Natalie Portman's Directorial Debut & Paper Towns' Nat WolffBy Gerri Miller
See how Portman is making her big splash in Israel and don't miss Paper Towns with Nat WolffGo To Pop Culture
Originally published March 10, 2008. Republished March 6, 2014
My partner, Rachel, makes some mean hamantaschen. She's in the kitchen as I write this, running apricots, prunes and raisins through the food processor, rolling out dough and cutting it into circles. She'll fold the circles into triangles around the filling, glaze them with an egg yolk wash. I can hear her humming. Later, we'll explain to our sons that the cookies represent the three-cornered hat worn by Haman, the Purim villain.
|Rachel has rolled out the hamantashen dough and is cutting circles with a cookie cutter.|
I've asked Rachel to make a couple dozen tiny cookies for our older son to take to his junior kindergarten class as mishloach manot, the traditional gifts of food and drink that are sent to friends, relatives and others on Purim. We'll send a couple of parcels to friends and family further away, packaged the way my grandmother used to: the cookies nestled in a protective bed of popcorn, with a handful of gumdrops thrown in for color.
Rachel is also adept at rugelach, another fiddly Jewish delicacy. In December, she made a café au lait version of the rolled-up cookies, using a cream-cheese dough, coffee and chocolate chips. My Jewish mother would have been proud of her Catholic daughter-in-law.
My mom was a big feeder of people. Nothing made her happier than to sit at her dining room table, loaded with way too much food, surrounded by friends and family. She was always on the lookout for orphans: second and third cousins recently moved to the city, newlyweds, new parents, the recently single. And when I started dating Rachel, whose parents and siblings were scattered across the globe, I think my mom felt the need to feed her, too. That's how they
|Rachel fills each circle with filling she made in the big food processor Susan bought.|
One Rosh Hashanah dinner, Rachel was suffering from some as-yet unexplained ailment that left her with a horrible creeping rash that blazed across her face. She was miserable. Very quietly, my mother slipped a bowl of hot chicken soup with matzoh balls in front of her. Rachel, who had been a vegetarian for the previous dozen years, very quietly ate it. I'm certain her rash immediately got a tiny bit better.
One September a few years later, Rachel and I drove to my parents' house to learn how to make gefilte fish. My mother explained the fine points to us: how to color the yeuch, or broth, with the skin of an onion; how much salt to use; the ratio of whitefish to pickerel fillets. She used as a guide a much-annotated copy of the original recipe, penned in ink in my grandmother's hand. As she ran the fish through her extra large food processor, added eggs and matzoh meal and sliced carrots into the pot, I wished I had brought a video camera--it was all too much to take in.
|Rachel pinches her circles of dough into triangles. They look great on the silicone baking mat, ready to go into the oven|
The lesson in gefilte fish was also overwhelming because of what we all knew and no one said that day: my mother was passing on the recipe because this would likely be her last Rosh Hashanah. She was far into yet another battle, her third, with metastatic breast cancer. She died that May.
Before Rachel and I got married, my girlfriend told my mother, "I'm sorry, but I'm not converting. I just don't think I can go from one religion whose God I don't believe in to another one." My mother nodded. I don't think the technicalities of conversion bothered her that much. What she wanted more was the assurance that Rachel and I would raise our children, her grandchildren, in a Jewish home. And to her, a Jewish home wasn't necessarily an entirely observant home--my mom was as much a fan of a good rack of ribs as she was of brisket--but a home in which chicken soup was made in times of illness, where candles were lit and food was plentiful on Friday nights and festivals, where all who are hungry could come and eat, where rugelach and hamantaschen were made and shared and sent in packages to loved ones.
|The end product of Rachel's labor is beautiful baked hamantashen cooling on a rack.|
It's a mitzvah, or good deed, to give mishloach manot, a practice meant to ensure that everyone has enough food for the Purim feast, to increase love and friendship between and among Jews and in the wider community. It's a custom that runs counter to Haman's attempts to portray the Jewish people as scattered, miserly. It's a mitzvah perfectly characterized by my mother's actions, and now by Rachel's.
After my mother died, I went out and bought myself a gift in her honor: an extra-large-capacity food processor, big enough to make a couple of seders' worth of gefilte fish, a triple batch of cookies for Purim--because there are a lot of people out there who need feeding.