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Category: holidays

into the depths

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all week in this old house, we’ve been burrowing deep into ancient and timeless stories. the story of the exodus, pesach, the retelling of the jews’ escape from slavery in egypt, a retelling that elie wiesel, the late great nobel laureate and holocaust survivor, called “a cry against indifference, a cry for compassion.” it is a retelling stitched with blessing, and question, and story.

its leitmotif, “you were strangers in a strange land,” God’s words to Abram, a call to radical empathy, a call to ever open our hearts to those who are strangers, marginalized, in our midst.

after three nights of seder, of coming to tables filled with people we love, after cups of wine, and reciting of plagues, after singing dayenu (the hebrew word for “enough,” as in God’s love would have been more than enough, in a rising series of praises — “if God had only created the world and not brought us out of egypt, it would have been enough”), we pivot to the holiest hours of holy week — or i do anyway.

i am deep now and deepening. i hear the cry of my soul, being pulled into timelessness, into sacred hours and space. i burrow into the stories of the last supper (the seder of Jesus and his twelve apostles), of gethsemane, of the betrayal by Judas, of the mocking and crowning with thorns, of the bone-crushing cross shouldered by Jesus as he stumbled along the trail to his crucifixion at golgotha, the hill just outside jerusalem, the hill where he cried out, “Father, why have you forsaken me,” and then, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” the whole arc of anguish and redemption in two short utterances.

it never fails to draw me deep into the nautilus of prayer.

and so, late yesterday, as the slant of light grew thin and thinner, i was pulled into a jewel box of a medieval stone chapel, its leaded windows a mosaic of cobalt and ruby and aquamarine. i was alone. i had only my prayer and my deepening.

today will be more of the same. the hours of silence, from noon till three, the hour, we’re told, when Jesus let out his final surrender, “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” when he breathed his last, and the sun’s light was extinguished, i will do as generations before me have done: utter not a word, follow my prayer to the hushed place within. i will keep my holy vigil for the suffering that once was, and the suffering that goes on to this day, to this hour.

in both the story of exodus and the story of the crucifixion, we are called not only to honor them as ancient and long-ago narratives. we’re to infuse them with the now. to employ them as holy script, as instruction, imperative, to find in their depths the modern-day call to action: search for the stranger, embrace the stranger. set a place at your table, and make it the finest you have. love even your enemy. forgive your enemy.

turn yourself wholly and finally to God.

both stories, a call to radical empathy. both stories, imploring divine surrender.

both stories i’m burrowing into this week. this week of ancient and timeless holiness. this week with wisdom for now.

may your holy days — however they come — be deep and be blessed.

and happy blessed birthday to my beautiful little ella today turning eight, and to my beloved mother-in-law ginny (the chair’s most loyal reader perhaps) whose day is tomorrow. 

and into my kitchen, they all congregated

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i’d ordered the brisket, five pounds of first-cut beast, as instructed. i was due to dash out the door to the butcher’s at the agreed-upon hour, but first i needed to quick-read my passover checklist. so i pulled my family cookery book off the shelf, the one where, over the years, i’ve tucked snippets and pages and odd scribbled notes. it’s my holding yard for guideposts to brisket and kugel and those chopped balls of fish called gefilte — decades and centuries of recipes, really, passed one generation to the next.

in my case, it’s the fat stash of invitations into an ancient tradition that was not mine, but now is. in my case, it’s my compendium of adopted jewish mothers and grandmothers and aunties and surrogate whisperers over my shoulder, all committed to paper and ink, and clicked into a three-ring binder.

and that’s when the first kitchen companion — unseen but certainly sensed — came into the room. before i got to the tab marked “jewish holidays,” i’d flipped open a page, and there was a name staring out at me, the name of my irish friend who’d just died, tagged in crisp typed letters at the bottom of her blueberry cake, one she must have passed along because once i’d oohed and ahh-ed. i paused for a moment, picturing her, picturing her blueberries, picturing her rare nod to domesticity (though she always loved a great meal). and then i turned another page; i found another now-departed instructor of kitchen arts. i scanned over the words, her careful instruction, her side whispers and peculiar idiosyncrasies, always tucked off to the margin in parenthetical insistence. (“Try not to burn it.” “yes, tablespoons,” “don’t food process, or you will have mush,” “it’s OK if it seeps over the rest…”)

i came to the brisket, the one my boys practically lick off the plate. i followed my scribbles for haroset, the mortar of apples and walnuts and cinnamon and honey, with a splash of manishewitz kosher concord wine. i read through kugel, one i’d not made before, but one my boys have counted on, ever since their very first passover at the long, long table of tribune folk, the one that for them will forever be synonymous with the exodus from egypt. with every page i turned, i drew in another to my sacred kitchen circle: harlene ellin’s mama, queen of the brisket; ina, whose claim to fame (besides her long-standing, much-loved chicago breakfast eatery) is the seltzer she adds to her matzoh balls to make them “floaters” of cloud-like proportion; andrea, who wandered by the other day, and did not scoot off before penning an all-new kugel and a middle-eastern charoset, now added to my collection.

