More than a decade ago, my husband and I took our sons to Israel to visit my husband’s first cousin, Ziggy, his wife Siggy, and their four kids. They lived on a moshav an hour south of Tel Aviv that grew grapes and every day while we were there, Ziggy, Siggy and their kids took us through the sunny fields, and urged us to pluck the sweet fruit right off the vine.
We became grape junkies — so addicted to their sugar that we almost started to twitch if a couple hours went by and we hadn’t wandered into the fields or the kitchen to grab a few. The only day we didn’t pick grapes was Shabbat. Ziggy and Siggy were observant Jews, so on Saturday, we put away our devices and sat down for lunch together at the large kitchen table. Siggy served a delicious pan of shakshuka, and we settled in for a long, slow day of napping in the hot August sun on the porch, playing with the feral cats who roamed the moshav, and (admittedly) looking forward to sundown so we could check our email. It was bliss.
None of it came naturally to me.
I was not raised to be particularly religious, nor to want to be.
Though my maternal grandparents lived for 70-plus years in a Brooklyn neighborhood that was predominantly Hasidic, they were not observant.
Grandpa Sam had been raised Orthodox, spoke Yiddish and had tallit hidden away in the top drawer of his dresser, but he and Grandma Miriam never went to synagogue. Grandma made boiled ham with cloves and once inadvertently served pork chops to her in-laws, who made a surprise Friday-night visit (Grandma let them think the chops were veal.)
My mother went on to become a great cook, skilled at preparing pork chops, spare ribs, prosciutto and shrimp. We rarely went to synagogue, never mind observing Shabbat. My parents once asked me if I wanted a bat mitzvah. I said no, and the discussion ended. We were not allowed to wear Jewish stars or a “chai” as jewelry, and went to a prep school in New Jersey where many of the kids belonged to anti-Semitic swim clubs and summered in shore towns that were not friendly to Jews.
After my parents divorced, my mother entered a long marriage to a man who was Irish Catholic and took my kids on Easter-egg hunts and to Christmas tea with Santa Claus. When my grandmother entered assisted living, she deliberately chose a place that was not “too Jewish.”
Despite all this ambivalence about Jewish observance, my parents urged my brother and me not to marry outside the faith. And we didn’t. In fact, we both married people from observant families.
My husband’s father, Eli, was born as his parents and older brother were fleeing Germany in 1939. Eli’s mother went into labor on the train they were taking to France. They eventually settled in New Jersey, and kept a kosher home. Eli’s brother, Edgar, made aliyah in the 1950’s and it was Edgar’s middle son, Ziggy, we visited on the moshav.
After the lovely Shabbat we spent in Israel, I swore we would observe the weekly day of rest back home in New Jersey. We did light candles and eat challah, but almost immediately, resumed our practice of going out for pizza on Friday nights, and taking the kids to ice hockey and tennis practice on Saturdays afternoons.
In theory, I wanted to observe Shabbat. In reality, I had no trouble driving anywhere on a Saturday.
And we were anything but kosher. I kept harissa-spiced pork patties in the freezer, made meatloaf with pork, veal and beef, and thought nothing of cooking shrimp risotto and serving jamon iberico with wine and cheese when we had company.
Then, Covid-19 entered our lives. Our sons returned home from boarding school and college. Like everybody else in the world, we suddenly had vast tracts of time and no social obligations. We went for long walks in the late afternoons and noticed the magnolia trees and forsythia bushes. We sat on the patio and drank hot coffee.
I made iterations on roast chicken (chicken with rosemary, chicken with almond milk, chicken with mustard, cilantro and jalapeno peppers). Our dinners were slow and leisurely. We even lit the candles on Shabbat.
One week ago, my friend Julie sent out a recipe for her Grandma Estie’s cholent. It called for short ribs, marrow bones, pinto beans, wheat berries, russet potatoes, garlic, onions and eight to 10 eggs, and six or seven hours of cooking time. This cholent was an all-day project and would require an extended trip to Whole Foods. Prior to Covid-19, I would have smiled at the recipe and skipped it. But what else did I have to do? I grabbed my face mask and went grocery shopping.
I made the cholent on Shabbat. All day long, the house smelled delicious, of heat and meat and fried onions and roasting garlic. As the cholent simmered, my family and I sat around talking, reading, dozing, and waiting for it to finish. For the next week, we nibbled away at it, heating it up in the microwave, mixing it with roasted sweet potatoes and cold cucumber salad, chatting and milling about the kitchen. Between the cholent and the pandemic, the noshing and napping, every day felt like Shabbat. It was delightful.
In these days of forced family togetherness, I find myself craving these ancient rituals of observance and food prep, and my kids and husband are open to it. That said, I have harissa-spiced pork patties in the freezer and plan to make them next week. Some things you can’t give up.