Wrestling w skeleton thoughts

The other day, I was feeling a little low. One of my children suggested I go out and buy myself a nice new skeleton. She was right; it would have cheered me up.

I love skeletons. Lots of people do, and why not? They grin so cheerfully, and they’re so accommodating: You can bend them and tote them around them and make them do whatever you want. This year I set up a skeleton climbing a ladder up the side of the house, and one lounging in a chair by the mailbox, waving to traffic. It’s amazing what you can make them do with zip ties.

The novelist Joyce Carol Oates made herself look a little silly on Twitter a few weeks ago, responding to a photo of a house similarly decorated for Halloween.  She tweeted, “(you can always recognize a place in which no one is feeling much or any grief for a lost loved one & death, dying, & everyone you love decomposing to bones is just a joke).”

Several people hooted in response, “No one tell her about Mexico!” Other readers with a longer memory pointed out that Oates had in fact written a story based on the death of an actual specific human being, and when the friends of the dead man complained at her callous co-opting of his personal life, she was dismissive.  And a few folks felt a moment of pity, pity for the poor old bat. Someone named “JustLuisa” said kindly, “My 5 am hot take is that people should be nice to Joyce Carol Oates about the skeleton thing. She’s a freakin’ octogenarian; why are we making fun of the old lady wrestling w skeleton thoughts.”

Why indeed. This year, when I hauled my plastic skeletons out of the attic, I had a bad time for a few minutes. They really weren’t funny, for a few minutes. What are you smiling about! Effing skeletons, what’s so funny? How many times had I pictured my own father and my own mother with their hollow eyes down in the ground, on their way to being just bones, of all things. You think you know these things, but it turns out you weren’t quite there yet. You believe in the resurrection of the body, but still. There is that time, under the ground. It’s a bad time. 

“Nobody tell her about Mexico,” some people said. I have heard about some cultures, in Mexico and elsewhere, that not only celebrate and remember the dead, and skelly it up with sugar cookies and masks and paper banners, but they actually go and dig them up. They wait three years, or seven years, and they dig the corpses up, clean them off, dress them, and have a little party.

I wonder what that does to the living, knowing this day is coming. You wouldn’t be able to just walk away in a straight line, after somebody dies. You couldn’t just progress neatly through the stages of grief, getting further and further away from their death as the date wanes into the past. You couldn’t just say goodbye and have that be the end of it.

That’s a joke, of course. You can’t do that anyway, with or without the corpse party. Even if you go full-on American, and pump your loved one full of preservatives, seal them up in airtight caskets that look like tiny little posh hotel rooms, and expect them to stay there forever, there are no straight lines away from death. There’s a lot of staggering and slumping and backtracking involved, believe me. Look at poor Joyce, 83 years old and still struggling with skeletons, and it’s not because she hasn’t had a chance to think about it.

Every so often, I have the urge to write about my dead parents. I always wonder if I’m doing it too often, and I always wonder if what I’m doing is remembering them, or exploiting them. Is it for them, or for me? I pray for them, of course, but the writing is for me, assuredly. But for what purpose? Why am I dragging them out of the attic again? You look at the calendar, you see it’s the season for memento mori again, so you dig the old folks up, brush them off, and get 800 words out of it. 

Not that my parents would mind. It doesn’t do them any harm. But I do try not to tote them around too much, or pose them in any ways that would be too foreign to who they were, as I knew them. Which is only as my parents, which is by no means all of who they were. And bones is not who they are now.

But still. I try not to make the zip ties too tight if I can help it, when I set them up for another pose. I can’t seem to help wrestling with skeletons every so often, but I try to be gentle. And I’m sure I’ll be back again, because there is not a straight line away from death. 

 

The last things my parents read

As I slowly make progress-that-doesn’t-feel-like-progress in selling my parents’ house, one of my tasks last weekend was to take copious photos of my father’s book store inventory, which, for complicated legal reasons, we are required to at least make an effort to sell. When he was alive, it was so impressive that he kept the entire catalogue — thousands upon thousands of books — entirely in his head, and could instantly go and pluck them off the shelf when someone ordered one. This is less impressive now that he is dead, and a book dealer wants to know if there is a catalogue of titles anywhere. Well, yes and no. Well, no.

Anyway, my parents did leave behind not only all the books my dad was selling, but all the books they just had, which was a lot. “How I love them! How I need them! I only wish that I could eat them!” my father used to say. 

Feeling like a mega-creep, I stretched myself across my parents’ bed and fished out all the books that had fallen down on either side, and gathered them up, and stacked them along with the books stacked on their bedside tables. These are not for sale. I just wanted to know what were the last things they read before they died. My mother was on the left, by the window. My father was on the right, by the door. His glasses were still sitting on the little table. 

My mother, of course, had stopped reading several years previously, as Alzheimer’s took more and more of her cognitive ability. But when she had that ability, dang. Here are her bedside books:

The Catholic Living Bible; In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat by John Gribbin; a Holt Physics textbook, Gúenonian Esoterism & Christian Mytery by Jean Borella, The Iliad, The Aneid, The Genesis Flood by John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris, an Olive Sacks anthology, and The Story of Quantum Mechanics by Victor Guillemin. Also: 

Genesis: The Story We Haven’t Heard by Paul Borgman; Three Histories by Herodotus; The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor; and The New Testament translated by Ronald Knox, who, she was always ready to explain, did all his translations at the kitchen table while people were running around making noise; and All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren.

More books:

The Quantum Enigma by Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner; The Best of the Best by Judith Merril (a science fiction anthology. My mother read TONS of science fiction); Introduction to the Philosophy of Being by George Peter Klubertanz; The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning by me (she was very proud); The Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard Feynman; and two copies of Billy Budd by Herman Melville, for some reason. And something large and red and very dusty. The last book on the right is Classic Fairy Tales. 

My father lived at that house for several years after my mother moved into the nursing home, and some of those books on her side are definitely his. I think he must have strayed onto her side of the bed after she was moved out, and read some of her books, and left some of his. It makes sense that my dad had The Odyssey (the Fagles translation, which he requested I bring to the hospital after his final heart surgery. Very good for your heart, Fagles), but I don’t really see my mother reading the Iliad, or Melville, or Virgil for pleasure. I could be wrong. Definitely no Robert Penn Warren. That’s a very good book, but also right on the verge of bullshit, and my mother could not tolerate bullshit. Science fiction, yes. Fairy tales, definitely. She didn’t consume fiction in a neurotypical way. She was always recommending books that were good, just not well-written, and she couldn’t understand why that was such a barrier to everybody.

Anyway, here are my father’s books.

The Tablernacle of Moses by Kevin Connor; an issue of The Human Life Review; Freddy and the Ignormus by Walter R. Brooks; All Aunt Hagar’s Children by Edward P. Jones; The Death of Evolution by Wallace Johnson; Freddy the Detective by Walter R. Brooks; Introduction to the Metaphysics of Aquinas; Freddy Goes to Florida; Moby-Dick; The Possessed by Dostoevsky; The Oregon Trail by Francis Parkman; Homeric Moments by Eva Brann; an Omnibus of Science Fiction ed. by Conklin;

1781: The Grand Convention by Clinton Rossiter; Lost in the Cosmos by Walker Percy (this was definitely both my parents. They actually travelled to Lost Cove, Tennessee); Theistic Evolution by Wolfgang Smith (with whom my mother carried on some kind of passionate intellectual exchange by mail for years until he abruptly got offended about something and cut off contact, wounding her horribly); The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins; Christian Gnosis by Wolfgang Smith; and an RSV Bible; and finally

Science & Myth by Wolfgang Smith; Dante’s Inferno translated by Anthony Esolen; Another Fagles Odyssey; another copy of Science & Myth, the Knox translation of the Bible; and something else, not sure what. It’s too thin to be more Freddy the Pig.

