artwork by Sora Leah Sicherman
Chapter Seven: The Idea of Cholent
The idea of cholent according to Miriam was to assemble beans, barley, pepper, beef, potatoes, and ketchup, stuff each in a bag, throw them all in a pot of salted boiling water, and leave it on the special Shabbos hotplate overnight so you have something hot to eat after synagogue.
The idea of hamin, according to Shlomo Bitton is almost the same, but instead of white beans you use chickpeas, instead of barley you use wheat, and you also add some red-hot peppers, dates, paprika, unpeeled eggs, and lots of oil. I mean, no matter how much you add, it’s not enough.
It didn’t make much difference, though; Miriam couldn’t stand either one.
Early in her marriage, when she still thought it was okay to change the status quo a bit, she explained to her husband that she does not like hamin and would he please not make it at their house. While they were on the subject, would he please stop bringing Coca-Cola to their house and feeding it to their children?
Some people might call her a ‘health nut’, but for the last 20-odd years she had banned from her kitchen anything that looked like greasy food in plastic bags overcooked in unfiltered sink water, which was just what her husband liked to make.
What did Miriam like to make?
She remembered cooking in the Catskills six years ago, not at all like cooking in Miami.
During the long winter nights, dough slowly turned sour and this made the bread very tasty. Nothing much grew in the garden, though the children knew how to dig up Jerusalem artichokes and a few small potatoes. In the early spring they got wild scallions. Hardly anyone remembered to wipe mud off their shoes, so there wasn’t much point to washing the floor.
In the Catskills, Miriam learned very well the art of waiting as applied to cooking and cleaning. As a student at the music conservatory, she had learned the importance of waiting. In those days she had to mentally mark beats in the bars of notes that an entire orchestra had to somehow play together and still sound good. Miriam had to keep track of her part, sometimes counting for ten minutes, beat by beat, until she played her short riff on the bassoon. Then she had to wait again and go back to counting beats.
She didn’t know it at the time, but this was excellent training for marriage and motherhood. It was hardly ever Miriam’s time to speak. She had to wait for a cue, or risk not being heard at all.
Not that Miriam had so much to say.
She had learned that too much talking was bad. People got insulted, or didn’t agree with her, or went around telling people what she had said. It was much better to be quiet, and if something had to be done she would do it without talking.
Then, for example, she was throwing out the junk in the house, because soon they would move to Miami.
Sounds of sleep could be heard from above the iron grate Shlomo had placed over a hole in the ceiling. Warm air chugged from the stove to the bedroom upstairs. Miriam hummed a song. While she hummed, she mixed flour and water in a plastic pickle jar. She closed the jar and padded upstairs to bed.
Shlomo was already snoring in his woolen cap. Miriam didn’t sleep much; she skimmed over the surface of sleep like a toy car on the table. Three hours later, morning broke. Miriam tuned her ear to the earliest bird chirp, which started a riot of noise in the front yard.
She made her daily debut in the almost silent kitchen. Steam escaped a pot on a low flame. The dough bubbled up like beer in the jar.
“Wake up, Yom Tov!” she called through the hole. “Time for shul!”
Yom Tov, who like his father slept in his overalls, groped for his smudged, scratched glasses fitted with black elastic to keep it from falling off his nose, sneezed loudly without covering his face, tied his sneakers over mud stained socks, and jumped down three stairs at a time.
He ran outside to the station wagon just as Shlomo was backing out of the driveway. The rear door swung open and Yom Tov hopped in.
The car rumbled over a small bridge connecting the general store with the firehouse, raising clouds of dust as it passed an old trailer with its rusted junk in the front yard, and a large field of sunflowers. It picked up speed and passed Bob’s ammo store at the junction of Towpath Road and Route 209, the gutted used-to-be ice cream store, the Kerhonkson PX crowded with truck drivers loading up on gas, ham and cheese sandwiches and extra-large cups of regular coffee with plastic lids and straws.
The Ellenville synagogue looked empty with eight cars in the parking lot. Six gray-haired men in baseball caps, tefillin and prayer shawls grunted when Shlomo and Yom Tov rushed into the shul. The shul had movie house seats in red velvet that sprang up when they stood up for kaddish.
Young Rabbi Hertz didn’t quite fit in with his black beard and black hat. His son, a new bar mitzvah with a smooth face and baseball cap, stood up and began singing morning prayers. Rabbi Hertz had inherited the position from old Rabbi Spiegel. Here, in this wasteland of deserted bungalow colonies and empty hotels, he had built the synagogue on a full block in the center of town. All the money had been donated by the Silver brothers, hotel owners who needed the rabbi for weddings and bar mitzvahs.
