Archive for the ‘Family history’ Category

That Old House

March 31, 2015


The email came a year ago. The subject line was “Montclair House.” I didn’t recognize the sender. Angie said that she and her husband had bought my childhood home, and hoped to restore it to its original footprint. She had found a blog post I’d written about it. She wanted to talk to me.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk to her. But I wasn’t sure why.

The house is a rambling Victorian built in 1900. A landing in the stairs overlooks the living room. The main entrance isn’t at the front, but, quirkily, on the side. When our parents bought the house, in 1958, the shady hemlocks, dark cedar shingles and wrap-around porch reminded our mother of the Adirondacks. I had just turned one – the last of four children. Until our mother died, in 1999, the house was our family’s gravitational center.

It’s where I learned to read. And write. To ride a bike and drive a car. We carried the black-and-white TV into the backyard to watch Bobby Kennedy’s funeral, and onto the porch for the Watergate Hearings. All three sisters crossed the landing and descended the stairs to get married in the living room. Four generations gathered in the dining room for Passover seders. Each of my siblings moved back at some point, as adults. I never moved back, but the house stayed inside me.

For a long time after we sold the house, I found myself waking up at night longing to search through closets and drawers that had long since been emptied of our stuff and refilled with other families’ possessions. I couldn’t believe our childhood drawings weren’t still crammed into the built-in drawers in the master bedroom, that our broken kitchen chairs weren’t stored in the back attic, that my head comics were no longer hidden behind my bed.

The property has changed hands a few times since we sold it. Early on, the sellers held an open house. My brother went, and took pictures. I pored over the photos, trying to reconcile the freshly painted rooms and neatly landscaped yard with the well-worn, lived-in spaces I remembered. Passing through town, I would idle at the curb, trying to mentally replant the lost hemlocks and replace the new blue siding with the old cedar shingles. Eventually, I learned to let go of the physical building. I knew I would never lose the sense of home that endured in my mind.

But Angie’s email revived the old longing. I sent her a quick note, asking for more information. While I waited to hear back, I tried to imagine how anyone could restore our home to what it had been. Would they bring back the clutter? Re-peel the paint? Rewire the light switch outside the bathroom so it only worked when it was jiggled just so?

Four days later, Angie answered. She wanted to know my favorite memory of the house. But the rest of her questions were architectural. Had the “front” door always been at the side? Was the little room off the dining room ever a porch?

I forwarded her email to my siblings. We swapped memories about staging plays on the landing over the living room, and soaking in the claw-foot tub. We told each other how glad we were that the house was back in the hands of people who loved it. And we agreed that the idea of restoring the “original footprint” made no sense. The “front” door had always been on the side. And the little room off the dining room had always been the “sun room,” where our father paid the bills and we kept the Passover haggadahs.

The next time she wrote, Angie attached old photos from when the house was first built – pictures we had never seen.

IMG_20140409_0001 P9210-0001

There was the front door, at the front of the house. And there, in the corner where the sun room belonged, was an open porch.

As I studied the photos, trying to reconcile the house on my screen with the one I remembered, I realized what I had always known, but never absorbed. For 60 years before the house was ours, other families had already called it home. If the first owners could have seen how the house looked when we lived there, they would have had as much trouble recognizing the place as I do today.

In one of my emails to Angie, I mentioned those haggadahs in the sun room. She replied that at their seder that year, someone in her family had said, “Next year in Montclair.”

That “next year” is this year. I like imagining Angie’s family celebrating  in the Montclair dining room. It doesn’t matter so much if they open the door for Elijah at the side of the house or the front. I do hope, though, that when they pass the house on, they’ll hold memories of home as enduring and enriching as mine.

Mapping Memories

August 18, 2013


My dad was double jointed. He could lay his palm flat on the kitchen table and fold his hand until the back of it touched the backs of his fingers. He didn’t realize he could do it until one day when he was leaning with his hand on a wall. Someone saw how his hand was folded, and said he should be in the circus.

The tips of the middle and ring fingers of my father’s right hand were missing. A month short of his twentieth birthday, he’d gotten shot during the Battle of Arnhem*, in Holland. He was crossing a field to deliver the message that his infantry unit needed more ammunition. I don’t know why it was his job to deliver the message. Maybe his commanding officer thought he was the one most likely to find his way to where he needed to go. He was his unit’s map reader.