I don’t know why I’m writing all this down, what for. So there will be a memory. So there will be a record. You can see, anyway, that they were both very interested in how the world came to be, and why. I imagine they’re still gathering information on that. 

My father used to say that, after so many decades of marriage, he could almost always predict what my mother was going to do, but he still had no idea why. She was a strange person, and I think only a few people knew her well. Not me. I did find, when prowling about the house, a scrap of paper in my mother’s handwriting. It was a moderately cute kid story, wherein Simmy (that’s me) asked for one of those fuzzy rabbits for a birthday present, and then promised to try to forget it, so it would be a surprise. My mother thought that was worth writing down to remember, and it survived for forty years or more, and now we’re cleaning everything out, deciding what to save and what to let go. 

She was always trying to get me to print out my entire website, all my archives, thousands and thousands of pages, just in case, so it wouldn’t be lost.  There are so many things she took the trouble to write down, and now look. Just all floating around in a dusty house, waiting for the auction. I have decided to hire someone to clean out the rest of the house. There are a lot of things in there I would just as soon forget, and never be surprised by again. And maybe I will read some Freddy the Pig. Poor stupid daughter of my crazy, brilliant parents. It’s hard to know what to save and what to let go. 

 

Jewish and Catholic: An interview with my father, Phil Prever

Back in 2018, I interviewed several people for an article about what it means to be both Jewish and Catholic. The interview never made it to print for various reasons, but I have always wanted to share the conversation I had with my father.

He and my mother both grew up in Brooklyn with a cultural Judaism. They married young, had two children, became hippies, drove cross country and back, moved to Israel and back, dallied with Buddhism, moved to a ski lodge in Vermont, had a dramatic conversion to evangelical Christianity, briefly landed in a cult, had two more children (including me), and eventually made their way into the Catholic Church, where they stayed (and had four more children).

 

 
My parents with their eight adult children
 
Here is my father’s account of what his Jewish origins meant to him. 
 
What was your experience of Judaism growing up?
 

We were cultural Jews. We celebrated Chanukah, but it didn’t mean a whole lot. It was just something Jews did around Christmas time. We never had a “Chanukah bush!” 

My grandmother, Anna Olshansky Prever, with my father
 

The only other thing we did in my family was we fasted on Yom Kippur. My father . . . I don’t even know what he believed. He felt a great lack in his life, because he had never been bar mitzvah’d. His parents wanted to get away from all that. He felt he had missed out, so when I was studying for bar mitzvah, I had to learn scriptures, and recite in front of the congregation in a synagogue, and he asked the rabbi if he could be bar mitzvah’d, in his 50’s.

 
My grandfather, Jacob Prever, with my father
 
On Yom Kippur, we would all fast. He would sit in a room with the lights off, no radio, no entertainment, wouldn’t read, would just sit there for all of the whole day and night. I don’t know what he was doing. It was a very solemn kind of thing, really spooky. Everyone tiptoed around him.
 
As kid, on the whole block, we were all Jewish. The joke was, “Are you fasting, or are you feasting?” Most of the kids fasted. We didn’t go to the synagogue, but we hung out around the synagogue and peeped in the windows.
 
Everything was done in Hebrew. The way they did it, the men who went there knew the prayers so well, they recited them at a very high speed. I don’t know if they knew what they were saying, but it was just a jumble and it didn’t seem very meaningful to me, but that’s what you did. 
 
Why did you hang around, if it wasn’t meaningful?
 
There was a lot of horseplay. We weren’t in a devout frame of mind, or anything. But we were drawn to it. We didn’t understand it, but we knew we were Jews and this was what Jews did on the high holidays. Our families didn’t go to Shul, but somehow we wanted something to do with it. 
There was a synagogue where I was growing up, and one day I’m walking along the street and a man comes up and says, “Are you Jewish?” 
“Yeah.”
“Have you been bar mitzvah’d?”
“Yeah.”
“We need one more for a minyan.”
I must have been in my early teens. I sat through the service that was meaningless to me, but on the other hand, I felt like I was doing something devout. After I was bar mitzvah’d, I took it somewhat seriously. I got phylacteries, and for at least a month I used to put on the tefillin every day and said the prayers. Eventually I got tired of doing it. 
 
Some years, we would go to my uncle’s father from the old country. He used to do a seder. He did it all in Hebrew. That’s the only time I ever went to a real seder. Other than that, on Passover, we’d have a special meal with Passover foods, but no seder. I went to Hebrew school until I was bar mitzvah’d, to read and write Hebrew to an elementary level. Then once I was bar mitzvah’d, that was all over with. 
 
My mother used to light yarhzeit candles on the anniversary of someone’s death, which I still do. That’s about it. And a lot of Jewish food. 
 
My father with his parents
 
All the people we knew were like us. None of my friends were observant. I didn’t know any Catholics or Christians when I was growing up. I never saw anyone who wasn’t Jewish until I was in sixth grade. There was an Italian girl in my class from a couple of blocks away. 
 
How did your parents respond when you converted? 

My mother was distressed. Ima’s mother was, too, even though they were less observant than my family.
 
My father’s father, my mother, my father, and my mother’s father at a party
 
But what happened was, they saw we started to live differently. We had lived a crazy life before, with drugs and hippie craziness. We were leading a disordered kind of life, and they saw we cleaned up our lives and stopped messing around so much, so they were impressed by that. That made a difference. My mother softened over the years. She wasn’t actively hostile. She got over it. She came to live with us, so it couldn’t have been too uncomfortable for her. 
 
 
My grandmother with my younger brother, Jacob
 
Early on, when we were protestants, Ima’s mother and my mother came to visit. They drove up. At that time, we thought it was our duty to preach the Gospel to everybody we met, so we started working on our mothers. They weren’t having any of it. We tried to explain to them why they needed to be saved. They didn’t want to hear it. I said something like, “You know, driving home, you could be in an accident and die, and where would you be then?” That was the wrong thing to say. That was the approach that was favored at the Community Bible Chapel: Hit ’em between the eyes. They were horrified, probably rightly so. We never did that again. 
 
Does anyone respond negatively to your explanation of who you are?
 
Early on, Ima and I ran into some Catholics who didn’t understand why we, as Jews, wanted to become Catholics. They had been taught the idea that there were two covenants, and that Jews belonged to one covenant and Christians to another, and there was no necessity for Jews to become Christians to be saved. There was a time in the Church when that was the going explanation of the relationship between Jews and Catholics. It’s kind of passé now. That was in the early ’80’s. Ima converted in ’78 and I converted in ’79.
 
My parents with my three older sisters and me
 
I know some christians have a kind of fascination with Jews. Did you run into that?
 
