Yesterday, as I lay in bed with a pounding migraine, I had an out of body experience of sorts. I was transported back to a time and place harbouring memories so vivid and intense that the feelings they brought up were experienced as immediate and intensely real. Initially I thought this was the result of the debilitating pain, which at times can turn me temporarily ‘non compos mentis’, deliriously flying off into strange flights of fancy.
Perhaps it was the time of year. It is now, as it was in my memory, mid-March with Passover looming just a few weeks away…hence the theme of the memory.
In my reminiscence I was back in Israel, staying at the small house with dear family, an elderly couple, both of whom I loved and adored.
The air was fragrant with the scent of orange blossoms, blown in by the hot, dry Hamsin (the desert wind). I remembered how l longed to feel the wind on my arms, but out of respect to my ultra Orthodox hosts, I wore a modest long sleeved dress. It was shortly before Passover and the hectic preparations for the holiday filled the small house with their energy.
Their home, nestled in a yard filled with fruit bearing trees, was a thing of magic. It had only two small rooms, but despite its miniscule size, it managed to sleep rather comfortably a great many family members…the table at the vestibule, where one entered the home, could seat and feed an army.
The most fantastic thing was my beloved hostess’s pint-sized kitchen. It was too small for a refrigerator or stove, yet an endless array of delicacies would emerge from it: everything from cholent to baked pastries, soups and great Hungarian stews. I often thought she was a miracle maker: how did she do it all, this incredible, tiny woman, who had better stories to tell than almost anyone I knew. She was funny and wise and loved by all… a true Tzadekeste.
She fasted every Tuesday, gave charity and food to the needy, though she herself had very little, and always looked on the bright side of things. She was also of Hungarian origins, like my immediate family. As soon as we met them, my parents, grandparents and I, fell in love with her and her husband,, a man with a youthful, blight spirit and a long white beard.
Both of them were very religious, and their mode of dress, not unlike the Charedim in Bnei B’rak or Jerusalem, showed their unwavering pride in their heritage. The husband was one of the the most colourful characters I’ve eve ever met. He actually reminded me of the character of Tuviah, as interpreted by the twinkly-eyed Topol.
Back in my migraine induced delirium: it was before a Passover I spent in Israel, when the decision to stay in in an ultra religious home was born. I’ve longed for eons to celebrate the holiday in the ‘richtige’ traditional way, a thing I never got to experience at home: it was a joy to accept their invitation. I felt graced and elated as I packed a small overnight bag, knowing that whatever clothes I bring, will be amended by my hosts. My delightful hostess loved dressing me up, as if I was her own private doll, in much too big blouses and dresses, long sleeved, awkward length skirts flailing somewhere below the knees and ankles and held from falling off my waist by safety pins. I’d crack up whenever I caught my reflection in the glass windows – it was sweet and funny and it made me feel strangely cared for. She also liked putting her hand crochet shawls over me, because "It’s cold", even if it was 90 degrees in the shade. Then she’d inspect me, with great satisfaction: "Eyze yofi – ze metzuyan" (how beautiful, it’s excellent.!). I knew otherwise, but was too amused to care.
So there I was, working side by side with darling hostess, (who’s husband never failed to tell her and everyone who’d listen, often and with sincere love, that she was the prettiest woman of all, and the only jewel she needed was her smile. He did this to the very end of his and her life.)
We worked long and hard to prepare for Passover. My witty hostess peppered all the activities with jokes and funny stories, while my host had the record player on, playing both the role of DJ while providing us with a unique entertainment as we worked. His tzitzit and payes were flying rhythmically, as he danced to the Chassidic music, a grin of delight on his face. He was far from being a young pup, yet his spirit was as young as springtime. It’s a sight I shall never forget.
Even as we cleaned the house, scrubbing down every millimetre, washing floors and cleaning furniture, the music played and sweet childlike man danced on one foot, happy as can be. I must add that he was also learned, with a deep knowledge of the sacred Books.
When we gathered up all the chametz, he took it in a bag to the field by his synagogue, where the men built a bonfire, and burnt everything that was not Kosher L’Pesach. Some of the nonporous utensils were ‘kashered’ by dipping them in boiling water, another task for the men.
