For many years, my daughter and I were lucky to be invited out for Passover. Besides joining a big group of people, and sampling a variety of Passover foods, I relished the added benefit of not having to plan, shop and cook for the daunting seder (first and second night) meals.
On the day preceding the first night of Chanukah, I was too tired to make yet another trip to the grocery store for latke fixings, so we had warm bowls of soup, lit the Chanukah candles, and without much fanfare, my daughter opened her first present. But on the second day, I re-entered my kitchen and found one box of instant latke mix and a refrigerator drawer full of apples.
The 3-by-5 file cards are yellowed with age, carefully covered in Saran Wrap and taped in the back.
Exploring the stack of old Jewish cookbooks and family recipes my mother brought to me when she visited from Atlanta, I found a note. On the top of a small white paper, in her handwriting, were the words Rosh Hashanah, and then the list; Apple Charlie, Challah, Kugel, Green Bean Salad, Brisket.
Since they were Orthodox and didn't use appliances on the Sabbath, Oma had an array of simple but wonderful dishes she prepared in advance to be eaten cold. In the Miami heat, her Cucumber Dill Salad was one of my favorites.
I saw a simple loaf cake wrapped nice and tight on the kitchen counter. My sister gladly parted with a thick portion, as she said she couldn't afford to keep eating it. With one taste, I understood.
When my daughter was born, I walked the floors of our Atlanta home night after night, day after day, holding her while she slept or when she cried, stopping always in front of the wall of backyard windows framing a forest of trees. As I grew into my unexpected role of single motherhood, I watched the bare trees bend, and sometimes break under the weight of silver winter icicles. Then, as if reborn, I saw the same trees stretch tall and proud with tight spring blossoms of white, pink and lavender, before expanding, under the summer rains, into a lush landscape of green. Finally, these magnificent trees transformed, as if to colored music, into passionate reds, singing oranges and dancing yellows of fall, just as we packed our boxes and moved away.
My 10-year-old daughter came home from school sad, her shoulders carrying the kind of weight that breaks a mother's heart. She faced a tough dilemma: friends who were no longer true friends, demanding her to compromise who she is or be alone. It's the kind of challenge we all meet many times in life, in different disguises. The fear of being alone versus the self-destruction of changing who you are so as not to be alone; the challenge of the mere one of us against the seeming might of the many of them; the overwhelming feeling of odds stacked against you, of being quietly different from the louder group but choosing anyway, to believe in yourself.
Eight years ago, when my father's Parkinson's symptoms overwhelmed his body, but not his spirit, my mother decided she needed care-taking help. For a man who cherished his independence so fiercely, this life change would not come easy. But with same courage it took to run a profitable textile engineering business for 45 years without a high-school diploma, he accepted his reality and his need for Liz.
My mother hired Liz for four days a week shortly after she moved from San Francisco to Atlanta. And each day she came through their front door carrying her supplies and her faith. It didn't take long for my mom to discover Liz was an excellent cook and ask her to prepare many family favorites.
I have been thinking a lot about roots lately. About where I would like to settle with my daughter, buy a house, adopt a puppy. When we left our hometown of Atlanta eight years ago, I didn't know how long our adventure would last. I didn't know we would live in small, but charming apartments, first in calm, rainy Portland, then in frenetic, sunny Los Angeles. And that after a while, the temporary nature of our dwellings, and so much time spent far away from where we started, would pose a question of its own. Where do we belong?
It seems the core ritual of Sukkot, building the sukkah, has something to say about just that. According to tradition, this temporary, four-walled structure with a branch roof open to the sky is a reminder of the Israelites' huts in the deserts, as they wandered from place to place for 40 years. The sukkah also highlights one of the themes of the holiday -- the impermanence of our lives, says Michael Strassfeld in "The Jewish Holidays, A Guide & Commentary" (HarperResource, 1993).
This Rosh Hashanah brings to a close the year in which my father died. For this reason, and many others, I am grateful that the Jewish New Year is marked not by parties, but by days and weeks preceding and following of self-evaluation, quiet contemplation and prayers for blessings in the coming year.
My great-grandmother, Gouda, escaped Germany by boat at night when she was in her 60s. My grandfather, Opa, fled with her and his wife and two small children when he was 42. Both lived long, energetic, brave lives in their adopted country: she, chasing her great grandchildren around in a playful hide-and-seek when she was 95 years old; he, establishing a synagogue in the Bronx after abandoning one in Grebenaou, Germany. Both also had elaborate Passover breakfast rituals involving broken pieces of matzah.
"Gouda lined her half-full coffee cup, with thin strips of matzah," my mother told me. Then, in the order they went in, she lifted each piece out, sprinkled it with sugar and ate it.