I remember him reading the Times from cover to cover, and mysteries on the beach, and phone books in your hotel rooms (“lots of Polish names in Columbus,” he might say). But I don’t particularly remember him reading maps.

On car trips, he drove while my mother navigated. When they wanted calculate their progress, she would read off the mileage between the towns along the route, and he would respond with the running subtotal. From the backseat, it sounded like this:

M: 10 and 14.

D: 24.

M: 37.

D: 61.

M: 12.

D. 73.

…and so on, call-and-response, neither one missing a beat, until they had added up how much more road lay ahead. Hearing him add all those numbers in his head, I was dazzled.

He could read a map and he could fold back his fingers, but he couldn’t fold a map to save his life. That was also my mother’s job –smoothing the wrinkles, figuring out which way the pleats went, and closing it into a tidy accordion with the pretty tourist picture on the front, like the cover of a book.

In the book I’ve been writing and sending around and rewriting and sending around again and rewriting again since the beginning of this century, a ghost becomes displaced in time and ends up eavesdropping on events that took place before she was born.  At one point, a woman’s perfume stirs memories from times that are in the ghost’s past, but years to come for the people she’s watching, so she’s simultaneously remembering and predicting the jasmine of her mother’s perfume, the woods outside her cabin at camp, the smell of steam rising from a particular pavement in the rain, the skunky must of her husband’s skin.

“Odor by odor, [her] memories unfolded. Fold by fold, they told the forgotten flipsides of stories she’d thought she remembered.”

The flipside of my father’s injury was that it took him out of combat. My mother used to say it may well have saved his life. Another way of putting it is that those two fingertips was the price he paid so that my siblings and I might be born.

It boggles the brain. As another character in my book puts it, “The gears that grind God’s universe are beyond my understanding.”

Tuesday is the anniversary of my father’s death. On the secular calendar, the date was August 20, 1994. That’s the date I remember each year as I try to grab one more beach day before summer winds down. On the Jewish calendar, the date was 14 Elul, 5754. That’s the date I remember each year when I stand up to say Kaddish for him for in synagogue.

Sometimes 14 Elul falls closer to the end of August, sometimes it comes in early September, and sometimes it comes within a day or two of August 20. As a Jew, I’m used to tracking time on two not-quite-aligned systems. The surprise is that this year, for the first time since my father died, the calendars converge. It will happen again in 2032.

I’ll be 75—older than either of my parents lived to be. I have no road map to predict what will unfold between now and then—just two syncopated calendars to help me count how far I’m come, and enough memories to keep me writing.

*Also known as Operation Market Garden, and dramatized in the film “A Bridge to Far.” Thanks to my brother Ben for clarifying this detail.

Things We Did in Colorado Springs

July 16, 2012

–Attended sister-in-law’s annual pig roast: live music, a 90-pound beast laid out with apple in mouth, live music, silly dancing, and marriage proposal (bride-to-be said yes).

–Helped sister-in-law purchase IPad. Developed IPad envy.

–Walked in Rock Ledge Ranch and Garden of Gods. Admired rock & cloud formations.

–“Didn’t notice” Local Traffic Only signs at entrance to Waldo-fire-ravished Mountain Shadows neighborhood. Snapped drive-by photos of devastation. Felt guilty. And lucky.

–Walked mile up and mile back down High Drive, near Cheyenne Mountain. Admired road-side flowers and octogenarian in-laws’ stamina.

–Saw 87-year-old mother-in-law through appendectomy. Relieved and astounded at patient’s resilience. 48 hours post-op, patient was strolling condo complex, supervising son’s gardening work, and even (briefly) picking up hoe herself.

–Ran in Garden of the Gods, 7-7:30, several mornings. Impressed by relative difficulty of running on steep, rock-and-sand trails at 6000 feet, compared to doing same on level pavement, at sea-level. And by how much more beautiful.

–Helped ‘rents-in-law hang pictures that have been sitting in piles since house in Rochester was sold, five years ago. Family photos, American Indian and Inuit prints, art by family members. Noted psychological/philosophical/poetic/whatever significance of said activity taking place so soon after in-laws’ being evacuated due to wild fires.

