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Life Lessons Learned #1 – It’s All About the Stuffing

It was the fall of 1979. I was a foreign exchange student in what was then still the Soviet Union, in a city that was then called Leningrad. I was twenty-five years old and far too naïve for my age. I had landed in Leningrad in August, in the after-glow of summer. And my memory is one of a place that was a riot of greens and blues and gold: the parks and trees bursting with foliage, the canal waters shimmering as they flowed beneath a myriad of bridges, the gold domes of  buildings ablaze with the kiss of the sun’s rays dancing on their surface. It was a unique moment in history to be permitted to be there, and I was entranced by this beautiful old city, the lovers strolling along its avenues, the street vendors hawking kvass (a strange home-made brew of bread-y beer) and a sense that my personal destiny was going to take a significantly magical turn.

But as September receded into October, the cold and gray of autumn seeped into the air. By mid-October, fall was more like incipient winter, with frigid temperatures, daylight squeezed into a mere four hours between 11 and 3, and stalactite-icicles dangling from frozen bare tree branches. More than that, though, I came to feel what it was like to live in a totalitarian state, when you had to watch every word you said lest you be reported to the KGB, where the bare essentials necessary to live were difficult to come by for the average citizen, and the future held no promise of any change.  People’s souls were drained, as all energy was focused on obtaining food, clothing, shelter, warmth. They would duck out of the office during the day for hours, searching endlessly for staples, joining any line being formed outside a store because something – it didn’t matter what – was being sold. And it was sure to be something “defitsit”, since everything was deficit. The crumbling facades of buildings housed apartments that were carved up into communal living arrangements, several families living in one apartment. I remember buying fruit, coffee, lemons (!) in the dollar stores reserved for foreigners, so that I could give them to my Russian friends.

And so, November slid its way in, and the American exchange students started to think about Thanksgiving. We figured it would be a dinner of tinned sardines, boiled potatoes and bread. But by the grace and kindness of the American consulate, we were invited to Thanksgiving dinner at a dacha somewhere north, outside the city, along the Gulf of Finland.

And this is what I remember of that glorious dinner – an amazing house in the country, covered in snow, its interior alive with color. A fireplace with a roaring fire to warm the very marrow of our chilled bones. And a table laden with, groaning under, the weight of a surplus of food – turkey, wine, vegetables. And, yes – best of all – stuffing. Gelatinous, cornbread, gooey, pre-artisanal, gut-filling Stovetop stuffing. A reminder of home. We sat down together, to eat, and I truly gave thanks that year – for I understood what it meant to be lucky enough to have been born, to grow up, in a society that is a liberal democracy.

Fast forward to May, 1980, a week before I was to return home. I was in a car with two other American students, being driven by a Russian friend. Suddenly, we were surrounded by three government cars, sirens blaring. We stopped and were immediately surrounded by men who dragged us out of the car, separated us from our Russian friend, forced us into one of their cars and drove us to an unmarked building. We were taken to a basement room, no windows, a desk, two chairs. These were pre-cellphone days. We had no means of notifying anyone that we had been taken. We had no way of knowing where we were. No one would know where we had been taken, by whom, why. Our demands to call the consulate were met with smirks and laughs. We had no idea why we had been taken and were terrified for the safety of our Russian friend. This sudden loss of liberty, this assault on the self, the sense of powerlessness – I remember what a gut-wrenching sucker-punch shock it was. Once they started to question us, it became apparent that they thought we were smuggling icons – which we weren’t. And after a few hours, they let us go – out onto the street, just like that, to figure out where we were and how to get back to our dormitory. Our friend was also released. But I will never forget the faces of these Soviet men, how they laughed at their unfettered power over others, their arrogance as they mocked the concept of liberty. This is what happens when there is no redress to the rule of law. This onslaught to one’s sense of dignity – this is what the defenseless feel. We must recognize it, whenever and wherever it rears its head, and we must fight it.