and then, assured of my passover-cooking itinerary, i reached on the shelf for the mini-sized chopper of apples i’d employ for making old-fashioned haroset. as i lifted the sharp blade and bowl from the box, out toppled a post-it, now nearly 23 years old. it was from the grandma of my heart, my grandmother-in-law whom i loved fromIMG_7512 the get-go. just weeks after our firstborn was born, she’d packed up the mini-chopper and sent it from west palm beach to our little house in chicago. she tucked in a note, in her signature scribble: “dear children,” she began, declaring straight off that she counted me one of her own. “perhaps you will be able to grind veg. for willie when he is ready for them.” and suddenly grandma syl (“the teaneck tornado,” they called all four-foot-nine of her) was there in the kitchen beside me, pressing against my shoulder blade, her tousled silvery head barely reaching the top of my arm. wasn’t long till i was awash in the tears that come when remembering hurtles you back in time, erases the years, fills your head and your heart with unmistakeable presence. i could hear the squeak of her voice. i could feel, in an instant, as if it was the summer of 1993 all over again, the weight of the lump in my arms, the newborn lump who’d precipitated the need, apparently, for a rapid-fire way to make baby puree. (and, as i stood there blinking away my tears, i re-sealed my vow never to toss out a love note or a scrap that might come tumbling from the pages of a book, or the contents of a gift box, swirling you back in time every time, rekindling the thump of the heart that won’t ever fade.)

and so it went, hour upon hour yesterday. as i chopped and stirred and cranked the oven. by day’s end, when the table was set with dishes passed from one china cabinet to the next, when i’d pulled the haggadahs from the shelf, found the seating chart from last year, with yet another name no longer among us, i’d filled my house with those i’ve loved and lost.

it must be the sorrow that’s made me more porous this year. that, according to celtic tradition, has made for the thinning between heaven and earth, that’s pushed my soul soft up against the sacred openings, where angels seep in.

and why not fill my jewish holiday kitchen, my passover kitchen, with page after page of those who’ve shown me the way? those who took my unfamiliar irish-catholic hand, and led me into the back lanes and secret passageways of this jewish-catholic marriage? why not invite them all into my kitchen for the day, and set a place at the table — at my heart — for each and every one of them?

so tonight, when i bow my head and strike the match to light the blessed shabbat and pesach candles, everyone else will count a mere five at the table. i, though, will feel the embrace of a whole company of cookstove companions and patron saints of jewish cookery. and i will offer up a litany of prayer for each and every one of them. each and every one of the ones who’ve shown me the shortcuts to heaven, where too many now reside.

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brisket, before its overnight nap in the fridge

do you too find cookery books, the homespun kind, fill your kitchen with those you’ve loved, and those who’ve shown you particular ways? 

p.s. i know i promised field notes from my poetry get-away, and those will come — next week, perhaps. the bottom line was that paying attention is at the heart of poetry and prayer, and we’re all the richer for keeping a keen eye to the mystery and miracle that abounds.

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haroset: apples, walnuts, cinnamon, honey, with a splash of manishewitz

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roasted shank bone, roasted egg for the seder plate

stirring sweetness

the beautiful thing about leaping into a religion that’s not your own, is there is no rule book.

well, there might be a tome or two on the shelves, but when you’re inventing, you often concoct as you go.

oh, sure you ask zillions of questions, you turn to the texts, pore over pages, searching for answers. but plenty of times, you go with the zeitgeist and, frankly, you wing it.

and so it was i bounded out of bed yesterday morn, on the dawn of the new year, rosh hashanah, and set out to make rosh hashanah bread pudding.

now, nowhere in the cookery books will you find such a sweet and pudding-y dish. there is no step-by-step guide to a sweeter morning than the usual cornflakes and cow’s milk.

ah, but like many a someone embracing something that’s new, that’s just a touch foreign, exotic, i can’t get enough.