–Swam in condo-complex pool. Managed to remain placidly in lounge chair while obnoxious neighbor, unsolicited, stood in the water, shaking finger holding forth about likely demise of life as we know it if POTUS is re-elected. Left pool area as soon as politely possible.

–Sorted & divided ancestral textiles, mostly from India– embroidered, woven, silk, fine wool – with sister-in-law.

–Savored time with loved ones we see far too infrequently.

Big Grandma’s Chicken Soup

April 3, 2012

Passover prep is well underway at my house. Last weekend I got the chicken soup and matzoh balls made. I used Big Grandma’s recipe, as recorded by my mother in Cooking Is My Bag, a fundraiser cookbook put out by the Montclair Education Association, I’m guessing in the late 1970s.

Big Grandma (may her memory be for a blessing) was (among many other things) my mother’s mother, an ace fundraiser for United Jewish Appeal, a fiercely competitive Scrabble player, a skilled knitter and needle-pointer, a Canadian Club drinker, an opera listener, a staunch supporter of and frequent flyer to Israel, and our family’s official soup maker.

She was famous for two soups: mushroom barley with beef, and chicken with matzoh balls. She brought them to our home frozen in quart-sized containers weeks before whatever holiday they were meant for. Serving the soup meant setting the container in a saucepan half filled with water and gently heating it until the soup was melted enough to slip out of the container, and then getting it nice and hot. Once I was living too far from New Jersey to come home for Passover, I found out that making chicken soup with matzoh balls is more difficult than just waiting for your grandmother to drive up the Garden State Parkway with her vats of frozen soup.

But it’s not that difficult. Mostly, it just takes some advance planning, because doing it right takes three days. Here’s how I did it this year.

Day one: Make soup!

Quarter your whole chicken. (B.G. didn’t keep kosher, but she did demand a kosher pullet for her soup. I don’t keep kosher, either, but I do try to eat only the meat of animals I believe have been raised humanely. This year’s soup chicken scored a 5 – the highest grade — on Whole Foods’ animal treating ratings.)

Throw the chicken parts into your soup pot, along with three large onions, four or five celery stalks, and two or three large carrots. (I also add a bunch of whole garlic cloves. And this year, a parsnip. Don’t tell B.G.)

Add four quarts of water and bring to a boil. (B.G. says to then skim any accumulated “fluff.” This makes the final broth beautifully clear. But it’s also a pain in the neck, especially when the chicken and vegetables are bobbing up over the top of the water. I used to spend a lot of time and effort trying to accomplish this step. Now I ignore it. No one has ever complained.)

Simmer, covered, for 90 minutes. (I think B.G. cracked the pot lid. I used to, but no longer bother.)

At this point, this year, I added a bouquet of parsley, as recommended by Big Grandma’s brother-in-law, Uncle Moley. I also seasoned with salt and pepper.

Simmer another 30 minutes.

Remove the carrots and chicken parts, and strain the rest.

Cut the carrots into coins and return them to the soup. (Uncle Moley also returns the chicken to the soup. B.G. and I reserve it for other uses, such as chicken salad and chicken tertrazini, one of my grandmother’s favorites.)

Cool the soup in the fridge overnight.

Day two: Skim, mix and chill

Skim the fat from the top of the soup. (This soup fat isn’t exactly the same as schmaltz you make by rendering chicken fat with onion. But it works just as well for matzoh balls, and it’s a lot more convenient.)

Make your matzah ball batter by creaming the soup fat and combining it with beaten eggs, matzah meal, and salt and pepper to taste. Amounts: 3 TBS fat to 3 eggs to 3/4 cup matzah meal.

Cover and let sit in the fridge overnight.

If you’re freezing the soup for later, you can do that now.

Day three: Make matzoh balls!

Get a big pot of salted water boiling while you set up your matzah-ball-making station. (The recipe in the Montclair Education Association cookbook doesn’t include this part. It’s the secret to success B.G. shared with me when she found out I was planning to actually use the recipe she had so casually dictated to my mother. I felt privileged that she’d given me this extra wisdom. Especially since years earlier, when I asked her to teach me to knit, she’d gotten disgusted with my ineptitude and given up almost immediately.)