So, yes. There once was a place called Leningrad, circa 1979. This construct of Leningrad is a place and time that lives within my memory. I see it in my mind’s eye. Over the decades since, it has changed its name. It has seen the expansion and contraction of economic, social and political opportunities and freedoms. Other cities, towns and countries like it have seen borders redrawn and names changed, mainly through conflict and wars – all driven by some primal instinct of territoriality and misplaced allegiances to tribe or beliefs. But are we not more than the hunter-gatherers we once were? Does not the existence of music, art, literature, speak of something greater, something intangible that resides within us – a soul perhaps? We are human beings, capable of kindness, love, empathy. We have the ability to dream, to ponder creation. To feel wonder. We should, in the end, be able to rise above divisions we have constructed out of air.

So as we approach Thanksgiving, and we sit down to the table with family and friends, let us remember that we are each but one small breath in the living organism that is humanity. Be kind to all outside your door as you dig into that stuffing.

Stuffing Recipe

Who am I kidding – get a box of Stovetop stuffing and follow the recipe on the carton.

Travels with J

            Another beer, he asks.

            Sure, I reply.

            He gets up to go to the bar for refills. We are sitting at a table in a dimly lit brewpub. It is packed with young twenty-somethings enjoying their summer in Prague, feasting on all the sensory delights the city has to offer. I am wedged into a corner, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible.

            He’s back with our glasses, slides mine over. What’s up?

            I feel ridiculous, I say. I am thirty years older than any individual here and so grateful for the atmospheric semi-darkness.

            Age is just a number, he responds. And just like that, his mouth slides into the sardonic, lop-sided grin he knows is irresistible to women, his mother included.

I look at this man-child and am filled with wonder. His face is now all hard angles, framed by long brown curls. He is coaxing a beard into existence – its soft, fine hairs haven’t decided which way to grow. His hazel eyes are clear, coolly appraising his surroundings. Always a bit aloof to social situations, yet still enjoying them. My twenty-nine year old son. On the cusp of the rest of his life.

            I squeeze his forearm. That is all the PDA I am allowed these days.

            So, what about that girl you were dating, I ask.

            Awkward segue, Mom.

            Can’t blame me for trying. So?

            He thinks and I wait. He continues. So. There are three types of women: those we like, those who we are liked by, and those we probably can never have. I tend to give into my impulses for the last category, realizing it is an insane lunacy.

            Ouch.

            He smiles. But, Mom, only unfulfilled love can be romantic.

            Oh, my son, I think to myself, you are in for a world of hurt.

*

            Are you okay? I dimly hear him.

            I try to say yes, but my mouth doesn’t work – I am white-knuckling the edge of my passenger seat with both hands in this sleek super-powered BMW we rented. We are barreling down the autobahn in Germany, hitting 90 mph, somewhere between Munich and Berlin. I can’t be sure – my eyes are squeezed shut.

            I open them and check on J. He is relaxed, smiling broadly, both hands on the wheel, clearly enjoying the sensation of speed on the open road. The closest to pure joy than I have ever seen him. Me, I’m sweating.

            It’s not that I don’t trust him, his skills, his judgment. It’s just that I am risk-averse when it comes to sport – I don’t skydive, rock-climb or ski downhill. I don’t have confidence in my physical abilities. Life choices, on the other hand, are a different matter. There isn’t a bad decision I have not made – leaving a comfortable profession mid-career to chase after several questionable occupational dreams. 

            J is the opposite. He loves the thrill of any new adventure but carefully plots the course of his professional path. His dreams, his destiny – he measures these out. He has plans, which he constantly tweaks, but his goals are clear – a master’s degree by this date, a certain amount of success at that age, good money along the way, more trips to take, perhaps a wife to wed. Iterations on a theme. He doesn’t divulge the specifics but shares the broad strokes with me at times. He is excited at the possibilities that life holds in store. Perhaps a little bit scared of failure. That he doesn’t talk about so much.