People were interested in us because of that. The priest at St. Mary’s where we first started going said, “You know, people are watching you.” Really? What do they expect to see? They wondered how a Jew would deal with all this Catholic stuff. But nobody said anything to me.
 
My father with me and my sister Sarah
 
When we were protestants, we had a special status as Jews who had become Christians. It was kind of a special prize, because here we were, members of the chosen people, and we had converted, when so many Jews were against Christianity. 
 
We were kind of minor celebrities when we were protestants. Once Ima and I were up in front of some protestant congregation explaining Judaism, which we didn’t know all that much about. I remember explaining about the mezuzah on the door post, and the pastor said, “That has the blood of a lamb in it, right?” And I said, “No! It has the scroll that has the Sh’ma in it.” “Oh!” he says.
 
People expected us to be well versed in the Old Testament, which I was not. I became well versed in it when I became a Christian. Certain things in my background that I didn’t quite understand the significance of became clearer to me when I became a Christian.
 
a print my parents made for a card shortly after their conversion
 
Like what?
 
I’m trying to think of an example. I had a cousin, quite a bit older than me, more of my mother’s generation. When there would be a funeral and the whole family would be there, he would stand outside the fence and not go in the cemetery ground, and I never knew why, until I read somewhere in the Old Testament that because he was called a Cohen, born in some kind of priestly line, he was forbidden to set foot in a cemetery. Some kind of taboo against dealing with the dead, somewhere in Leviticus, no doubt. A light went on over my head: Oh! That’s why Seymour Katz never went into the cemetery. 
 
Why is it important to you to preserve your Jewish identity?
 
There’s a feeling among the Jewish people that Jew who becomes a Christian is kind of a traitor to his people I don’t believe that. Because I think Jesus is God, you know? And I believe in God! I don’t feel that I’m betraying the Jewish people. I feel like I’m accepting the Jewish messiah. But maintaining my Jewish identity is important to me because I want to assure myself that I’m not a traitor, I guess. I’ve never reasoned it out on such an explicit level, but I think that’s how I feel.
 
It’s a wonderful thing to be a Jew. It’s special. The Jewish people are like no other. I’m glad some of you kids have maintained that. Some of you haven’t. We let you go your own way on that, presented it as something that was meaningful to us. I feel a deep bond with the state of Israel and the fate of the Jewish people around the world, wherever they are. I feel connected, and I don’t want to lose that.
 
Do you also feel connected to Catholics around the world, or is it a different kind of thing?
 
I feel like I’d like to, but it’s not on the same emotional level. I do feel some connectedness, but it’s not the same. 
 

How do you express your Jewishness now? 

I go to my parents’ graves once a year. I say the kaddish prayers over their graves, and put a stone on the gravestone. One other thing: I’m a lector at church. There’s a three-year cycle of readings. Once every three years comes the passage from Deuteronomy 6: “Hear, o Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Before I read it, I say the Sh’ma in Hebrew in front of the congregation, and no one has ever asked me about it. Once or twice I even chanted it, just for the hell of it. I don’t know why I do it. It seems like it should be said in Hebrew. 
 
 
You’re pretty conservative. Does it bother you that many American Jews are liberal?
 
It bothers me. I wish they’d open their eyes a little and see who the friends of the Jewish people are. The left in America is getting really anti-Israel. On the other hand, who knows if the Christians in America are really friends of the Jews when push comes to shove. I always think of The Sopranos, with the Jewish character Hesh. He and his daughter go to visit Tony in the hospital, and this evangelical preacher comes in to visit. He wants to pray with Tony. Hesh is rolling his eyes around, but his daughter says Evangelical Christians are great friends of the Jews. And Hesh says, “Just wait.”
 
Catholics, Catholics are all over the place. Although it seems like, among Catholic theologians, there’s been an awakening to the connection between the Catholic religion and how it grew out of the Jewish religions. 
 
 

Have you encountered antisemitism in your lifetime? 

Believe it or not, I have hardly any experience with antisemitism in my life, that I’m aware of. Growing up, I never ran into it because I was surrounded by Jews. 

I remember once, when I must have been a Christian already, and I was at a gas station in New York. I must have gone down to visit family. This guy also filling up gas was talking to me, and I could tell by his accent he’s from down south. He looks at the price on the gas pump, which was much higher than what he was used to, and said, “Aw, G-ddamn Jews.” Blaming the Jews for high gas prices. It was insane. I was shocked. I had never run across that kind of overt antisemitism. Afterwards, I thought of a thousand things I could have said, but I didn’t say anything. It was a moment of realizing what’s out there, so many people who feel that way. 
 
Didn’t you once have a customer for your book business who made some antisemitic remarks?
 
Oh, this guy was a nut. He turned out to be Pope Pius XIII. Fr. Pulvermacher, was his name. He ordered a traditional Catholic book. I started out selling pre-Vatican II books, before I understood what a trad was. Now I look back and I realize I was getting a lot of orders from trads. They assumed I was one, too. Little did they know I was a Novus Ordo Jew!
 
Some of them found out we were Jewish and were thrilled, but not all of them. This Pulvermacher passed some kind of remark. Ima wrote back to him, had some kind of back and forth with him, and he backed off.
 
My. mother
 
He didn’t want to kill us or anything. He’s the one who said, “If you disagree with me, you’re a heretic.” Later years, we found out he became Pope Pius XIII.
 
Why do you think antisemitism is such a perennial thing?
 
Historically, I think antisemitism was basically a kind of hatred of God. That’s not the basis of all antisemitism; but in Europe, some of the pogroms was done trying to get at God through the Jews in some weird kind of way. And it sure has lasted a long time, huh? Three, four thousand years. Come on, enough already. 
 
 
My father was born in America in 1900, so his family came over in the 1880s or 90’s. The pogroms has something to do with it. Being a Jew in Eastern Europe was not a comfortable thing. My mother’s father, at one point, they were trying to get him to come into the Russian army, and he didn’t want to go. It’s a good thing; he would have been slaughtered in World War I. Living under the Czar was not a comfortable thing. You were on the razor’s edge all the time. There were pogroms, and no one knew when they were going to start up again. By the time he left, there was a lot of communist agitation or socialist agitation. They got out a year before the 1917 revolution.
 
My father’s maternal grandfather, Phillip (Feivel) Olshansky, shortly before the family fled Russia
My grandfather would not have done well. He was a capitalist, so that was part of it.
 
A visa photo of my great grandparents Zelda (Jenny) and Feivel (Phillip), my grandmother Hana (Anne), and two of my great-uncles, Gosel and Schloima.
 
Other than that, I don’t really know why they left, other than that they figured they would be better off in America, and they were. 

 

My grandfather in his pharmacy

There’s nobody to ask anymore. There’s a lot of things I wish I knew, but now there’s nobody to ask. 

My father with his mother’s sister, Mickey (Miriam)
 
How did you come to do the seder that you do today?
 
When we first started doing it, I had a Haggadah which was a Christian seder, and it was put out by protestants. It was completely Christian prayers all throughout, always drawing out parallels. After a couple of years, I said, “I don’t feel comfortable doing this.” It didn’t sit right. I went back to using the traditional Haggadah and adding onto it, and I feel more comfortable with that. I’ve never done a seder in a Christian setting, for a church group or anything. I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that, but I know I reacted against over-Christianizing it. 
 
