My [Papa’s] watch

My eyes are always drawn to the cover graphic atop my blog. It’s a photo of my Papa, who died nearly three years ago, on vacation in Costa Rica the year before his death. Papa never went anywhere without that camera of his.

Previous to Papa’s death, I never thought much about mourning, but in the aftermath I certainly did.

Disconcertingly out of sync, perceptions jumbled, receptors misfiring, I remain immediately near but never fully within the self I’d always known, receiving on an unfamiliar, piercing wavelength.

Slowly, slowly, I have come to understand
this: My pulse has been attuned to loss.

-Me, ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #47, June 23, 2019

It wasn’t only in my writing and my prayers that first year that I explored my reaction to the loss of my father; it was also in comparison to other mourners, including my Mama and my brother Eli. Before Papa’s death, it had never occurred to me that everybody mourns in their own way – because, simply, I’d never reflected upon it.


Mementos v. Remembrances

One of the way in which I found myself mourning was in wearing Papa’s watch, caps, yarmulke, and shirts. My sentimentality surprised me; Mama and Eli did not seem to desire to possess physical objects that had once belonged to Papa, but I did.

I wear my father’s cap; my father’s yarmulke; my father’s watch; his house shoes.

-Me, ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #15, Nov. 11, 2018

In any case, previous to Papa’s death, I hadn’t worn a watch for years, as I could simply check my cell phone when necessary; but wearing a watch was something that I had always strongly associated with Papa. I remember him asking me why I did not have a watch and whether I might want to have one on multiple occasions throughout my childhood. He was never without his watch and was always nonplussed at my lack of desire to wear one.

Thus, when I flew home to the USA for his funeral, Papa’s watch was one of the first things that I appropriated for myself. I started wearing it all the time.

Unfortunately, the face of the watch became warped from an unexpected electric shock, and then it cracked when my then-4½-year-old accidentally dropped it. Despite the cost, this led me to order a new watch from the same series. However, when the lovely new watch arrived, I couldn’t bring myself to actually wear it because it wasn’t Papa’s, and I didn’t want the face to get scratched.

However, I also found myself wearing Papa’s watch less and less often. It had never felt entirely comfortable on my wrist, probably because Papa’s wrists were thicker than mine, and he had sized it for himself. Also, the blemished face of the watch annoyed me. While I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of the watch, I also gradually stopped wearing it.

My new watch also needed to be adjusted to my wrist size, but for a long time after it arrived in the mail, I didn’t want to bother with it. Surprised, I realized that I didn’t want to wear any watch other than Papa’s. So the brand new watch, which I had selected for myself, and which suited my taste, sat in its box on the bookshelf for many months.

And then – last week – I suddenly knew that I wanted to wear my watch. I can’t explain what changed in me, but something felt different. Something was different. I wanted to wear my new watch.

After many months of ambivalence and even attempting to put my new watch out of my mind at times, I had it resized for my wrist and put it on… and… it felt very, very right to me. The new watch was lighter than Papa’s watch, which felt better, and it fit my wrist, just as it was supposed to. I haven’t been wearing it all the time, but often enough, and I find that it does bring back memories of Papa, which comfort me. It’s not a memento… but it is a remembrance.

I don’t miss Papa more, and I don’t miss him less. I don’t even know if I miss him differently than I did one year ago or more. Honestly, I have no idea what is going on inside my heart. I don’t think Papa’s absence hurts me less than it once did… but… for reasons that I can’t comprehend, and for the very first time since Papa died in July 2018, I find myself wanting to wear a watch of my own – which never belonged to him.

Salted with my tears (Matzah Brie recipe)

I miss Papa. Pesach is the holiday that most reminds me of him. Beyond images of my father at our family seders, I most vividly recall the taste and texture his matzah brei, which I continue to prepare myself and enjoy annually at home (salted this year with my tears).

– Me, ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #41, Apr. 22, 2019

In Israel, Passover has ended this year, although one more day of the holiday remains for diaspora Jewry. Now that it is over, I no longer have to abstain from leavened products. If I wanted to, I could now make toast for myself tomorrow morning, as I often do for breakfast. However, I will not be doing that.

Tomorrow morning, I plan to make matzah brei for breakfast, just as I have done every morning since the beginning of Passover this year; and I will continue preparing matzah brei for myself for breakfast until we have no more matzah remaining.


