Rituals revised

By JUDE WATERSTON
Posted 12/23/19

The holidays are a time of rituals. Relatives who live far apart travel to be with family, gifts are given, hours are spent planning and preparing special food, and toasts and blessings are made …

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Rituals revised

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The holidays are a time of rituals. Relatives who live far apart travel to be with family, gifts are given, hours are spent planning and preparing special food, and toasts and blessings are made before the meal. Folks sit around the table together, eating, drinking, sharing and catching up.

I have been thinking back to holidays I’ve celebrated over the years and how they have altered over time, due to changes in observance, circumstances and the loss of family members. When I was little, we celebrated Chanukah—the only ones on our block to do so. My folks were not particularly observant or religious, but when my sister, Janet, came home from playing with her best friend Monica, a Christian, and announced, “We love Jesus Christ best!” we were enrolled in Sunday school at a Reform synagogue and began our Jewish education.

Due to both the commercial hoopla and childhood glee surrounding Christmas, many Jewish families make a big deal out of Chanukah (which is not a particularly significant holiday), giving gifts on each of the eight nights. My parents didn’t buy in. When my siblings and I complained, our mother explained that other children were given mostly things they needed like gloves, earmuffs, scarves and sweaters. Instead, we received a few choice toys or games. Although we didn’t get a gift a night, we did, for eight evenings, light the menorah (candelabra). On the first night, we ate traditional latkes (lacy potato pancakes with homemade apple sauce), played with a four-sided top called a dreidel and were given gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins called gelt.

I longed for a red ribbon festooned wreath on our front door and a glowing, sparkling tree in the living room under which many gaily wrapped gifts awaited. The only concession to Christmas my mother made was to allow Janet and me to hang felt stockings, adorned with colorful beads and sequins, that she had hand-sewn along with other women in the neighborhood in a home-decoration class, which took place at a local elementary school. The stocking was a great treat, as it contained at its bottom a sweet, bright orange tangerine (as opposed to the threat of a lump of coal), and the rest was filled with tiny toys and plastic do-dads that delighted us.

When I moved to my own apartment as an adult and Christmas rolled around, I bought a bunch of pine tree branches, stuck them in a vase and decorated them with little ornaments, creating a makeshift, if unconvincing, tree. A few years into renting a house with Janet in the Catskills, I began nagging her for a real tree, informing her that many non-Jewish friends had supported the idea that it wasn’t so much a religious symbol as a celebration of the beauty and bounty of nature. The first tree, cut by hand (for the first and only time), was scraggly and not at all majestic, but it was the beginning of the ritual of having a tree that we still observe today.

Another ritual was going out to dinner on Christmas Eve to a wonderfully warm and homey restaurant in Barryville called Tre Alberi. Onorato and Agnes Alberi and family were from Croatia, bordering Italy, where the food was Northern Italian; the atmosphere is like being in someone’s cozy home. We always started the meal by sharing a bowl of straciatella, a rich chicken broth into which eggs are stirred, forming “little rags,” the meaning of straciatella. Then strips of fresh spinach are stirred in to wilt slightly and add a bright vegetal note. The soup is finished with a healthy dusting of grated Parmesan cheese. Nothing is more satisfying on a cold winter’s night. A small glass of strong, bracing grappa was always offered by Onorato at the end of the evening, and we toasted to the following year. We were devastated when the restaurant closed after a long run, and it took some time to find a new place to spend Christmas Eve until we discovered Solaia in Monticello, which has become our destination on Christmas Eve for the past three years.

As for New Year’s Eve, I think I have gone out on that evening possibly two times in my life and each time it was to a close friend’s intimate party. Once on a date with a guy she hardly knew, Janet was talked into going to see the ball drop in Times Square. Her memory of it is a frightening one complete with being bitterly cold, squished between hundreds of people and kissed by a total stranger. Seeing someone projectile vomit completed the ghastly experience, and we have spent the evening together ever since. We have a special ritual that has not been deviated upon for many, many years. We purchase what is referred to as Jewish appetizing, which means smoked salmon, sliced pickled herring in cream or wine sauce, sable, gravlax, smoked trout, smoked salmon and whitefish salad, and bagels and cream cheese. We eat this luscious spread with cocktails or a glass of champagne, watch an old movie on television and head upstairs to our beds, way before midnight.  Rituals bring comfort and familiarity, but sometimes they must be tweaked to fit the changes in our lives. My immediate family is comprised of only two people now. I miss the past but embrace the present. Who knows what the future will bring?

Stracciatella (Italian chicken broth with eggs and cheese)

Serves 4

As long as you have good chicken stock on hand, this soup takes the tiniest bit of effort, cooks in minutes and tastes delicious. A little freshly grated lemon zest may be added just before serving.

6 cups rich chicken stock

1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for sprinkling over soup

3 cups fresh spinach, cleaned, stemmed, and sliced into 1/4-inch strips

3 eggs

Salt and freshly ground pepper

In a small bowl, beat the eggs well. Add a grinding of black pepper and beat in the cheese and lemon zest, if using. Set aside. Bring the chicken stock to the boil. Season lightly with salt. Stir in the spinach and cook, stirring, about one minute. Pour the egg mixture into the boiling soup while stirring constantly with a whisk. The egg should look like “little rags” floating in the soup. Serve immediately, offering extra Parmesan cheese.

Chanukah, holidays

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