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Two year’s ago November, my Aunt Rose passed away. She was the wife to my Uncle Jay for who Yoni is named after. She was a very headstrong yet compassionate woman. She believed in hard work and volunteerism for as long as she was physically able. She was the woman who knocked on your door when the hurricane was barreling down on you in Florida to ask if you needed help boarding your windows. She was no meek woman. She spoke her mind, sometimes too our own detriment, yet, her direct line of communicating was her way of showing how much she loved you. If she didn’t tell you what she really thought, then she might not have cared.
She ran a tight and neat house. OK, so the furniture was covered in plastic, and let me tell you, in Florida, when you stand up from a plastic covered couch while wearing shorts, it comes up with you!
She was a woman of the depression, so meals were plated sparingly. My sister jokes about the small piece of meat, three green beans, and two pieces of potato that adorned her plate at dinner. Aunt Rose was a saver and skimper, but she had longevity genes on her side, so she wanted to ensure she would have enough for tomorrow.
This summer, my cousin, Ron – OK, I call him Ronnie and you can’t tell him I told you – had the duty that most children have when their parents pass, he had to go through, dispose of some, and pack up other items Aunt Rose kept for years. Love letters between my Uncle Jay and Aunt Rose were preserved, furniture sold, but one box was shipped to me.
The FedEx man came to my house, saw that I was home, went back to his truck and brought it a HUGE box! It was from Ronnie. It was from Aunt Rose. After staring at it for a week, I finally took a knife, opened the box and discovered a lot of packing popcorn. Amidst the popcorn were many little packages of bubblewrap. At least I knew we would have a fun bubblewrap popping party later – darn, could have used that in April for the Bat Mitzvah!
The bubblewrap was taped tightly and it took a knife to finally undo. And as I unwrapped the first package, an off white dish came forward. I realized what I held in my hands, it was my Aunt Rose’s china! Ronnie talked to my mom about sending it to me, knowing that with my kosher kitchen, I never have a shortage of dishes, especially china! But I was scared to open the box and unwrap the bubblewrap because no one was able to tell me what it was going to look like. I didn’t want to disgrace her memory by being disappointed with some overly floral intricate multi-colored design that I would need to hide by piling as much food on the plate as possible.
To my surprise and great delight – it was gorgeous! Aunt Rose! Thank you for having great taste in china! A simple, off-white background with two thin lines of silver adorned the china. I breathed a sigh of relief and was suddenly excited to open the entire box and all the contents. Thank you Ronnie for taking it to the pack and ship place so that nothing was broken in transit. I love you Ronnie, but you are no china packer!
As I uncovered the china followed by another box the next week of crystal glasses, my head started to wander. What meals did Aunt Rose serve on these plates? What soup did she let simmer on the stove for hours on end. What types of meat and side dishes did she prepare? What wine did she pour for Kiddush and the meal? But more importantly, what were the conversations had by those sitting behind this china?
Did Aunt Rose, Uncle Jay, and their friends share in their daily turmoil including the gossip at work or in the neighborhood? Did they argue politics about which leader was best for the country and Israel? Did they toast each other when sharing news of growing families, new jobs, children’s accomplishments and life cycle celebrations? Did they comfort one another over a meal of condolence as they remembered their love one? What went on in the dining room? If only I were a fly on the wall.
Our homes are a reflection of not only our daily lives, but of our Jewish selves. We can quickly identify a Jewish home by seeing the mezuzah hanging on the doorpost, even before we knock. The candlesticks and Kiddush cup in the corner of the kitchen or on a shelf are reminders that ritual has been and is important in the families life. And even since Talmudic times, the kitchen table is not only the center of family life, but also assumes a ritual function.
According to the Talmud, “When the Temple stood, the altar offered atonement. Now, one’s table offers atonement.” (Tractate Chagigah 27a). During Temple times, the primary means of worship was through bringing sacrifices to the altar, to the Temple’s table. Today, the primary means of divine worship involves meals at home. We ritualize this through reciting motzi before our meals and birkat hamazon after the meal. Eating together as a family is a ritual and brings a mundane act to a holy act of sharing in each other’s lives as we eat.
