When I hold my baby granddaughter, I quite naturally break into a round of the Yiddish nursery rhyme Patshe, Patshe Kikelekh. Seeing her delight in the tune, I cannot help but wonder, “When did I become my mother?”
As my daughter-in-law walked through the back door after a couple of hours of running errands, I quietly announced, “She was tired. She laid her keppe on me.” Did she know what a keppe was? Will she ever use the expression? Did she learn it from her parents/grandparents? Will my son ever repeat it to his child/ren? There’s a good chance that he will after having heard my mother use the Yiddish word endlessly for decades when comforting him or his siblings. Hearing me say the word again and again, will my granddaughter carry down the tradition?
On a recent visit, I questioned our perplexed son-in-law as I stirred his first vanilla egg cream. “You’ve never had a chocolate or vanilla egg cream?” With a hearty cackle, I pointedly continued, “Are you sure that you’re Jewish?” Snickering as he drank down a tall glassful of our all-time favorite ethnic blend, he suggested to his kallah that they should consider it as their go-to evening sweet treat. In true 2020 fashion, however, he quickly questioned the health issues of such a tasty addition to their diet.
The chosson readily approved of our daughter’s eagerness to follow the family tradition of serving chicken soup and chicken for Friday-night dinners On a recent visit, after having already mastered cooking the “Jewish penicillin,” she requested my recipe for matzoh balls. On their first Friday back at their Los Angeles apartment, she whipped up a batch from the recipe that had been handed down to me from my mother, and that I gladly shared.
That novel attempt at making matzoh balls almost turned out to be a disaster. When our daughter walked in from work ready to prepare the batter, she found that her husband had innocently downed their entire supply of my mother’s secret ingredient…plain seltzer. She had mistakenly left the bottle of carbonated water in open view in their refrigerator after having exhaustingly scouted for it on the shelves of several L. A. supermarkets.
As an alternative to her matzoh balls, my mother’s classic kugel, which is also used as a chicken soup garnish, will be next to sample from the “101” list. My daughter and I are sure having fun attempting this “recipe reveal” one step at a time.
Our younger son, in his mid-20s and living in cosmopolitan New York City, innocently questions if we carry a burden by being Jewish. He asks my husband and me, “Do such events as the Pogroms, the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, weigh on you?” I can only think of Jewish pride and all the good things about being Jewish. The kashrut, the recipes, the Yiddish expressions, the traditions…it’s who I am. As the years roll ’round, the calendar of Jewish holidays seemingly gets closer and closer, steadily reminding me of my heritage.
In a time when so much is being publicized about the British royalty, I emphasized to our son his Jewish royalty—carried down through his two grandfathers, whom he was privileged to know, one a Kohan and the other from the tribe of Levi. What I do question, on the one hand, is what forces are drawing millennials away from their family traditions and ancestry? On the other hand, why are some youths endlessly seeking the ties that bind us?
My worldly cousin Lois, a generation ahead of me, offers her take. She was born of two Jewish parents. Hailing from Eastern Europe, they spoke Yiddish as their first language, yet desperately worked at shedding their old-country tongue and traditions to become Americanized. We notice that history is repeating itself. Many millennials are openly secularizing, as did a sizable segment of the first wave of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, including Lois’s parents.
While Lois was reared with no formal religion, today at 88 she insists the best thing that she did for her children was to birth the four of them of Jewish fathers, two from her first husband and two from her second. She dwells on the impact of the Shoah and her responsibility to the Jewish people.
The question remains: Just how far have we gotten from Mount Sinai? While I may be more religious than some and less observant than others, I’m not judging. I’m simply cautioning that what makes us Jewish is more than our ancestry.
What makes us Jewish? Ask any neo-Nazi. In the meantime, while living in a secular world and entertaining friends of all religions, I’ll be singing Yiddish nursery rhymes to my grandchildren; using Yiddish expressions in my house; teaching about Jewish customs and traditions; handing down kosher recipes; displaying symbols, art and books depicting Jewish life; and stoking Jewish pride.