Miriam remembered the dough. She added water, flour, and salt, just in time to stop it from frothing. She kneaded the lively glob on a board, marking time with full weight on her hands.
The children slipped outside. They climbed a ladder to the barn window and jumped into the snow.
Shlomo stood in the doorway in his shirtsleeves, blocking their way to the kitchen as he sawed a log with a rusted hacksaw. He handed Cynthia the hacksaw. “Call me when you’re done, and we’ll put the log in the stove. Yom Tov, get the big axe from the porch; go up the hill to the woods and chop down that old dead tree. Tell Karen to push it down with her sled.”
In the spring the garden was, once again, full of mud. Shlomo took Yom Tov and Cynthia to the garden with seeds and a pitchfork. Mud mixed with hay got all over the kitchen floor, since nobody remembered to wipe off the mud.
Cynthia swept under Yom Tov’s bed, exposing a pair of dusty ice skates, an old notebook marred by a fermented apple, plastic blocks, and a baby bottle.
“I can’t stand this room! Why don’t you clean it, Yom Tov?”
Miriam walked in. “I’ll do it, Cynthia,” she said, and took the broom.
This house was too cluttered with stuff. At the front door stood a closet stuffed with old coats, which the local cats had taken over. Generations of kittens had been birthed in that closet.
Mom had to find space to put her stuff. Lots of stuff had filled up their eight-room farmhouse and two-story barn, and chicken coop-turned-storage shed. She actually used very little, but feared she might leave something important behind, like an entry in a notebook that was her only reference to an important event, with dates and details, and when she would finally have time to write her memoirs she would need it. The only problem was, scores of unmarked notebooks existed with no time to look through them, even if she hadn’t been trying to sell the farmhouse, barn, and chicken coop and move somewhere else.
In the process of trying to sell the house, she bought yellow and lavender paint to cheer up the walls of one of their living rooms, but the paint only made it look dingier, so she slipped into the barn to see if she could find the notebook to stem a despondency attack. An hour later, she had not found the notebook and the children screamed and punched each other, a sign it was time to give them supper.
The day arrived when she had to pack; the truck was leaving next day. She still had not found the notebook, so she asked her kids to toss all the notebooks into boxes. She packed five more boxes with holy books the dog had torn up, more holy books ruined from rain and heat, and a whole suitcase stuffed with fringed four-cornered garments missing strings or hopelessly tangled up. She’d meant to drive all this stuff to the Ellenville shul, and now it was too late. She would have to find a shul in Miami to dispose of it. She hesitated on a few dozen bags of used clothing that might contain something valuable, and had no time to look, so she tossed them in too.
At their first rented home in Miami, the boxes and bags sat in a corner, undisturbed.
When they ran out of money and moved to a poorer neighborhood down the hill, the boxes and bags landed upstairs in the attic.
When they ran out of credit, a sheriff arrived with a cattle truck to move the family further down the hill. Mom thought, at last I’ll have time to look through the notebooks.
But the notebooks, holy books, fringes, and used clothing no longer existed—She found in the attic only crumbs and understood that a poor hungry rodent had been guided by a wisdom higher than hers.
But we were talking about the hamin.
For a while, in a burst of goodwill, Shlomo did refrain from cooking hamin at their house.
This soon fell apart, and that is the fault of a certain Hassidic rabbi [he meant well] who, after receiving a small donation, blessed her that her house would be filled with joy [in Hebrew, simcha].
The first sign that the blessing worked happened when she bumped into a Breslev chassid named Nachman, who requested a small donation for his rabbi, and telephoned her later that the rabbi wanted to add the name ‘Simcha’ to her regular name, Miriam. In case you don’t know, Simcha means ‘joy’ in Hebrew.
The second sign that the blessing worked happened when her eldest daughter Pearl fell in love with a guy named Sasson, which means almost the same thing as Simcha. Sasson’s mother came to their house to say hello, and her name of course was Gila, which also means ‘joy’.
A short time later, Miriam’s eldest son married a girl whose name was Rina, which means almost the same thing.
Anyway, because of this blessing, the simchas [joyful occasions] in Miriam’s house tended to get out of hand.
Because whenever another simcha happened, people came to their house for Shabbos and Shlomo cooked a very large pot of hamin.