Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Gefilte Fish

by Elizabeth Cherny

This story begins right before Rosh Hashana - the Jewish New Year. It’s the generational story of a family tradition that was started by my late grandmother and was continued by my mom until she, too, had passed.
It was the first year without my mom, and for me it was the time to face the reality and to make the decision: to keep the tradition alive, let it go, or just make a dinner to bring family together?

I was on the phone with Bella, a friend of mine for twenty years. We first met when we just arrived as refugees to this country, with four hundred dollars in our pocket and without knowing what will happen to us next. The time and life that we all shared in the suburbs of Chicago made us more than just friends; we became a family. Our children, not even us, made such a strong statement.
With the holidays around the corner, Bella and I were talking about what we will make for the dinner.

I don’t remember who asked first about gefilte fish, a very important dish that has to be served at such a time and, without it, it would be not considered a Jewish holiday dinner.

These days when everybody is busy, you can buy the fish ready to serve. You can order it with delivery an hour before the dinner and it would be okay. But, when the woman of the house makes the fish at home, only then is the meal considered to be a holiday dinner!

The fish, the gefilte fish, becomes the center of attention, the subject of the conversation, a main dish, no matter what else would be served that evening.

There we were, two friends, two women who grew up by traditions with traditions, talking about holidays and talking about gefilte fish. Who asked whom first and who said next, I don’t remember but it was close to this:

“Bella, what would we do with the fish?”

“I thought about it, but I don’t know, yet. Do you know how to make it?”

“I think, if I would start making it, I would remember. I didn’t do it for a long time but I can try,” I said, not even thinking where it will bring me and us. “Do you know how to make it?”

“Well, when my mom used to make the fish I tried to be there, some place around, mostly in her way, so mom would look at me and say, ‘Please, Bella, do me a favor just go and do what ever you want to do, don’t try to help me. I am  fine to be here by myself. I can still take care of this. Your time will come, don’t worry!’ So, I would happily leave, but I saw what she did and some of it I do remember…Lily, what, if we tried to make the fish together?” she asked me. “You remember some and I remember what I saw. Let’s do it?”

“You’re serious, aren’t you?” I asked my friend.

“Yes, I am. What do we have to lose? We will spend time together and, who knows? Maybe between the two of us, we would remember and we would have our gefilte fish on the table.”

“Well,” I said, “let’s do it. I still have pots and pans for all of this. In some of them, my grandma used to cook and we called them ‘The Golden Pots.’ They are from my old home.”

“We can’t use your stuff,” quietly said my friend. “I am sorry, but we can’t. They are not kosher.”

For a brief moment, I was so excited that I forgot that my friend keeps kosher and you can’t mix and use anything that is not kosher in the house.

“Well, what can we do?” I asked her with the all excitement gone. “Too bad, my friend, that you don’t have pots to cook the fish.”

“I have. I do have the pots in which my mom made the fish.”

“Great, so what is the problem? We will use yours. What the difference?”

“We can’t use them, either” Bella replied in a very apologetic voice.

“Why not?” I asked her, not understanding what she is talking about.

“They are not kosher, either,” she answered quietly.

“What?” I think that as much as my friend’s voice was quiet, mine was loud. “What?” I repeated myself. “You are telling me that your mom’s pots, where she cooked the fish for all the holidays through all the years, are not kosher? Bella, what then is kosher, if not your mom’s pots and pans?”

“Please,” said my friend, “don’t be so upset with me! I know. I know, I understand why you are so upset, but I can’t use them because they are not kosher.”

Well.  I couldn’t stop, so upset I was with such a statement. I knew her mother. I knew the woman whose life was nothing but devotion to my friend and to her family, whose love was so unconditional that to me refusing her pots was an insult to her life.

“Well, my friend, let me tell you,” I said in the same very upset and loud voice, “you had better go to your shul and talk to your Rabbi.  Go and tell him how upset I am and ask him what else can be more kosher in life than pots where your mom, your Jewish mom, in the best meaning of the world, cooked gefilte fish.”

“Ok, I will do it.”


“Yes, I promise you.”

The time passed by and in two weeks Bella called.
“I have the news for you,” she said as she started laughing. “We have kosher pots and pans for the fish!”

“What do you mean by this?” I asked.

“Well,” she continued to smile and started telling the story. “I did go to the Rabbi and told him about our conversation. He listened to me and then he said that the pots we brought from the old country are made from such material that it is almost impossible to bring them to the cleaning condition so that they can be called kosher.  But, he promised to talk to another Rabbi who may have a solution. So he called in a few days and said that another Rabbi cannot also make such a decision and that Rabbi needs to talk to somebody else.  I don’t want to make up or to say more than I know,” she continued the story, “but I think the question was brought to the Rabbi from the Rabbinical Court. Well, they told me that, considering the circumstances and my wish, they can make a special cleaning for these pots and pans and they can make them kosher.”
My friend was happy and continued laughing telling me the ordeal it was to make it happen. I was listening to my friend, holding tears and thinking about life at large, about all the twists and changes we went through. The gefilte fish that was made by our grandmas in the old country and our moms coming to a different continent and bringing the pots and pans for the special cooked fish, the gefilte fish.

I thought of the tradition that was kept by our ancestors in the country where everything and anything Jewish was forbidden. I thought how they kept it all and without words and explanations, taught us something very special: to keep the tradition alive, no matter where the destiny will bring our families and us.

I thought what our moms would say. Would they smile, or just quietly shake their heads? Our moms, who were watching and listening to us from above. So, we cooked! We cooked gefilte fish the way it was made centuries ago, the way it was made in our homes, and the way we saw and remembered.

In my friend’s large, brand new kitchen that was built before the holidays and was expected and blessed as a kosher, on the new stove in all its’ shining glory, was standing an old, big pot full of gefilte fish - the same pot that was brought from the old country and in which my friend’s mother used to cook the fish before this special day!
The most kosher pot in the world!

When holiday came and our families and children were sitting at the table, we told them this story: the story of memories, the story of love and the story of a tradition we all wish and hope they will continue after us.


  1. I love these kinds of stories. And I know your ancestors are smiling down to see you making the gefilte fish.
    Confession: despite growing up in Skokie, I'm not sure I've ever had gefilte fish. Certainly won't easily find it in Denver now.

  2. What a beautiful story! I have goose bumps. I can't even imagine carrying such pots from the old country! I can't make gefilte fish because it stinks up the house, but I love eating it -- and only if my mom makes it.
    I have a pair of candle sticks that were "smuggled" inside a challah by my great-great aunt.
    Thank you for your story and pass the chayn horse radish)