If I slept at my grandma's house on any given Thursday night, I'd wake up Friday morning to find huge ceramic bowls, filled with challah dough and covered with checkered dishcloths, sitting on the radiator; cinnamon buns dotted with raisins and laced with sugar, rising on the counter; garlic sticks slathered with olive oil and salt, lined up on trays next to the stove; and loaf pans filled with molasses cake batter already baking in the oven. Often, my grandma would be peeling apples or rolling out the crust for pie that even now, if I close my eyes and concentrate, I can still taste. All the while, her hands were dancing in a seemingly effortless ballet, gliding from task to task, without recipes, food processors or microwave ovens.
My Grandma Bessie was exotic, with haunting dark eyes and shiny jet black hair set against creamy white skin. At seventeen, she married Eli Newell who brought her, somewhat unwillingly, from Philadelphia to Cohoes, New York, a tiny and isolated mill town upstate.
To my childish eyes, she was the most astounding person. In the midst of her baking, she would give me some dough to "work" and tell me some bubbamissas (old wives' tales) that I could not, despite my best efforts, erase from my mind. For example, she would say, "Debby, don't ever eat chocolate ice cream, only vanilla, because chocolate ice cream is brown and they hide things in it." Or, "Pinch your nose one hundred times a day and train it to be skinny."
Strangely, I never wondered why Grandma would go to such great lengths to prepare these delicacies for essentially no one. She had a small family: my uncle, my parents, my sister and me. But on Friday you would have thought she had scores of relatives. Grandma considered baking her "work", and I, her naive but ever-willing accomplice, thought it was immensely important.
As morning turned into afternoon, one masterpiece after another would be completed, and an intoxicating aroma filled her house. Slowly, one after the other, a steady stream of visitors would appear at her door. The insurance man, the milkman, the grocer across the street, the landlady (who shot her husband . . . don't ask!), neighborhood kids and the dry cleaner - an eclectic group paraded through my grandmother's kitchen every Friday afternoon. She made conversation with each and never allowed anyone to leave "without a little something."
Did Grandma Bessie welcome guests to her house because it was a Jewish value? Did inviting people make her home more Jewish? I'm not sure. But I do know that baking was reserved for Friday, for Erev Shabbat. I vividly recall her tearing off a piece of challah dough before she began baking, reciting a b'racha (a blessing) and then discarding it. She put her own theological spin on this custom by teaching me that the ripping of the challah was to remind us of less fortunate people who didn't have enough to eat. Then, finally when the kitchen was clean, she would tenderly throw a white tablecloth on the kitchen table and bench licht (light Sabbath candles).
Grandpa Eli had brought her to, as she called it, a "Godforsaken place." But I think what she probably meant was that she had to live away from her family and her old Jewish neighborhood. I can only guess that, in some way, Grandma's baking and feeding strangers was her way of bringing Judaism along with her.
She died when I was thirteen, so I really didn't have her for very long. When I cook during the week, I seldom think of her. But when I'm preparing for Shabbat or Yom Tov (festivals), there are moments when I feel as though she is peering approvingly over my shoulder. I always make that "little extra" in case someone drops by.
Somehow, I manage to whip up many dishes at the same time, something I never do Monday through Thursday. I prepare foods specifically so they have the aroma of Shabbat. I want my children to anticipate its approaching from the lovely smells that only homemade goodies can engender. My home is open to friends and family, as well as the guy who bought my used Toyota, the acquaintance who is going through a divorce, kids galore and an autistic neighbor.
My firstborn Rachel was given the middle name "Bess" in memory of my incorrigible grandma. Rachel made her entrance into the world kicking and screaming, and, from heaven, stole Grandma's coal black eyes, jet black hair and contrary nature. Rachel Bess grew from a baby into a college girl in what seemed like moments. And now, she calls me on the phone to say, "Mommy . . . I'm making Shabbat dinner for fifteen people, do you have a good recipe for chicken cutlets?" A shortage of space, utensils and appliances doesn't bother her. She invites the kid from another college who has no place to go for Shabbat, the one who is a bit antisocial, roommates, friends and, basically, anyone who crosses her path. Yes, she made Dean's list and earned an "A" in anatomy. She has a life outside of the kitchen, of which I am tremendously proud. But what does she brag about? "I made such a delicious Shabbat dinner. I invited six people, but then at the last minute, three more showed up. We had such a great time." Grandma Bessie must be up in heaven, kvelling.
Deborah Biskin Levine is a freelance writer living in Albany, New York. The above was excerpted from her upcoming book, Acts of Loving-Kindness, due out in April of 2001.
copyright Olam magazine www.olam.org 2000