The powerful personal prayer experiences we feature in this issue are, in some ways, a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is a leap a forward for a woman to recognize that her own life—and body—may be an appropriate text for prayer, and that we women are able to create and own such an embodied connection to Judaism. After all, brit milah—ritual circumcision—has been the test of true Jewish identity and affiliation for millennia. It’s so embedded in the Jewish experience that many of the daily prayers—including the blessing after a meal—refer to “the mark upon my body.” Well, women have not had that mark. We’re at a watershed moment when women are creating what amounts to personal worship experiences based on our own bodies. In the pages to come you’ll read about how one woman uses the placenta which once connected her to her baby as the trigger for a ritual marking the child’s separation from her body. Another woman describes nursing her baby in synagogue and feeling the holiness of nurturing life in another human being—as God does.
So what is the downside to these very moving stories of women seizing a ritual opportunity in a private fashion? Only that for so many centuries women have been told that personal prayers were where we should keep our Jewish connection—that we didn’t need communal ritual, communal prayer, that we were exempt from time bound commandments because we were too busy raising children, that we weren’t obligated to appear at services. For the prayer experiences featured here, their very personal nature is part of their power, but the risk we run is that women’s religious drive will be once again private, like the private petitionary prayers—techinot—that women through the centuries crafted and recited in solitude, often in crisis. These prayers never made it into the liturgy. As Rabbi Sandy Sasso has said, we look forward to the day when women’s prayers will be bound in hard covers in a book that, should it fall, we’d kiss it as we picked it up.
On the other hand (third hand? fourth hand? How many are we up to here?) the deep spiritual component of some of our personal rituals is the very fact that we perform them alone, that they have some transcendent meaning which does not require that we perform them in public, or necessarily share them with others. A prayer of intention for beginning a new project—like starting to write a new book, for instance. We all have those moments when we’re suddenly aware of the sacredness of a task we’re about to begin. (It happened to me when I sat down at my desk to type the opening chapter of my first book, Jewish and Female). More humbly, I think of my recipe box (actually two of them) as an altar of sorts. I am perfectly serious. I don’t go to them every day (having long, long ago given up cooking regularly from recipes), but when I do, especially around the holidays, I recognize that I am in a force field of memory and passionate connection. I only wish that I had a prayer to say for those moments, The Bracha of the Recipe Box, a prayer of gratitude for the people in my life (and the stages in my life) these food-stained cards and slips of paper represent. They’re a crib sheet to personal history, and a way to memorialize both people who are no longer alive (better even than a yahrzeit candle) and people no longer in my life.
Some are the recipes which break my heart, heartbreaking because they’re in the handwriting of people dear and dead: the recipe for my mother’s matzah balls, written in part in my father’s distinctive handwriting, and the 1950s and 60s specialties of my mother’s that I would not want to replicate now, but which I keep anyway, because she wrote them out. (One, which I never saw emerging from her oven, was for komish bread—the north-end-of-Winnipeg version of mandel bread —made with Special K cereal!! What on earth could that have been? So the recipe box has a few unsolvable mysteries. Including why my mother wrote out for me a recipe from a woman who was her rival….) There’s a recipe for a wonderful carrot ring from a late cousin, a recipe I haven’t made in decades, but cherish anyway. At age six I’d been the flower girl at her wedding, and she died young. Cookie specialties—oatmeal and poppy seed—from two of my father’s sisters, long lived. My cousin Sheila made a whole bar mitzvah meal from these recipes, and placed a recipe card beside each one on the buffet, thus inviting into the celebration all the dear deceased relatives from the female line; since the photos of family members in the synagogue lobby were all of grandfathers and uncles, she let the guests know that the grandmas and aunts needed a place of honor too. In the same spirit, I have (and cook from) my late mother-in-law’s divine recipe for cabbage soup. (Urgent question: Why am I the repository of recipes from my husband’s family? How come he has no recipe box, though he cooks?)
Then there are random exotica which bring pure pleasure, untinctured with regret: Labor-intensive Sephardic goodies from when my oldest child made a good buddy in nursery school; his mom is in my life still. Recipes for Rosh Hashanah feasts culled from the tiny Jewish community in South Dakota, where I once spent a year on an Indian reservation. And an extraordinarily good Passover apple cake from the mother of Yehudi Menuhin; story goes that when Menuhin was still a child prodigy (must have been in the 1930s), Mama accompanied him on a concert tour which brought them to Winnipeg at Pesach. They stayed with a family friend, Mrs. Menuhin baked the cake, and the recipe remains in my box as proof that Winnipeg was a center of high culture evening the olden days. The handwritten recipes for her mother’s specialties sent to me by my oldest childhood friend; her script looks exactly as it did in grade school, a fact which beings me great joy. Some of the stitches in life have not been dropped.
And then there are the things in these boxes which aren’t recipes, further evidence that this is a shrine—not to kitchen gods but to the past; Babysitter lists from the 1970s, kept here because I don’t want to forget the names of these estimable teenaged girls who now, for heaven’s sake, must be in their 40s! Driving directions in my late father-in-law’s hand, because he knew I’d get lost without them. Instructions, yellowing with age, for making pomander balls, cottage cheese from scratch, sprouts from mung beans, all testifying that once, before writing books, editing copy and raising money came to preclude such pursuits, I’d had more time. Each time I see these mementos, I pause for a moment in silent and solitary acknowledgement that I’ve led many lives, and that each phase, each city, each circle of friends, has left me with something of value.
So my private rituals arc at the stove and in the kitchen— not in shul, not even in study. I give thanks to antecedents, and recognize that even if I didn’t always appreciate their influence fully at the time, their reification in my recipe boxes testifies to their hold on me. I suppose my prayer would go something like: “Help me to acknowledge the present moment, and the ones who share it with me.”
And let us hope that the coming year will bring better news.