I was invited as the cantor for the High Holidays services to a conservative congregation in Kansas. On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, a festival meal was served at the synagogue in the auditorium. For both lunches after the morning services, I was a guest of Thelma, the sisterhood president. Thelma, a warm and sweet Yiddisha mama, was known for her elaborate, delightful festive meals.
The service was over by 1:30 p.m. and it was close to 2 when relatives and friends, about 30 people, were seated at the elongated table. I had cereal and coffee for breakfast, so you can imagine how good and hungry I was. The smells of the different dishes were tempting and inviting.
Thelma had prepared three meat dishes: roast beef, chicken and veal and for a carnivore, such as myself, it was heavenly. I chanted the Kiddush over the wine and the blessing of Hamotzi over the bread and then we were ready to eat.
As the table was being loaded with the many side dishes, I lifted my plate to indulge. I put some vegetables in my plate, when I suddenly saw it; a big china bowl filled with tsimmes.
For those of you who are not familiar with this dish, it is an east European casserole, traditionally served at Jewish festivals. It usually consists of cooked carrots and sweet potatoes mixed with brown sugar, prunes and other things as one’s imagination dictates. In the last generation, it seems to have lost some of its luster.
I don’t like tsimmes. There! I said it. Call me a bad Jew, a traitor to my culinary tradition – I can’t help it. I dislike tsimmes. Intensely. Let me make it perfectly clear. I detest, despise and abhor it and if English would have been my mother tongue, I would have thought of even better adjectives.
My wife’s aunt, Aunt Faye, was arguably the best tsimmes maker south of Deerfield, IL. I tasted her tsimmes and still didn’t like it. Now I find myself staring mesmerized at this orange mound. “Wow,” I whispered. “Look at all this tsimmes!”
My hostess raised her head and looked at me with interest, “Do you like tsimmes?”
King Solomon wrote, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” That is to say, what comes out of your mouth might have dire consequences. If I would have had a few more seconds, I would have thought of something polite, such as; “It’s not my favorite” or “There are other things I like much better.” However, I found myself murmuring, “Do I like tsimmes?”
Thelma must have misinterpreted my reply. Her eyes lit with chef’s delight. Before I could say “Oy vay,” she scooped a large serving spoon of that red, red stuff – I mean orange, orange stuff – and dunked it into my plate, leaving me limited space for the meat I so craved.
I smiled graciously, added some roast beef to my plate and started eating. I’m a resourceful guy. I was going to wait a while and when no one noticed, slip the tsimmes into a napkin. Alas, every time I raised my eyes to see if the coast was clear, I met the gaze of the chef, who raised her eyebrows and nodded her head as if to say, “Good? Good?”
I decided to grin and bear it. Like a surrounded spy, who is forced to swallow the written formula (believe me, the metaphor is not that far fetched.), I too swallowed the tsimmes in my plate, helping it down with gulps of water and lemon.
Now I was ready to indulge. I helped myself to a nice portion of potato kugel and a generous serving of chicken. At that point, noticing my plate, Madam Tsimmes commented, “It’s such a pleasure seeing somebody really appreciating a good tsimmes.” Her eyes moistened slightly. “It was my bubby’s (grandma) recipe. She would have loved seeing how you enjoyed it.”
Did I mention, Death and life are in the power of the tongue? “It sure was a treat,” I praised it. Before I had a chance to scream “Da-yenu”, my benefactor or rather my malefactor slapped another spoonful on my plate. “Gezunterhait,” she said overwhelmed with emotion.
Defeated and flabbergasted, I started nibbling. No matter what I put in my mouth, it had the taste or at least the aroma of the tsimmes. Even when I gave up finishing my plate and got myself some desserts, I still had the aftertaste of the damned tsimmes in my mouth.
“Why God?” I thought to myself, “Is this my reward for coming all the way here to serve the congregation?” But I guess there’s no fooling God. After all, He knows that I came here primarily, because they paid me very well.
People were leaving full and happy, thanking the hostess warmly. I too thanked her, of course. As I was stepping out of the door, I heard her saying something that sent chills down my spine. “Cantor,” she called after me, “Don’t forget. We are expecting you here tomorrow for lunch.”