Like millions of people around the globe, I found my recent holiday plans abruptly canceled because of the coronavirus. As always, I had planned to make multiple batches of my mother’s Passover brownie recipe to serve at seder with my family.
This year, after removing the well-worn recipe card from its plastic jacket, I had momentarily paused to admire my mother’s beautiful handwriting with its cursive Palmer penmanship style, a method taught in the first half of the 20th century. And, for the first time since my mother’s death more than three decades ago, I realized that this recipe card is not just about brownies: It represents my mother’s story – part of my own family story and her legacy passed down to future generations.
Because of COVID-19 and social distancing requirements, I didn’t have a chance to share those brownies at seder when we tell the collective story of the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt. But for me, these brownies still remain a window to memory and a connection to family history. In other words, it’s a way to honor my mother and tell her story.
But then I remember: Pesach Sheni or the second Passover, which this year falls on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Iyar, beginning at sunset on May 7th. According to the Bible (Numbers 9: 9 – 14), Pesach Sheni provided a second chance for those unable to offer the paschal sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem because they were on a far-away journey or were considered ritually impure on the 14th of Nisan, the prescribed date (Numbers 9: 4-5).
Today some Jews observe the custom by eating matzah on Pesach Sheni or refraining from reciting the personal prayers and supplications known as Tahanun at daily morning services.
So it occurs to me: Ok, we didn’t have the seder we anticipated. But there’s still hope and the opportunity for a second chance.
Why not make those brownies and tell her story over Zoom on Pesach Sheni? After all, I have nearly a full container of Passover cake meal and numerous bars of Passover chocolate sitting in my food cabinet. And considering that it’s nearly impossible to find flour on supermarket shelves these days, I can use my left-over Passover ingredients for baking.
Meanwhile, what could be a more appropriate time to tell my mother’s story than during the global pandemic when we are sheltered in place, when supermarket shelves are bare, and when there is massive concern about the coronavirus today and what the future will bring?
I will never know precisely how my mother felt living during the turbulent times of the Great Depression and World War II. But I do recall her stories about the anti-Semitism she experienced as a first-generation American in Boston and the World War II rationing of items as butter, eggs, and silk stockings.
Only now, with the spike in anti-Semitism and the shortages of food and toilet paper in local supermarkets, am I finally beginning to understand the world view that shaped my mother’s generation. Today, as I spend more hours than ever in my own kitchen – often relying on substitute ingredients – I consider how the kitchen in my family’s suburban home must have provided my mother with a safe haven and comfortable shelter.
I reflect on the current global pandemic, wondering when it will be over, how a post-coronavirus world will look, and whether our lives will ever return to normal. At the same time, I worry how the pandemic will impact the mental health of children growing up in today’s unsettling environment — in a 21st century world already beset by the ravages of global climate change, war and terrorism, gun violence, opioids, rising hatred, racism and anti-Semitism.
Meanwhile, I remove a folder with photocopies of my mother’s recipe cards that has been sitting in the recesses of one of my kitchen cabinets for years. As I examine its contents, I see dozens of recipes from simple appetizers to complex desserts, all neatly written on recipe cards or carefully typed on index cards. It’s a snapshot of mid-20th century American-Jewish cooking with ingredients like chicken fat and recipes for fruited jello molds that probably went out of style decades ago.
When I see the names of the friends and relatives with whom she exchanged recipes, I am reminded of the words of Morrie Schwartz, the late Brandeis University professor whose conversations Mitch Albom chronicles in his book, Tuesdays with Morrie: “Devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”
Throughout her life, cooking was my mother’s passion and creative outlet. Even in her final months while bedridden, she recorded for posterity (together with dates) recipes from “The Yankee Kitchen,” a local Boston radio show that she listened to regularly.
Indeed, my mother’s life was defined by a strong commitment to family, friends, and community. She was devoted to my widowed grandmother, regularly kept in touch by phone with her extended family, and volunteered tirelessly on behalf of her synagogue and community organizations.
So as I get ready to prepare those Passover brownies for Pesach Sheni, I know how I will tell my mother’s story.
Paula Jacobs has published in a variety of digital and print publications including Tablet Magazine, the
Forward, and The Jerusalem Post. She lives with her husband in suburban Boston, and enjoys sharing
her expertise on the best falafel in Tel Aviv which she visits frequently.