The recipe had to be different. Vegetable kugel would be perfect.
I converted to Judaism over 30 years ago and was married into a Jewish family for 18 of those years. Passover was my favorite holiday. The story, familial chaos, even the gefilte fish topped with beet horseradish were things I looked forward to. We all brought a dish to family seders and I wanted mine to be something no one else had experienced.
Not being a particularly inspired cook, I knew the type of recipe I needed. Simple ingredients, casserole-type cooking and not too time consuming. Mrs. Feinberg’s Vegetable Kugel from my “Jewish Holiday Kitchen” cookbook met the bill.
My conversion to Judaism formally took place in the spring of 1991, though I had been preparing more than a year. I met with the Beit Din and immersed myself in the Mikveh, the symbol of my new beginning on the day my choice became official. I took, Tikvah, meaning hope as my Hebrew name. Though I had been raised Catholic, something had never fit, and my conversion felt natural and true. I felt I had found my spiritual home.
My ex-husband, though Jewish had not made my conversion a marriage requirement. In fact, I didn’t convert until over two years into our marriage, and I did it because I wanted to.
Hebrew was elusive, though I became quite skilled at reading transliterations and memorizing the melodies of the music. The music. Oh, how I loved the music, especially the sound of the cello with Kol Nidrei.
I was an involved community member, sitting on the Temple Board for a short term, attending most festivals and services, caring for those that needed care through our community. For a brief time, I even took Hebrew classes and fantasized about becoming an adult B’nai Mitzvah.
When I divorced my husband of eighteen years, it was the loss of his family that caused me the deepest pain. His parents especially. My ex and I had been done for many years, but I felt accepted and loved by his family. For a short time, my in-laws continued to include me in their holiday celebrations, but for me, it became excruciating. At first, it would be lovely, but then sadness would well up and I’d leave not long after I arrived. Being in the midst of my former family after divorce just pointed the spotlight on a painful loss. And I knew it was time to build a new life with holidays.
Eventually I drifted away from my in-laws and my temple and my old life. I moved to Colorado, my ex husband and I had sad fights over alimony and child support and I just…stopped. Stopped observing. My spirituality was now found in the outdoors, the mountains, a dirt-packed trail, an alpine lake and the woods.
I stopped making potato latkes, applesauce, and the vegetable kugel.
The vegetable kugel was a hit with my children and their cousins when they were young, and it’s sweetness won over the adults as well. My kugel began to be requested and I cooked it every year until my life moved in a new direction.
Maybe it’s age, maybe it’s our time, but I have been thinking about Mrs. Feinberg’s vegetable kugel this week.
Sweet potato, apple, and carrot were first chopped before being shredded in the food processor and then matzo meal, cinnamon and nutmeg were added. The kugel would go into the oven before I began getting dressed for the Seder at my in-laws. The house filled with the sweet scent while I dressed.
Cooking became a way for me to enter Judaism. I felt close to my inherited ancestors in the kitchen, involved in the stories and tactile work. At Hanukah, my nieces and nephews would squeeze into my small kitchen and we would make a grand mess as we cut out sugar cookies and boiled apples to make applesauce to go with the latkes.
My children and their cousins are all grown women and men and live back east. Holiday observances without my daughters is bittersweet. My life in Colorado with Rob is rich and full of love, but where is the noise, the chaos, the laughter and confusion of a Passover Seder?
This past year, I’ve been attending Shabbat services virtually, at New York’s Central Synagogue. The music is rich and I’m remembering the prayers again. Hundreds of people attend these virtual services, from all over the country and isn’t it the oddest thing, but I feel connected, like I belong. Zoom gatherings feel awkward to me and yet I love this.
I turn on the live feed and sometimes say Shabbat Shalom to strangers. I watch the feed to see the names of other participants from Colorado. I stand behind my desk while I sing.
And for some reason, I cry. I cry every time.
Introverted or not, I need a community. And this is one I belong to.
I told my older daughter, Hannah, that next year I would come for Passover. She and I will prepare the Seder. We will share the chaos and story with her husband and mine, both of whom are not Jewish.
Something tells me I’ll be cooking a vegetable kugel.