My parents at a seder in 2016
 
If your Jewishness were somehow taken away, what would it do to your faith, or to your relationship with God?

Why would such a thing be necessary? I would feel less like myself. I would feel I had lost something, and I was less of the person I had been all these years. I don’t think I would feel like I had less of a relationship with God, but it’s hard to say what that loss would consist of. 
 
Do you pray as a Jew?

Sometimes.What does that mean?
Sometimes I think of Abraham praying for Lot. Sometimes I fall into that mode of praying. I speak to God in a kind of overfamiliar way, and I say, “Hey, you know, what’s the deal here?” I’ve been in that frame of mind while praying. Sometimes I find myself davening unconsciously [Note: “Davening” means “praying.” I believe my father was referring specifically to shuckling while praying.] It wasn’t something I grew up with. I used to see the men in synagogue doing it, but I never did. 
 
my father in Brooklyn
 
Have you heard much about a Hebrew Catholic Rite? Would you get involved with it if it came about in your lifetime? 
 
I would be very interested in seeing that come to fruition, but I don’t think I could help, because I don’t know enough. I can sound out Hebrew, but I don’t understand it except a phrase here and there. I don’t have any experience of praying in a synagogue or different Jewish holidays. I just don’t know enough. I would definitely like to see it happen.  
 
You say you don’t have experience, but you spent a whole year living in Israel!
 
We did absolutely zero religious observation when we were in Israel. When we were in Israel, we were Buddhists. I can’t explain how such stupidity can happen, but it did. 
 
What meant a lot to me, living in Israel: At that time, before the Six Day War, we lived in Western Jerusalem. Jerusalem was like a peninsula into Arab territory. It came about during the war of Independence in 1948. They fought so hard to get at least a piece of Jerusalem. They never conquered the historical Jerusalem. It’s mountainous, and when you come up from the farther western part of Israel, you go uphill, and the road winds on these different hills. All along the hill, you see these rusted out military vehicles, relics of the war of ’48. It made a tremendous impression on me. You could see how hard these Jews had fought to get to Jerusalem, at least to get a piece of it. 
 
 
Would you go back if you could?

I’d love to go back. I think about it a lot, but I don’t think I’ll ever do it. It would mean more to me now. We were there for [a year, which extended into] a few weeks after the war in ’67, and we went into the Old City after the war. We were looking at the Via Dolorosa, and I saw lots of ancient sites, and then came up into some kind of building. We looked out a window, and there was the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism. It’s a relic of the temple, all that’s left of the wall that supported what the temple was built on. All these people praying, and I never went down to it. People make pilgrimages from the ends of the earth to get to it. I was there, and I didn’t even take five minutes to go downstairs and go to the wall. It just didn’t mean that much to me. I’ve always been ashamed that I never did. 
 
Do you think Jews have some kind of special mission or place or obligation in the Church or in the world?
 
If you go back to Romans 10, Paul talks about the mission of the Jews. He says the conversion of the Jews will be the resurrection of the dead. I don’t know what that means, exactly, but it’s a big thing, something very important. He says the gift and the calling of God are irrevocable. There’s these gifts that have been given to the Jews, and when they come into the Church, it’s going to be apocalyptic. I don’t know, I don’t know what it’s going to be. 
 
 
What do you want people to know about Hebrew Catholics?
 
There’s the idea that Jews in the Catholic Church will somehow subvert the Church. That’s crazy. I don’t know any Hebrew Catholic who would want to subvert the Church in any way. If you go far enough onto the fringe, they think the great sin of the Church was then the Church said the Jews didn’t kill Christ. 
 
There’s this idea I run into with some Catholics that Catholics are Catholics and Jews are Jews, and Jews don’t need Christ. That bothers me that anyone should think that: That there’s anyone who doesn’t need Christ. Although I think the Jews are special in many ways, they’re not so special that they don’t need Christ. Everyone does. 
 
***
 

My father died just about a year ago on April 3. We had been planning to celebrate Passover with him via Zoom, and instead ended up live streaming his funeral. This year, I was bracing myself for the first anniversary of his death, and then my mother died on March 12. I know what my father would say: The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. 

 
 

My mother, Marilyn Oguss Prever, 1942-2021

My mother had wonderful hair, Jewish girl’s hair, thick and dark and wavy. She wore it up sometimes, but mostly I remember it down, tied back with a kerchief as she worked. Our favorite kerchief was a black triangle embroidered with gold thread that I believe she got in Israel. Sometimes she would wear her hair in braids.

When she got old, her hair turned bright glossy silver, like milkweed fluff at the crown. She always said it looked silly for old women to have long hair; that it made them look witchy. But my father preferred it long, so she usually let it grow. Her hair was the only part that still looked like her when I went to view her body yesterday. Her hair is in two long braids, and we told them to leave it that way. She looked so fragile, I was afraid it would fall off her scalp if anyone touched it.

If you had any doubts that death is final, you should go see my mother. She is on a gurney, lying like a mannequin under someone’s blanket, with ludicrously luxe maroon drapery as a backdrop behind her. There is a light-up cross mounted above, and she’s absolutely refusing to bathe in its cafeteria glow. Her mouth is all wrong, wronger than it was when I saw her strapped into a wheelchair padded with velcro so she wouldn’t scratch herself to bits. But her hands were worse than witchy. They are waxy and useless, twisted up past all repair. Hands of no return. 

I’d seen my mother looking tired so many times before. This was the other side of tired: Gone. Utterly exhausted, as in used up, empty, finished. I don’t know anyone else who used up so much of her life. 

No one tried harder than my mother to be all things to all people. A shy and bashful person who always let people in: Linda, the gravely disabled epileptic neighbor with a seamed and smiling doll face, who used to come visiting for hours at a time, telling endless stories of her childhood. Boisterous college students with nowhere else to go over Thanksgiving break. Random seminarians who showed up at our house thinking it was a book store. She let them browse and gave them three bean salad for lunch. She was an absolute magnet for strange and lost people, and although the last thing she wanted was company, she always let them come. The real trial for her was ordinary, savvy people who knew how to act and dress and what to say.

What she really wanted to do was pray on the dark back stairs with her icons, and read about evolution and quantum physics. She had a trick of reading so deeply that her tongue would come wandering out of her mouth and stretch further and further down her chin the harder she concentrated, which made us laugh and laugh until we broke her focus, and she looked up, confused and annoyed. “It’s always open season on Ima,” she would growl. But then she would read to us, endlessly, tirelessly, everything that she thought was good enough to belong in our heads, doing funny voices when it was called for. And at night, she saw visions: Glowing, wheeling fractals and gears. Which was migraines, no doubt, but also my mother’s brain beholding the cosmos from her bed. 

Her other great desire was to hold the baby — any baby. She told me she had taken a personality test as a teenager, and the results said she was best suited to be a housewife and mother. Everyone who knew her laughed at this absurdity. She, Marilyn Susan Oguss, “Marxie-Suxie-Oxie” of Brooklyn, was the one who climbed telephone poles and dared her friends to touch the various wires. She met my father when they were both cutting class in college, and she was the one who painted a bright mural of Shiva on their apartment wall (a Shiva they tried and tried to paint over when they moved out, making way for a newly impoverished family. My mother felt so bad when the goddess kept coming through).

