April 20, 2000
If You Are What You Eat, I Must Be Jewish
Report: Anti-Semitic acts down, despite acts of violence in 1999
I'm a vegetarian. So why were there six pounds of brisket in my oven last week? Because Max, my 15-year-old son, loves it. When he was 9 we went to my friends the Weisses for seder, and he ate brisket. He never forgot it. Two years later he asked me if I could get "Arlene's recipe" and make a brisket. When I called her and told her Max asked for her brisket recipe, she wept.
So last week I made brisket.
Because it was Passover. And brisket got him to the table. He wasn't so interested in the "service stuff" as he calls the haggadah, but he was very interested in the brisket. And so he heard the story -- the plagues were fun. And he heard his grandpa sing the "Kiddush" -- maybe the tune lingered in his head. And he heard why this night is different from all others. And he saw our seder plate and his grandma's matzah cover. And though he wouldn't ask the Four Questions himself, he heard his sister ask them.
And he waited for the brisket.
The last time I made brisket it was Chanukah. And the time before that it was Rosh Hashana. If it's a Jewish holiday, we light candles and we say brachot.
And we have brisket.
Food and Jewish holidays are inseparable: What is Rosh Hashanah without apples and honey? Can you have Chanukah if there are no latkes? For Shabbat, there must be challah. Purim, hamantaschen. Passover, matzah. Yom Kippur is the absence of food. Sukkot, a harvest festival, is an all-food holiday. Israel itself is the Land of Milk and Honey. We are what we eat.
I sat in temple last May when my daughter was a bat mitzvah, and I listened to her singing "L' Dor Va Dor" (From generation to generation). Her joyous voice echos in my heart even now as I write. L'dor va dor, nagid godlecha. From generation to generation, we will tell of your greatness. The reference is to the passing down of the Torah. I thought then, "How do I, who can neither read nor speak Hebrew, pass down my Jewishness to my children?"
And I thought of brisket.
I thought of the generations of women before me. A line of women reaching out from Polish shtetls, to Lower East Side tenements, to American suburbs, to my own tract house on L.A.'s Westside. Women handing down recipes from generation to generation, recipes scrawled in pencil on a food-stained scrap of butcher paper, or neatly printed in ballpoint pen on a crisp index card, or quickly scratched in marker on the back of an envelope.
I have a book, "The Jewish Home Beautiful," that belonged to my mother. Its once bright purple cover is faded and stained now, its edges worn. In the book are illustrations and directions for setting holiday tables. There are blessings for the candles, and recipes for "Special Holiday Foods and Delicacies." It's not Torah, but it is tradition. (Can you hear Tevye? I can.)
I have another book, "In Memory's Kitchen." Do you know it? The women of Theresienstadt have sent us their recipes on a thread as strong as an iron pot, yet as invisible as spider silk, connecting them to the world to come, so that something of themselves would live on. L'dor va dor.
And so for Passover I made matzah ball soup, gefilte fish, charoset, horseradish, carrot tsimmes, potato kugel, and of course, I made brisket.
Arlene Weiss' Passover Brisket
6 lbs. brisket
yellow onion, sliced
1 cup of water
1 tbl of brown sugar
Dried apricots and prunes
4 carrots, sliced
2-3 potatoes, quartered
Heat the oil in a large roasting pot. Saute the onions for 2-3 minutes, then add the meat and brown it on both sides. Now add the water and brown sugar. Put some extra brown sugar on the top of the meat. Simmer on top of the stove over low heat for about 2 hours. Add the apricots, prunes, carrots and potatoes. Continue simmering for 2-3 more hours. Add more water if needed.
This will serve 6-10 people, depending on what else you are serving and how many 15-year-old boys are eating with you. You should have enough left for lunch with a piece of matzah the next day.