To make your matzoh balls B.G.’s secret way, you’ll need the batter you’ve had sitting overnight, a bowl of warm water wide enough to wet your palms, a towel to dry your fingertips.

To form smooth, round matzoh balls, dig walnut-sized bits from the batter with your dry finger tips, and roll them between your wet palms. Keeping your finger tips to be dry prevents the batter from becoming soggy, and keeping your palms wet helps the balls slide around without sticking, so you can form a lovely sphere.

Drop the balls into the water and let them boil, uncovered, for 30 minutes.

Remove them with a slotted spoon. Let them drain and cool. Then you can freeze them. (I used to freeze the balls in the soup, but they tended to fall apart as the soup thawed.)

That’s it. Do it right, and the result will be a broth that’s rich in taste, just slightly sweet, and not at all greasy, and matzoh balls that are flavorful, firm enough to stand up to a spoon, soft enough to melt in your mouth, and not at all heavy. Plan on offering seconds.

Happy Passover!


September 26, 2011

Wedding party: David, Big Grandma, me, Effie.

Effie Gale worked for my family for more than 40 years. Every Wednesday, she rode the New Jersey Transit bus from her home in Roselle to ours, in Montclair. There she vacuumed, dusted, cleaned the bathrooms, mopped the kitchen floor, put new sheets on the beds, and ironed my father’s handkerchiefs. When holidays were approaching, she washed the wine glasses and polished the silver.

When I was small and my mother was attending library school, Effie stayed late and prepared dinner. Her fried chicken was a rare, special treat. It set a bar few other versions have met. After we grew up and had homes of our own, Effie baked us zucchini bread – a foil-wrapped loaf for each of us when we came to Montclair for Thanksgiving. Sometimes there were fragrant stalks of rosemary from her garden.

Effie sometimes fed us, but she didn’t eat with us. On Wednesdays when we were home, my mother would prepare our lunch and set up a separate tray for her – a woven place mat, a folded napkin, a glass of milk, a plate full of whatever we were having, and dessert. While we ate in the kitchen, Effie ate at the end of the dining room table. Afterwards, she would carry her tray into the kitchen and compliment my mother on the meal.

I didn’t think anything about the arrangement until I was visiting home from college.

“Why the separate tray?” I asked. “Why don’t we just all eat together?”

“Effie prefers it this way,” my mother said, and that was the end of the conversation.

Effie called my mother “Mrs. Horowitz,” sometimes, “Mrs. H.” My mother and everyone else in the family called Effie, “Effie.”

When she wasn’t working for my parents, Effie took care of my grandmother’s house in Elizabeth. Eventually, she also commuted to my aunt’s apartment in New York City. She attended all of our weddings, and the funerals for both my parents and my grandmother. She admired our babies when we brought them home to visit, and long after she retired, she continued to ask after us and send us her love through our aunt.

Effie knew all about our family, but my brother and sisters and I didn’t know much about hers. At Christmas time, she visited her sisters in Louisiana, where she’d grown up. When her husband died, my grandmother and my aunt attended his funeral. Earlier this month, when Effie went into the hospital, her son phoned my aunt, who spread the word to the rest of us.

He called her again on Saturday to say Effie had died.

Effie had an elegant beauty, a bright smile and a good hug. She hummed while she worked, and welcomed “help” from two generations of children. She stayed with my mother and my grandmother through their final illnesses, a comforting, confidence-inspiring constancy as health-care workers of varying qualities came and went. By the time my mother was taking all her meals in her bedroom, Effie was carrying her tray upstairs and they were eating lunch together.

She leaves her son, her daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. She was 91.

What’s that smell?

August 15, 2011

It started with this musty smell in the kitchen. We first noticed it earlier this summer. It was worst on humid days, and strongest near the trash bin. Taking the trash out didn’t help, and neither did scrubbing the plastic bin, itself. So yesterday we (well, David) removed the wooden frame that slides the bin under the counter, and all the other drawers in that cabinet.