I just found out my mother (who carefully measured out a juice glass of supermarket wine every afternoon, for a treat) used to love LSD. Her brain was already a fairly psychedelic place, and you could not keep up with her. She could only really connect with very simple or very complex people, but everyday people were a mystery to her. This is why, when we talked, it was mostly about babies.

She did end up a housewife, as well as a writer, and a pioneer homeschooler, and she had eight children who lived, and five more who did not. I once heard my mother say to my father, “I used to be afraid of you,” and he said, “Yeah, now I’m afraid of you,” and they both laughed. 

What is there to say. We loved her, and she loved us. My mother and I didn’t understand each other very well. I used to think I disappointed her, but finally caught on that she was afraid for me, which is different. She was glad to see me having children of my own, and she read to them, too, tirelessly, with funny voices.

When her mind started to go, she had to abandon her intricate system of calendars, lists, and reminders, and my father started making lists for her: Get dressed. Drink coffee. I found one that said at the end, “I still love you.” I hated her dementia, her mind blasted and her affectionate heart so fretful and wandering, and now that is done. I feel like I’ve already done the hard part of grieving while she lived, but we will see.

The funeral home director told me that he’d been to the nursing home, and those people didn’t seem to have much quality of life. But for the last two years of my father’s life, my mother sat in her wheelchair and prepared him to die, and by the time he died, he saw life as a gift. Then he died and stopped coming to see her and feed her. I imagine her saying, “Abba should have been here by now. I’m gonna go see if I can find him.” So she went.

This is all wrong. I haven’t told you how funny she was, what a ham she was when she was comfortable, how much she laughed, and how hard she laughed when she got going. One time, she met the president of a college, and, having just been at a science museum, she said, “Have you ever seen Archimedes’ Screw? Oh no, that’s a terrible thing to say!” and then laughed until she cried. She loved science, loved astronomy, loved poetry. Loved the Marx Brothers. Loved Jesus. Loved to slosh cheap salsa on leftovers and gobble it up for lunch. Hated bullshit of every kind.  

She used to say that, when she died, we should put her in a garbage bag and throw her in the woods, but she changed her mind about that. She was always ready to accept that she had been wrong. 

I went to see her yesterday, and she was well and truly gone. Even her mouth was wrong. They laid her out under the glowing cross with a brown stuffed dog at her feet. She hated stuffed animals. They collected dust, which aggravated her allergies. I suppose this dog was in bed with her at the nursing home, and the men who collected her body weren’t taking any chances about what was important and what wasn’t; so the dog came with her. We told them to get rid of the dog, but to leave her hair just as it was. She always had wonderful hair. 

How I sort of left the Church, and why I came back

Here is a little story about how I left the church, sort of, and then came slouching back home, more or less.

The late, occasionally great Mad Magazine once published a bit that showed people’s secret thoughts. A scene looks one way from the outside but is very different and allegedly very funny on the inside. The one I remember showed the inside of a church. The congregation piously bows their heads, apparently engaged in placid worship. But on the inside, the well-to-do man is freaking out over gambling debt, the adolescent boy is slavering over a sexy fantasy and the teenage girl is desperately praying for a negative pregnancy test. It is just as well I don’t remember what the priest was thinking.

This was supposed to demonstrate that religious people are a bunch of hypocrites who pretend to be righteous and clean but are actually a mess on the inside. Har har, religious people! Look how they live.

The cartoonist was, of course, not making this up. When my parents had found Jesus but not yet the Catholic Church, my poor mother was perpetually humiliated when people visited our shabby, disorderly home. She was overworked, outnumbered and struggling with undiagnosed thyroid issues. And their allegedly Christian landlord thought laundry lines made the outside of the house look tacky, so whatever my mother did, she did it fighting her way past a line of damp diapers drying slowly over the hot air vent. A poor substitute for the mighty wind of the Holy Spirit that they sought.

But conversion happens stepwise. She knew her fellow Christians believed that outward disorder and chaos were caused by secret sin, so if anyone came to her door, she fell into the habit of making excuses. “Sorry about the mess,” she would say, and then explain that someone had been sick or they just got back from a trip. Here was always some temporary, mitigating factor that explained the general chaos.

Then one day, she didn’t. Someone came over and saw their typical chaos, and what came out of her mouth was: “Sorry it’s such a mess. This is just how we live.”

I don’t know how long after that moment she began to feel a pull toward the Catholic Church, but this moment in our family mythology feels like a very Catholic moment. This is literally what the church is for: So you can have a house to be a mess in. It is your house; you are a mess. Why try to deny it?

This is just how we live, and it’s not new. Chaucer, anyone? Dante’s “Inferno”? The Gospels? This is just how we live. If there were no mess, there would be no reason for the church to be built to house it. If there were no sin, there would be no need for baptism and confession and the Eucharist. If there were no human misery and wretchedness, there would have been no need for God to become man. I know this, or I thought I did. At home in the Catholic Church, we are a mess, and we cannot seem to help opening the door to show all comers our own weaknesses and sins and hypocrisies.

But as I write this paragraph, it feels a bit like I am distilling the faith down to an Etsy-worthy wall hanging for suburban moms: Bless this mess, Lord!

But the mess of the church is no adorable, kid-style mess, with couch cushion forts and colorful alphabet blocks strewn around the rug. It is the sex abuse scandal, which continues to break and break and break on the shore like a punishing, never-ending tide. It is the scandal of pastors and bishops pitting faith against science. It is the scandal of open disobedience and contempt for basic doctrine. It is the general crappiness and malaise and infighting of Catholic culture and Catholic social media. It is the disorder where culture, tradition, doctrine and lived experience all try to inhabit the same living space. This is how we live, and it is a mess, and the mess goes down deeper than I thought.

A number of personal experiences have widened some cracks in my life that used to be manageable. I used to think my personal faith-house was rock solid. It is not. It was shored up with 10,000 little pebbles, and some of them carried a bigger load than they should have. Many of them have been swept away, and when I look at what’s left, I don’t even know what to call it. “Mess” seems inadequate. It’s nothing comfortable or homelike, anyway.

Read the rest of my latest for America magazine

***
Image by Michael Garlick  (Creative Commons)

What’s for supper? Vol. 239: Nobody tell Marcella Hazan

Wow, is it Friday? Sorry for the radio silence on the site. I’ve been working on a bunch of other projects, like, a BUNCH. It’s a real feast-or-famine life for a freelancer. By which I mean I don’t know how to budget my time and I’m a mess. No, a planner would not help, because I would lose it. Yes, even if it was a special holy planner with stickers and lifestyle bookmarks or whatever you people are doing. 

My mother has COVID. She had her first dose of the vaccine before she tested positive, and her symptoms are fairly mild so far, no fever, just bad cold symptoms. Of course we can’t visit her, and I keep thinking how she used to be such a stoic, but now she doesn’t have any means of understanding what’s happening to her. But she does appear to be recovering, and they are taking good care of her. I keep thinking how this is her favorite kind of weather right now: Sparkling bright, dry, cold, plenty of snow on the ground. She absolutely loved shoveling, for some reason, and I remember being awestruck at her going at it without a jacket on. Here’s a picture of her when she had some dementia but was still living at home:

In the background you can see her beloved grapevine, which she pruned and netted, where she poured out Elijah’s cup after the Passover seder, and where she buried precious things. At some point we are going to have to figure out what to do with that house, but NOTTTTT NOWWWW. P.S., does anybody want to buy literally 12,000 used books? DM me.

