By Virginia Slep (’64 and LLARC)
Chanukkah is almost here. Time to get out my old strings of Christmas tree lights — the ones with the big bulbs — and make sure my mother-in-law has enough bulbs for her electric menorah. Mom uses real candles on the menorah she puts on the dining room table each night, but she likes to put her electric menorah in the front window. It’s getting harder to find bulbs that fit — she likes the orange bulbs — but I manage to keep her supplied from our old Christmas tree lights. I joke with her that there are advantages to having me in the family. Nobody else in her life has any old Christmas lights lying around.
For the past fifty years, I’ve been a shiksa — a non-Jewish woman — who married into a wonderful family of very observant Jews. In the beginning, both families were concerned about us: Gary’s grandfather was a cantor in an orthodox synagogue. His mother kept a kosher kitchen. I come from a very devout Irish Catholic family. My uncle was a Catholic priest. But after the initial shock (“She’s marrying a what?? Holy Mother of God!” and “He’s marrying a what?? Oy vay!!”) both families became determined to look beyond religion, and love the person. What they found in each of us made them decide that we were worth keeping.
My adventures as a shiksa started in the kitchen. I learned my way around a kosher kitchen: the good meat dishes, the good dairy dishes, the everyday meat dishes, the everyday dairy dishes, the meat and dairy Passover dishes, the meat and dairy silverware, the glasses, the cooking utensils, the pots and pans and mixing bowls. Even the plastic scrubbing things under the sink and the dish towels were used either for meat or dairy, and nothing else. Whenever we were visiting, Mom always trusted me to set the table, and only once in fifty years did I get it wrong. Mom had bought new silverware before our visit, and it wasn’t until we were in the middle of the meal that somebody noticed that I had set the table with the wrong combination of dishes and silverware. There was a moment of dead silence, then Mom very graciously told us to finish eating, she would take care of it later. I still don’t know what she did to cleanse them, but the following morning everything was back in the proper drawers, and I never made that mistake again. She continued to let me set the table.
I learned to make blintzes and potato latkes and keugel. I learned how to make matzo balls, although I could never get very excited about them. I learned how to cook brisket. One year around Purim I decided that I would extend my adventures in Jewish cooking and try to make Hamentaschen. Mom had never made any so I was on my own. I made the filling from scratch by boiling the prunes and mashing them. I rolled out the cookie dough only to realize that my biscuit cutter was too small. I panicked — what in the world was I going to use to cut all this dough with? I searched all around my kitchen until I realized that an empty tomato juice can would be just perfect. When Dad tasted them, he told me with tears in his eyes that these were just like the Hamentaschen his grandmother used to make in Russia when he was a little boy. For many years, I made them for him each spring, and I still have my official Hamentaschen cutter stored away in the cellar.
Dad devoted his energies to trying to teach me Yiddish words. I learned to pronounce Chanukah and challah. I learned the difference between a shvatza and a shamus. I learned to tell when somebody was just being a meshugena and when he was being a shmuck. He taught me that when he called me a balabusta, it was a high compliment, not an insult. He made sure I understood when to use “Oy vay!” and when to use “Oy gevalt!”
A few years ago, Dad became very ill. We visited him at home just before he went into the hospital. Gary and Mom went into another room for something, and left Dad and me sitting on the sofa. Dad reached over and took my hand and said, “I’m so glad you’re here. I’ve been wanting to talk to you alone. You’re a Catholic, and I know you’ll understand. “
“Sure, Dad,” I said. “What’s on your mind?”
“This apartment,” he said. “It’s full of angels. Nobody else will believe me, but I know you will.”
“What do they want?” I asked. “Do they talk to you?”
“They want me to go with them,” he said, “but I’m not sure. What do you think I should do?”
“Well,” I said, “if ever going with them seems like the right thing to do, you go ahead. You know we’ll all take good care of Mom. It will be okay.” Dad died shortly after that, and I like to think I helped him feel comfortable about going with the angels.
I’ve learned that when you visit a Jewish cemetery, you leave a small stone on the gravestone as a sign of your visit. Dad lived in Maine for most of his life, and he loved Acadia National Park; so whenever I go there, I bring home a collection of small stones from the top of Cadillac Mountain and from the ocean. I use these when I visit the cemetery. Nobody else seems to think it matters where the stones came from, but it matters to me — and I know Dad would appreciate it. I can feel him smiling at me.
Now Mom lives alone in her apartment at the age of 99. She won’t let me supply her with meals because her kitchen is still kosher — but she appreciates my steady supply of homemade jam and cookies and coffee cakes. She eats my homemade brownies even faster than my kids used to.
And I keep her supplied with Chanukkah lights for her menorah. When God commanded, “Let there be light,” he didn’t care where the bulbs came from.
Neither do we.