Not a food blog

The Skeptic’s Kaddish is not a food blog.

That is not something that has ever interested me; but I have, nevertheless, been inspired to write this particular post by Dolly Aizenman, whose acquaintance I am honored to have made through our respective blogs. Her warm, fascinating, and deeply personal blog, ‘Kool Kosher Kitchen’, has led me to reevaluate my preconceptions about cooking blogs. I never imagined that I would so enjoy reading a food blog!

I’m sure this blog post of mine will not do justice to the ‘food blog’ genre, but, still, making matzah brie has become a very powerful experience for me because it reminds me of Papa, and I’d like to share that with you.


What is matzah?

Matzah is an unleavened flatbread that is part of Jewish cuisine and is the primary symbol of the Passover festival, during which leavened products are forbidden.

In the story of Passover, the Egyptian Pharaoh refused to let the Israelite slaves go when Moses and his brother Aaron demanded on God’s behalf that he do so. Pharaoh refused them ten times, and Egypt was struck by ten plagues (one plague following every refusal). Finally, after the 10th plague, Pharaoh relented.

Since the Israelites knew Pharaoh to be reluctant to release them, they left Egypt in such haste that they could not wait for their bread dough to rise. Thus, their bread, when baked hurriedly atop rocks in the desert sun, became matzah.

Matzah symbolizes redemption and freedom, but it also serves as a reminder of humility, for us to not forget what life was like in bondage. Leavened products symbolize pride, for leaven is “puffed up”.


Papa in the kitchen

My father did not cook much at all, nor did he eat healthy food unless it was served to him. Everything that he ever prepared in the kitchen was of the utmost simplicity, but I loved all of it.

In truth, I have no idea whether or not my father ate matzah in soviet Moscow, but he learned to make matzah brie from my mother who first learned to fry matzah when she moved to Israel from the USSR in the mid-70’s. Mama generally prepared matzah brie as a side dish for dinner with vegetables; Papa kept his simple – a touch of salt, perhaps, and that was it. And he always ate it with mayonnaise.

Mama says that the strong impression I retain of my father making matzah brie for me was due to the fact that Papa loved this dish, and he would usually wake up earlier in the morning than she did. As they say, the early Jew gets the matzah 🙃

Before getting into the instructions below, I’d like to note that this is a very simple dish to make; the quality of the matzah brie has much more to do with technique and timing than with the ingredients.


Matzah brie

Ingredients

  • Matzah (2 or 3 sheets)
  • Water
  • Oil
  • Salt (all spices optional)
  • One egg

Instructions

Prep work

  • Break your sheets of matzah into small pieces and put them in a bowl;
  • Pour boiling water over the broken matzah;
    • You would be surprised at how much water matzah (which is very dry) can absorb. You don’t want to make a matzah soup, but don’t be afraid to pour a lot of water over the matzah either;
  • Let the matzah soak for several minutes; you’ll see that it absorbs the water fairly quickly;
    • When the matzah is soft, you’re ready for:
  • Mix the egg and spices into the matzah.

Frying

  • Cover the bottom of your frying pan with oil;
    • Matzah brie is not a healthy dish – be liberal with the quantity of oil;
  • Heat up the oil at the maximum temperature possible on your stove;
  • When the oil is hot, reduce the temperature to medium heat;
  • Pour the matzah and egg into the frying pan;
  • Mix the oil into the matzah;
    • The matzah should absorb the oil, just as it did the water;
  • Pat the matzah down flat onto the bottom of the frying pan and let it sit for several minutes on the medium heat;
    • The matzah brie will not burn right away because of the high water content, so don’t worry;
  • When the bottom of the matzah brie is brown and crispy, break it up with your spatula and stir it in the frying pan;
  • Give the matzah brie some more time on medium heat;
    • Ideally, there will be some parts of the matzah brie that are still soft, and others that are crispy; the real skill in making matzah brie is getting the right level of crispiness without burning it.

Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night. I miss you like hell.

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 – 1950)

Alexander, or: Alexander

A quadrille in memory of Papa z”l

(in two limericks)

I.

Alexander hacked the Gordian Knot;
Defeated all armies he fought;
With lightning sword,
Secured his reward...
... Unknown remains his burial plot

II.

My Papa conceived 'Cut The Knot',
Believing education ought be rethought
Blazing forth new path,
Spreading passion for math;
Personal gain? Merely... afterthought

The above combination of two limericks is my take on d’Verse’s Quadrille challenge #124.

