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Category: pesach

blessed interweaving: jesuit girl with jewish soul

brisket making

a few months ago, i decided it was time to find out once and for all if a speck of me was jewish. i had convinced myself i was. how else to explain the profound holiness i find inside the nooks and crannies of all things jewish — the prayers, the writings, the blessing of the candles and the challah every friday night at our old maple table? most of all, the sanctification of time. of turning of the earth and all that glimmers under heaven’s dome?

turns out, there’s not an iota of jewish DNA inside me. alas. but i decided to sit myself down — at that very maple table — string together a few sentences, and bravely knock on the window of America Magazine, the great national jesuit review. i happen to come from a long line of jesuit-schooled folk: my papa, my uncles, my brothers, my very own self. in the catholic world in which i grew up, all things jesuit were spoken of in hushed and reverential tones. their intellect, most of all. anyway, America Magazine decided to green light my little essay, to post it online and run it in the print pages, too. because the world we live in now demands that a writer “share” her work on the few social media sites that might draw one or two more eyes to the equation, some of you might have seen my posting on facebook (a rare return) or twitter. but not all of you — and certainly not my mama nor my beloved mother-in-law (whose birthday is this weekend!) — so for you, i’m posting here, direct from the pages of America Magazine. 

(next week in this old house we’ll be weaving passion week and passover once again, and i’ll be deep in matzo balls and easter baskets, so the timing is especially fitting. here tis (i’d titled the essay something along the lines of “The Jewishness That Stirs My Soul,” the America editors wrote their own headline)):

How Jewish spirituality enriches my Catholic faith

By Barbara Mahany

I propped myself against the kitchen sink not too long ago and spit into a clear plastic test tube the size of my pinkie finger. I spit and spit and spit, following directions to be sure I would sufficiently trap my DNA. Once the accumulated spit crossed the “fill to here” line, I gave my test tube an emphatic shake (again, precisely as told) and popped the whole shebang in the pre-labeled shipping box. Post haste, I motored to the drive-by mail chute in my little town, tossed my parcel into the open maw of the postal box, sat back and awaited revelation. 

Over the years, I’d had a hunch that grew and grew, and I was submitting my hunch to science. Any day now, I figured, the friendly folks at DNA Central would lift the lid on what I had decided must be a long-kept ancestral secret. Surely, I must be some percentage Jewish. At least some fraction of a fractional percent. 

That chromosomal uncovering might shed light on just why it is that I—a girl schooled by the Sisters of Loretto and a phalanx of Jesuits, a girl with a rosary for every occasion—had found, all these years later, my sense of the divine so animated by the sacred Jewish lens of wonder and wisdom. All encompassing, it is one intricately tied to the turning of the earth, the sun, the moon, the shifting of the stars stitched in heaven’s dome. 

It is as if the ancient call to Hebrew prayer has reached out across the millennia and awakened all my senses. I am stirred by the command to whisper a blessing at the unfurling of a rainbow, at the first blossom of the almond tree. I am stirred by the command to scan the night sky till I spy the first three evening stars, and only then kindle the Havdalah candle, pass the spice box and recite the prayers that draw the Sabbath to a hushed and blessed close. 

I had convinced myself that deep in my DNA there must be buried some short link confirming my genetic claim to Jewish soulful lineage, aside and apart from my nearly three decades entwined in a Jewish-Catholic marriage. 

Alas, there is not. Not one strand of Jewishness to my Irish-Catholic name, not Ashkenazi, not Sephardic. How then to explain the soul-deep burrowing into the nooks and crannies of Jewish spirituality for this lifelong post-Vatican II Catholic? 

Sure, I had married an observant Jew some 28 years before. And we had raised our two boys the only way we knew: immersed in both their Judaism and their Catholicism; first Communion and Bar Mitzvahs for both, with priests and rabbis all along the way. 

Our older son, in first grade at the time, once exclaimed that interfaith Sunday school, where the curriculum taught all things Jewish and Catholic, was not enough; he wanted more, more fluency in each of his religions. So we signed him up for CCD and Hebrew school, as well as Jewish-Catholic school, and Sunday mornings meant an eight-mile dash down Chicago’s Dan Ryan Expressway, from Old St. Pat’s in the West Loop to the Hyde Park synagogue where he learned his alefbet and all his Hebrew prayers. (That child, now a 25- year-old at Yale Law School, has trained his legal sights on the intersection—no surprise—of law and religion.) 

My own trek into the Jewish interior began with Shabbat, the holiest of Jewish holy days, one God offers at sundown every Friday, when we are commanded to kindle lights, bless bread and wine and, most of all, put down toil for the sacred arc of 25 hours, sunset to sunset plus a smidge for holy measure. The practice of slowing time, slipping into timelessness amid the cacophony of the modern-day world, is one that literally stopped me and, from the start, stirred a deeper soulful hunger. 

