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The Golem

I think about my parents and the fear they endured in 1939 to 1945, the years they lived within the walls of the ghetto established in what had once been their home, their town, and the ensuing time spent in several concentration camps, struggling to stay alive, not knowing if their family members were alive, each breath dependent upon the demonic caprice of their captors. After they were liberated from the camps, at the end of World War II, they learned that their respective spouses and children had not survived. The same for parents, siblings, cousins – all gone; the list went on and was interminable. 

IN 1945, they found themselves in a displaced persons camp in Germany with nowhere to go. There was no town, no home, no property left. Twenty-six thousand Jews from their town had died. Very few decided to return. They were unwelcome, their apartments occupied by strangers who had moved in when the Jews were deported. They were unwanted by those back “home” – where could they go? Where were they “wanted”?

My parents were fortunate enough to be admitted into the U.S. as refugees. I won the lottery by being born here and, so, able to experience the freedom and opportunities available to this country’s citizens – a gift I never take for granted.

But what about those who sought entrance to this and other countries in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, who understood the danger that was sweeping across Europe, who desperately sought life elsewhere? Doors swung shut as nations turned their backs on these innocents, actions stemming from fear as well. Fear that arose from the discomfort of living with “others”, from the anticipation that they would have to share with “others” s=and so have less for themselves. After all, they whispered to themselves in a kind of self-justified stupor, perhaps these asylum seekers, these refugees were exaggerating the perils approaching?

A story comes to mind – that of the “Golem”, a creature that was created in the Middle Ages to protect the Jews against a hostile community.

Actually, “golem” is a term used in the Bible as well as Talmudic literature. It refers to an embryonic, incomplete substance, i.e. Adam until God breathed life into him. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that by participating in an act of creating a golem, one became close to God. So it was written that one could create a creature from a substance such as clay and bring it to life by affixing a combination of letters in the form of a sacred word onto its forehead or on a piece of paper that was then placed in its mouth. For example, by writing the name of God, or, alternatively, the Hebrew letters aleph, mem and tav on its forehead – the word meaning “emet” or “truth” – the creature would come to life. By erasing the aleph, you were left with mem and tav – the word for “death”. The creature would then collapse. 

The creature would serve its creator by doing tasks assigned to it. The most well-known story involving this creature (other than Mary Shelley’s take on it with her tale of Frankenstein) is the Golem of Prague, circa 1580. Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel made a golem out of clay in order to protect his community and help out by performing physical labor. Eventually, the golem flew into a rage and ran amok, threatening innocent lives. The Rabbi erased the name of God on its forehead, rendering the golem lifeless. 

The pervasive theme running throughout the golem stories is that, while created with good intentions, the golem inevitably takes on a life of its own, becomes uncontrollable and, in the end, must be destroyed.

The golem mirrors the fears and anxieties of a populace. It is a means of protection against a perceived threat that eventually morphs into a threat of its own.

And so we come to the infamous “wall” to be built across the southern border of our country. Isn’t this wall a form of a golem, a barrier of clay built to protect against a perceived threat of “others” (immigrants) who will diminish our supply of goodies? 

Doesn’t this barrier fly in the face of the tenets upon which this country was built? Is this not a nation founded by immigrants looking for a better, safer life? Do we not need a refuge in a world of humans who too readily inflict pain on one another? I understand Americans ask whether we should be our brother’s keeper. But, if not us, then who?

Think about the imagery of the hedge of thorns described in the fairy tales we read growing up. This barricade sprouts up due to a spell cast by an evil spirit and surrounds a palace whose inhabitants are either asleep or held captive. With every year, the hedge grows higher until it engulfs the palace so there is nothing left to be seen. It takes an individual of courage to hack through the brambles and free or awaken the occupants within.

This wall, this golem, will take on a life of its own. It will become a barrier to compassion and informed judgment. It will consume our air and sunlight. It will eventually become this country’s coffin. This was not the intent of those who built this nation. We are no longer living in the middle ages – we should no longer need to create a golem against imagined menaces. What we need is enlightened discourse.

And, of course, in these troubled times, we need comfort food – and what can be better than my mother’s recipe for noodle kugel.

Noodle Kugel

½ cup cooked noodles

4 eggs 

1 stick margarine

1 can crushed pineapples

2 apples (diced)

½ cup sugar

¼ tsp salt

1 tsp vanilla

Raisins (to taste)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a deep baking dish. Cook noodles per directions. Drain the noodles. Place margarine in a bowl and add the hot noodles, allowing the margarine to melt. In another bowl, whisk eggs, sugar and vanilla.  Pour mixture on top of noodles and mix. Add raisins, pineapple, apples and salt and mix again. Pour noodle mixture into greased dish and bake for 40-50 minutes or until just golden on top.