My host was was extraordinarily happy with his life: his one regret was not choosing a career as a cantor. And rightly so: he had an exceptional knowledge, combined with a true ‘feel’ of the perfect ‘Nusach’ for reciting of prayers and his ‘Nigunim’ were the best I have ever heard. I still know them all and get upset when I find that most cantors and leaders of prayer sing foreign tunes, some stolen from English pop songs, some just clumsy and non melodic.. He imparted this gift to his four sons, two of whom became world famous cantors. His endless fountain of tunes, full of sweetness and heart-grabbing Old World Yidishkeit, was inexhaustible. The great cantors, the likes of Koussevitzky and Rosenblatt, were his rock stars, and because of him and his youngest son, became mine too. He was a man full of passion, an endangered species: regardless of his humble means, he often said he was a multimillionaire, since he had five kids, an ever-growing number of grandkids, and each was worth a million. Plus his was a priceless gem, a rare pearl, as were his daughters in law.
A man who experienced ecstasy from things most people fail to even notice.
In my nostalgic recollection, I noted that after all the scrubbing and cleaning, we finally got to the kitchen. Now, that the offending ‘chometz’ was gone, we went at it with a zeal, using a toothbrush to clean the corners, cleaning the edges with tooth picks to pry out any possibility a derelict breadcrumb. All kitchen surfaces were covered after it was cleaned so thoroughly that even a Q Tip came up as white and clean as it was in it’s sealed box. I remember my host coming home with a carefully wrapped package, telling us triumphantly that he got the best and most sanctified ‘Shmura Matza’, then put on some music and started dancing again, making us double over with laughter.
He let the women do most of the housework, except when it came to heavy lifting, or building an ‘original’ – an improvised piece of new furniture, funnily put together, at times rickety and rough at the edges, yet good enough to serve as seats and tables to his guests, his huge family. That time he tinkered in his backyard with planks of wood, saw and hammer, to build a table for the kids. Even though it was a sight to behold, and cracked us up, he was proud of his ingenious creation. His funny wife made some wisecrack and I remember feeling happier than I have ever been, my entire life.
The work was endless, but it felt like play, with all the laughter and fun. Out of nowhere materialized the Passover crockery cutlery, kosher cooking utensils and the chametz ones vanished.
Most of the family has arrived by then to assist with last minute chores.
The day before the holiday, all the first-born sons post Bar Mitzvah had to fast and I recall feeling sorry for them, especially the skinny youngest ones. I was glad to be a girl.
With the kitchen purified there began a marathon of food preparation: the fish, which was swimming earlier in the bathtub, became gefilte fish and the chicken, which had to be plucked, was then soaked in salt before it became chicken soup.
The morning of the Seder, the Patriarch, a Talmid Chacham and lover of ceremony, lit a candle and we went on a search all over the house. Brushing at cracks and floor corners with a long feather, he pronounced the house clean. The feverish last minute steps began: I was charged with making the Charoset from grated apples, walnuts and sweet Manishevitz wine, then the women set the long table, with the new kid’s table adjoined. The Seder plate was arranged by the men, then covered in white, embroidered silk cloth. The Shmurah Matza lovingly unwrapped and placed in another beautiful silk garment, made just for this one night each year.
A soft pillow was placed on the chairs and we took turns to shower and dress, the displaced fish was now cooling in it’s yummy gelled sauce, waiting to be eaten. I for one remembered him swimming in the bathtub with not a care in the world and was glad I didn’t name him – can’t eat a thing with a nameJ
I then saw the gorgeous form of our host, the majestic Patriarch, in his white kittel, and then looked at , then at our beloved Matriarch, dressed in her lovely dark purple dress and a small purple bonnet, her cheeks and eyes glowing in the candlelight.
Suddenly the vision was gone. I was back in my bed, minus migraine, smiling but my face felt wet. I was crying tears of joy and a deep longing for that day. I felt such love for these people, though no longer here in body, but kept alive deep in my heart.
Today, as I write this, I realize that nostalgia and memory make for strange bedfellows. One tends to have a selective view, forgetting the side of the people we love, which were less than perfect. For the sake of truth and balance, I must add that the man with the passion for life had a temper, which he never directed at his wife, only at some of the young ones who disobeyed him. He was also stubborn as a mule.
Yet it doesn’t make me love him less, or miss him less. And her, blessed be her memory, was an angel, a good and pious woman, a rare pearl.
No wonder that their names grace their many grand kids, and great grand kids.
And in them, they’ll live forever.