By Andree Aelion Brooks
I am standing at my white kitchen counter feeding sticky ingredients into a food mixer: clumps of dates, walnut pieces from a cellophane packet, slices of Granny Smith apples, teaspoons of honey, clouds of cinnamon, splashes of orange juice.
At my side is a handwritten recipe, scribbled on a curled sheet of lined and yellowed paper, torn from the kind of exercise book reminiscent of a first grade primer. My grandmother originally brought that recipe with her from Salonika in northern Greece over a hundred years ago.
Even though it wasn’t written down for years afterwards, it became as much of a family heirloom as the hand driven Singer sewing machine she also brought along. Finally, just two years ago, it was painstakingly committed to paper by her daughter, my 85-year-old aunt, even though her hand was already shaking from Parkinson’s.
It would never have been acceptable for a commercial cookbook because it makes assumptions about the reader’s knowledge that we avoid today measuring ingredients in “pinches” or “boxes” instead of more clearly definable ounces or cups. I have personally learned to overcome this flaw by using the taste test; a taste that, when it’s right, sends me hurtling back fifty years.
“Charoset de Pasech” is the title of this particular recipe, using an equally homemade approach towards spelling that could imply poor French or Ladino with a touch of transliterated Hebrew – the combination folk language of Sephardim from a region that today embraces not only northern Greece but parts of Turkey and the Balkan republics too.
Our particular charoset, which symbolizes the bitterness of the Israelite suffering in Egypt, is only one of a number of traditions that a handful of us struggle to maintain as a touchstone to a fading past, though our rational brain knows that most of these special foods, rituals and even the language itself may die out with us – its final generation.
While our group of Jews remained in a variety of Mediterranean lands, following the expulsion from Spain and Portugal at the end of the 15th century, much that had been borne out of a hostile Iberian Peninsula remained intact; the ballards our ancestors had sung, the Moorish dishes they had cooked, the language they spoke along with their Spanish sounding family names.
It was the second scattering, early in the 20th century, that dealt the death blow to that culture. We became too small to regroup in meaningful numbers in this country as the Eastern European Jews have done. How many times in recent years have I had to explain that we are not artifacts from dusty history books. A few of us are still around, still following traditions already being taught as if they were extinct.
We are doubtless not alone. This has surely happened to countless other “niche” minorities over the centuries, for whom the melting pot became more like a lethal brew. Thus for me, this kitchen moment – a prelude to our broader Passover celebrations that will begin just days from now – stirs a mixture of added sort. A churning of emotions that course through my veins each and every time I repeat the process: recipe as ritual, cooking as comfort, struggling in its death-defying dance to bind me to a continuum that helps validate my place and my identity even though the link grows weaker by the year.
So it is as a source of comfort that I conjure up the sight of my nona, my grandmother, at her ceramic mixing bowl, doing what I am doing as if she were standing right next to me right now. She would probably look astonished to see me mixing and stirring by hand just the way she did.
For I was never particularly interested in such “old fashioned” pursuits, that is, before I became a grandmother too.
We have to grow older, I fear, so old in fact that our own grandparents are no longer with us, before the urgency to pick up these traditions take over. While our parents or grandparents are still around we never quite grow up. These tasks, these rituals, remain in their safekeeping, as though it would be presumptuous of us to even try our younger hand.
Yet that is misguided. For by the time they do leave us, at least in this era of longer, more vigorous life spans, it may be too late for us to pick up the challenge. When they are no longer around the void is not so easy to fill. Who will remind us of the right way to sing their Ladino songs, I ponder as I grate and stir, when the language itself becomes extinct? Who will take the time or have patience to stand and chop dates the way it should be done, roll the meatballs with rice, roast the eggs overnight with coffee to make the all important “huevos haminados.”
Why could I not have instilled such practices in my own children when they were young enough to want to learn? It’s certainly not an integral part of the adult life of my overworked, state official of a daughter; nor my techie son, immersed as he is in his business. But wait a minute. Didn’t I feel just as detached when I was their age? Is there a chance, then, that they too will change, as I am doing? Or do I kid myself?
Perhaps, just perhaps, it will instead be my two granddaughters who will care, viewing such practices as “historic” because they have become so rare; much the way my four-year-old granddaughter looked wide eyed with curiosity a few years ago as I took a piece of fabric and showed her that clothes were actually “sewn.”
Perhaps that hope is not too far-fetched. As early as the 1930’s, the sociologist, Marcus Lee Hansen, identified what has become known as “third generation syndrome.” Such children look beyond their parents’ attitudes, which might have been watered down by the strong desire for assimilation, to the religion or practices of their grandparents or great-grandparents which once again take on significance as precious ethnic traditions.
Better to believe it will happen, in order to enjoy this quiet moment in my sun-dappled kitchen.
This piece was first published in the online edition of Hadassah Magazine for Passover 2013.
Andrée Aelion Brooks is an award-winning author, journalist and lecturer, specializing in Jewish history topics. Formerly a contributing columnist for the New York Times, she is an associate fellow at Yale University and a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger. She is a resident of Westport.