Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2
April 7, 2017 by Mel Weiss
It bears mentioning that very little about Jewish life in our small town in central Maine resembles the larger world. And it also bears mentioning that, in a lot of ways, this is the most traditional community I’ve ever been part of.
It can be hard to tell if some of our idiosyncrasies are cutting-edge or a throwback to an earlier era. When I have kosher meat ordered in bulk through our local Maronite Lebanese butcher, am I embracing a post-modern, consciously interfaith model of community… or just trading on a historic relationship between the two “other” groups in town? When my wife and I schlep kosher items from Portland, Boston, and points south up to our town, are we ironically embracing an intersectional understanding of our Jewish and female identities and responsibilities… or are we just doing the modern version of what women of our congregation have been doing since they had boxes of groceries shipped up on the bottom of a Greyhound bus?
And, maybe first and foremost, when I gather the world’s least likely group of women to clean, kasher, and cook for days straight before our rowdy community seder, am I doing the radically innovative… or the most boringly practical? (And as long as the chametz gets destroyed and the matza ball soup doesn’t, should I care?)
I have to give you a snap-shot of the days leading up to seder to truly convey not only what a motley crew we are, but also how little about our little shul in the big woods could function without the invaluable contributions of all members of our community – especially non-Jewish women.
Here, take a look around our bubble-gum pink kitchen (the original color dates, naturally, to the late 1950s). There are some of the usual suspects – a woman raised in a traditional Jewish home in Brooklyn, who’s lived in Maine for decades, dicing potatoes for kugel. There’s a woman who grew up in the emptying Jewish mecca of the Borscht Belt. She took the initiative to learn to read Hebrew in her forties, and went on to become not only a bat mitzvah, but a regular Rosh Hashanah Torah reader. She’s elbows-deep in shredded coconut, nervously checking in with me every few minutes, because she can never remember all the complicated kashrut rules I enforce this time of year. The woman next to her doesn’t have that problem, though: a Venezuelan Jew-by-choice who makes the best cake I have ever eaten, she’s my partner in crime not only in yelling “don’t bring that in the kitchen!” but in adding just a little more spice to the chicken, as we tell one another no one else needs to know.
But it’s when the rest show up that the party really gets started: the local woman who’s been staffing synagogue events for, by her count, at least forty years. If anyone is going to lay down the law about kashrut, it’s going to be her, with a stern reminder to whoever even looks at the dairy sink that this is a meat meal and they best let her clean that up. I don’t know what church she attends, if any, but boy – are they lucky to have her. She knows the dirt on everyone and though she disdains gossip, she’ll share stories about the synagogue’s hilarious historic moments. Chopping onions in the corner is the half-Indian college student who lives above me, from a neighborhood in Queens I have frequented often. She misses cooking and adores our liberal use of garlic and aromatics – all the food in the dining hall, she says, tastes like white bread. She’s also anxiously looking at the chicken, because she knows that the pan full of just the gogols, the necks my mother taught me how to prepare, are just for us (and the Venezuelan) – everyone else thinks they’re icky. And out in the community room, chasing after my energetic toddler, is my wife’s star Hebrew student. A black woman from Houston dropped in rural Maine, she’s upbeat and kind – and she reinforces the bilingualism we’re trying for at home with an ease that delights us. She found the afikomen last year and was the only one in her class to actually understand the Four Questions. “Aht rotzah l’sakhek?” she calls to my child, who crawls towards her at warp speed. The answer is always yes.
Despite the lunacy of preparations, the long hours in the kitchen, and the innumerable logistical issues of strictly observing far away from the centers of the Jewish world, I still love Passover, maybe even best among the holidays. Celebrating out here is a good reminder that family and community are big and complex – and that a Jewish community might have more to it than its Jewish members. It took a long time and immense effort for Jewish women to find their place not only in the kitchen but also at the head of the table, a struggle I’m the grateful beneficiary of. It’s an inheritance that reminds me that the work of those people we may not consider, at the margins, can make all the difference in the larger work for liberation.
Mel Weiss is the Co-Director of Summer Programming for the Center for Small Town Jewish Life. She lives in lovely Maine with her wife and daughter.