It was not long after our wedding under the cathedral of oaks in my mother’s garden, when I was but a young unpracticed bride, that I set our first Shabbat table, tentatively placing amid the dinner plates two Israeli candlesticks, a kiddush cup for wine and a braided loaf of challah (which I would learn to bake over time, at the side of a Holocaust survivor who became my Shabbas friend). A rite at once domestic and sacramental, Shabbat became for me a tucked-away cloister of anointed time. 

It is God whispering, I like to think. God cocking a finger, calling us home, each and every one of us. Come, be where it is still. Put time on pause. Savor this moment, this holy stretch of hours, savor each and every sense, savor and embrace the ones you love. And so, around the globe, as Friday’s sun slips from the sky, as our world dips into darkness, there is, house by house, table by table, the kindling of sacred illumination. 

At my house, I hear the whisper early each Friday. Over the years, I have tiptoed into the kitchen at dawn to begin the alchemy of yeast and flour that becomes the challah. Awaiting its pillowy rise, I crack into the cookbooks of my various adopted Jewish mothers, peruse the spiral-bound recipes of temple sisterhoods from around the country (Bella Abzug’s Matzo Balls, among my clippings). My kitchen ministrations usher in the quietude, the prayerfulness, that has become my coveted weekly office. By the time I have set the table, ferried plates to the dining room, pulled out chairs for whoever has shown up (our Shabbat tables have often been populated by an eclectic roster of professors and scribes), I am, curiously, the Catholic who finds “church” in the holiest of the Jewish holy days. 

Time and again in synagogue, on Friday nights or during the long hours of the High Holy Days, I find my soul soaring as the cantor lifts his voice in the minor-key call to prayer, as my husband beside me bends his knees, bows from his waist, wraps himself in his prayer 

shawl. The rhythms of the Hebrew prayer, even when the words escape me, tap the sacred within. I perk my ears to the still small voice that calls us, each and all. Sh’ma Yisrael, “Hear, O Israel,” begins the holiest of all the prayers. And my soul listens. 

That blessed once-a-week Sabbath interlude—and an urge to know more, to follow some sacred cord—led me into the Jewish bookshelf, where I discovered, among others, no finer poet of Shabbat than Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote: “Judaism is a religion of time, aiming at the sanctification of time. Unlike the space-minded man to whom time is unvaried, iterative, homogenous, to whom all hours are alike, qualitiless, empty shells, the Bible senses the diversified character of time. There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.” 

Heschel only whetted my appetite for deeper and more nuanced reading—even of the Torah. I explored such sacred instruction as the one for the harvest festival of Sukkot when, through the roof of the sukkah (a temporary shelter built for the eight-day celebration), we are commanded to be able to see the stars in the heavens. Or the Talmudic teaching to recite 100 blessings every day, a call to attention if ever there was. Inscribed in Jewish text, there is a blessing for hearing thunder, another one for when you see a shooting star. 

It is this ancient, agrarian-rooted call to see God’s wonder all around that I find woven into Jewish spirituality, and it is now an inseparable thread of my own, though I remain Catholic as ever. 

Perhaps it is the echo of ancestral Celtic spirituality or the Ignatian instruction to see God in all things, that pulsing sense that every moment of the day is a vessel of the holy. According to Celt or Jesuit or Jew, all we need do to anoint that holiness, to make it evident, unmistakable, is to bless it with our attention. And our simple prayer. 

In a word, it is “hierophany,” the place where secular and sacred meet, a “manifestation of the sacred,” a belief that dates back to ancient Greece. What stirs me most about Jewish hierophany is that it is infused with the astonishments of the cosmos, a core belief that creation is God’s first best text. Or in the words of Psalm 19, verse 1: “The heavens are telling the glory of God / and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” 

It is this understanding that even before the Word, God gave us the litany of Genesis. And if we read closely the book of nature, if we surrender to the rhythms of season unfolding into season, if we allow ourselves to startle at the nascent vernal shoots, the newborn green pushing through the thawing crust of winter’s end, if we heed the mournful cry of geese in chevron streaking autumn sky, hold ourselves rapt when first snowflakes fall, if we witness the hand of God in the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of wonder, we cannot help but feel ourselves cradled in the outstretched palm of the one who breathed and birthed it all. 

And so it is, in the particular and timeless attention Jews pay to the turning of earth and heaven’s dome, in the liminal hours of dawn and dusk and depth of night, hours the Jews consider the holiest of holy, that I find myself wrapped in the most sacred prayer shawl, one I had never known was mine. 

But now, it deeply is. Even if my DNA claims otherwise.

as published in America Magazine, April 9, 2019

on the soulful journey that is your own, have you been surprised by where you’ve found epiphanies and hallelujahs?

p.s. happy blessed birthday, VPK, and ellabellabeautiful, too!

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