give me a rosh hashanah prayer about morning stars and particles of dust floating on the wind, and i am swooning in my pew, thinking to myself, by jove, they’re talking to me, those ancient hebrew poets, the ones who thousands of years ago carved out these words to speak to my heart, here in the waistband of america, where leaves are just starting to rumble with thoughts of shedding their greens, too early just yet to unfurl great bolts of color.

truth is i tingle, through and through, here in these days of downright awe.

i am not a jew. but i love a jew. married him. bore our children. am raising those children in a house that is bathed in the best of two great and rather old faiths: we are catholic and jewish.

and this time of year, in these sacred golden-dripping days of awe, i cannot get enough of a whole-body immersion.

i am cooking it. praying it. setting the table with it. poring over the verses with it. inhaling every last drop of it.

everywhere i turn, there is awe. and it is sweet.

let’s start with the light: have you noticed the great kaleidoscope that is the turning of season has cranked it just to the north a notch, and now the sunbeams that hit us are amber molasses, tinged with spoonfuls of honey?

why yes, they drip on my bed pillows, my pages, my old creaky floorboards.

and then there’s that charge in the air, the one that has us un-sashing the windows, pulling back shutters, clearing the way so that cool night breezes might billow in, that air that seems at last purer and crisper, more certain to clear out our lungs from all the sticky still jungle air that took hold in the long hot summer.

but mostly, there are the prayers and the knowing now what i’ve always known: this is sacred time, new time, time that deeply matters. the days when our steps are counted, our deeds recorded, our fates inscribed in the holiest book.

God is paying attention, rapt attention, and so too must we.

thus, as if to upholster the year, to tilt it toward sweetness the whole way through, we stir it in in great dollops. a handful of raisins here. a bee-bumped macintosh chopped and grated over there.

we are watching as honey drools from a spoon. and wiping smudges, sticky, off from the table.

tonight this old house will be filled. the table as crowded as it knows how to be. if we could have layers of table, we would. i would invite everyone i have ever loved, and then some.

and just as the sun slips over the ledge and sacred twilight comes, having stirred the stews all night, and having set out my grandma’s silver, and the glasses of cobalt blue, i will strike a match and kindle the lights.

i will call on the legions of saints and angels who march behind me wherever i go. i will call on rachel and leah and rebekah.

i will look over (not down anymore, for the top of my head no longer makes it even to the cusp of his shoulders) at my firstborn, and gulp back the tear that comes with knowing he’ll not be home next year, or for years to come for that matter, on these sweetest of days upon days.

i will be humbled and filled all at once. will marvel that i, a deep quiet catholic, was somehow swept into the river that bathes me so richly, so wholly, so anciently. calling me back to where i must have once begun.

i count myself among the blessed, the ones who are stirred by the ancient hebrew poets, a people who marked time by the stirrings on the bough and in the field. who kept time by the heavens, the night star and moon. i read these rosh hashanah prayers through dual lenses, and in them i find such powerful majesty, such knee-buckling knowing of the intricacies of the human heart. today this meander is merely an unspooling, no deep lesson or question, other than this: what is it of this time of year that heightens in you a deep sense of awe, no matter your religion?

p.s. that rosh hashanah bread pudding? nothing more to it than torn-up bits of the night before’s raisin-studded challah, with a fat granny smith grated into it, along with a handful of even more raisins and cranberries (why stop when studding your pudding?) i had promised rosh hashanah bread pudding to my little one who loves a good reason to leap out of bed. and thus, once stirred from my dreams, i had little choice but to come up with a version that lived up to the promise.

silence on a day that darkens

today is the day it gets dark. it does, i swear it does. it almost always does. i watched, when i was little, for the darkness to roll in.

God was broken, broken-hearted, on Good Friday. and i, grade-school believer with all my heart, i kept an eye, all afternoon, on the sky. sometimes i’d take to a rock. a thinking rock. i’d sit and watch the sky. i would know, come three o’clock, when the story says that Jesus closed his eyes, sighed his final sigh, and we all drop to our knees, that black clouds would roll in, eclipse the light.

early on, i told my jewish not-yet husband that story. i’ve told my children. i will watch the sky today.

and while i watch, i will be silent. three hours, noon to three. the hours that, by his hands and feet, Jesus hung on that heavy wooden cross. it is, my mother taught me, the least that we can do.

last night i went to church. my very favorite day of the whole church year is holy thursday. the last supper. the washing of the feet. for two hours, the stream of people, humbled, on their knees, feet naked, washed. i was washed, and i washed. a beautiful mother from kenya, her baby on her hip, washed me. i held her baby on my lap so she could wash, yes, between my toes. i washed her toes too.

