Growing up, I always looked forward to the Jewish holidays, even though my family was not very religious. Those were pretty much the only times we had real food in our house.
During the holidays, my mom and I would cook together to recreate my grandmother’s classic old-world recipes — chicken soup, brisket, salmon patties and sweet potato latkes were a few of our favorites.
After my family moved to Manhattan from Chicago when I was nine years old for my dad’s life-changing job as an international creative director, my maternal grandmother, Beauty, would send me a recipe card every week with a $20 bill.
“If we cook the same dish at the same time, we will always feel connected,” Beauty would say.
While my mother normally had an aversion to spending time in the kitchen, she enjoyed the holiday preparations and loved filling our home with guests, food, entertainment and music. My parents always had an exotic group of friends. My mother said most people looked at the religious days as holy days, but she looked at them as a festive gathering. Anyone who did not have plans was invited, religious or not.
We had an interesting cast of regulars who always attended our holiday soirées, but there was very little religious ceremony. There was Joyce, the numerologist, who would tell all of us at the party, including me, our destiny for the year to come. (She did this by totaling the numbers in our names.) Tandy, the psychic, would channel spirits and would often bring a Ouija board in case there were loved ones who had passed during the year with whom we wanted to make peace. Michael, a member of the Actors Studio, would give historical speeches on the Old Testament, even though he was not Jewish. And, of course, there was my little sister April and me. I would proudly serve my homemade creations, and April would play the piano while everyone would sit cross-legged on my parents’ Persian rug blurting out original lyrics to her rhythms.
It was only when I was invited to spend a holiday weekend with my best 5th-grade friend that I realized how unusual my family’s holidays really were. During dinner, classical music played softly in the background, and the table was set with fine linen and gold-rimmed plates. Before we ate, we held hands and my friend’s dad made a prayer in Hebrew over the wine and challah bread. I loved how her father spoke, as he explained the meaning of each ritual. The blowing of the shofar, the throwing of bread in the water, the dipping of the apples in the honey, and the reason we would soon be fasting for Yom Kippur.
When I told my mom about my wonderful weekend, she said it reminded her of her own holidays growing up. She remembered how my grandmother Beauty would iron the tablecloth, polish the silverware, grate the potatoes for the latkes by hand, and debate for weeks whether to make a sweet kugel with raisins or a savory kugel with broccoli.
She remembered how Beauty would hold her hand as they stirred and tested the chicken soup with her big wooden spoon that hung over the stove, and how my grandfather Papa would get so excited when he walked in the door and smelled all of the food. My mom’s face softened as she spoke, and I began to cry.
I was not sure why I cried. I am not sure if I cried because my mother seemed so different at that moment, or if I cried because I wanted her to hold my hand and love cooking with me as much as my grandmother did with her. I wanted my mom to understand the things that were so important to me, and I wanted her to nurture me in a way that maybe she couldn’t.
But it was the beginning of a the Jewish New Year; so instead of wanting my mom to be someone other than who she was, I passed her one of Beauty’s recipe cards before we both recited in unison her famous words, “ You know you can find your heritage in a bowl of chicken soup!”
Dawn Lerman is a nutritionist, founder of Magnificent Mommies, and bestselling author of “My Fat Dad: A Memoir of Food, Love and Family, With Recipes.” Follow her on Twitter, @dawnlerman