Touché

Invariably, in drama or comedy series I have recently watched, there have been episodes in which one character, at some point, said to another “touché”.

Who talks like that? In daily conversation? Even if trying to be clever and impress the person with whom we are conversing, who thinks of that particular word? Touché? I can honestly say I have never used it once, in all my years of indulging in communication with another human being. Is this a writer’s idea of being urbane? I vote for it being a lazy author’s way of trying to appear worldly. Only, when every other writer is using the same expression, it is no longer a mark of distinction or sophistication.

The definition for this word: acknowledgment, during a discussion, of a good or clever point made at one’s expense by another person. In connection with fencing, it is an acknowledgment of a hit by an opponent. It comes from French; its literal meaning is “touched’.

So, it is a witty response to being outwitted. And it is being overused by those trying to be witty. But it got me to thinking…

My parents were immigrants who arrived in this country in 1950 without two cents in their pockets. With a small child in hand and no knowledge of English, they rented a small place in the Bronx and immediately looked for work. As with most working-class families in New York at the time, both my father and mother had to find jobs. Families such as ours did not possess the luxury of having a stay-at-home parent. My father worked days at a factory and my mother worked night-time shifts as a nurse. By the time I was born, they had started a restaurant and catering business, which meant they worked 24/7. My sister and I grew up in that restaurant. My earliest memories are of helping out, whether at the sink washing dishes or creating a make-shift coat check for the catered parties. 

The role model I grew up with was that of a working mother, a woman who could lift a fifty-pound bag of potatoes and carry it down a flight of stairs, who could roast 200 chicken quarters in a massive oven without blinking an eye, yet who would pick up a book every chance she could to learn English, and was ravishing when dressed to go out in one of the rare occasions when she was an invited guest at a function. Because she never questioned her strength or determination to support her family, I never did. It was a given.

While my mother left early in the morning to pop those chickens into the oven, my father stayed behind to get my sister and I up and off to school. I remember his braiding my unruly hair and preparing these incredibly thick sandwiches for lunch (no child of his would ever go hungry). I never questioned the roles my parents played. It seemed natural, inevitable. The model I saw in families around me. This was the norm.

This notion was further reinforced in the turmoil and exhilaration of the 1960’s and 1970’s, as women strove to break through cultural prejudices, attempting to penetrate male bastions in the workplace, at colleges and graduate schools and in politics. Women were smart and strong enough to want it all – economic equality, societal respect, family and children. It was all possible.

I believed and I achieved. Graduated law school and started a career. Got married and had children. Worked full-time: by the way, there was no maternity leave back then – accrued vacation was all you got, so I was back at work six weeks after giving birth.  And because we baby boomer women had not yet raised our sons (who were taught to be sensitive to the needs of their partners and aware of the obligations inherent in being a fully supportive husband and father), our spouses were perhaps not as attuned at helping us. So, I took the kids to sports events on the weekends, to doctors’ appointments when needed, to school every morning. I cleaned the house and bought the groceries. And, I admit, ordered take-out for dinner, but really, isn’t pizza the perfect food? 

I enjoyed every minute of it. Except at work. I noticed that I was always a slight step behind my male peers, with comparable skill sets and experience, when it came to salary, bonuses and career advancement opportunities. I was not a golfer, couldn’t go to the bars at night to hang, didn’t have the fraternity network to tap. The guys had this self-contained world of hearty-slap-on-the-back, blink at ethical impropriety, crude humor innuendo.  A dark web of easy male comradery that became stilted when a woman was thrown into the mix. So she never was.

I was naïve enough to be surprised that men weren’t going to give up their dominance without a fierce fight. That they wouldn’t batten down the hatches in the face of our struggle. There was some lip service to the need for change and perhaps slight cosmetic tweaks made here and there.

But really, it all boiled down to:”plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”. The more things appeared to change, the more they stayed the same.

Forty years later and the same problems still exist. Women are still seeking parity at the work-place, our heads are still butting up against a glass ceiling. I am disheartened at what appears to be the fundamental immutability of human nature and its institutions. Yet, for the sake of future generations, we cannot give up. More than that – women must understand that playing by the rules, being nice to those in the sandbox, won’t advance our cause. In fact, we must transform the molecular substance of the sand itself. Create our own rules of engagement.

WE are, though, still early on in the game. So, at this point of the skirmish, I have to say – guys – you got me. Touché.

