A port in a storm.
A bowl of something so warm and hearty, that when you taste it you forget what you were thinking. Your mind goes blank. It’s like meditation, your mind is completely quiet.
You forget where you are. You escape into memory. I am on my parent’s back porch in Boston. We are surrounded by friends and family. The colors are brilliant reds and yellows of autumn in New England, and cornstalks and cranberries hang from the sky. It’s cold enough for sweaters and hot cider in our Sukkah. Everyone is huddled together, there are hugs and kisses and casual arms slung around cousins, hair ruffles of young children, hands held.
And big bowls of my mother’s stuffed cabbage rolls.
I open my eyes, and I am back here, barefoot in someone else’s kitchen. In a house, I don’t own. Cooking Shabbat in someone else’s pot. In this season of temporary structures, we are suddenly in a temporary house. The floor has literally been taken out from under me and so I’m in someone else’s kitchen, surrounded by photos of strangers, trying to make it feel like home for the chaggim. Our family home is unexpectedly in need of major repairs, and so we are staying at an Airbnb across the city. I haven’t been in my own home in months.
I wish I could be back on Mom’s back porch, overflowing with family and friends, no masks, no fear, no political unrest. Presidents come and go, peacefully we hope. Seasons change. Vaccines will eventually come. The problems we had a year ago or two years ago become quaint memories given the enormity of what our country is facing, and how we must find ways to cope. This is a time of incredible pain, this season of joy has been spiritually empty for so many, has been filled with grief, and cruelty, and deep uncertainty.
In the face of this uncertainty and pain, the rituals and structure of Jewish life become even more important. Friends write to me that they haven’t uttered a single blessing since Hebrew School, but are suddenly doing Shabbat with their family. An old roommate tells me he is baking challah every week with his kids. Turns out, our ancestors were on to something. They faced unimaginable suffering - poverty, violence, hunger, and deep instability - they found comfort and joy and sustenance in Jewish life. We can find comfort and home in Jewish ritual as well. I find inspiration in the fact that, even in a moment where we are suffering, they would find my life remarkably lavish and liberated. Sukkot celebrates the temporariness and fragility of life with the Sukkah, but some things remain eternal. The comfort and joy of Jewish life is sustaining and nourishing in the darkest of seasons. A bowl of stuffed cabbage in a beautiful Sukkah chase away fear and tells us that we are going to be okay.
Every year I say I am not making it. That it’s too time-consuming. That I’m too busy. Every year my husband nods and smiles, knowing that I will. It’s just not Sukkot without meltingly tender cabbage, filled with oniony meat and surrounded by dried fruit in sweet and sour broth. This year, like many, I have struggled with holiday time. It is difficult to be joyous. My husband built me a sukkah on the back patio with a special touch from home. He drove across the city to find cornstalk schach, just like at my childhood home, because he knew it would make me happy, make everything feel less temporary. It’s not the fantasy of my memory sukkah. Times are not so simple and we cannot so casually gather. But I can still look up through the corn stalks and see the stars and eat a big warm bowl of holishkes with my family. Suddenly, I feel rooted in something permanent.
Ellen Pildis’s Holishkes ( Stuffed Cabbage)
This recipe is really, really Ashkenazi American. it has big Bubbie vibes, with some really 50s flourishes like pareve gingersnaps. When my Mom gave it to me, she warned me it was very strange, but completely perfect. It’s not something easy, so I like to break it up, stuff the cabbage the night before. The good news is once it’s cooking, you’re free for four hours, so you have plenty of time to get other things prepared. It is lovely with rice or plain.
2 large heads of cabbage (you will end up setting aside the smaller inner leaves)
2 pounds ground meat
½ grated onion
1 30 ounce can of diced tomato tomatoes
½ - ¾ cup dark brown sugar (add in the first ½ cup initially, and while cooking if you feel it needs more sugar, add up to another ¼ cup)
½ - ¾ cup golden raisins
6 ginger snaps, crushed
Juice from 1 lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
Prunes (My mom wrote to your liking, my liking includes about two cups of prunes)
Small amount of water (for covering stuffed cabbage)
Tablespoon of onion powder
Hold the cabbage upright so that it’s sitting on the stem. Core the cabbage and cut out the thick veins at the bottom. Repeat for the second cabbage. Slice inner leaves and set aside.
Place the cabbage in a large bowl. Boil a few cups of water (an electric kettle is best here), and pour the water over the cabbage. Let it soak in hot water for 15 minutes until you can peel off the leaves and they feel soft enough for rolling. Cool until easy to handle. Separate the leaves.
While you wait for the cabbage to be ready, prepare the stuffing/ Mix the meat, grated onion, 2 eggs and tablespoon of onion powder. Don’t overwork, loosely incorporate. This is a good thing to do while watching television on your phone.
Place a small amount of meat, about palm-sized, loosely into your hand and shape gently so it is long and thick and will fit in the cabbage. Place that into cabbage leaf and roll like a cigar. Place in a large deep plot and pack tightly - this helps keep them together. Continue until you have no more meat. Cover the cabbage with a small amount of water.
Add brown sugar, prunes, cookies, lemon juice and tomatoes on top. Cover and bring to a boil.
Simmer for 3 hours. Check every hour for seasoning (sometimes I add more brown sugar if it’s too tart, or more lemon if it’s not tart enough. It should be both sweet and sour. After 3 hours, place in the oven and bake at 325 for another hour. If you don’t have a pot that easily transfers from stove, you can do it all on the stovetop.
Your house will smell amazing. Eat under the stars.