by Nomi Eve
It all starts with a table. In this case, the table is long and oval shaped. It has two leaves that can lengthen the table, or shorten it depending upon who is in from college, which kid is out celebrating at a Bat Mitzvah, who has a school concert. Sometimes we have ten of us, other times thirty. The table grows or shrinks depending upon circumstance.
The table is our dining room, and we have gathered around it countless times with parents, cousins, grandparents, babies, aunts and uncles. I care-take the table for now, for this generation, but one day I’ll pass it on to one of our children. The table belonged to my grandparents, my Bubbie and Zada. I inherited it, along with the tradition of making and enjoying a weekly Shabbat dinner for our extended family. I tell my kids: its not just a table, it’s a life raft, a magic carpet, hang on, it will take you backwards through time, and forwards to a future where you are surrounded by people who love you that you never even met. Usually, my kids think I’m crazy when I talk like this. But other times, when they are feeling susceptible to sentiment, they ask for stories about when I was a child sitting at this table. They climb onto the life raft with me.
I tell them how my grandparents came to America as children fleeing Europe. How they grew up as immigrants in the Logan section of the city and how after they married, they opened a Jewish bakery and lived above the store. I tell them how my grandfather baked the bread and pastries, while my grandmother in her neat white uniform, ran the shop. I tell my children how every Friday night my grandparents would feed the whole family around the big oval table. My grandfather would bring up elaborate challahs he baked downstairs in the shop. My grandmother filled the table with abundant food. I tell my children that after dinner my cousins and I would escape downstairs to the darkened bakery. We would climb all over the flour sacs, and hide behind the bread bins.
There, that’s the story, I say. But my kids know that it doesn’t end with the past. It doesn’t end at all. My grandparents both passed away within a month of each other eleven years ago, after a honeymoon of sixty-five years. We’ve had to adjust. None of us could shoulder the burden alone. My cousins and I divide up the busy calendar. We divvy out weeks and some weeks we go our separate ways. But for the most part, we have transformed our grandparents’ Sabbath gathering into our own modern ritual. Sometimes when we are busy, its pizza, other times hoagies, but mostly we make an effort, just like she did. We cook elaborate meals just like our Bubbie used to make. Well not just like she used to make. We skip the chopped liver, and have more fish and vegetarian dishes than my Bubbie used to serve. Kale is a family favorite these days, and quinoa, and edamame. There are other differences. Back in my Bubbie’s day no one ever contributed a dish — my grandmother somehow managed to cook everything for a weekly audience of twenty plus hungry children and grandchildren. But now we all come bearing something, an appetizer or a side or a dessert. My cousin Joanie has learned to bake elaborate braided challahs just like my grandfather did. We light candles, say kiddish and make motze over those golden challahs, made with his recipe by her hands.
It all starts and ends with a table. I walk by my grandparents’ table dozens of times a day. Sometimes I shut my eyes when no one is watching and I listen for their voices. They know, I tell myself with a quiet smile, they know that we are still here, right where they left us.
Nomi Eve is a jkidphilly parent who lives in Elkins Park. She is the author of The Family Orchard and the forthcoming Henna House.