The quadrille is simply a poem of 44 words (excluding the title), and it can take any form. This week’s challenge was to use the word “knot” in a quadrille.

Possibility

I prefer keeping in mind even the possibility that existence has its own reason for being, which is precisely why I cannot call myself an atheist. It is why I occasionally recite the appropriate Jewish blessings before eating and am jealous of those who believe in supernatural forces that imbue their lives with purpose. It is why, in part, I was driven to recite the Orphan’s Kaddish daily during the year following Papa’s death. After all, who the heck knows? I sure don’t.

I prefer keeping in mind even the possibility that existence has its own reason for being, but I wish I could know the unknowable truth, one way or another. Is the universe ordered? Do our lives have meaning? Is suffering purposeful? I have not personally experienced anything to suggest that any of these possibilities are true; but would that they were…


d’Verse

It’s prosery time at d’Verse. The rules are simple:

  1. Use an assigned line in the body of your prose. You may change the punctuation and capitalization, but you are not allowed to insert any words within the line itself. You can add words at the beginning and/or at the end of the line; but the line itself must remain intact.
  2. Your prose can be either flash fiction, nonfiction, or creative nonfiction. YOU CAN NOT WRITE A POEM for this prompt. AND, your prose should be no longer than 144 words, sans title. It does not have to be exactly 144 words. But it can be no longer than 144 words.

The assigned line was:

I prefer keeping in mind even the possibility that existence has its own reason for being.

Wisława Szymborska (1923-2012), ‘Possibilities’

A quick note:

Usually I respond to d’Verse prosery prompts with pieces of fiction, but the assigned line from Szymborska’s poem spoke directly to my heart, and I had been wanting to write a short piece like this regardless.

Jagged, or: Tender

‘Edges and Fringes’ – a d’Verse poetics prompt

(best viewed on a horizontal screen)

Papa,
can you
visit us
from the unknowable beyond
to hearten us, for we miss
you
so
and grief’s jagged edges cut us
even as the edges of mortal life are
clear
to us
remaining, as we do, on this side
living; broken; aching
Boy,
hear me
in dreams
I call
you
every night, all night
tenderly, I watch over you
With love
glowing
and reaching out to inspire you
from beyond the very fringes
of life
to believe…

The prompt

The above poem is my take on d’Verse’s ‘Edges and Fringes’ prompt.

Our mission was to spark on one of these paths, and I primarily found my way along the 1st and 3rd paths:

  1. Write a poem using the word edge;
  2. Write a poem that keeps Millikin’s question in mind:
    • What is the word, the line, that cuts, that can show that edge?
  3. Write a poem using the word fringe;
  4. Write a poem from the fringe, however you define it.

The best hamburger of my lifetime

Hamburgers with Papa

One of my fondest recollections of Papa is his love of unhealthy food. This was one of the perks of having Papa pick me up from various afterschool activities and friends’ houses – one could never know if he might be in the mood for hamburgers. Come to think of it, Papa was much like Winnie the Pooh in this regard, sometimes struck by an entirely unexpected ‘rumbly in his tumbly’.

We certainly did not eat at McDonalds regularly or often; but we had hamburgers there often enough for me to remember this small pleasure; and it was also rare enough for me to develop a special appreciation for it.


Hamburgers & keeping kosher

As a college student, I gradually became religiously observant and eventually stopped eating non-kosher meat. Now, most Jews do not keep kosher, but for those of us who accept this dietary restriction upon ourselves, kosher hamburgers are quite a treat; and kosher hamburgers are abundant in Israel, especially in cities with large religious populations like Jerusalem.

I must add that Jerusalem’s burger joints range widely in quality. We have McDonalds and several other chains, but we also have very high end burger restaurants and everything in between. Even the midrange burger places have better quality patties than McDonalds – and the prices, of course, reflect this.

By the way, burger joints aside, the endless availability of kosher food is one of the reasons that living in Israel is appealing to Jewish people who keep kosher. Living a traditionally religious Jewish life is simply easiest in Israel for many practical reasons; perhaps this too would be worth writing about…


My Babushka’s advice to me

My Babushka (my Mama’s mother) and I would speak by phone almost every single day in the final years of her life before she died nearly three months after my Papa, and, as you might imagine, one of our favorite subjects of conversation was my daughter. Babushka’s love for our baby girl was not theoretical – she deeply adored her and always looked forward to our family visits when her great-granddaughter would climb up onto her couch to give her a kiss.