            But, for the present, he is in control of this vehicle, a heady moment, flying towards our next destination. And he is happy.

*

We are almost comatose in the shade of the Great Pyramid of Giza, languidly swatting away flies, ignoring the pleas of vendors, attempting to restore our bodies to some semblance of life in the blazing glare of the sun.

            Over two million blocks of stone, he reads.

            However did they build it, I ponder.

            With blood, sweat and tears, no doubt, he answers. Ramps? Aliens? Human ingenuity? All this to honor a king and lay him to rest.

            A grand tomb. 

            Or a resting place between two worlds.

            You think?

            He shrugs. Maybe we make the best of this world and shouldn’t worry about the next. Our actions here speak more to how we are remembered, as opposed to any grave marker. 

            How would you like to be remembered?

            He leans back against the stones, thinks. That I brought a measure of justice to the world. Only then can there be peace.

            Noble aspiration, son of mine, I jest.

            He laughs. Well, he says, would you rather erase the presence of someone who was never there?

            Suddenly, I am chilled.

*

Fireworks explode above our heads. We are jammed along the waterfront with thousands of other spectators, looking up at the sky over Melbourne. It is swathed in color and light. The shouts of the crowd and the boom of the show mesh into a seamless roar. I look at my son and my heart mirrors the tumult of sound and light above us. The love I feel for him is all encompassing, awesome in the joy it brings yet terrifying in its accompanying vulnerability.  

I look at the couples surrounding us, arms around each other, kissing. I have had my share of the highs and lows of romantic love – will he call, did he mean this when he said that, is he the one, am I settling, are we getting married? All that pales in comparison to the feeling you have when you first hold your child in your hands. Your heart expands like a rubber-band – infinite, endless, limitless. You glimpse the soul of this being you have created and are humbled. And you enter into an unspoken covenant to protect this pure spirit.

After that comes the sheer joy of watching this child grow. Each moment of his life is a marvel – watching him score that first goal and the little happy dance that accompanied it; his hand in yours as you walk him to his first day of school; his eyes searching for you in a crowd, his relief when he finds you; sharing his triumphs in school; enjoying his circle of friends; encouraging his semester abroad and being there when he calls for encouragement to see it through. Watching him as he develops into a caring, sensitive person. Anticipating his future happiness. It is the purest kind of love I have ever experienced.

The heavens light up with another burst of fireworks.

This is great, he says, as we edge closer together.

            Yes, I whisper, it is.

*

We are wandering the streets of Beijing, two specks of flotsam and jetsam among the city’s thousands, trying to decipher street signs as we search for a restaurant we absolutely needed to eat at.

Let’s go right, he says.

Are you sure? According to the map –

He gives me the look.

In a submerged groove in my brain, where rational thinking resides, I am aware of the fact that he has taken two years of Mandarin in college, that he is much better at navigating than I am, and that, if need be, he could actually ask someone for directions. I understand all that, and still, I feel the urge to control the situation. I am, after all, the mother here.

Also – he is stubborn and I am hungry – not a good mix.

Why don’t we, I begin again –

Mom, please, I know what to do.

I think we should ask someone – we seem to be lost.

That’s when he pops out the grin.

We aren’t lost. I know where you are and you know where I am.

And just like that, the tension breaks. 

I gaze at this impossibly wise young man in astonishment – where did he come from?

*

These are the conversations I imagine having with my son. As it is, I travel the world keenly feeling the stillness of the empty chair beside me. He is gone, so I am left carrying him with me wherever I go – his heart beating inside mine.

            Loss of a child – a lesson my mother never wanted me to learn.

On This Fourth of July – A Moment to Reflect

Libertas was the Roman goddess of liberty. She was often portrayed with a pileus on her head, a felt cap worn by freed slaves in Rome. The goddess Libertas served as the inspiration for 18thand 19thcentury representations as an allegorical symbol for freedom in an ideal system of governance. She is on the Great Seal of France, created in 1848. She was on the “heads” side of American coins well into the 20thcentury.