Anyway. Distance schooling has been extended for another week. I have lost one of the slippers I got for Christmas, and it’s so dang cold. But, I had a massive craving for cheese before bed last night, and managed to muscle it into submission and just go to bed cheeseless, so **feeble cheer for minor victory**

I need to shake up my menu. People just aren’t eating what I’m cooking, and I’m throwing away so many leftovers. Also, the kids have taken to storing any and all leftovers in ziplock bags, which works, but it’s just so squalid. We need to either buy a goat or,  you know what, maybe I’ll stop buying so many delicious snacks. The snacking situation is UNTENABLE. I’m going to start a system where they can eat as much as they want, as long as they’ve grown it themselves on windowsills in little recycled egg cartons. Then we’ll see who’s hungry for . . . [checks notes] . . . slow cooked . . . thing. Anyway, I need to shake up my menu.

You know who likes my cooking? The birds! Chickadees, tufted titmice, and nuthatches, with the occasional cardinal and dark eyed junco. Here’s my recipe for birdseed cakes, and I’ve discovered a coffee filter makes a great liner when you freeze it. Helps keep the shape and peels off easily. 

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bird seed cake

This recipe makes a sturdy hunk of bird food full of fat and protein. It's best for the kind of bird feeder with an enclosure or support system to hold it as the birds peck at it, but you can make your own free-hanging "bird bell" by feeding a loop of thick string into it before you freeze it, or by making a spot for a hole and then threading a rope through afterward.

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We like the kind of bird feeder that has a little platform and a central prong, so I make the seed cake in a round food storage container lined with parchment paper or, even better, a coffee filter. To make a hole, I roll up a wad of tinfoil to make a column for the center, and pour the bird seed mixture around that, and then dig the tinfoil out when it comes out of the freezer.

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This recipe makes TWO flat, round cakes about 5" in diameter and 2" deep

Ingredients

  • 1 cups peanut butter
  • 1 cups shortening (can add bacon grease)
  • 1 cup corn meal
  • 2 cups oatmeal
  • 1 cup birdseed

optional:

  • raisins, popped popcorn, cranberries, seeds, nuts

Instructions

  1. Prepare a container for the birdseed for a mold. If it's not a flexible container, line it with parchment paper.

  2. In a pot, melt the shortening and peanut butter over low heat, and stir to combine.

  3. Stir in the rest of the ingredients. Pour the mixture into the prepared container. Remember, if you want to hang it or put it on a prong, you will need to put something in so there will be a hole.

  4. Freeze for several hours until the cake is solid. Remove from the mold and put it out for the birdies!

Here’s what the humans had this week:

SATURDAY
Pulled pork sandwiches, coleslaw, tater tots

Not much to say about this. I put beer, apple cider vinegar, fresh jalapeños, and a couple other things in the slow cooker and let it cook all day, then fork shredded it. It was fine. Nice with some raw red onions.

We briefly discussed learning how to make actual BBQ sauce, but the concluded that Baby Ray’s or Sugar Ray’s or Honey Ray Ray’s or whatever it’s called is fine, and we always have 11 open bottles anyway.

SUNDAY
Pizza

I made six 16-inch pizzas, and was relieved to discover that was too much pizza. I made one cheese, two pepperoni, one olive, one olive-basil-ricotta,

and one basil-ricotta-fresh garlic-artichoke hearts-red onion-anchovy-red pepper flakes

which melded together verrrrry nicely.

They all got mozzarella, parmesan, and garlic powder and oregano. That last one was magnifico. 

I also had a lovely lunch of scrambled eggs mixed with various fajita beef bowl fixins from last week, so I got rid of some ziplock bags that were sloshing around in the fridge. I was excitedly telling my son about this wonderful lunch option, where you scramble a few eggs while heating up leftovers in the microwave and then jumble it together in a nice bowl, and he just looked at me. In a way that reminded me how we used to look at my mother when she would take whatever was leftover and heat it up in a pot with a giant glug of salsa from her giant salsa jug. 

Ohh the cat’s in the cradle and the salsa jug
Little boy blue and his ugly mug
When you shutting up, kids?
I don’t know when
I just wanna eat my lunch, guys. 
Let your mother eat her lunch.

To be fair, I was the one who called him over to look at my lunch, which is a rookie mistake my mother never would have made. 

MONDAY
Asian meatballs, rice, steamed broccoli

I went grocery shopping on Monday and didn’t get home until after dinner, partly because it was Benny’s shopping turn and she had some business to conduct at the Dollar Store, and these things can’t be rushed; so dinner was a real group effort. Started to make meatballs, sent son out to buy crackers, got daughter to finish making meatballs, asked husband to cook meatballs plus rice and broccoli.

Here are some meatballs I made back when there were sunshine and vegetables

I do like these meatballs. A few ingredients, simple preparation, mild flavor, and not too heavy. If you’re feeling inspired, you can dress up the meatballs with nice sauces and dips, or you can just have soy sauce. Soy sauce, brownest of the brown sauces. So tempting. 

TUESDAY
Spaghetti with bolognese sauce

I got it into my head to make a bolognese sauce, but really what I wanted was a ragu. Don’t ask me why I didn’t use the ragu recipe Damien always makes, which is superb. Well, the reason is that it looked a lot easier. I don’t know what I messed up, but it was extremely watery and kind of bland, despite all the lovely ingredients. I ended up having to siphon off about a quart of liquid, and probably ended up sopping up all the flavor with it.

I used Marcella Hazan’s recipe via Epicurious, and I sized it up x4, and that’s probably where my mistake came in. Also, I guess you’re supposed to use broader pasta with bolognese and save the spaghetti for ragu. This is not Marcella Hazan’s fault. She has been very clear about which sauces go with what pastas, and I just didn’t listen.

Oh well, it was still good. Just not the heavenly treat I was anticipating.

You can see I did buy a block of parmesan and shred it right before supper, so that was nice. 

WEDNESDAY
Instant pot beef teriyaki with rice and steamed vegetables

Another okay meal. I used this recipe and it was fine, but a little sweeter than I’d prefer, and it didn’t thicken up very well. No sauce I have ever made in my life thickens up well. IN MY LIFE. 

I meant to serve this with fresh broccoli very lightly steamed, but I ended up with microwaved bags of mixed vegetables that turned out to have sauce on them already. It was fine. Nice and easy, and the meat did come out very tender.

THURSDAY
Chicken nuggets and pasta salad

I reorganized my cabinets and weeded out a lot of stuff I will want at some point, but not right now. It’s pretty great! Now when I want peanut butter, I can just get it, rather than shoving around coconut cream and matzoh meal and molasses and packets of unflavored gelatin to find it. I know this is why you come to this site: For the amazing kitchen hacks. Tired of having cabinets that need cleaning out? Try cleaning out your cabinets! It really works!

The pasta salad was pretty good.

I had some sun dried tomatoes, fresh garlic, basil-infused olive oil, wine vinegar, pepperoni, feta cheese, and some more of that freshly-shredded parmesan, and plenty of freshly-ground pepper and sea salt. The feta cheese was probably not a great match, but nobody complained. 

