of course — upended this. In the 28 years that I’ve not lived in Toronto, I’ve missed a sum total of 1 holiday because it conflicted with something I just couldn’t move. That miss gave me a ton of guilt. Jews, amirite? Thereafter, I’d do anything to make it home for the holidays, often passing on important events just to be there.
2020 will be only the second time since 1992 that I haven’t seen my family, and it’s kinda killing me. I was in a bunch of denial about both the impact of the virus and their response to it. So, it didn’t really hit me that things had collapsed until yesterday’s zoom planning meeting for our zoom Passover seder. Everyone is sheltering in place, and we’ll be 5–6 locations videoconferencing each other to stay in touch.
My family asked me to videocon through the whole thing, but I just couldn’t do it. I live alone, and the thought of sitting down for hours, eating a sad seder by myself while my family runs around with their kids and loved ones just seemed so depressing. So I’ll zoom in for a little while and then leave them to their meal.
I won’t be celebrating Passover this year. I wish I could make more lemonade out of these lemons, but it just doesn’t seem right. Zoom seder isn’t seder, and not being with my family fills me with extraordinary ennui. Even the thought of going to Toronto as soon as restrictions are lifted doesn’t fill my heart with any warmth. Right now, it just feels like a shitty circumstance that I can’t control, and an empty hole where my happiness should be.
I will however make a charoseth (a kind of chunky apple sauce) and maror (horseradish) to share via video with the fam. It’s not much — certainly not the elaborate meals I’m used to making — but it is a symbolic something. Charoseth is eaten at the holiday to both celebrate spring and the forced enslavement of the Jews in building pharaoh’s temple. The horseradish is meant to provoke tears of memory for those we’ve lost and the existential threats we’ve faced.
Though coronavirus is much less dangerous than the kind of pogroms and genocides my family has lived through, it has nonetheless altered the contours of our history. To that end, I’ll be sure to spill an 11th drop for the pandemic that kept us apart. It does however give me some comfort to know that even in this small way I’ll be continuing the tradition and remembering our shared history. I’ll be proud to lead the seder from afar.
It is, after all, the stories that matter the most. And this year is definitely storyful.
I hope that you and your family, if you’re separated for the holidays, can find some comfort in knowing you’ll be back together — screaming, crying, laughing and loving, soon enough.