And she served as the inspiration for Frederic-Auguste Bartholde as he designed his statue, Liberty Enlightening the World– our Statue of Liberty. In her left hand, Bartholde placed a tabula ansata (an allegory for the rule of law) with an inscription of the date of the U.S. Declaration of Independence in roman numerals. It associates the date of our Declaration of Independence with the concept of liberty. In her right hand is a torch, held above her head, representing progress. A broken shackle and chain lay at her feet as she walks forward, in commemoration of the abolition of slavery. Instead of the pileus, Bartholde placed a crown on her head – its seven rays evoking the sun, the seven seas and the seven continents. The crown, along with the torch, were the means by which Liberty enlightened the world.

The Statue was a gift from the people of France to the people of the United States – a memorial to the nation’s independence as well as to the abolition of slavery. Placed on what was at the time called Bedloe’s Island, since renamed Liberty Island, the statue was dedicated on October 28, 1886. All ships arriving in New York had to sail past this personification of the best values inherent in our nation. Meanwhile, nearby on Eliis Island, an immigration processing station was established on January 1, 1892   Twelve million immigrants passed through its halls while it was open – from 1892 to 1954 – my parents being among those seeking new life, new hope, on these shores. In 1903, a bronze tablet bearing the text of Emma Lazarus’s poem, “The New Colossus”, written in 1883, was mounted inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. The poem had originally been written to raise money for the construction of the Statue’s pedestal.

Emma Lazarus’s poem contains these famous, poignant words: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” These words were inscribed on our Lady of Enlightenment, a Lady perpetually gazing out on ships filled with immigrants on their way to Ellis Island, her outstretched arm promising protection, an icon of compassion for these newcomers.

My parents sailed into N.Y. harbor on the USS Eisenhower in 1950, turning their backs on the horror and conflagration that was World War II and the Nazi scourge, eyes forward, focussed on a future they hoped would be filled with new beginnings, new life. In due course, they became citizens, voted, worked hard, paid taxes, contributed to social security – became a productive component in the fabric of this society.

Recently, we have heard reports and seen photos of the squalid conditions at migrant centers along the southern border of this country. Reports describe standing-room only cells, detainees without showers and hot meals, and children caged like animals. What kind of society allows this? What has become of our moral compass? While I, as the daughter of concentration camp survivors, do not use the term concentration camp lightly, these conditions certainly rise to the level of what I would call detention camps. This is not now human beings should be treated – this is not what our country is about – this is not who we, as compassionate beings, are. Is it?

The Statute of Liberty is a symbol of enlightenment. Have we not evolved beyond the brutes we once were? Is there not a torch within each of us, an inner light of empathy that echoes the compassion our Lady Liberty evokes? How can we stand by silently and allow fundamental rights, for which the founders of this country fought, be denied fellow beings?

As a child of survivors, these images of people herded into cages in sub-human conditions – in our country, in this time – are incomprehensible, unfathomable. We must find a voice for those who are voiceless and powerless. We must never allow the light within us, within these individuals, the light held by Liberty, to be extinguished.

************************************************************************

For your family-style  July 4thbarbecue, a recipe for Ranger cookies, a large, hearty cookie containing rolled oats and coconut.

Ranger Cookies

Cream:

2 cups butter

2 cups sugar

2 cups brown sugar

Add, keep creaming:

6 eggs

Add, keep creaming:

2 teaspoons vanilla

4 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

4 cups oats

4 cups corn flakes

1 pound 8 ounces chopped milk chocolate

2 cups sweetened coconut

Bake at 350 degrees for 10-15 minutes.

On This Father’s Day

He sits in a chair on the balcony of his Miami Beach condo, watching the sun set over the bay. The evening’s shadows nestle within the folds of his worn face, a face that has borne witness to the passage of time, cataclysmic events, loss and, yes, some joy. He is silent as he sits back, closes his eyes and remembers.