it is not hard, when you see an old priest walking barefoot, ferrying pitchers and basins of water and clean white towels, to the blind, the wheelchair-bound, the teenage boy with down’s syndrome, the black, the brown, the pink, to picture Jesus doing the same.

while all the washing was going on, while the long lines of people filled with prayer, stood waiting, waiting to be seated in the chair, to lift their naked feet above the bowl, to have the stream of water poured, then lathered, then poured again, then dried and blessed–no half-baked, symbolic washing here, this was real and hygienic as well as full of spirit–while all the washers waited, i thought about the sins of this sorry world.

there is much to be silent for this good, dark, friday. as i sat ticking through a litany of sins, once again, i found myself informed and borrowing from jewish prayer, from yom kippur, the day of atonement, the holiest of holy days when you’re a jew. and if you listen, if you pray along, it is a deeply holy day even if you’re not.

i find myself, every year, filled with awe at the breath-taking jewish admission of the brokenness of the human condition. they do not tick through mamby-pamby sins. no. they get astonishingly real, and very close to the bone, to home. where my mother, again, always taught me charity begins. i think forgiveness might do well to start there, too.

so, in the spirit of atoning on this day in which it feels so right to be considering our sins, especially the sins of the homefront, that place we spend so much time considering here, i borrow from that same frank baring of the soul, i tap into the confessional vein i have found, and been held by, in the jewish prayers of the mahzor, the prayer book for the days of awe.

on this most christian day of awe, i beat fist to breast, i wrap myself in cloak of silence. i look deep within.

there is much, yes, to be silent for…

the sin of being afraid to speak up–even when it is among neighbors, and you hear or see exclusion.

the sin of shouting, singeing tender hearts of children.

the sin of not opening the door–or closing it in too much of a hurry.

the sin of breaking down the beauty of this world, and not repairing that that you’ve left broken behind you.

the sin of not noticing the hurt right in front of your face.

the sin of asking too much of your children.

the sin of wanting too much.

the sin of believing but not taking action.

the sin of standing back, watching injustice eclipse the truth, and doing not enough.

the sin of saying you’re too busy, but you’re not.

the sin of holding back, not fulfilling all that you can be, for being afraid to manifest the seed of genius that, surely, has long been buried deep inside you.

the sin of leaving someone else to reach out a hand to lift up the poor, clothe the naked, give the extra toys in the basement corner to children without any.

the sin of going along with the crowd.

the sin of thinking you needn’t be the one to feed the forgotten on your block.

the sin of going to sleep another night taking for granted there will be a tomorrow morning.

the sin of sending children off to bed without saying, “i love you.”

the sin of not saying i’m sorry–or not being so.

the sin of not feeding yourself–body or soul.

this might be just the beginning. but for each of these, i am so heartily sorry. Father, forgive me, for i know not what i am doing.

i leave you now in prayerful silence. i leave you to this day that just might darken. i’ll be watching. trust me.

feel free, should it mean something, to cast a sin….

every year, a cast of characters

 

 

every year. count on it. there will be characters. they will be many. they will be deeply, richly, crazily creviced, shadowed, colored.

it is as much the order of the seder as the haggadah itself. the table will spill with character. ooze with it. rumble, tumble, jumble, full of characters.

wafting just above, that’s character no. 1. the tall one, that is.

that’s ted. rebbe ted. the one wrapped in japanese prayer robe, tied with obi. the one raising the first of four glasses of vintage manishewitz. the one we drive miles to be with every pesach.

ted, a rabbi and cantor without a congregation these days, is a therapist; spends his working hours trying to screw on people’s heads, or at least screw them on a little less wobbly than when they first wandered in.

but mostly, always, ted is a character. ted’s eyes, i think, must gleam even when he’s sleeping.

at ted’s seder, things are, um, unorthodox. ted reaches in a bag and pulls out yarmulkes from around the world. sometimes he wears his tibetan temple headdress. he always wears his japanese robe.

at ted’s, you do some chanting. you close your eyes and chant the vowels. you do not close your lips when chanting vowels, he tells you, and thus you assume a posture of openness that ted thinks the world truly deeply needs. you chant deeply, ahhhhhhhhh.

at ted’s, you eat sumptuous french hors d‘oeuvres. (and then you find out, oops, they are not kosher for passover; maybe that’s why they tasted so good.)

i tell you the story of ted because in bringing my children to ted each year i bring them to one of the most essential gifts a parent can give a child: the gift of the one who’d never paint by numbers, the iconoclast, the eccentric, the character. the deep and rich and soul-expanding knowledge that life is splashed with vibrant colors.

one of those colors is the color ted.

