Today would have been my mother’s 85th birthday if she had not passed over in 2005. As it happens, her birthday falls during Passover this year. So, in a departure from writing my usual comedy blog, I would like to honor my mother by sharing this essay about her (and it includes a Passover story). This essay was originally titled “Breaking Bread at My Mother’s Table.”
There was always room at my mother’s table for another chair. Educated as a social worker, she was an expert listener and had a hunger for knowledge about the thoughts, feelings, experiences, motivations, and beliefs of diverse people. Her fascination with people prompted her to sign on as a placement coordinator for the Exchange in International Living. That is how I became an honorary little sister to a Taiwanese brother, a Palestinian brother, and a Turkish brother; and shared my dinner table with countless other foreign students from around the world while growing up.
Mom placed foreign exchange students in host homes for one month of cultural adjustment before the students went off to attend an American college. One of the greatest challenges for hosts was providing students with familiar food. It should come as no surprise that one thing that particularly contributed to homesickness for these students was the strange food in America. They yearned for their mother’s and grandmother’s cooking. One of Mom’s greatest successes was identifying acceptable food substitutes for a Nigerian student who could not find anything to eat in America that resembled food from his home. (In the 1960s, international cuisine was not as ubiquitous as it is today.) He was miserable until Mom did some research and instructed his host home mother to feed the young man steamed spinach and peanut butter with baked sweet potato. He loved it.
When my Taiwanese brother first arrived stateside, he was an adventurous eater. Unlike the picky-eater Nigerian, my Taiwanese brother was game to try whatever Mom cooked. Unfortunately, he was so polite, that he refrained from telling her if he didn’t like something. He just ate it. If you knew how polite he was, you would understand the enormity of his response when Mom attempted to feed him cottage cheese. He took one taste and gagged. Mom apologized, so did he, both of them embarrassed. He blurted out, “That stuff tastes like glue.”
Our family is Jewish and belonged to a community that avidly supported Israel, so it caused some raised eyebrows when my parents took in my Palestinian brother. But public opinion did not deter my parents. My Palestinian brother was the youngest of seven children in a Christian Arab family from Beirut. His older sister taught English at the local high school. She spent two years laying the groundwork to bring her little brother out of Beirut before he was conscripted into the army. Only weeks before his arrival, his sister was deported to Canada by the INS. Before her hasty and traumatic departure, my parents arranged to host her brother upon his arrival. He lived with us for more than a year, then attended college nearby, and finally emigrated to Canada to be near his sister and other family members. While he lived with us, Mom learned how to cook an assortment of Lebanese dishes. She discovered an import store in our area, where she took my Palestinian brother to obtain foods familiar to him from his home.
Having a Palestinian in the family had its choice moments. One time, my mother invited an Italian foreign student newly arrived in America over for dinner. She introduced him to my Palestinian brother and left the two young men to chat in the living room while she returned to the kitchen. A few minutes later, my Palestinian brother appeared at her elbow. “Mom,” he said, “would you please tell Roberto that my people lost the Six-Day War? He thinks I’m Israeli and he keeps talking to me about how my people won the Six-Day War. I don’t know how to break the news to him that I’m an Arab and my people were on the losing side.”
Having found the food import store, Mom had a good source for international food when my parents provided a host home for my Turkish brother. My Turkish brother shared a room with the Palestinian, and stayed with us for only one month; however, he returned to us for part of the summer and during his college vacations while completing his master’s degree because he couldn’t afford the airfare to return to Istanbul. Although he did not live with us for very long, our family formed a close bond with him.
When I was an undergraduate in college, Mom’s open door policy and involvement in the Exchange in International Living led to her most challenging culinary moment. My mother kept a kosher house, meaning she would not cook meat and dairy together in the same meal and she did not prepare un-kosher foods (e.g., pork, shellfish). She patiently trained our foreign students in how to keep her house kosher so they wouldn’t accidentally mix up her meat and dairy dishes or silverware and un-kosher her kitchen. At Passover, like observant Jews worldwide, she removed her everyday plates, cups, and silverware from her cupboards and drawers, and replaced them with her Passover kitchenware (both a meat set and a dairy set). She taped many of the drawers and cupboards shut, covered others with plastic, and she removed all prohibited food from the house. For one week, her kitchen produced only foods deemed kosher for Passover in the old-fashioned Ashkenazi tradition, which forbids foods made from grains (except matzo) or legumes. This means no wheat, rye, barley, rice, beans, lentils, peas, soy (or products containing any of these); and the list goes on for miles beyond the horizon.
On this particular Passover, when I returned home, Mom had a houseful. My paternal grandmother, a diabetic with a heart condition, had moved in with my parents. She was on a restricted diet for her health. My Palestinian brother, a Christian, was in Lent so he couldn’t eat meat. The Turk, a Muslim, was in Ramadan, when no eating happens during daylight hours. I am vegetarian. A high school friend of mine was living in the basement while she attended a nearby college. She was an Italian Catholic (also in Lent), and was still learning how to navigate my mother’s kosher kitchen (mainly under the tutelage of the Palestinian Arab and the Muslim Turk). The household also included my two younger brothers and Dad. One of my brothers has Celiac, which is a diet challenge unto itself, and my youngest brother was an extremely picky eater who, at that time, lived primarily on ketchup sandwiches. (Ketchup on matzo?) Mom faced a seriously mind-boggling food situation.
Armed with little more than twenty boxes of matzo, dozens of eggs, six jars of borscht, a functional potato kugel recipe, and ten pounds of gefilte fish (an acquired taste to say the least), Mom faced the dubious task of preparing a kosher-for-Passover meal every evening for this eclectic group. On my first night at home, Mom assembled us in the dining room and threw the playbook at us. “I’ve filled the refrigerator and cupboards with food that is kosher for Passover,” she informed us. “I’ll cook for Grandma this week, but the rest of you are on your own. Forage. Just don’t un-kosher my kitchen, that’s all I ask.” Praise the lord and pass the matzo (with ketchup). We did pretty well by her, with only one coffee cup and one spoon going astray during the Passover Challenge Week.
Mom’s kitchen was kosher in the deepest sense of the word. It nurtured the body and soul of people from diverse cultures and backgrounds, with respect for all. When Mom fell gravely ill at the end of her life, prayer circles of every religious denomination in places around the globe spoke her name; and when she transitioned to spirit, my Taiwanese brother drove four hours to her memorial service, my Palestinian brother flew in from Canada, and my Turkish brother phoned from Istanbul to tell us how much he wished he could be there to break bread with us again at my mother’s table.
Respect for others is a value that we teach to our children through our actions; by the way we treat others. I learned at my mother’s table to not only respect the cultures and beliefs of others, but to learn from our differences and to allow myself to change as a result. At my mother’s table, I learned the value of cross-cultural exchange. I am an Eastern European Jew raised in middle-class American suburbia, and I have been married for over thirty years to an African American Christian raised in poverty in the inner city. Raising our three multicultural children together with my husband has enriched my life beyond measure. One of Mom’s greatest gifts to me was cultivating in me the approach to life necessary to successfully nurture a multicultural family. My multiculti children remain my greatest gift to Mom.
This is a classic family photo of my parents: Eugene and Natalie.