The town in Poland, where he was born, in 1908. His father owned a leather shop, a family affair. He was the next-to-oldest in a family of four sons and one daughter. After finishing the sixth grade, he had to leave school and join his father in the business. His first regret, as he keenly felt the lack of further education. To compensate, he became a master craftsman, taking great pride in his work, producing the best in handbags, wallets, saddles and belts.

As the days progressed, so did he. Success came, and with it, a business reputation and a shop of his own. He married and had a daughter.

With Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, everything changed. The first Jewish ghetto in Poland was created in his town. Thousands of Jew were crammed into a small sector of the town, with the specter of daily “selections” and deportations a constant fear. The Germans had need of his leather goods, so his shop and his family were spared. He was able to use his good fortune to save countless individuals by telling the Germans he needed more staff and by hiding people in his back rooms. 

Until the fall of 1943, with the liquidation of the ghetto and a final deportation of all its remaining inhabitants. All herded into railroad cars headed to a concentration camp, Blizyn. 

He survived, driven by the hope that his wife and daughter might be alive, that he might still be reunited with them. To avoid getting ill, he would scrub snow over his frail body in an attempt to stay clean. Sent from camp to camp, he somehow managed to stay alive, to be liberated by the Americans in 1945. By that time, though, he had contracted tuberculosis. Weary and sick, he was sent to a displaced persons camp to recover. While there, he counted the dead in his family – among them, his wife and child.

That was where he met my mother, a nurse in the DP camp. They had grown up in the same town, and so had known each other in the general way that Jews knew each other in the town. She and her two small sons had hidden in his shop in the ghetto until the final deportation. She had survived the camps, but her boys and her husband were gone. These two were dead souls who found a small measure of comfort with each other. And so, they married, a daughter was born, and they were granted entry to the U.S. as refugees.

They arrived in 1950 and struggled to make a life together. They started a cafeteria and catering business, a grueling livelihood. A second daughter was born. The mother woke up early each day to do the cooking at work, so, as the girls grew older, the father was the one who woke the girls up for school, braided their hair, prepared their lunches. This was in the 1950s – before it was fashionable for men to do so.

And as his two daughters grew, his goal was for them to have the education he was denied. And more – that they have a career, a profession, be respected, be self-sufficient, and, so, never suffer as he had. The daughters grew up believing they could do anything, strive for everything, and, hopefully, in doing so, save the world from itself.

He had a strict moral code. He was painfully honest in his business dealings, often to his own detriment. He witnessed so many cultural and societal changes during his lifetime – and tried to understand them. His daughters would make mistakes, as children do, and this confounded him. Until he eventually learned to accept and not judge.

So he sits in his chair and dreams of the future his daughters and their children will have. 

***

A man is the sum of his actions. My father endured man’s depravity but never became depraved. A quiet man, his conduct spoke volumes. My father was a hero. On this Father’s Day, I remember and salute him. And wish for my children to emulate him.

Most of all – how can I forget his mile-high sandwiches he prepared for my school lunch? God forbid I should ever go hungry.

Mendel’s Pastrami Sandwich

Two thick slices of rye bread

Mustard

Half-pound of the best pastrami

Sour pickle on the side.

.

On This Mother’s Day

As a young child, I search your face for clues as to the state of your happiness that day. It is instinctive – my sense of calm, peace and joy is entwined with yours. So I am keenly attuned to each flicker of your eyes, every shadow that crosses over your features, your nuanced smile. If you are sad, so am I. If you are content, I relax. If you are sad, I try to rescue you. If you experience joy, I am ecstatic – even more so if I am the cause of that joy.

As an adolescent, I chafe under your constant worry, irrationally angered by your concern over my welfare. We slide apart as I no longer confide to you. Although you seem to know everything without my saying a word.

As a foolish young woman, I disregard your advice because I, of course, think I know better. I will not make any mistakes in my life path. So, of course, I plunge headlong into many.