I guess I had some kind of spasm at Aldi and bought four bags of chicken nuggets, which is 200 chicken nuggets. At the last moment I didn’t open the fourth bag, but of course that was still too many. But if I had only cooked two bags, there would have been a riot. I don’t know. I don’t know anything. 

I also managed to use three more boxes of my Ludicrous Pasta Backlog. There’s another hack for you. Tired of having nine boxes of pasta hanging around? Try cooking some of it! It really works!

FRIDAY
Mac and cheese

Truthfully, only some of this will be macaroni, because in yesterday’s Pasta Hack, I only managed to use three boxes of pasta. They are not the ideal shape to receive cheese sauce. Nobody tell Marcella Hazan.

Here’s the one and only recipe card for the week, unless you want my recipe for chicken nuggets.

Vaguely Asian meatballs with dipping sauce

Very simple meatballs with a vaguely Korean flavor. These are mild enough that kids will eat them happily, but if you want to kick up the Korean taste, you can serve them with dipping sauces and pickled vegetables. Serve with rice.

Servings 30 large meatballs

Ingredients

  • 2.5 lbs ground beef
  • 1 sleeve Ritz crackers, crushed finely
  • 1/3 cup soy sauce
  • 1/2 head garlic, minced
  • 1 bunch scallions, chopped (save out a bit for a garnish)
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 Tbsp ground white pepper

For dipping sauce:

  • mirin or rice vinegar
  • soy sauce

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 425.

  2. Mix together the meat and all the meatball ingredients with your hands until they are well combined. Form large balls and lay them on a baking pan with a rim.

  3. Bake for about 15 minutes.

  4. Serve over rice with dipping sauce and a sprinkle of scallions.

Holy chicken soup with matzoh balls

Today I am making chicken soup with matzoh balls. One of my kids requested it as a birthday meal, and even though we usually reserve this soup for Passover, I couldn’t say no. I’m also making two giant challahs, because it’s not Passover and we can have yeast! My goal was to have the house smelling wonderful by the time the birthday girl woke up, and I achieved that goal. 
 
Let me tell you about this soup. When I was little, my mother would cook and bake for a full week before Passover, one or two dishes a day, slowly filling the freezer with tinfoil-wrapped packages. We kids would help with simple tasks like washing the sprigs of parsley or chopping the nuts for charoset, but my mother still did the actual cooking and baking: tzimmes and pot roast, charoset, spinach pie, latkes, garlic-studded lamb, chocolate sponge cake and lemon sponge cake, and of course a vast pot of chicken soup with matzoh balls. By noon on the day of the feast, the air would be shimmering with schmaltz, the kitchen windows steamed up against the cold spring air outside. This golden soup was the first course, and it was glorious. 
 
 
Shortly after my father died this past spring, I was hunting through my email archives for something, and I came across an old letter my mother sent to my sister Sarah and me, in which she describes how to make soup. It may have been the first year we split up the cooking and baking duties.  Maybe she wasn’t feeling strong enough to turn out an entire feast by herself;. or maybe we had done it before, but she still thought of us as little girls with yarn bows in our hair (notice the part where she thinks we may not own a whisk). 
 

Anyway, here is her recipe (and I’ll put my challah recipe at the end). Who couldn’t use a big pot of wonderful soup on a random Tuesday in this difficult, comfortless year? It’s easy and rewarding, and if you haven’t met my mother, this is a good way. 

***
 

Oh, I didn’t mean you should do the sponge cakes and ALSO the soup and matzo balls! I will be eternally grateful if you can find the time & energy to make the soup and matzo balls. The cakes and the rest I’m so used to doing every year that it’s really no trouble at all. I was mainly hoping you would do the soup & matzo balls. If somebody is taking care of that, nothing seems difficult to me!

Here is how I make chicken soup:

You start early. You fill up two big pots with water and start heating it up. You wash and cut up the chicken, one very big one or two small ones, complete with fat and skin but take out the raw livers and put them aside to saute for Reggie or Abba or whoever likes it, and you heat up the water and put everything into it–I can bring you big pots–along with cut-up onions, a big bunch of carrots, peeled & sliced, a few sticks of celery, salt and pepper, and if possible fresh dill and parsley–it’s a good idea to get those early, especially the dill, because not all stores have it. (Fresh dill is what makes the soup taste so home-made, and also it’s pretty. You rinse the parsley and dill, shake it out, and put it in closed jars or plastic bags or a big container till you need it.)
 
You put everything in the big pots and bring it to a boil, and let it simmer and after a while there will be all this yucky stuff at the top, which you carefully skim off with a big, flat spoon, till most of it is gone. Then cover the pot and let it simmer for a long time, enough to cook everything and get all the flavor into the broth. You cook it for a few hours, leaving the top on the pots most of the time so it won’t get boiled down very much, and check it every once in a while–it should be at a nice simmer or a quiet boil.
 
When it’s all done you put the soup through one big or two regular colanders (I should have gotten you a bigger one!) and the soup back in the pots, and let all the vegetables and chicken and everything cool down so you don’t burn your fingers. Then you separate out the carrots, the chicken, and the other vegetables and as much of the dill and parsley as you can find and cut up a bit. Put the carrots (sliced), the dill, and the parsley back into the soup, cut up in pieces, and maybe a few pieces of chicken too (watch for little bones!).
 

You can save the cooked chicken and vegetables but they will be pretty much tasteless and if you serve them in a recipe it will need spicing up. The soup, meanwhile, you can refrigerate and the next day the fat will have risen to the top and hardened and you can take some of it off easily, but leave enough in to give it a good taste and to have those nice shiny circles of fat floating in the soup. Save the extra fat, because you’ll need some of it for the knaidlach (matzo balls).

The soup together with the matzo balls in it freezes very nicely, and it can be thawed and heated under a low heat on Passover day (that’s Holy Saturday for us).

If you know an easier way of making chicken soup, you should use it, because any kind of home-made chicken soup is yummy and holy and special. I hope I explained it right.

Matzo Balls (k’naidlach)

After the soup, this will be easy. How many to make I can’t tell you, only The More the Better. They will be delicious even if they turn out rubbery. This recipe says it makes 8:

You will need: eggs, matzoh meal (kosher for Pesach), chicken fat (melted) from the soup, and some salt.

First heat up a big pot or two of water and get it simmering, covered. Beat up 2 eggs (with an egg whisk if you have one) with 2 tablespoons of chicken fat from the soup and maybe some salt but not too much. (If for some reason you don’t have enough fat you can use vegetable oil). Add half a cup matzo meal and mix with a fork. Chill in refrig for about 15 minutes. Wet your hands and make 8 matzo balls (about one inch in diameter each) for each recipe, and put them into the boiling water.

Cover tightly, reduce heat, and simmer till done–about 20 minutes, maybe a little more. Sometimes they stick on the bottom a little bit and have to be gently dislodged with a spoon. Usually they just sink and then float up by themselves. They should be fluffy but if they’re not they’ll still be loved by one and all.

You can cook more than 8 at a time. The big pots can hold many matzo balls at a time.

I have reason to believe that some recipes call for 2 Tbs. of soup broth along with the eggs, fat, and matzo meal. I’m not sure which recipe we’ve been using all these years, or if there really are two recipes. I always just took the recipe off the matzo meal box and never noticed if there were two versions. You might want to call Simmy and see what she uses.