Elizabeth Ehrlich reminisces about her grandmother’s kitchen in a passage from Miriam’s Kitchen:
“My grandmother used to sit before her stove on a tall, four-legged stool, stirring sweet-and-sour cabbage soup in a white enamel pot, dishing out salty perceptions of life. She was a capable woman. She carried herself with dignity about the neighborhood, as befitted the pharmacist’s wife. Widowed in the Fifties, she went back to work in the millinery trade she had learned as a 19-year-old immigrant in New York–proud to pay a cleaning woman, carry a union card, and earn health insurance on her own….
“But my grandmother’s blue-and-white tiled Brooklyn kitchen, in which so much life had been lived, was her truest sphere. There she chopped, grated, salted, peppered. There she handed on traditions brought from the Old World and translated amidst the exigencies of the New. Much of my valuable learning took place in that kitchen and in other rooms like it….
“[These memories] came back to me when I became a mother. I wondered what to teach my children. I wanted to build a floor under my children, something strong and solid.
“Then I remembered and unwrapped a bundle of family tales, many located in or near the kitchen. In these I found wisdom and innovation and the fading rituals and habits of an assimilating clan. I had been carrying that bundle all my life.” (xi-xii)
The kitchen and dining room table are where these stories are shared, and tales are spun into a fabric of tradition for our future. These tables are where we get in touch with our family and listen to what is going on in their lives. We share the joys and the griefs of every day living. We offer advice at the table while we eat and then disperse into the next activity. But today, this ritual of sitting down and eating as a family is fading into the background of our past. Where we used to sit down every night to have dinner together, our schedules and activities challenge us to making this time for a family meal. Then add the distractions of television, cell phones, portable computers and iPads, fewer and fewer of us are paying full attention to one another when we do sit down for a meal. We are losing this sacred time, we are depriving ourselves of holy moments.
We read in Pirkei Avot (3:4), “If three have eaten at one table and have spoken over it words of Torah, it is as if they had eaten from the table of God, for it is written in Ezekiel (41:22), “And God said to me, ‘this is the table that stands before God.’”
It’s not that we have to sit around the table and talk about Torah – OK, I would think that was cool, but, this is not what Pirkei Avot teaches us. Rather, Torah consists of the words that describe our lives today. We all write our own Torah, comprising the teachings of our Jewish identity, our teachers, our parents, and we weave them with our experiences in life today and what we hope for tomorrow. This is Torah. These discussions around the table with our family are holy and we should not be so quick to lower their priority.
We see from studies that families sitting down for meals increase create stronger familial bonds; teens who have regular meals with their parents are less likely to be promiscuous or get into fights and are less likely to take drugs, drink alcohol or smoke; children who eat with their families do better academically; we are more aware of our health and eating more balanced and healthier meals; these family meals teach discipline and important manners that can be used outside the house; we experience more stability when we eat together; it’s less expensive than going out to eat; and the number one reason for eating together is, MEMORIES! We are creating memories that will last not only our life time but will be carried on into the future through the stories that are shared around the table.
In a few hours, we will gather for our break the fast, and while we are filling our plates and ready to fill our bodies once again, we must remember that we are filling our soul as well, just by eating together.
When I heard the china was coming, I thought, how wonderful, I could use another set for Passover! But when I opened the dishes I realized, I can’t wait until Passover to use them. This china needs to be used now. There are too many stories waiting to be released and the family is going to be together during these High Holy Days. By seeing the pattern and eating from these dishes, memories will and did pour forth. And these were holy conversations.
What are the dishes you will eat from tonight, tomorrow or later? What are the stories you shared around a meal and what will be the stories you want others to tell long after you are gone? The meals we shared bring back powerful memories, embrace them, hold on to the memory of those who are not here to eat with us, but who we invoke during this hour of memory.
Aunt Rose, you might not be serving our dinner tonight, but you are at the table. Thank you for being there and thank you for helping me create holy moments that you yourself created for us years ago and that we will share with the next generation. I promise to pass the dishes on so that they will continue to speak and listen.