it brings unending joy to me to bring my children to tables where i know they will hear voices they do not hear at home. home is where the grounding happens. home is where you learn that the parachute has a safety cord, and you can pull it any time.

other people’s launch pads are where you learn to lift your foot off the ledge, set it in mid-air, and feel the fall, but then the updraft, carrying you, lifting you to places you’d never see from the safety of that concrete ledge.

last night we soared with ted. heard his salty brand of politics. took in his dash of new-age mysticism. felt the gestalt of letting go of that by which we’d been enslaved. watched him raise a yale sweatshirt, oy, to teach a lesson on hebrew light and perfection. (right there, spelled out on yale’s emblem, in hebrew letters, who knew? found out that centuries ago, at the founding of yale, patrician of patrician schools, hebrew was required study. ted, by the way, went to yale.)

tonight we congregate again. at another table of eccentrics. they will be the ones with whom we’ve worked for decades. the ones with whom i’ve “sedered” for 25 years, before husband, before children, and every variation since. a cast of newspaper kooks. my boys, all eyes and ears, will learn much that i won’t teach them.

besides the wine glasses filled with jelly beans (the kinder version of fruit of the vine), the flogging each other with scallions, yes, scallions, the pulling out of little plastic plagues, there is the annual putting of passover lyrics to broadway tunes.

we drive home each year, from nights one and two, with bellies aching. not from all the passover matzo kugel. no, no. from laughing ’til our sides feel split in two.

we are blessed. so very blessed.

all my life, far back as i can remember, i have loved the odd ball. the duck who waddled to his or her own drum beat. at my mid-century mark, i survey the landscape of my life and see i’ve assembled quite some cast of characters.

my almost-man-child told me recently that one of the most lasting lessons he learned from his uncle david was when david spoke of a brilliant friend of his, a friend with phD in sanskrit, a friend who studies global drumming and, for a long while, drove a cab in new york city. david, it seems, told my almost-man-child: “he really is a kook.” and my almost-man-child told me that the way he said it, he knew that uncle david meant that to be a kook is a very noble thing. “that’s how i learned i should never march to other people’s drummers,” said my boy who decidedly does not.

my prayer this pesach, my prayer that already has been heard on high, is that all the children, not just my boys, hear a world of many drummers. and come, as often as they can, to a table that spills with kooks and characters and bold eccentrics, a table, every first-night seder, led by rabbi ted.

who, by the way, i love with all my heart. even if he makes me close my eyes and chant the vowels.

do you collect characters? do you see the beauty in those who color outside the lines? do you, if you have children, or love children, or are a child at heart, seek out tables where you know they–and you–will hear voices unlike the ones they–and you–hear at home?

holy, holy week

in our house, it is the gospel according to matthew, and the seder infused by elie. and this, by the blessing of the calendar, is one of those wham-bam weeks.

we’ve got it all, and weave and flow from exodus to last supper, from parting of red sea to rending of blackened sunless sky. we dash the house of bread, but then bring on the easter baskets.

long long ago, we set our own pesach dispensation for easter sunday. even when it’s in the midst of the eight days of no leavened grains, we part the matzo for a sprinkling of chocolate, for jelly beans, in the easter basket.

i was musing that wednesday is the only day of this whole week not rich in something jewish or catholic, and thus i would need to consult the koran to divine my depth for the day.

it is, very much, a fact that the interlacing of the passion of jesus, a passion set in history at the cusp of passover, and the jewish remembrance of the exile from egypt, is, for me, a rich one.

after 25 years of living them on top of and through each other, i have come to see shadows, understand subtleties that would have escaped me were it not for my being drawn, in love and faith, to a man who is, himself, a son of the tribe of israel.

and so it was that we all, the four of us, two jews, one catholic and one just learning both, walked into a church courtyard yesterday where palms were swaying in the air, the priest’s red robe was billowing–nay, blowing–up and nearly over his head from behind, the winds were whipping so unrelentingly, a red bird’s plumage in flight. the red cloth punctuating the otherwise gray day.

the priest, one i’d known long ago, one who’d grown older and even wiser, and though he’d grown bent, never bent from his focus on that core of what i call dorothy day catholicism that sees peace and justice as the central burning flame of a religion he won’t let go down in flames.

he was in the midst of reading the passion of jesus when he looked up, looked out at the sea of waving palms, and implored the multi-colored crowd: “consider and tend the wounds of the world as if they were your own—-for they are.”

that then, i gulped, is the mission of this week.

i came home, sat down to consider elie wiesel, the nobel-prize winning poet and seer who survived the holocaust and will not, bless him, let us forget.