Do you still want to do all this cooking?? Now that I write it all down I remember why I’ve been trying to get out of doing it every year, mostly by foisting it off on Simmy.

Love,

Ima

***
 

Challah (braided bread)

Ingredients

  • 1.5 cups warm water
  • 1/2 cup oil (preferably olive oil)
  • 2 eggs
  • 6-8 cups flour
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1.5 tsp yeast
  • 2 egg yolks for egg wash
  • poppy seeds or "everything bagel" topping (optional)
  • corn meal (or flour) for pan, to keep loaf from sticking

Instructions

  1. In a small bowl, dissolve a bit of the sugar into the water, and sprinkle the yeast over it. Stir gently, and let sit for five minutes or more, until it foams.

  2. In the bowl of standing mixer, put the flour (starting with six cups), salt, remaining sugar, oil, and eggs, mix slightly, then add the yeast liquid. Mix with dough hook until the dough doesn't stick to the sides of the bowl, adding flour as needed. It's good if it has a slightly scaly appearance on the outside.

  3. (If you're kneading by hand, knead until it feels soft and giving. It will take quite a lot of kneading!)

  4. Put the dough in a greased bowl and lightly cover with a damp cloth or plastic wrap. Let it rise in a warm place for at least an hour, until it's double in size.

  5. Grease a large baking sheet and sprinkle it with flour or corn meal. Divide the dough into four equal pieces. Roll three into "snakes" and make a large braid, pinching the ends to keep them together. Divide the fourth piece into three and make a smaller braid, and lay this over the larger braid. Lay the braided loaf on the pan.

  6. Cover again and let rise again for at least an hour. Preheat the oven to 350.

  7. Before baking, make an egg wash out of egg yolks and a little water. Brush the egg wash all over the loaf, and sprinkle with poppy seeds or "everything" topping.

  8. Bake 25 minutes or more until the loaf is a deep golden color.

Returning to school? Don’t worry: It’s impossible

When I first started home schooling, my mother told me, “You know, the thing about home schooling is that it’s impossible.”

She was not only experienced but a pioneer, one of the first in the region to even attempt such a thing as home schooling. So she knew what she was talking about. But a ray of sunshine she was not.

It was the last thing I wanted to hear, that my new plan was impossible. Who could wake up each morning and willingly set out to do a thing that cannot be done? I knew I was born to home school my children. We would be courageous explorers on the sea of ideas, ravenous guests at a banquet of wisdom and culture. My children’s 12 years of school would be only the beginning of their education, and they would graduate with a lifelong thirst for learning.

Well, we did make a sundial one time. And a bean mosaic. All my kids can read and add and tell jokes, and no one has once suggested they would be better off learning how to make brooms. After six years of home schooling, we realized it was time for a change, and since then, we have tried private school, charter school, public school and this coming year, parochial school. We have at least dipped our toes into just about every form of educating children, and guess what we learned?

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

Interview your parents

When I was in ninth grade, a teacher assigned the class to interview someone older than us about their childhood, and write up the results. Being shy and lazy, I decided to interview my father, because I knew where to find him (upstairs).

I remember showing up with the absolute minimal effort: a scrap of paper and a pen, and no preparation whatsoever. He was very annoyed when I asked him to just sorta talk about his life, and he sent me off to do more preparation. Equally annoyed, I slunk off to write up a proper list of questions.

As so often happens with good assignments, I started off just trying to fulfill my minimum obligation, but discovered in the process that there was a lot I actually was curious about. I knew what his favorite holiday treats were, but what did he eat on normal days? What games did he play with his friends after school? Who were his friends, and why? Was there anyone he was scared of? What did his parents expect from him? Did he get along with them? Did that change?

I ended up with a decent article, and I’m fairly sure my father enjoyed the evening. We didn’t get along well at the time, so that’s a stand-out memory in itself: Him relaxing and telling stories, and me listening attentively.

As I listened, I slowly realized something that hadn’t hit home to my self-centered teenage self: This is a real person, not just a rule-maker and the bringer of unfair consequences. This is someone who had a favorite candy and a favorite tree and a favorite uncle as a little boy, someone who got in trouble with his teachers and his parents. This is someone who once wasn’t in charge of anyone.

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Don’t bother lying to God

When my mother was a new Christian, she was in with a crowd that put great stock in outward appearances. Since she had many more kids and much less money than everyone else, she felt horribly self-conscious about her house, which was shabby and cluttered despite her constant housekeeping. She got in the habit of saying, if someone stopped by, “Oh, please excuse the house. We’ve been away all day and I haven’t had a chance to tidy up!” or “Sorry about the mess around here! The kids have been sick and I’m so behind.”

Then one day, she just got sick of it. The smarmiest, must judgmental neighbor of all happened to drop in, and she said, “Well, I’m sorry about the house. This is how we live.”

I wish I knew the rest of the story. Did the judgy woman gasp and flee? Did she tell everyone that Mrs. P. lives like a pig and isn’t even ashamed of it? Did she (it’s possible) think, “Wow, that’s kind of refreshing. Someone just told me the truth”? It’s possible that the woman was even grateful that someone trusted her with some difficult information. It’s possible she went away and asked herself why it was that people felt they needed to lie to her.

Telling the truth is says something about us, and also something about the person we’re talking to. When we tell the truth, its a risk to ourselves, but also a great compliment to them.

The older I get, the less patience I have for people who try to shine me on. It feels rude to be lied to. Do you think I’m too dumb to know the truth? Too weak? Too shallow? Who has time for pretense? There’s so much nonsense in the world that we can’t get around. Why add to it by pretending to be someone we’re not?

I’ll tell you something. God is even older than I am, and he has even less interest in hearing lies. My brother Joe tells about a priest who had a big problem. And he was mad. Mad at the world, mad at his situation, and mad at God. So every day, he went into the adoration chapel, knelt before the Sacrament, and told the truth: “I don’t love you, God.”

Every day, every day he did this. Until one day he said it, and he realized it wasn’t true anymore.

I’d like to know the rest of that story, too. I do know that it’s never useful to lie to God. It’s never useful to lie to ourselves about what our relationship with God is. It’s never useful to run away from God, and refuse to talk to him, if we feel like we can’t say the right things or feel the right things. No one has time for that, and it’s an insult to God to even try it. If you feel like you have to hide, then tell him that. If you feel that he’s not fair, tell him that. If you aren’t even sure he exists, tell him that. There’s no time for anything less than the truth.

Utter honesty is a luxury we do not always have with the rest of the world. Civility, duty, and charity often demand that we reserve such blunt honesty from other people, at least most of the time. So do what you need to do when you’re presenting yourself to the rest of the world. Sometimes it’s appropriate to lay it all out there; sometimes you will want or need to be a little more guarded.

But not with God. Never with God. Go ahead and tell him, as you open your front door, “This is just how I live.” It doesn’t relieve you of the responsibility of changing things, if that’s what needs to happen; but God will not help you change until you are willing to talk to him about where you are. He is a gentleman. He only comes in where He is invited. Honesty is an invitation he always accepts.

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This essay was originally published in 2016.

Image By Miguel Discart (2014-04-05_14-13-49_NEX-6_DSC08220) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons