CHANUKAH EDITION SECTION E PAGE 23
Between last Passover, when I shared with you about my beloved Bubbie’s egg lukshn that she fried, rolled like a cigar, and sliced into the thinnest of ribbons, and this Chanukah, sadly we lost her.
Almost a centenarian, she died in August and I miss her terribly.
Like those lukshn, many other foods, especially the heimish or Hungarian classics, are linked with my Bubbie. Latkes are one of them, too.
For my Bubbie, cooking wasn’t some last minute thing one quickly did just to cross it off the list, be it for oneself or for entertaining. There were “cooking days,” whole day affairs, that sometimes began as early as five o’clock in the morning.
I’m not sure when she did it all, between her work full time as a seamstress and later, when she “retired,” her compassionate volunteering in New York hospitals full time (for which she was formally recognized by the mayor of New York City as “volunteer of the year”); and her saintly prayer schedule, with her unique prayers sung word for word, out loud, in a cadence, with a niggun, all her own that I have never quite heard anyone else ever utter.
I’m not sure when she made all those delectable foods she plied us with — all made from scratch, of course. She must have had a magical clock that ticked more than 24 hours a day.
The truth is, she worked hard. Very hard. And she had the hands to show for it. For her, hands were not some aesthetic feature to be pampered and manicured, but a pair of tools to be labored with. And that is the story her hands told. In one look at her slightly but permanently raised knuckles, her hand in permanent C position, they looked poised to play a piano concerto.
Yet, you knew in one look, those weren’t piano hands, but labor hands. Hands that had sewn countless elegant dresses, or maybe just fixed simple hems, hands that rolled many a blintz or kneaded many a buttery yeast cheese Danish (delkelech, as she called them in her sing-song Hungarian).
Hands that in 1939 had to wave goodbye to her family forever.
I would walk through a darkening gloomy Brooklyn street lit up by a muted lamp here or there on the way to her apartment, but as soon as I entered the front porch to her house there was a spring in my step. I bounded up the steep, winding accordion staircase leading to her second floor entrance.
Even before I entered her humble but tasteful European apartment, complete with a foyer and formal parlor that I used to love reading about in childhood books, there was the aromatic stairwell leaving my mouth watering.
I loved entering her apartment, cozy in its warm steaminess coming off a variety of pots holding a melange of satisfying foods, braising for hours — “gedempfte,” as my Bubbie would say.
Although she would start cooking early in the day, methodically making each dish by hand, there was never the sense of it being a whole production in any dramatic sort of way. She would fry up mounds of latkes without breaking a sweat. Yes, along with her decadent Hungarian Purim pastries, stuffed cabbage, fried cauliflower or shlishkes — and a million other of her “maychals” — latkes were up there too.
Yes, as the years were passing and she was getting older, and as the oil did its spattering, she probably scalded her skin quite a bit, she might have audibly krechtzt here and there, and her baby soft Hungarian skin turned pink from the heat, but all in all, to her it wasn’t a big deal.
With no peeler or other kitchen gadgets to be seen, it was all done by hand. Except for her trusty four panel mesh wire box grater, I’m not sure she had any other kitchen appliances or utensils beyond the basics such as knives, a teapot, etc.
From that little box grater, my Bubbie cranked out the best braisel (breadcrumbs) from homemade challah, the tenderest nockerlach (petite egg dumplings) — often she didn’t even use the grater for these, just a simple spoon to drop the batter into the boiling broth — and the laciest potato shreds folded into the crispiest of latkes.
Within minutes, she would have a three to five pound bag of russets completely peeled by knife, her dexterity remarkable, seen in her index finger moving up and down at what seemed like the speed of lightening.
I used to marvel watching my Bubbie peel fruits or vegetables. But as she got older, and it was clearly harder, sometimes I silently contemplated suggesting the merits of a vegetable peeler. Of course, I wouldn’t have deigned to actually verbalize that sentiment. Without ever being told explicitly, by observation alone I imbibed what you comment on to a Hungarian Bubbie about cooking methods, and what you keep your mouth shut about.
Especially at holiday times, each of us carries an invisible memory cloak that swaths us, woven from so many treasured moments. Chanukah holds those memories too.
There are many such memories and moments woven within my cloak. Growing up in the mini-circular neighborhood of Sanhedria Murchevet in Jerusalem, venturing out of doors, bundled up to light the Chanukah candelabra that was shined to a perfect patina in honor of the day, now encased by a matte copper and glass receptacle that stood on a stool in front of our building . . . running back upstairs to Juliette our dear French Moroccan neighbor to catch a taste of Casablanca in her freshly deep fried and plush sfeenj showered with powdery confectionary sugar, and then playing dreidel for grushim and lirot and asimonim (the now all but forgotten public telephone coinage), on the stone floor of our apartment, shouting with glee for gimmels.
We lived in Israel. My Bubbie lived in Brooklyn. There was a time or two, or maybe even three, that she visited us at Chanukah time in Jerusalem and in Denver, when I tasted her perfectly onion-y golden burnished latkes in childhood.
But mostly it became a part of my Chanukah once I moved to New York for college, then graduate school, then work.
You see, when you associate certain foods with the loving nurturing ways of a grandmother — and not just any grandmother but a grandmother who escaped the Holocaust, her family murdered, yet so valiantly strong at a young age that she internalized with crystalline clarity the purpose of her survival: to transmit Judaism within her family to future generations; despite the paralyzing pain, despite it all, to emit those prayer cadences, a soundtrack for a family; again and again to take out that frying pan, grater, onions and potatoes, and fry up batches of latkes (and so much more), transmitting an essence, making a tactile contact and connection of joy and memory of her ancestors and of holiday memories past, then becoming ours, literally her voice and hands serving as bridge from a world now gone — when it’s those latkes, it really doesn’t matter at what age an association begins.
Without Bubbie, the gap is great.
It leaves a hollow so empty, you can hear an echo as you take out the grater, frying pan, potatoes and oil, to begin frying up your batch of latkes.
Of course, my Bubbie hadn’t fried latkes for the past few years. But it’s not until that first time when she actually is gone that you are nostalgic for her “maychals” in the same way.
Somehow, somewhere, I hope my Bubbie will know I am noshing on a latke thinking of her. Then, and always.
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