“i love passover,” he wrote, “because for me it is a cry against indifference, a cry for compassion.”

wiesel wrote those words in perhaps the only autographed book (certainly the only autograph that fills me with awe) on my shelves, “a passover haggadah,” (simon & schuster) his 1993 commentary and guide through the seder, or meal of remembrance, the retelling of the exodus story, that is the centerpiece of passover.

“sometimes the sheer speed of events makes us reel,” wiesel also wrote in the haggadah. “history advances at a dizzying pace. man has conquered space, but not his own heart. have we learned nothing? it seems so. witness the wars that rage all over the globe, the acts of terror that strike down the innocent, the children who are dying of hunger and disease in africa and asia every day. why is there so much hatred in the world? why is there so much indifference to hatred, to suffering, to the anguish of others?”

wiesel asks. the old priest implores.

because i am catholic, because i spent many years on my knees studying the 10-foot-high crucifix that hung before me in the church where i grew up, i don’t even have to close my eyes to see the wounds that i’ve been asked to dab with cool and healing waters.

and so i walk, i stumble, through this most holy week.

what questions do you carry into this blessed string of holy days? what thoughts do you put to those questions? those callings?


p.s. some really fine thoughts–really fine–have been tacked onto meanders in recent days, thanks to the brilliant souls who keep pulling up chairs. bless them! don’t forget to take a look back and keep the conversation flowing. just because we move on to a new meander does not ever mean the case is closed on a meander past. in fact, we might have drummed up a real-live beekeeper to tell us a thing or three about the
heartbreak in the hives….
p.s.s. welcome back from break, all of you who flew away…we held down the fort just fine….

vernal whisperings

if you listen, you can hear the first stirrings of winter loosening its grip. yes, the snow moon, that great white orb that cast its full light on the cold cruel landscape of last night, made it hard to see anything that was not white, or bluish white, a color even colder.

but in fact, and despite the wind chill, this is the day when myth and legend begin their vernal whisperings. there’s the old folktale about the ground hog and his shadow. but that doesn’t much catch my fancy.

what does catch it, locks it in its grip, is something i knew little about. until now. it is the jewish festival of tu b’shevat, the new year of the trees.

it is, it seems, all about vernal whisperings, the first hint of promise that all this, the harsh and the cold and the barren, will soon melt away.

as a woman married to a jew, as a woman who embraces spirit and rite and story and all things of the earth, this little holiday seems made for souls like me.

i had had an inkling that the holiday i had a hard time pronouncing (tu-bish-vat, more or less) had something to do with trees or planting trees. in fact, it is said that this is the day when God decides how bountiful the fruit of each tree will be in the coming year.

in israel, this is when the almond tree awakes from its winter sleep, erupting in clouds of tissue-white flowers, the first blossom of spring.

in ancient times, tu b’shevat marked the day of tithing. it clanged the final bell on the fiscal year. all fruits borne before this day, belonged to the harvest of the last year, and must be divided accordingly, a portion to the poor, a portion to the temple in jerusalem.

all of that was lovely enough.

but then i heard something about a special seder of seven fruits.

and that’s when i knew i needed to dig a little deeper. that’s when i discovered the thinking of the 16th-century jewish mystics.

known as the kabbalists, these deeply spiritual thinkers believed that we elevate ourselves by the eating of certain fruits on tu b’shevat. if done with holy intention, they taught, sparks of light hidden in the fruit could be broken open from their shells, freed to float up to heaven, to the great divine, completing the circle of the renewal of life.

oh my.

they go on, these marvelous mystics. they talk not about seven fruits, but ten. they break them into categories corresponding to four levels of creation. there are the fruits that need no protection, and can be wholly eaten; grapes and figs, among them. there are fruits that require protection but only at the heart; olives, dates and persimmons would be among these. then there are the fruits that need full protection, the pomegranate and avocado, both of which hide inside a leathery shell. the fourth realm, purely spiritual, by definition has no fruits: it’s just pure spirit.

the holiness of each fruit or nut is, according to the kabbalists, the soft edible part, the part you can bite into. the pits or inedible parts were thought to be impure. and the shells were the protection of the holiness. (makes you feel kindly toward that ol’ banana peel, eh?)

reciting blessings–there is a particular line from the torah for each fruit or nut, believe it or not–helps to release the holy spark of life flow trapped within them, the kabbalists believed.

ah, but the act of chewing, they tell us, kicks it all into some sort of spiritual overdrive.

