Monday, April 18, 2011

Less is Definitely More

In our family I am the one that makes the holiday meals.  My family were not deeply religious people but my family was definitely into making something of the major Jewish holidays.  Especially Rosh Hashanah and Passover.  There is nothing I love more than to have a table with starched white linens, my grandmother's silver, and my nicest serving plates.  In our family the holidays were always the same.  My grandparents, our family and my aunt, uncles and cousins.  We rarely had other people around the table, except on the rare occasions that my mom did the holidays and then she always had a couple of college kids from the local college who were not able to return home to their own families.  Although come to think of it I think that was maybe for Shabbat or Thanksgiving.  As far back as I can remember Passover was at my grandparents' house, except for those years we lived in Miami and went to my mom's family.  It was kind of a repeat of the same scene, except my mom's family were louder and more flamboyant.  No matter where it was celebrated, the holidays were a big deal in our family.

I must admit I am a sucker for holiday cooking.  Although I am a thoroughly modern woman, trying to have and balance it all, but there are two areas where I am perpetually stuck in 1954.  One is about money and the other is in cooking.  That's not to say that my husband never takes the reigns in the kitchen, because he definitely does his share, but when I am cooking, I am cooking.  I am making things from scratch and going the long way around just to try and give everything that personal touch that says (I didn't open a can and add water).  I love the Jewish holidays because it is always a time when I get to show off my stuff, when I can connect with my mom and grandmother by making the same dishes they used to make.  Although it is very rare that my own family is around that table because of the distance that separates us, I do feel that even though I share these holidays with my husband's family that they are somewhere there with me.  Filling my house with those same smells, with my grandmother's silver and Leo's grandmother's crystal and looking up at the photographs of my family I almost feel like they are looking down at us  and I feel a warmth and closeness to them that is almost so close, if I squint my eyes, I can almost be in Washington, PA again, at the kids' table laughing my head off with my cousins and hearing our parents and grandparents' talk politics.  You may not ever be able to go home again, but with Meme's chicken soup, the other holiday treats and pictures of them, my parents and family all around our dining room, I almost feel as if I can.  I know if Meme were here, she would be happy to see me carrying on her traditions.

I am not so sure Maya understands that much about Jewish holidays yet.  Actually scratch that, I am sure that she doesn't understand.  Hanukkah she gets, light candles (visual), get gift, (visual).  She always enjoys the holidays, but as a kid that sees detail in great -er detail, but often misses the whole I think she doesn't really get the Jewish holidays as more than a dinner with some fun/strange activities attached.  I have read her stories on the holidays but again she focuses on the details.  We have also not discussed religion a lot with her and up until now she is not enrolled in any religious education.  In addition, we do not take her to synagogue.  We did when she was a baby and toddler but as she started to grow it was difficult for her and disruptive for those attending to have her there.  Typically during services the kids often run around and play together and that was always hard for Maya to the point where one of us had to watch her or we had to keep her in the service and she would run around the sanctuary being cute at first but I couldn't handle the stares after a while, so we stopped going.  In addition, we have not enrolled her in Jewish education yet, feeling always that she was not ready for that, that school is hard enough for her without putting her in another difficult environment where it is so challenging for her to succeed.  We are trying so hard always to build her confidence to be open to trying new things so that when new situations come about, she doesn't withdraw into that safe little world of her own making, but will take chances to not retreat on new situations.  Adding Sunday school felt for years as in contrast to those goals as it was another school environment, and one that is not so willing/able to deal with a kid like Maya.  So we have opted to wait on this.

This year for the first time she seems to understand the holidays a little more, although I notice this new found understanding revolves around the Christian holidays because that is what she learns in school.  The nice thing about the holidays in the Netherlands is that they are very secular so that no matter what your religious belief, you can freely partake of them.  For instance instead of having Santa Claus come on Christmas eve he comes 3 weeks before.  And Easter (in school) is more about spring and bunnies and eggs than it is about teaching about Jesus.  Maybe some Christians will disagree with that, but as a kid that was brought up in that environment too and who was made to feel that something was missing because we didn't celebrate these holidays, it makes me feel good to know that society has evolved into something more inclusive by taking the religion out of what they learn in schools.  In school Maya also learns about Muslim and Hindu festivals and at Maya's school they have asked me about whether or not to teach about Jewish festivals.

Leo and I are thinking that she is really doing so well in her learning, in her development and her ability to understand rules and interact with her peers that she might just be ready to be able to handle Jewish education and we are thinking seriously about it for next year.  Also I notice at times she is a little bored now and where outside activities used to lead to overstimulation and a loss of focus, I think now she is better able to cope and we just might be able, after careful preparation and planning to introduce one or two extra curriculars and maybe one of them could be Sunday school.

This year I had planned to make a Seder for Pesach as I always do.  We didn't have a big group coming this year as Leo's brother and sister are staying in Israel so it was just going to be Leo's parents and us and a couple friends.  Although I do enjoy having a large crowd, the small also has its charms.  But alas, I woke up Saturday morning with an aching in my throat and my nose running.  I popped some Advil and went about my day but by yesterday morning the fever had arrived, I couldn't breathe through my nose and I was coughing like crazy.  Seder cancelled.

On the one hand of course I feel bad not to be grating apples, making kneidlach and horseradish and polishing silver as I truly do enjoy the holidays and doing all those things.  Up until now though Maya doesn't really understand the whole ritual of Passover, she cannot read, so she cannot ask the 4 questions and so she pretty much just eats a hard boiled egg while we go through the ritual and when she is tired of waiting, gets up from the table and runs around.  Passover is a hard holiday for her with her issues to really understand or partake in, it is all language based and doesn't have enough action or visuals.  How interesting to a 7 year old is a plate of hard boiled eggs, parsley and horseradish after all?

So, tonight instead of eating on our good dishes, with Meme's silverware and my wedding crystal and my new silver Matzo plate that I was dying to see on my table, when when Leo came home we brought matzo upstairs along with kiddish wine.  We, in our bed, (so truly fulfilling the requirement of eating while reclining).  We said Kiddush and I read her Sammy Spider's first Passover.  She listened and snuggled by us and the whole thing was over in 10 minutes.  Then we made scrambled eggs and ate them with matzo and cream cheese and she asked me if we were eating eggs because it was Passover.  By George, I thinks she's got it!

So, it doesn't have the frills, the bells and whistles or my grandmother's kneidlach and it was over quickly but it was probably the most meaningful Seder we have had since Maya was diagnosed.  As much as I love the traditional holiday Seder and will no doubt go back to it next year, the flu has brought a blessing that no amount of tablecloths, silver polishing or traditional rituals ever could.

I am quite sure that if my grandmother were here, she would agree.


  1. We have no religious traditions, so what the kids get is totally secular. I kinda wish we did have more traditions, but what can ya do. I am definitely an open-the-can-add-water cook, though...ha. I think anything you do as a family is special...bells and whistles not required.

  2. Dana,

    Its wonderful to hold on to tradition. I'm glad you care enough to want to do it.

    Our family is so scattered that the traditions we once enjoyed are nearly impossible now. I miss all that.