In keeping with the French tenor of this piece, I included a recipe for a typical French pastry (not my mother’s recipe):

Hazelnut Macarons

Sift and mix:

             1 lb. 4 oz. Hazelnuts (finely ground)

 2 lb. 2 oz. confectioners’ sugar

Whip to moderate peaks:

            14 oz. egg whites

Fold egg whites into the hazelnut/confectioners’ sugar mixture. Let rest 20 minutes. Fill a pastry bag and pipe onto parchment-lined baking sheets. In a 425 degree oven, bake for 7-8 minutes.

Buttercream filling:

1/2 cup sugar

3 tablespoons water

5 large egg yolks

4 teaspoons espresso powder

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup butter, room temp and cubed

In a saucepan, combine sugar and water. Bring to a boil and cook until sugar is dissolved. Put egg yolks in a mixer with a whisk attachment and beat until thick and foamy. Cook water and sugar syrup until it reaches 240 degrees F. Immediately remove from heat. With the mixer running, slowly drizzle hot syrup into bowl with yolks. Continue mixing until the bowl is cool to the touch and the yolk mixture has cooled to room temperature. Add in butter, one cube at a time. Add vanilla extract and espresso powder. Keep mixing until buttercream is smooth and creamy.

Spread buttercream onto the bottom half of a macaron and cover with a top half. 

The Journey Begins

My mother was an amazing chef. She felt the ingredients. It came to her naturally. She had this innate talent, whether it was cooking or baking, to add some surprise element that was counter-intuitive and yet made whatever it was she was whipping up taste extraordinary.

She had no training and, in fact, did not begin to cook professionally until her late thirties. At that time, freshly arrived in this country, she given the chance to run a cafeteria from scratch. When told she would be making sandwiches and the like, she asked, “What’s a sandwich?”

Actually, the joke was on everyone else, as she went on to make so much more than sandwiches. Her place became such a success that there were lines out the door. As small children, my sister and I were relegated to washing the dishes and cutting up fruits or vegetables as prep. People would ask, as we got older, whether we had my mother’s recipes, for posterity. We would shrug. “No recipes?”, was the response, eyes wide open, person asking aghast. My mother would say, “what’s a recipe?”.

How to explain that our mother did not work with recipes. It was all in her head, in her fingertips, the way she felt that morning, the dreams she had the night before. She would throw in a pinch of this or a handful of that, as the mood struck. And if we trailed after her, asking for a an explanation, a method to her madness, she would become impatient with us. “I have no time for this nonsense,” she’d say, “we have to prepare the menu today.”

Truthfully, my sister and I were quite content not to push. We would never be able to cook or bake as well as our mother. We were perfectly happy to eat the fruits of her labor and wash up afterward. She’d always be around, so what was the point? Besides, she never used a measuring tool. And there was always that certain mysterious “something”  she added, that no one knew about and that she would forget to share. 

Besides – we were the first generation to grow up in this country, lucky enough to receive the benefits of a free and robust education. No manual labor for us. We were to live by our wits, not our hands. The life of the mind – that was what we aspired to. College at a minimum. Graduate degrees a plus. I went on to law school. And through all those years of study, I lived off the care packages my mother prepared for me. Which was fine. When I would begin my practice, I intended to survive on food delivery from neighborhood restaurants, a viable option in New York City.

As much as my mother intuitively understood food and its preparation, she had an astounding capacity to read people and divine the essence of situations. She could tell, with one swift, dismissive glance, who was cheating on whom, who lied, who stole, who was a coward – which boyfriends of mine were losers, and which situations I should walk away from. She had a wealth of knowledge, depth of experience, and breadth of wisdom that I, of course, in my youthful arrogance, ignored. And then, she was gone. And it was only after that, as I grew older and at times enlightened, did I realize what I had lost. Wasted moments when I should have asked her questions. When I needed her, she was no longer here for me to reach out to.

The irony of my life was that, after twenty years of practicing law, I burned out. In looking around for some inspiration as to what to do next, I decided to go to culinary school and train to be a pastry cook. I was terrible at it – I did not have my mother’s skill or aptitude. But the three years spent baking were happy times for me. Somehow, I channeled my mother’s spirit and relived the love we had felt through her food. Even though I did not have those recipes of hers.

In the end, I came to my senses and returned to my career as a lawyer. There was food to put on my children’s table. I am, it appears, a better attorney than a cook. 

But I miss my mother and I regret the insights I did not give her the opportunity to impart to me. It would have spared me so many bumps and bruises that I have sustained in life. So, I invite you on my journey – and, by way of this blog, I will attempt to share with you the life lessons I learned the hard way.

Recipe for Rugelach

I asked my mother for her rugelach recipe, as they were, of course, like no other I had tasted. Here is what she gave me:

½ lb. margarine

½ lb. cream cheese

2 cups flour

And that’s it – see what I mean?