Shula’s Pesach kitchen
“It’s all in the way you look at a situation,” thought Claudia, as she carefully buttoned her daughter’s freshly ironed Shabbos blouse around the neck of the hanger. With only two days left until the holiday, these mantras became more and more necessary as her annual “Lonely Time” loomed nearer.
“I can use the vacation,” was another platitude that had, in the past, worked like a charm but now was growing stale as she approached her sixth Pesach without the children.
The kitchen pantry was sparkling and bare of anything other than the most basic necessities. A can of tuna. New bag of salt and box of unopened sugar cubes. A lone
box of shmurah matzoth, one can of tomato paste and a jar of honey. After all, for whom should she buy macaroons and chametz-free cereal if there was no one home to eat it? God knows that she certainly didn’t need to indulge in any recreational eating!
Resentment was another reliable emotion. After all, it was Yehudah’s treat, this once-a-year, weeklong hotel vacation. So why did she have to empty out her shaky bank account in order to purchase elaborate holiday clothing that, in most likelihood, the children wouldn’t wear again? As usual, when she was done shopping and giving in to each moan and “please,” “I promise,” and “I’ll DIE if I don’t have it,” there was nothing left for her. Another holiday without a beautiful, spirit-lifting dress.
Some days she believed that happiness only hinged on the promise of a new dress.
Once a year her mother-in-law – – may she rest in peace – – was given a new dress. Two days before Pesach, Asher Bezalel would command the children to gather into the living room and, with comedic fanfare, hand his wife a clumsily wrapped package. Blushing, she’d tear it open with beet-stained fingers and hold up the synthetic, floral-patterned garment. The children would applaud, whistle and congratulate their father on his superior taste in women’s clothing. The only demonstration of physical affection the children ever witnessed between husband and wife was during the dress-giving ritual when Shula placed a perfunctory, dry kiss against her Asher’s bearded cheek.
Upon marrying into the family, Claudia assumed the responsibility of finding appropriate clothing for her mother-in-law. While the ceremony remained essentially the same, the package now contained numerous items including good-quality panty hose, several two-piece ensembles (quietly patterned and comprising natural fabrics), a bottle of perfume and a flattering, frost-toned lipstick. Claudia spent many hours in Manhattan department stores before boarding an El Al jet for the annual visit. And while her bags were laden with gifts for the entire extended mishpacha, she always took special care in selecting Shula’s presents.
Yehuda and Claudia always arrived a few days before the chag. They were honored guests and the master bedroom was set-aside for them, leaving Shula and Asher to sleep on the threadbare, pullout couch in the living room. In the early years of her marriage, this disturbed Claudia greatly until she understood that, culturally, her in-laws could not do it differently. To refuse the only solid bed in the house would be unforgivably rude. Two adult sons shared a closet-sized second bedroom, and any visiting siblings or grandchildren happily slept on foam-rubber pallets on the porch.
Always, the early-morning sounds of the neighborhood jarred Claudia awake. Thumpthumpthump was the rhythm of a carpet being beaten into crumb-free submission. Clop-clop-riiiiiing meant the arrival of a horse-drawn carriage heavily laden with tanks of cooking gas. Vroom-vroom-vroooooooom went Vespa-motorbikes and sputtering Susita cars as the denizens of this underprivileged neighborhood lazily awakened next to an ominously close highway. Unable to sleep, she tiptoed over half-closed suitcases and sleeping children toward the kitchen where she hoped to have a few moments to sip a quiet cup of café nes and peak into Shula’s refrigerator and pantry.
Already on the stove, having cooked all night, was a bubbling pot of chelo, richly yellow and bursting with vegetables, chicken, herbs and spices. Claudia fought the urge to take a spoonful at this hour of the morning because, if she because fleishig – – taking on the status of “meat eating” – – so early in the morning, she’d not be able to enjoy a milk-laced cup of coffee for another six hours! Granted, Yehudah’s Sephardic family ate far less dairy than her Eastern European kin but, still, Claudia thought it was primitive of anyone to eat meat before getting a good dose of caffeine. Alongside the steaming stew was a pan filled with parsley-studded meatballs called gundi and another skillet filled with golden-crusted Persian rice, each kernel discernable and glistening. This would be the food for today, ready to put on a platter in the dining room for “self-service” because, as Claudia had learned in previous years, no one entered the kitchen the day before Pesach except for women who cooked.
After the birth of Claudia and Yehudah’s seven children, the cost of bringing Shula and Asher to America for a month was less prohibitive. In all truth, they had grown accustomed to their spacious Long Island home and spending a fortnight in a cramped, Tel Aviv slum apartment had lost its appeal. What hadn’t changed, however, was the Pesach menu or deference to the Master Chef: Shula!
Claudia’s kashered marble counters were crowded with bowls of ready-to-go cubes of beef, salted zucchini chunks, soaking white rice, and mounds of chopped parsley, onion, coriander, and dill. Piled high in the corner were small bags filed with turmeric, cumin, and cinnamon purchased the week before in Jerusalem’s Machne Yehudah market. (Her mother-in-law distrusted the potency of anemic, American-jarred spices.) The Columbian maid was given no food chores other than garlic chopping and pea shelling and these tasks were observed through Shula’s eagle eyes.
The bill of fare never varied, and no one minded. After all, the Seder was just that: a recounting of the flight from Egypt. Detailed and familiar, the point of the meal was to take a break from the long narrative and garner enough strength to finish the tale. Until every attending Jew – – from the youngest to the most senior – – understood deep within his or her gut that he or she, personally, was redeemed from the jaws of the oppressor. Food at the Seder is both symbolic and necessary but not meant to be the festive repast of other holidays.
For years after Shula’s death, Claudia kept the menu. Afghani beef stew called raimeh, date-and-walnut charoset, and grilled eggplant salad. Because she wasn’t skilled enough to sort through bags of rice in order to find the grains that would be suitable for the holiday, she had replaced that part of the tradition with mashed potatoes.
Divorce had changed many things but what Claudia missed most were the holiday meals. Now she attended Seders in the homes of friends where the sumptuous menus were elegant, abundant, and unlike the simple fare that had marked Shula’s Pesach kitchen.
Shutting the iron, she was struck with an idea. What if she instituted a new tradition? Made the meal? There were still two days until they departed for the Dead Sea resort and she could start her own ritual – – The Have a Great Time With Your Dad Banquet! She’d make it all, set the table with her unused Passover finery, and, the night before they left, she’d serve everything the way it was meant to be. (Of course, she wouldn’t serve the matzoth, because it was forbidden to eat it until the actual Seder.)
With no time to lose, Claudia reached into the vegetable bin and took out two heavy onions. Even before she cut into the golden skins, her eyes had begun to water.
Humming softly to herself, she began chopping.
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