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“What the Ark is to the Jewish Male, My Dish Cupboard is to Me.”

Three autobiographical paintings and a photograph, with exegesis

DANCING WITH DISHES

One day my cousin Jennifer, whom I love, dropped in to visit me. I showed her my new diningroom cupboard, an inheritance from my late mother-in-law. We took out and admired my Depression-glass dishes, which I was given by my maternal grandmother. As a child, I cherished eating from these dishes which Grandma used only once a year, on Passover. As Jennifer and I talked facing the cupboard, that feeling came over me: This is going to be a painting.

Jennifer and I are “Dancing with Dishes”—there’s no holding us back. The matrushkas (nesting dolls) in my breakfront are to me like the many generations of Russian women in my family.

The menorah on the bottom left shelf belonged to my great-grandmother, who brought it from the old country. The photograph on the upper left shelf of my cupboard shows Jennifer’s father and mine as young boys in New Haven. They’re posed wearing fancy shirts and shorts, pretending to share a book.

After I finished the body of “Dancing with Dishes”, I started in on a border, not really knowing exactly what I wanted to do. I stopped frequently to study the canvas. Suddenly I realized that I was creating a religious painting—a sacred ark! My heart was saying, “What the ark is to the Jewish male, my dish cupboard is to me.”

MY FATHER

My father died on my parents’ twenty-third wedding anniversary. I was thirteen. Their wedding had been on the same day that the population of Doksyce (now in Lithuania) was taken into the woods by Nazis, shot and thrown into pits. All my maternal grandfather’s family was there: Moshe, Shaina Basha, Velvel, Shepsel, and all the children.

Here my father washes dishes in a frilly pink apron—as feminine as it gets. A man doing what he pretends is a woman’s job, a man feeling obvious delight.

In real life, I remember my father dancing with the dishtowel—an ecstatic being. He used to tease me by starting stories about his childhood with, “When I was a little girl….”

As I painted this portrait, whenever my brush touched the line that was the edge of my father’s figure, an electric shock went through me. It was like he was with me, helping me paint the picture. It felt like conjuring.

KNEYDL SOUP

My mother’s mother is 97; she’s the one who gave me the Depression-glass dishes. Her entire life is devoted to cooking and serving food. That is the source of her pleasure, her reason for being.

For Grandma, food preparation is the religion. One evening when I saw her at the stove making matzah balls during the seder, I had a formal feeling—”She’s performing the ritual of kneydl.”

Here, she’s not just cooking soup, but performing a kind of alchemy, brewing a concoction which will function to hold cousins together for generations to come.

There’s a lot of purple light in this picture, suggesting magic.

AT 13

When my daughter turned 13, all the women of my family gathered together. We each held a ritual object, wrapped in black tissue paper.

“Bhakta,” I said to my daughter, “on your journey you will need four things. First, you will need to know where you come from.”

From one of my aunts I took a necklace, a Jewish star. I said, “This necklace was given to me by my father, and now I am giving it to you.”

“Next, you will need God’s protection.” I took a shawl from a second aunt and wrapped it around Bhakta’s shoulders.

“You will need light to find your way.” I then took Shabbat candlesticks from the third aunt, and placed them in Bhakta’s hands.

“Finally,” I continued, “You will need the wisdom and support of the women who love you.” From my grandmother I took a tablecloth which I had appliqued, and on which all the women present had written wishes and words of wisdom.

When my father was 13, his mother was killed in a fire. She had rushed back into her burning home to rescue the maid (who survived).

My cousin Jennifer is named for my father’s mother.

When I was 13—the day of my father’s funeral—my cousin Jennifer came into my bedroom where I sat alone, forgotten by everyone. We didn’t know each other well then at all.

She asked me about the Beatles. Which one did I like the best? I thought, “How kind of her.”