As an adult, I am astonished at the perspicacity and wisdom you tried to share with me. Too late to tell you how wonderful you are. Your innate good sense, multiplied by the breadth of your experiences, provided a fountainhead of integrity in its approach to life. I should have listened more.

As a mother myself, I am amazed at your perseverance and courage in the love you provided your children. Your limitless capacity to love again and to keep loving, no matter the tragedies you had to endure. 

Now that I am no longer anyone’s child, I treasure your love. Our time together was all too fleeting. I miss our calls, I miss your badgering me, and I miss your arms holding me tight. Your sneaking cookies into my bunk at summer camp. Your leaving me your lipstick when you left for a long visit to family, so I had something of you to hold onto. Your preparing a late-night snack for me as I pored over my textbooks, preparing for an exam the next day. Your holding my children, drinking in their presence, promising them to be their shield, their armor, their sanctuary.

A mother’s love – all-encompassing, forgiving, non-judgmental. A respite, a refuge. A gift.

We all need to be loved. 

So, on this Mother’s Day, I share with you an easy, quick recipe that will get the serotonins flowing, reminding you of happiness, well-being and the love of moms.

Coconut haystacks

Toasted shredded coconut. 

8 oz to 1 pound chocolate

Preheat oven to 325 to toast coconut. Microwave the chocolate until melted, stirring.  Mix the coconut into the melted chocolate, to taste. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Using a small teaspoon, drop small spoonfuls of the mixture onto the sheet. Refrigerate until chocolate is set, about 30 minutes.

Of Ties That Bind

Spring brings with it the celebration of Easter and Passover. Interesting to note that the observance of both holidays involve the egg in some fashion: whether it is rolling or decorating it (Easter) or placing it on the Seder plate and then ingesting it (hard-boiled, dipped in salt water – Passover). The egg was originally associated with pagan festivals honoring the advent of spring, symbolizing fertility and new life. For those who celebrate Easter, the egg represents resurrection. In Jewish tradition, its rounded shape symbolizes the cycle of life – birth, death and rebirth. In each, the overarching concept is one of hope and renewal – an affirmation of life in all its potential, a prayer for the future.

I watched with sadness this week as Notre Dame’s spire, engulfed in flames, imploded and toppled. Notre-Dame de Paris (Our Lady of Paris), a medieval Catholic church, is a majestic icon, representing the history of a nation and the faith of its people, a structure that had managed to survive centuries of conflict and war. Considered one of the finest examples of French gothic architecture, its construction spanned almost two hundred years, a testament to mankind’s fortitude. Its flying buttresses and intricate sculptural decorations explode with the imagination and exuberant spirit that lie within us. Human creativity, love and devotion unshackled.

Which brings me to one of the many stories my mother told me through the years, of her experiences during World War II.

It was 1943. Five women were chosen to cook and clean for German soldiers stationed in the Blizyn concentration camp. Some of the women had come from the death camp Maidanik, others were part of the final deportations from the ghettos. They shared a room in the building that housed the German soldiers. They had been chosen because they were young and still healthy. Having survived an initial selection, they did not know whether their husbands, children, fiancées, siblings or parents had survived. When they could, they would take scraps of food from the kitchen to share amongst themselves, to stave off starvation. They would comfort each other through their sadness and fear, talking through the night. A year passed this way. In 1944, as the Russians approached Poland, the Germans closed Blizyn and the women were sent to Auschwitz. There, they stood in line as Mengele made his selection. The oldest of the five was sent to one side as the other four were directed to another line. The four were sent to Hindenberg and worked in a factory that manufactured bombs. These were 10-hour days, carrying 100-pouind objects, living on a ration of thin soup and a morsel of bread. Mengele would come every two weeks to inspect the group. One day, they found two potatoes. Carefully, stealthily, at night, they cooked the potatoes in a small fire. The German woman in charge of their barracks discovered them and two of the group were sent to Mengele and punished with 25 lashes with a leather whip. My mother, one of the two, became sick and was sent to a tent for the sick. One night, the other three women came to get her. They had heard the camp was closing, as the Russians were approaching. She was to be ready to leave with them in the morning.