When we shined a flashlight into opening, we found some very, very dirty floorboards. But no dead mouse or decomposing peach. (I should probably mention that we have an old kitchen. We think the last time it was updated was 30 years ago. The bead board  and most of the drawers and cabinetsdate back to around 1900, when the house was built.)

We (well, David) scrubbed the floorboards with a bleach mixture, and then with a wood cleaner. The rinse water came up just as filthy each time, but after several go-overs we (well, David) decided enough was enough. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.

My real point, though, is those drawers. Having them sitting out in the open gave us a chance to really look inside them – something we haven’t done since we moved in, four years ago. The silverware and food wraps and dish towels each have their own space, and that makes sense. But three other drawers hold our over-stock of spices – jars and boxes and bags that don’t fit in our go-to cabinet beside the stove.

“Maybe this would be a good time to do some weeding,” David suggested, and I reluctantly agreed. And oh, what we found.

–The last teaspoon of herbes de Provence from our South of France vacation in 2006.

–A vanilla bean from the house in Rochester David’s parents sold that same year.

–The lifetime supply of dried chiles given to David by my mother, who in February, 1999.

–A  jam jar filled with black salt, an ingredient used in Indian cooking, though in none of the recipes we ever make.

–A  jar of chervil from which all scent expired years ago. Ditto a jar of green peppercorns.

–The same plastic container of garam masala David and his parents used to secretly plant in each other’s possessions – a game no one has played in at least five years.

I could go on, but you get the idea. We threw some stuff away, though probably not nearly as much as we should have. The whole exercise reminded me – a little too much – of a scene from LITTLE GRANDMA’S MIRROR, the novel my agent is currently shopping. Adam’s mother has died, and he’s hired Kitty Klein, a professional estate liquidator, to help him dispose of the family home.


Kitty Klein wears a fancy gray hat and shiny black boots that hug her calves like ballroom gloves. Her long red fingernails make it all the more unbelievable when, after her I’m-sorry-we-couldn’t-meet-under-happier-circumstances handshake and before Adam finally manages to jimmy open the door he has never before had any trouble opening, she announces, “I’m a roll-up-the-sleeves gal. Do everything myself. If you want something done right, you know what I’m saying?”

Inside the kitchen, she pulls a notebook and a pen from her suitcase-sized handbag and starts opening cabinets and drawers and stirring through the unopened mail. “Your mother was sentimental, wasn’t she?” She says delicately extracts from the paper slush a laminated name tag Mouse wore at a convention she attended sometime in the nineties. “A keeper.”  Kitty’s nose twitches. She sets the name tag back down as if it were some frail archeological shard. “They’re the hardest.”

“The hardest in terms of what?” Adam asks, helplessly tracking her tight-lipped inspection of the aluminum-foil pans amassed against Armageddon, the expired spices in their dusty bottles, the ten-year archive of handwritten holiday menus hanging beside the stove from a grease-encrusted string.

“Letting go.” She writes something down on her pad, then taps her perfect white teeth with her pen. “The kitchen definitely has potential.”

“For what?”

“To be something really special. A little paint. New appliances. Reface the cabinets. But the buyer would have to have some imagination.”


Adam and Kitty are products of my imagination, but the kitchen is definitely my mother’s – which sometimes smelled a little musty, too. Some things just linger, no matter how much you scrub.

Wedding in the Woods

July 28, 2011

Photo by Paulina Sliwa. Fabric for Sophie's dress is from her grandmother's first sari.

It finally happened. After all the planning and discussing and deciding, the list-making and ordering and organizing, on Sunday Sophie and Henry got married.

(click on the thumbnails to see full size)

Saturday afternoon we gathered at Camp Kiwanee, on a lake south of Boston. Think tall pine, rustic cabins, picnic tables encircling a fire pit. Garlands of ribbons were strung between the trees. We swam, played games, visited, shared grilled goodies and a feast of potluck sides and desserts, sprayed on bug repellent and built a fire.

By the time we got around to making the flower arrangements for the wedding lunch tables, it was dark, so we worked by flashlight, grabbing random stalks of Queen Ann’s lace, sweet William, zinnia, daisy, and dozens of other multicolored varieties from their tubs, cutting the stems to size, and planting them in the field of mason jars that covered the table. We figured that whatever we did would look great, and when we came back to look by light of day, we weren’t disappointed.

The main event happened late Sunday morning, on the porch of the lodge. The lake behind created a beautiful setting, if an extra challenge for all the nice people who’d brought their cameras.

The ceremony blended elements from Sophie and Henry’s religious backgrounds and political principles, without mentioning any gods or being explicit about the politics. A friend officiated, certified for the occasion by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The chuppah they stood under was a bedspread crocheted by Henry’s great-great grandmother, supported by poles Sophie’s brother fashioned from driftwood he gathered on the banks of the Hudson and then cut, buffed and oiled. A vase of white roses memorialized three pairs of grandparents. Indian designs on the floor, stenciled in chalk dust, marked the specialness of the space, and the occasion.

Photo by Paulina Sliwa

We sang “Enter, Rejoice and Come in,” a Unitarian hymn Henry’s mom remembers hearing when she was pregnant. We heard excerpts from Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, the decision that made marriage equality legal in Massachusetts, parts of Kahlil Gibran’s “On Marriage,”  and Charles Darwin’s notes to himself on the pros and cons of getting married (con: less money for books; pro: a soft wife on the sofa). A friend performed a stunning rendition of Bellini’s “Vaga luna, che inargenti,”  accompanied by another friend on keyboard.

After the vows and the exchange of rings, guests read a reworked version of the Jewish Seven Blessings (a process I described here.)

Sophie’s grandmother performed a Zoroastrian blessing. A silver tray held a variety of symbols, which she explained: rice for plenty; fish for festive feasting; cloves, nutmeg, cardamom and cinnamon for savoring life; pomegranate – for its tartness, to add zest and color to life; betel nut – for life’s more astringent and bitter passages (with hopes that these be few); and coconut, sugar, nuts and raisin for times of plenty and sweetness (with hopes that these be many). She hung flower garlands around Sophie and Henry’s necks, marked their foreheads with red kumkum paste and tossed rice over them. To ward off evil, she broke an egg at their feet.

Then Isaac pronounced them married, they stamped on a pair of wine glasses, and everyone applauded.

Lunch was delicious barbecue, followed by delicious pie.

People made toasts. In mine, I recalled the first time Sophie and Henry met, eight years ago. We were dropping Sophie off at college. Just as we climbed out of the car, another first-year student came walking up the sidewalk between his parents. He looked at Sophie and said, “Sophie?” and she looked at him and said, “Henry!” They had already met online, and recognized each other in person right away. I had been a little apprehensive about my older child leaving home, but, as I said in my toast, Henry’s warm greeting reassured me that she would be among friends.

I talked about the attributes that make these two such good friends (caring for each other, giving each other space, enjoying each other, being similarly serious while not taking themselves too seriously), and suggested that a strong friendship makes a good foundation for a strong marriage. Finally, I thanked Sophie for bringing Henry and his family into our family, and thanking Henry for reassuring me that now, as I watch Sophie embark on this next phase in her life, she will be among friends once again.

Among all the planning and discussing and deciding, the list-making and ordering and organizing, figuring out my toast was one of the easiest thing I had to do. I just told the truth.

Happy Birthday To Me!

May 31, 2011

Here’s how I celebrated my sixth birthday, back in 1963. I like how my sister Mike is pursing her lips empathetically, “helping” me blow out my candles the way you “help” a baby you’re feeding by opening your mouth as you offer the spoon. That Edgemont School T-shirt of Ben’s became mine when he outgrew it. Rachel and I are wearing matching dresses with a cherry pattern. The cake is pineapple-upside-down, probably with one pineapple ring to hold each candle. I couldn’t begin to guess what I’m wishing.

I’m guessing this is my seventh eighth* birthday, because we’re in Paris and to my right is Rachel Bonner — my best friend that year. My birthday must have fallen on week day, because the two Rachels and I are all wearing the white blouses and blue sweaters of our school uniforms. (Not pictured: our pleated grey skirts. Also, Mike. Where is she?) I have no idea what Ben is thinking about, but he sure looks pensive.  The cake is definitely not pineapple-upside-down. It looks like some sort of fruit tart, probably from A La Flute Enchantee, the fancy bakery on Avenue Mozart, a short block from our apartment.

*Thanks to Ben for this correction.  Maybe that’s what he’s thinking about in this picture? Must remember what year it is, because if I don’t, who will? 

I celebrated another birthday this past weekend. David prepared incredible huevos rancheros for breakfast. They tasted just as good as they looked.

Sophie and Henry took the train down from Boston, and we spent the day exploring Bristol. Here’s a detail from the very ornate, very rusted fence in front of Linden Place. If we’d gone inside, we could have heard the history of the family that built this house. Like so many of the wealthiest citizens of this area in those days, they made their fortune in the slave trade. Rhode Island is where molasses from the West Indies got turned into rum,  which was exported to West Africa, where the ships were converted into prison boats and the rum traded for slaves.

This year’s cold, rainy May made it an exceptional season for rhododendrons. They were at their peak this weekend. Bristol is lush with them.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in Colt State Park, walking beside the water, checking out the many families at their Memorial Day Weekend picnics, and trying not to get sunburned. Not pictured: the mango with sticky rice into which David stuck a single candle at dinner. He and Sophie and Henry all sang the birthday song, and I blew the candle out. But I forgot to make a wish.

What would you have wished for?

The Eggy Palmer Effect

May 12, 2011

My May column for the Voice and Herald

When our son Sam was little, he played a game called ‘Eggy Palmer.” “Eggy Palmer” is an impish children’s book character who turns milk sour. My husband would pour himself a before-dinner drink, and Sam would sidle over and wave his hand over the glass, saying, “I’m Eggy Palmer!” David would sip his drink and twist his face in disgust. Hilarity would ensue – except for David, who discovered that when he made a sour face, his martini really did taste terrible.

Psychologists confirm a similar phenomenon. In one study, subjects who thought they were testing headphones’ durability were told to move their heads up-and-down or side-to-side while they listened to an opinion piece. When they were asked afterwards to evaluate the argument they’d heard, those who had nodded felt much more certain of their judgments than those who had shaken their heads. Action influences attitude.

The Eggy Palmer effect plays out in religion, too. Judaism distinguishes keva, ritual’s predetermined form, from kavanah, the mindset we bring to the ritual. Without mindful intention, we’re often reminded, religious ritual becomes a hollow exercise. The Talmud says we shouldn’t even stand up to pray unless we’re already in a “reverent frame of mind.” And when we do pray, unless our hearts are directed to Heaven, we’re not really getting the job done. If you’re thinking about your next Scrabble move while you light the Shabbat candles, you’re just playing with matches.

In fact, the keva-kavanah connection also operates in the other direction. Start going through the motions, and motivation often follows. That’s how it works for me, more often than not. The effect is usually too subtle to really notice. But it can also be dramatic. Shaking the lulav on Sukkot, for example, strikes me as silly, archaic, even alienating. I hesitate to participate. But when I force myself to engage, the ritual reveals its meaning. The point of the practice isn’t in the thinking, but the doing.

How does this work? Philosopher Howard Wettstein proposes one explanation in his 1997 paper, “Awe and the Religious Life.” Wettstein quotes Abraham Joshua Heschel, who, in “God in Search of Man” writes, “There is no faith at first sight.” Faith doesn’t come “as an unearned surprise,” says Heschel. Rather, it is “preceded by awe, by acts of amazement at things that we apprehend but cannot comprehend.”
The birth of a child, a spectacular sunset and a great work of art all inspire awe. And the Jewish system of blessings gives these moments their due, insuring they’re not lost in the press of daily life, Wettstein suggests.

But great jazz solos and postcard skies only come around now and then. And that’s the other reason we need ritual, according to Wettstein. All those scheduled prayers and candle-lightings and so on create opportunities for what Rabbi Elliot Dorff describes as the dual experience of being “humbled but elevated” – of recognizing simultaneously a sense of one’s human limitation and of having been created in the divine image.
The experience doesn’t just feel good. As Wettstein suggests, it can also do good, by inspiring generosity of spirit, lack of pettiness, increased ability to forgive and to contain anger and disappointment. These are godly attributes – worthy aspirations no matter what your view of God.