Our daughter is our first child and so I’ve been discovering child development by observing her as she grows up. Therefore, I’ve never quite known what to expect at any given age, nor what is considered ‘normal’; but my Babushka, who raised three daughters and then some of her granddaughters, had a very good sense of what behaviors and milestones were age appropriate for little children.

Often, we would discuss what foods our child was eating, and I loved to joke with Babushka about my “dream” of going out for burgers with my daughter. Of course, I was making this joke back when she was only three-years-old, which was clearly absurd, and Babushka thought the notion very amusing. “You’ll have to wait until she’s five-years-old for that,” she would tell me.


Five… no… Six-years-old

Regardless of her age, it has always been difficult to convince our daughter to eat any foods beyond the ones she is already familiar with and fond of. In fact, the older she gets, the more this seems to be a losing battle; and there are even some foods she once enjoyed, which she is no longer willing to put in her mouth. We have learned the hard way not to push anything new on her, and we wait for those rare moments when she asks to try something new of her own volition.

Of course, telling her that I like hamburgers is entirely reasonable, right? I’m not suggesting that she should, God forbid, try them; I’m just saying that they’re amazing. So over time, I have adopted the strategy of dripping water upon the rock, as suggested to me by the Bible (Job 14:19):

אֲבָנִים, שָׁחֲקוּ מַיִם The waters wear the stones

Finally, several months ago, she told me that she’d eaten a hamburger at preschool and she’d liked it! I tried hard to contain myself, and I may have even succeeded. “Well,” I said very, very casually, “if you’d like to get a hamburger with me some time, just let me know.” She responded affirmatively, and let me know that she only likes plain hamburgers – no ketchup, no vegetables, nothing. “Sure, sure, no problem. Whatever you’d like,” I responded hopefully. Then, wisely, I dropped the subject entirely.


Thank you, COVID-19

I will forever be thankful to the global pandemic for the event that took place on Thursday, February 4th, 2021, the week before our daughter officially turned six-years-old.

Here in Israel, we have been in lock-down, on-and-off, for months. Honestly, I’ve lost track of time spent at home because the days and weeks and months all blur together in my memory, as I assume they do for our daughter as well. She’s returned to preschool several times, only to return back home for another month or more. Of course, she’d be the first to tell you that she prefers being at home with us, but she does still miss her friends from preschool.

Anyway, there are only several dishes that she requests for lunch at home, and, as I’ve mentioned, we don’t push our luck in trying to recommend new foods to her because that always backfires. Now, under normal circumstances, it’s reasonable for a child to have a very limited amount of lunch options at home because under normal circumstances a child eats lunch at preschool on most days… but last week, finally, the endless sameness of her lock-down era home lunches finally got to her, and she unexpectedly turned to me and said, “Maybe we could get hamburgers this week. But remember – I just want a plain hamburger – no ketchup, no vegetables, nothing.”


And so it was ~

And so, last Thursday, February 4th, 2021, my daughter and I ordered hamburgers from the local joint and brought them home for ourselves (eating out is illegal during the lock-down). She had a plain 80g burger, and I had the standard 250g patty with all of the toppings. And the best part of the whole experience is how much she loved her hamburger!

I literally cannot recall the last time that I’d heard her expressing so much enthusiasm and appreciation for a particular meal – the entire time that she was eating her little hamburger, she kept on repeating, “Wow, I really, really like this. It’s delicious!” and smacking her lips. I think, hands down, it was the most enjoyable meal that I can ever recall having, and, quite certainly, it was the most delicious hamburger of my entire lifetime.

I’m already looking forward to the next one! 🍔

David, or: ben Alexander

In memory of Papa

My first ghazal

I remember his toolboxes, table vice, hand sander
Still remember foul humor, impatience, frank candor

I remember clever math tricks and right-wing politics
And sultry actresses at whom he would gander

I remember him sitting, reading, problem solving
Frustrated, resigned, when his mind would meander

I remember long summers he nannied my daughter
Love all-consuming, warmed bottles he'd hand her

I remember brilliance; I remember his strength, God
Deep in principles anchored; and not one to pander

I remember no bullshit and deep disappointments
Because and regardless no one ever stood grander

I remember young David who worshipped his Papa
None could ever replace him, not one ben Alexander