It was called the “march of death”. In the middle of winter, 300 inmates of Hindenberg walked 10 kilometers a day, without water, without food, without stopping, clad in wooden clogs and the thin rags they had worn for years. If someone paused for breath, they were shot. My mother described walking along a path littered with the dead. At night, they rested in barns. After five days, my mother told the other three she could no longer go on. She would stay in this barn and was ready to die. The others refused to leave her behind. Rose took a piece of string and bound her wrist to my mother’s. The next day, and the days after that, Rose dragged my mother beside her, the string binding them together, sharing her rations with my mother, until they reached Nordhausen. There, they were put on a train to Bergen-Belsen. The train had no roof. They stood for days, herded into the cars like cattle. No food, no water – only the flakes of snow they caught in their mouths. They knew Bergen-Belsen, a death camp, whose inmates starved to death, would be their last stop. My mother contracted typhus there. But Rose kept bringing her soup. Miraculously, they were able to survive until April 15, when the camp was liberated by the English army. Without a doubt – my mother survived due to the care and devotion shown by her “concentration camp sisters”, because of Rose and her string.

As we approach this weekend where we observe the rituals of hope and renewal, let us think of the diaphanous threads of love, friendship and community that bind us together. This fragile net envelops the individual to create a supportive societal network. Together, we build flying buttresses and spires that scrape the sky. As we sit down to the table surrounded by our family and friends, let us remember that there is an innate humanity that resides in each of us. Let us put aside old quarrels and create anew from the ashes of fear and hate. Let’s celebrate our ingenuity and creativity. Let us renew.

A staple of the Passover Seder is “charoset”, a mixture of diced apple, nuts, honey and red wine. It symbolizes the mortar that bound the bricks used in building ancient Eqypt’s structures. While it is meant to remind us of the suffering imposed on the slaves forced to labor, let us transform its significance for the future – as a symbol of our drive to construct, create, begin anew. As we roll our eggs or eat our eggs, let us celebrate life.

In my mother’s fashion, I have included the ingredients for charoset. It is yours to make, to taste.

Charoset

Diced apples

Toasted chopped walnuts

Sweet red wine

Honey

Cinnamon

Lemon juice

Toss together and eat, preferably on matzoh.

Thanksgiving, Leningrad and the Northern Lights

Have you ever had a transcendent moment – a momentary pause in the rush of day, a hush imposed on the noise of living, a stillness that pervaded your surroundings so that you could hear the beating of your heart?

I had such a moment, nearly forty years ago.

If you live long enough, you’ll find that the world’s geography changes before your eyes. The boundaries of nation-states morph, disappear, and then are resurrected onto the same parcel of land with a new name. Alternatively, lands are sliced and diced according to some random plan by those temporarily in power. Cities are renamed according to the caprice of time or the ruling regime or passions of its inhabitants. You can never be sure what town you will wake up in, even when you are sleeping in your own bed.

So it was that in the fall of 1979 I found myself in a country called the U.S.S.R., living in a city called Leningrad. After graduating law school I accepted a two-year fellowship, studying what was euphemistically called “Soviet” law. It necessitated spending ten months in Leningrad and Moscow. My mother, having fled Poland after World War II, considered herself fortunate in having escaped a Communist regime. She was perplexed as to why I would willingly subject myself to living in one. Being wise, she knew what life would be like over there. Being naïve, I could only see adventure and mystery awaiting me as I lifted the drapery and slipped behind the Iron Curtain. What awaited me was something totally different. 

I and a small group of American exchange students arrived in Leningrad in late August of 1979. It was a beautiful time of year to descend upon a city with historic buildings, some with golden domes that would glow when kissed by sunlight. There were bridges crossing the canals dissecting the city, reminding one of Venice. We settled into our dormitory rooms that we shared with Soviet roommates. For the first few weeks, we were overwhelmed with the classic beauty of the city’s museums and broad avenues, with its workers’ cafeterias and kvass (home-brewed beer) vendors on the corners. It took us awhile to see behind the façade and understand the reality of this society, the scarcity of food and essential goods and services, as well as the lack of privacy and freedom of thought that its populace labored under. Big brother watched every move its citizens made and each word uttered or written.

Realizing we were being spied on, we learned the tricks of evasion so that our conversations would not be listened to and our activity would not be tracked. A mellow September turned into an October colder than I was accustomed to. Produce available in Soviet stores consisted of bread, potatoes, condensed milk and canned fish. Fresh fruit and vegetables became a dream of the past, as did any kind of meat.  Being ever vigilant against surveillance or eavesdropping took its toll. Shadows lengthened as daylight hours shortened. Lines haphazardly grew at random storefronts as rumors spread of Czech shoes here or Polish sausage there. My initial enthusiasm wore off as I witnessed the constant strain and struggle endemic in living in this country.

It was November. Icicles hung from bare tree branches. The weather was relentlessly gray and cold. I was homesick. My mother sent care packages filled with toilet paper and laundry detergent, kind enough not to say “I told you so” in her letters. With the prospect of seven more months to go in this mirthless place, I acknowledged, ruefully, that my mother was, once again, right.

Thanksgiving was approaching. We were trying to figure out how to make potatoes taste like turkey, when, unexpectedly, the staff at the American consulate invited us to join them for a real Thanksgiving dinner to be held at a dacha two hours north of the city.

The dacha was a former summer palace of a long-dead Russian noble, so it was resplendent in an old-Europe, slightly decaying opulent sort-of-way. The furniture in the spacious rooms and the art decorating the walls were a cornucopia of color welcome to the eye after months of bleak grey. The dinner table was laden with real turkey, edible vegetables (more color!), sweet potatoes (but this kind of potato was alright) and pumpkin pies. Sitting down to the table, in a grand salon, we gorged ourselves on healthy food and good wine, able to engage in spirited discussion freely without fear of being watched. We were served coffee and brandy – so very sophisticated.

And then we were invited out to the terrace to “see something special”. We piled out onto this grand stone precipice, overlooking the inky waters of the Gulf of Finland. No lights, no sound other than the raspy intake of our own breath. “Look up”, they said, and we did.

And there, strewn across the sky, was a shimmering curtain of green, purple and red jeweled lights. The aurora borealis. I was transported at the sheer grandeur of this spectacle, a mere glimpse of the mysteries yet to be unveiled by this universe we inhabit. It was awe-inspiring, terrifying, hinting at forces greater than those of earth-bound mortals, whispering of beauty and peace, a majesty attainable if only we stood still and listened to the harmonies of the heavens.

And for a moment, I was bestowed the gift of grace.

And now for a divinely indulgent dessert:

Cranberry-Chocolate Tart

Pastry

1 C flour

1 T sugar

1 t baking powder

¼ t salt

4 oz unsalted butter

2 T water

350 degrees. In food processor combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. V\Cut in butter until mixture resembles small peas. Stir in water and combine into ball. Chill 30 minutes then roll out to fill an 8 inch pie plate. Chill.

Filling

4 oz. bittersweet chocolate

¼ C butter

1 C corn syrup

¼ C sugar

3 eggs

2 T orange liquer

Grated zest of 1 orange

Pinch cinnamon

4 oz. cranberries

Melt chocolate and butter over low heat. In separate pot combine corn syrup and sugar and bring to a boil. Remove from heat. Set aside. Beat eggs, liquer, orange zest and cinnamon in a large bowl. Stir in chocolate mixture and corn syrup. Pour into crust. Sprinkle cranberries in a single layer over chocolate mixture.

Bake for 40-50 minutes or until pastry is cooked and pie is set. The cranberries will split.