Is the Eggy Palmer effect a form of self-deception? You could call it that. Or you could see it as a useful tool for attitude adjustment. It doesn’t succeed for everyone or in all situations, but it can be surprisingly effective.

Years after he pretended to sour David’s martini, our son started college, and found himself assigned to the roommate from hell. It could have been the worst year of his life, but Sam was determined not to let it be. Since he couldn’t change his roommate, he decided to change himself. Rather than dwelling on the parts of his life that annoyed him, he concentrated on those that made him happy.

“I pretended to be more excited than I really was,” he later explained to us. “I figured if I acted excited, I would start to feel excited, and then I wouldn’t care as much about the other stuff.” The ploy worked.
Sam didn’t know it, but he was confirming the claim of the early 19th-century Hasidic rabbi, Nachman of Breslov. “If you don’t feel happy, pretend to be,” Rabbi Nachman advised. “Act happy. Genuine joy will follow.”

Little Grandma’s Chremslach

April 19, 2011

The traditional Passover greeting is to wish someone a “Zissen Pesach” – a sweet Passover. The phrase is probably meant as a reference to the sweetness of liberation, the holiday’s central theme. But it could just as well describe the flavors of the seder. Besides the spicy bite of the “bitter herb” and the blandness of the matzo, there’s an awful lot of sweet stuff on the menu, from fruity charoset and Manischewitz wine to honeyed tzimmes and all manner of desserts. In my house there’s also the chremsls.

Chremsls as I have always known them are golden matzo fritters fried in oil and soaked in hot honey. Dense and greasy and starchy, they ooze dark sweetness when you bite into them. My mother made them from a recipe she got from her mother-in-law, our Little Grandma, and served them as an entrée side dish, alongside the brisket and the asparagus. When I started hosting my own seders, she gave me the recipe. I’ve been serving them ever since.

For years it seemed that no one outside our family had ever even heard of them. Now I learn that the proper Yiddish plural isn’t chremsls, but chremslach. Most sources say they’re eaten for breakfast or dessert. But I found one that uses the word chremslach for mashed potatoes stuffed with meat and fried. A cottage cheese version is touted as an easier, Passover-appropriate variation on blintzes.

In The Book of Jewish Food, Claudia Roden offers an Alsatian version that includes brandy, salt, sugar and cinnamon as well as raisins and chopped almonds.

Joan Nathan says she has never had a seder without chremslach (or “grimslech,” as she says it can also be spelled). Her family recipe is included in her Jewish Cooking in America. The matzo meal fritter are stuffed with currants, almonds and apricots and served with prunes stewed in orange juice, or a wine sauce.

Little Grandma’s chremsls don’t include any fruit or nuts. They’re made with actual matzo that’s been soaked, drained and crushed, rather than matzo meal. David has never liked them but the kids love them as much as I do. One memorable year, when Sam was about six, his friend Alex was eating over, and I served leftover chremsls. Alex couldn’t get enough of them. It wasn’t until later, when he was telling Sam how much he’d enjoyed the meal, that we realized he thought he was eating chicken.

Here’s my recipe:

Beat and season with salt and pepper

1 egg for each person

Moisten with hot water and drain

1 matzo for each egg

Crush the matzos into the egg and mix

Add to the egg/matzo mixture

about 1 tsp matzo meal for each matzo, or enough to bind the batter.*

(*Less is better. Too much turns your finished chremsls in to hockey pucks.)

Heat in a wide pan

peanut oil, maybe 1/2 inch deep

Meanwhile, start heating in a deep pan

honey, maybe 2 cups

When oil begins to sizzle, form the batter into 2-inch diameter patties and fry them in the oil, turning once.

When chremsls are golden on both side, drop them into the hot honey turning them over a few times as they soak up the honey.

You’ll probably have to work in stages, adding more patties to the oil as room permits, and making room for newly fried chremls in the hot honey by removing them to your serving platter (or the baking sheet on which you will reheat them, if you need to make them in advance).

But now that I think about it, maybe my mother just kept adding more and fried chremsls to the hot honey and removed them all at once, so some ended up soaking much longer than any of mine do. Maybe that’s why my version of Little Grandma’s chremsls are never as dark and sweet as I remember my mother’s being. Or maybe that’s not the reason.