It’s funny, the things that you remember about childhood. For me, memories are flashes of senses. Certain smells, tastes, feelings. They all associate to a memory of a particular event, more likely than not tied to a calendar I’m no longer aware of. There’s a smell associated with shabbos, a smell for school, for summer, for birthdays and for weddings. There’s a smell of newborn babies, of hospitals, the feel of new winter sheets against my bare legs and the spiky scratchiness of the first cut grass of the season. There’s the sound of crickets, of shabbos morning, the difference between the smell of freshly brewed and instant coffee.
That, wrapped up, is the memory of my childhood. I can still smell and feel my grandfather’s shirt, when I came to rest my head on his shoulder on fall shabbos afternoons, after the chulent when he would sit down with me on a large chair in our living room and just doze off. It’s the same smell, years later, that takes me home again and back to a life which seemed much simpler than the one I live now.
Food is and always will be the trigger to a flood of memories. When I think about times at home as a child, I remember the smell of shabbos preparation. I remember the smell of onions, boiling to prep for a soup or gefilte fish. The peeking at chulent before it was really ready, the aroma that came through the house room by room. My mother, rushing to get ready and still smelling of shabbos preparation even after her shower. My mother’s food, though not the best in the world, makes up a huge part of my childhood memories.
I recently received a call from my mother, which – although it is very rare – was oddly welcomed. She called, as she usually does, at an inopportune time; when I’m halfway out the door, stuffing groceries into a cart while wrangling a child who does not want to be with me, or at work.
“C’le – I need to apologize.”
I took a deep breath. Maybe this is it. She’s turning over a new leaf. She’s apologizing.
“I think I made you to eat non-kosher. I fed you bad things. I know this is the reason. I’m sorry.”
I was silent for a minute. She’s apologizing for food?
“C’le? Are you there? Are you listening?”
She went on to tell me a story about how she was buying some cookies for my youngest brother, and then read an article in one of the Yiddish papers that the cookies were no good and that she shouldn’t dare buy them anymore. She didn’t realize her ongoing mistake, of over 30 years, feeding her children such awful junk. She was calling us, one by one, to apologize and say that at least with the younger children she would make it better for them not to be tempted by treifes.
Orthodox Jews do not have healthy lifestyles. Aside from shabbos, there’s precious little activity. Children, especially boys, have little time to go outdoors, to exercise, to play. The obesity epidemic that’s gripping America is not bypassing our communities. It’s taking a detour up Route 59, across Route 17, up Marcy, down Lee, across 14th. Diabetes is on the rise, heart attacks common, strokes no longer a rarity. We, like the rest of the country, are crippling our children for the sake of convenience. I won’t turn this into a commentary on a frum, chareidi or chassidish lifestyle. There are problems with it that aren’t centered around food.
But these are things we have to change, if we’re going to live longer and be healthier, run after our children, play. We need to change them now, because it’s killing the community quicker than any kids at risk or intermarriage could. Stop giving our children convenience snacks, filled with sugar, with sodium. According to my mother, who is the authority on anything and everything, our children could turn into pork-eating monsters because of a bag of chips.
In a way, I’m really touched by my mother’s apology for monochromatic shabbos food. For giving us junk just to give her time to change a diaper without another small child demanding attention. Forgiveness here was easy. I don’t know how she kept sane with so many children, and it’s very easy to let go of something you never really resented or held a grudge for.
If only she could ask for forgiveness for some of the more dark things, things she wants to keep hidden. Hidden under the mattress, just as I expect my youngest brother is guiltily hoarding his favorite cookies.
I’m not holding my breath.