get this: chewing is more powerful than reciting blessings, they believed, because humans have 32 teeth, and that is the precise number of times the word “elohim,” or God, appears in the story of creation.

goodness. it is morsels like that that make it so delicious to dig deep into something of which you once knew so little, but deep in your soul feel so drawn to. it’s the marvelous adventure, open to all of us, of cracking deep into the book of religions other than the one we knew first. it’s the weaving and steeping, the absorbing and unfolding, that i swear enriches the broth.

but back to the fruits, and the part that i think is the absolute swooningest.

along with the fruits of the seder, the kabbalists said there must be four glasses of wine at the meal. you begin, they taught, with a white wine. each glass after that adds more and more red wine, so that each glass deepens in color. the first glass represents the cold whiteness of winter, the next, the pale buds of spring, onto the deep rose of the height of summer, and finally the crimson of the autumn leaves before they fall from the trees.

you needn’t be jewish to want to drop to your knees on that one, the breathtaking progression, the resonance of the fruit of the vine with the rhythms of earth, the unfolding. a whole sensory reminding that the changing of season is a blessing beyond blessing.

and this is a day when we pause, when we listen, for the first stirrings of the deep underground.

abraham joshua heschel, the great 20th-century jewish scholar, writes magnificently of the sanctification of time in judaism. here is one thought to ponder:

“judaism teaches us to be attached to the holiness of time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of the year.”

and so tonight, as i light the shabbat candles, usher in tu b’shevat, a sanctuary i never really knew until now, i will sit down to a feast of the earth’s promise, to fruits and nuts and wine. i will behold the shifting of the seasons, the absolute truth of the returning of life.

yes, now winter is making itself abundantly present. but from the heart of the fruits, will break open great sparks of holiness, wafting toward heaven. from each sip of my ever-blushing wine, the taste of the turning of time.

i will know as i eat and drink that beneath the cold hard snow, the fruits of spring are stirring. are whispering sacred incantations. vernal incantations.

get set, ready, dash…

a page ripped from my to-do list, on this the day when a constellation of holidays converge on one little square of my calendar…

6:02 outa bed, sweetheart.

get oatmeal going, dump in dried fruit.

6:40 get 13-year-old out door to orchestra. our turn for carpool. do not forget toothpick bridge.

treadmill (how ironic).

blog.

latkes out of freezer.

teddy up, fed, dressed.

9:30 leave for hockey. don’t forget bag of chocolates for coach.

rent shin and elbow pads.

wedge feets into skates. lace up. squeeze helmet on head. let loose.

10:00 tedd on ice. re-make grocery list. refine to-dos. call editor.

10:45 strip sweaty hockey player of pads, skates, helmet.

look one more store for latke mix, darn it.

pick up gift cards for junior high teachers.

stop for two loaves holiday bread.

make fruit salad for kwanzaa at kindergarten.

make stewed apples for hanukkah.

finish setting table for hanukkah dinner tonight. don’t forget to let tedd put candles in menorah.

don’t forget to feed tedd.

12:30 drop tedd at school.

try again to file expense report. call computer help desk.

write bike accident essay.

2:30 kwanzaa at kindergarten. don’t forget yam chips, fruit salad, cups, napkins, forks, books. and notecards.

3:15 pick up tedd from school.

3:30 go to shake-shake at physical therapy.

4:10 pick up jelly donuts for hanukkah.

4:30 grate potatoes for latkes.

slice and reheat brisket.

salad ready to go.

check will & homework.

get little christmasy things off coffee table–toddler is coming.

6:30 hanukkah dinner for 12, at long last. hallelujah.

9ish clean up.

tedd to bed.

will to bed.

write teacher christmas letters. stuff gift cards inside.

line-up all gifts for delivery thurs.

make to-do list for thurs.

make fat bowl of popcorn.

do nothing.

don’t even begin to think about christmas eve, and what it’ll take to get there….

because i believe it’s therapeutic to share the madness, feel free to lay your to-do list on the table. i’ve always thought a year’s collected to-do lists, or the amalgamated lists of so many busy people, would make for one fascinating anthropological analysis…we begin here….

