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May 9 2014

Though I Left Hasidic Life, I Kept My Mother’s Rice Pudding & Stories

By at 2:14 pm

rice-pudding

For Mother’s Day, I do something unconventional. I make rice kugel for my small family of two: myself and my son. My mother, a Hasidic woman who raised more than a dozen children in the Village of Kiryas Joel, taught me a special rice pudding recipe. The recipe calls for a slice–and a story.

She made her kugel and told her story on Rosh Chodesh, the women’s holiday of my youth. In the Hasidic community we did not celebrate Mother’s Day, but Rosh Chodesh–the first day of the month of the Jewish calendar–was a minor holiday for women. We honored the women in biblical times who had been more pious than the men. According to tradition, Moses left for heaven and the men lost faith, made an idol. The women didn’t. They stayed strong and refused to throw their jewelry into the crafting fire for the idolatrous bull. To commemorate their strength and resolve, we always had something special to eat for dinner on Rosh Chodesh. Often, it was rice pudding and the story.

I have a warm image in my mind of my mother sitting at the dinner table in our kitchen on Satmar drive, her chair turned out to face the highchair. She began to tell and as she did, she fed pieces of chicken and potatoes to some baby–which of my siblings it was must have been of no consequence to me because I don’t remember. In that memory she puts the spoon in his mouth and tells the story in Yiddish: “There was a king that came to visit a town of not such smart people.”

To me, the setting immediately came alive in our own village, Kiryas Joel. I could see it all, the king riding through the streets of the holy rebbe’s shtetl, Satmar Drive, Krolla Road, Orshava Court.

This is how I remember what happened next:

The head of the town was worried that the people would make a mockery of themselves, because they were fools, so he got up before the congregation.

The man looked exactly like our school principal Mr. Gold, with the big black beard, square glasses, long coat over the potbelly. He cleared his throat, and gave instructions in his deep, commanding voice: “Dear Jews! The king loves rice kugel, so every one of you should make a big rice kugel for the king. When the king comes, I will be the first to give him the kugel. All people should line up and take turns duplicating my movements.”

The whole town was up when the king arrived. There was a music truck and fire torches and giant fliers all over, a lot like Kiryas Joel when the Grand Rebbe married a grandchild. Everyone was out in throngs with their rice kugels. (So it was in Kiryas Joel too at rabbinic ceremonies, though with fewer pans and oven mitts.) The king stopped in the center of town, which I know had to be in front of the great synagogue. He rearranged himself on his big throne which had been hand-carved by yeshiva bochurim (students), and waited. The town leader stepped over and said the same words our Hasidic principal said to goyishe politicians who visited:

“It is our honor to meet and to greet such a highly distinguished guest!”

But the climax came just then, when Mr. Gold, the town leader, slipped, and the pan of food went flying at the king’s face. It made that sound. “Plip.”

An old man–I could tell you he looked exactly like our great uncle who had Alzheimer’s–stepped forward, said shyly and without teeth, “It is our honor to meet and to greet such a highly distinguished guest!” And he threw his kugel at the king’s face. “Plip.”

His old man friend with suspenders that pulled “G&G Men’s Suits” pants high up then stepped forward, hurled his culinary creation too. “Plip.”

For a long time the people of Kiryas Joel, no, the people of this Chelm town who looked just like the people of Kiryas Joel, all took their turns throwing the kugel. “Plip, plip, plip.”

When my mother told the story she kept a straight face with every splattering sound, but we children fell off the chairs laughing. It was real in my mind. We yelled “More! More!” More story, more rice kugel. More!

It was all so delicious.

It was a ridiculous story. It had no point. And that’s why I loved it. Unlike all the stories we heard for moral teachings, this one had one purpose: to let wild things happen in our imagination. To entertain us.

I recently reminded my mother how much I loved the story and how well she performed the voices, and she was entertained recalling her own performances. She said she got the story from her school reader when she was a student. She said: “I can see it in my mind; the picture in the reader where I read the story.” She remembered it as clearly as I did, each of us having our own versions of the childhood tale that stuck.

Since I left Hasidic Judaism, I raise my 8-year-old son differently than my mother raised me. But like her, I mark a woman’s holiday by making the special rice pudding with the tale. Over a slice of sweet and oily home-baked rice kugel, I tell the story to Seth, and he listens hungrily, until he too yells, “More!”

I add the part about how things were when I heard it from my mother. I tell him about her extraordinary storytelling, the voices, the pauses, the suspense that filled the kitchen when she spoke, how much I loved her stories.

My mother’s storytelling rivaled her cooking only because she was so good at both. I celebrate motherhood by putting these two together. Like my mother, I share the food of my imagination with my child. And when I tell it, and remember those sweet moments as a little Hasidic girl, I know my mother taught me a lot about encouraging young imaginations.

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