"What a long, strange trip it's been."
The prophetic words of Garcia and the Dead rattle my head each time some new, weird turn in my life brings me to destinations unexpected and experiences beyond wonderment.
So it was not too long ago when I received a call from a prof at Converse College who was teaching a course on the meaning of food in the religious experience. She wanted me to speak to her class on the significance of food in the Jewish tradition. I told her I had a better idea. The class and I could prepare a "sacramental" dinner at my home that replicated the Sabbath fare my grandparents brought from the Old Country.
But what to do to make the dinner "sacramental"? Recite Kiddush and the Motzi to be sure. A festively set table, of course. Draw parallels for these Christian girls to the Last Supper, a necessity.
Then, an epiphany: The real sacramental nature of our grandparents' Sabbath table was that their eking out daily bread never stopped them from setting a majestic feast to celebrate God's bounty. We never ate "peasant food." Our table was sacramental because, to lift a Talmudic phrase, "there was blessing to be found in our bread."
I call this "celebrating with cuisine of necessity." That is, elegant menus built from inexpensive, readily available ingredients. That, I decided, would be the lesson in the sacramental nature of Jewish food that I would convey to nine young women who would likely never have to struggle with poverty.
Stop and think, I asked them, what were the ingredients available to poor folks in Eastern Europe: root vegetables, flour, sugar, dried spices, honey, vinegar, local fish, dried fruit such as prunes and raisins. And then there was the omnipresent, omnipotent chicken: eggs, schmaltz (rendered fat), bones for soup and its succulent meat for the main course.
I made most of the dishes ahead of time, pointing out that many of the foods required slow cooking and pickling. But they put the finishing touches on the chicken soup with me, made the matzo balls and prepared a kugel (potato pudding) that would be ready in time to take it home.
Quite a regal menu: cured lox, pickled cucumber and beet salads, matzo ball soup, roast chicken with veggies, kugel, compote and Linda's challah (braided egg-bread) and honey cake.
They finished everything, including the beets, which my own kids never would - everyone from the frumpy, studious kid to the well-tanned homecoming queen. And, no question that they were going to take back the kugel they'd made. And they cleaned up afterward without being asked.
And we sat at our Sabbath table and talked, well beyond their departure time. We spoke about everything: the Holocaust, what it was like to be a rabbi, how it was to live in the South, had I ever experienced anti-Semitism, why wasn't I a Christian, how and why my grandparents came to the states, what going to school was like for them, what their plans were, did they ever question their faith or witness anti-Semitism?
Then the ultimate question: What do Jewish people do when they sit at the Sabbath table? To their great amazement I told them, "The topics may be different, but we do the same thing that we've done this evening: have a lovely meal usually made out of cuisine of necessity whether we can afford better or not, talk, gossip, enjoy each other's company, catch up with each other, discuss things that our daily busyness doesn't allow us, not feel the constraints of time, feel at one with ourselves and each other."
"Ironic," I said. "We usually don't talk a lot about God. But let there be no mistaking. The presence of God is right there at the table with us."
How different Southern-bred young women can be from our bubbes and zaydes who arrived impoverished on these shores. Yet, somehow I believe that they may still be working through the delicious Jewish paradox that even the lowliest pickled beets and cucumbers can attain the stature of sacrament.
Mr. Wilson is a rabbi in Greenville. Reach him at marcwilson1216@-aol.com and read his essays at www.marcmusing.blogspot.com.