it’s brisket weather…

borrowing amply from mr. capote, who in his delicious and utterly memorizable 1956 treasure, “a christmas memory,” tells us of his eccentric sixty-something-year-old cousin who presses her nose to the kitchen window, gauges the novemberness of the outside tableau, and exclaims, “oh my, it’s fruitcake weather!…it’s fruitcake weather! fetch our buggy. help me find my hat.”
and at our house this weekend, i woke up, sniffed my nose in the air, and proclaimed, “it’s brisket weather.” with that i trotted off to the butcher who had cleaved and wrapped seven and a half pounds of pure red steer, laced heavily with adipose. he marked it, mahany, and as he handed over the white-paper-wrapped log, he raised one eyebrow and quizzed, “that jewish?” well, no, mister meat man. but my husband is, my boys are half and half, and we do hanukkah.
the thing about being an irish catholic mother in a jewish-catholic family is that you have no long lineage of recipes you call your own. you have, forgive me for braggin’, something far better than that: an amalgam of adopted jewish mothers and the best of their best. i’ve got ina’s matzo balls, aunt joni’s tips on storing, freezing and reheating latkes, liat’s hamantashcen, audrey’s “tzimmes with potato kugel topping,” that one cut from the los angeles times, now yellowed and long ago scribbled with audrey’s thoughts on how to improve it.
brisket i’ve got in triplicate: susan’s famed brisket, one boasts; sandra’s working-woman’s brisket; and the one i now call my own, brisket from harlene ellin’s mom. now, mind you, i have met harlene ellin’s mom once–at the side of a pool at a 7-year-old’s birthday long long ago, where the meeting was doused liberally in chlorinated pool water. but harlene’s mama and i, once or twice a year, we make brisket together. listening closely as she insists it must be heinz chili sauce, nobody’s else’s. following carefully as she guides me through the rinsing and patting dry of the beef slab.
last night, i leaned heavily on mama ellin. she swears you need 50 to 55 minutes per pound in a 325-degree oven. do the math: that was 6 and a quarter hours. being a good catholic girl, i did what i was told. even though after a while i started doubting the wisdom of all this baking and baking. was i en route to the leatheriest brisket ever served at a hanukkah dinner? as i unearthed said brisket from the oven, well past bedtime, and noted the bayleaves had started to blacken, my knees how they trembled, my calm how it shattered.
quick, i grabbed mark bittman. he tells me how to cook everything. he said nothing about brisket being cooked for a full quarter of a day. i googled brisket. the longest stretch there was five hours, for a five-pound brisket. but i had the motherlode of all briskets. my meat man set me up with 7.5 pounds, for cryin’ out loud. i had no option last night but to stay the course with mama ellin. i did as i was told, vaulted it from roasting pan to refrigerator pan, tucked it in under a taut aluminum blanket, turned out the kitchen lights and hoped for the best.
frankly, my brisket dreams did little to soothe me.
called the butcher first thing this morn. he swears i did the right thing; only he cautions a low long oven is the best route to brisket heaven. he goes overnight at 200 degrees. has brisket by the mound for breakfast, he does. maybe i should have turned down the heat.
all i know now is it smelled a bit like heaven around here for six-plus hours on sunday, all chili sauce, red wine, cloves and those bay leaves. i wasn’t about to lower the burn on that celestial scent.
we had 12 coming for brisket tonight, but little tedd has a fever of 103. so, for now, me and my brisket we are on hold. we are whispering prayers, jewish and catholic, for fork-tender, melt-in-your-mouth, mind-if-i-help-myself-to-more. dinner is rescheduled for wednesday. we’ll let you know if our brisket prayers they are answered.
here’s how harlene ellin’s mama and i go at it, year after year:

Brisket
3 pounds first-cut brisket (these things a Catholic girl must learn, who knew from first-, second- or even third-cut?)
1 C. Heinz chili sauce
½ C. brown sugar
¼ C. dry red wine
¼ C. water
1 small or medium onion, sliced
3 cloves, whole
6 black peppercorns, whole
3 bay leaves

Rinse brisket and pat dry with paper towels. In a small bowl combine chili sauce, brown sugar, wine and water. Mix well. Pour ¼ of chili sauce mixture into a roasting pan. Place brisket on sauce, fat side up. Place onions, cloves, peppercorns and bay leaves evenly over brisket. Top with remaining chili sauce mixture.

Cover roasting pan tightly. Bake brisket in preheated 325 degree oven for 50 to 55 minutes per pound, or until meat is fork tender. Remove meat from pan and place it in a container. Remove bay leaves, peppercorns and cloves from gravy, and put gravy in a container. Refrigerate meat and gravy for several hours or overnight.

To reheat brisket, slice against grain to desired thickness and place in covered casserole dish sprayed with cooking oil spray. Remove and discard any congealed fat from gravy. Pour the gravy over meat. Cover and reheat in a 375 degree oven for 30 minutes or until heated through. (Brisket can be reheated in microwave.)

Serves 6

feel free to add your brisket thoughts to this melt-in-your-mouth conversation….