I’ve lived in Israel for almost five years, and these holidays still get to me, the one day affairs. I grew up celebrating two days of Shavuot, and sometimes I feel deprived because we have to go to work tomorrow yet everyone outside of Israel will be relaxing and enjoying the Chag for another day. (Granted, I don’t feel this way Pesach time when I can eat Chametz an entire day earlier.)
Last night, we went to DH’s parents for the traditional Shavuot sushi dinner. I’m fuzzy on the history of the tradition, but in this family of sushi lovers, it is a really interesting experience. The tables took up the entire expanse of living and dining rooms in my in-laws home and it was set beautifully. Each table setting had chopsticks, bowls for soy sauce, and square black plates to pile high the sushi rice, squares of nori, fresh fish, ginger, cucumber, avocado, tamago, edemame, etc. We were 27 altogether, including Baby S., and the room was abuzz with noise, excitement and energy.
And I couldn’t have felt more alone. It still amazes me, that I can be in a crowded room and feel so alone.
It’s not that people were mean or ignored me. Quite the contrary, DH’s Aunt made a real effort to come to my end of the table to have conversations and the cousins took turns playing with Baby J. or carrying around Baby S. But, I was the lone American (my daughters not included since they are American but haven’t lived in the States) in the room and most of the time, I feel that DH’s family just doesn’t “get” me.
I also always get a bit sad during these holidays when I’m just so far away from my family and friends. Shavuot was the holiday my Zaydie joined us and I looked forward all year round to having him in the house for two whole days. Granted, the man didn’t live that far away from us and while we would visit him on the Lower East Side almost every Sunday, this was the opportunity for us to spend quality time with him when he wasn’t working at his paper goods store.
When I was much younger, I would stand by the front door and watch the street corner, waiting for him to emerge. I would stand for hours, trying to visualize him stepping off of the subway at 71st and Continental Avenue in Forest Hills, climbing the steps up to the street, waiting in line for the bus and finally getting on the Q65A, then riding over the highway and into Kew Gardens Hills where he would finally pull the bell for the stop after Main Street. And then, I would count the blocks he would walk until he finally made it to our corner. I would get so excited when I saw him walking down the block and I’d race around the house shouting his arrival so that everyone knew Zaydie was finally here. And then he was in the house, giving out caresses, calling us all “Sweetie Gal” or “Sonny Boy,” hanging up his coat in the hall closet and pulling out his mustard colored sweater to ward off the air conditioned chill, before fishing quarters out of his pockets and handing them to us. Sometimes he came with a pocket full of balloons, which he would blow up right then and there, and we would spend hours playing with them in the living room. I, like the balloons, was deflated when the Yom Tov was over and my Dad drove Zaydie back home to the Lower East Side.
And while it wasn’t Shavuot in our house without Zaydie being around, it also wasn’t Shavuot without my Grandmother’s blintzes. We had them once a year and they were the most delicious blintzes I have ever eaten in my entire life. I constantly go out to dairy restaurants and order the blintzes to compare, and I’ve yet to find one that surpasses my Grandmother’s.
She would prepare the batter for the crepe and, when the pan was nice and hot, would spoon enough to form a perfect circle. It always amazed me how she knew when it was time to turn them over, I’m constantly trying to make crepes and I either turn them too early or too late. But, she was so experienced making crepes that she knew exactly when it was time. And, with her fingertips, she would pick up the edge of the crepe and quickly flip them over. When they were cooked through, she would flip them out onto rows and rows of paper towels lining the kitchen counters.
I wouldn’t recommend using fingertips to flip crepes, but my Grandmother is a Holocaust survivor who spent years in a labor concentration camp making bullets for the Nazi’s. The work plus the horrible conditions of the camp left her fingers in pretty bad shape. And then, when the War was over and she finally made it to the United States, she spent years as a sweatshop seamstress. Combined, the work left her fingers numb and so she was able to put her fingertips into the hot pan and flip the crepe without feeling any pain.
As the crepes cooled, my Grandmother would prepare the filling. Some farmer’s cheese, cottage cheese, plenty of sugar and a splash of lemon juice went into a giant bowl. She mixed it with a giant spoon and then, she’d spoon the filling inside the perfect circles, and rolled them tight into the cigar blintz shape. She made so many that she often times filled two giant tins with the blintzes, separating each layer with a piece of silverfoil. They would sit, taunting me, in the refrigerator until Shavuot morning.
And that’s the memory of Shavuot that really makes me a bit weepy. I would usually stay up Shavuot night with my friends, oftentimes studying for finals and taking advantage of the all nighter to get a lot of studying done. After davening (I usually dozed off during Megillat Ruth), I would walk home in the early morning light, exhausted and counting the minutes it took to make it home so that I could crawl into bed. It was usually hot and sticky when Shavuot came out in June, and I couldn’t wait to get into my air conditioned room. The windows and doors were all open in the house as I climbed up the steps, the air conditioner off on the ground floor until lunch time, and there, in the kitchen, sat my Mother and Zaydie. Two full coffee mugs rested on the table between them, and Zaydie was polishing off the first piece of my Mother’s delicious cheesecake. I would wave my hello, ask if my Father and siblings were already home and asleep, and then make my way up to my bed.
The smell of blintzes frying in oil usually woke me before my Mother sent one of my siblings upstairs to rouse me for lunch. Bleary eyed and in desperate need of a few more hours of sleep, I would shake it off as the aroma of sweet cheese frying coaxed me into my clothes and downstairs for lunch. Entering the kitchen, my Mother was hard at work, manning two frying pans full of hot canola oil, with a spatula in hand. She would work in batches, frying my Grandmother’s blintzes in hot oil until the egg was slightly browned and the cheese was steaming. I always added a dollop of sour cream to the blintzes, the tart coolness making it the best bite ever.
Unfortunately, I’ve never seen Farmer’s cheese in Israel and I am hopeless at flipping blintzes. That perfect, pliable circle of egg – the crepe part of the blintz – is another culinary milestone I have yet to achieve. One day, I hope I’ll be able to recreate my Grandmother’s blintzes.
But it’s the atmosphere that I truly yearn to recreate for my own family. It saddens me that DH and our girls will never be in that kitchen, watching my Mother fry up two whole frying pans full of my Grandmother’s blintzes. They’ll never sit at the dining room table, next to my siblings, putting sour cream onto the first bite. They’ll never watch my Grandmother flip crepes using her fingertips, or chase a room full of red balloons blown up by my Zaydie.
These are my fond childhood memories. And, as I work hard creating new family traditions that will become memories for our nuclear family, I will make sure to regale DH and the girls with stories of the Shavuot of my youth. And hopefully, my daughters will retell these stories to their children, so that these memories will live on and on.
Do you find yourself creating new holiday traditions, or do you recreate the ones you experienced as a child? Let me know in the comment section below!