On this frigid winter day, I think of my mother, Ite Riva bat Peshka v Yitzchak, known as Ida.
Truthfully, I think of her almost every day. In terms of the lives of our family members, she was the linchpin, the one who shaped us into a loving family. She always anticipated our needs and dedicated herself to fulfilling them.
Thus, when we kids would walk into the house chilled to the bone, our teeth chattering from the bitter cold, mittens frozen on our fingers and boots filled with snow from our long hikes to and from school, she always had the perfect solution — a brimming bowl of her delicious hot soup.
But lest you think the weather had to be Arctic cold, with fiercely whistling winds, for her to make soup, let me promptly dispel you of that notion. Just about any day was a perfect soup day for Mom. Perhaps we just appreciated the hot perfection in a bowl more on those miserable days. Peak time was January, February, and March, but Mom never subscribed to the concept, so unfortunately ingrained into Israeli restaurant menus, that you can’t enjoy soup in July or August. Her theory was that hot soup would do whatever the weather demanded, warm you in winter and cool you in summer, and be absolutely perfect throughout the rest of the year.
For Friday nights, as is typical among our people, Mom made chicken soup, always a rich silky broth, bringing the household into the spirit of Shabbat long before the candles were lit. The golden color, born of her secret ingredient, a sweet potato, the fat globules floating atop the sumptuous luxurious liquid, laden with fresh vegetables, chicken legs, immaculately plucked, with their feet scrubbed, simmered to perfection, transforming simple tap water into a magical potion. Necks and pupiks were added for depth and complexity of flavor, alongside the always memorable baby eggs, of which there were never enough. And, to please my father, rock-hard kneidlach usually were swimming together with tender lima beans. Her soup was nothing short of love in a bowl. Irresistible.
She had a repertoire, an endless world-class collection of soups, always served hot, except for an occasional summer schav, always disseminating their fragrance throughout the house. She never used a recipe. Somehow she knew exactly how to make perfect soup each and every time, and every time meant at least six days a week. She never made soup on Saturday, the Shabbat.
When we lived in Herzliya, as we did intermittently for 22 years, there was that fragrance as well, also on Fridays. Somewhere amongst the many neighbors in our apartment building on Rehov Chanah Senesh there was another talented soup maker, like Mom, someone else whose soup was a perfect perfume as it permeated the hallways. As we would leave our apartment to buy last-minute odds and ends for our frequent guests, the aroma would penetrate the thick walls of the building, imbuing them with the scent of deliciousness, and the age-old power and love of the Sabbath.
I never knew which neighbor was the cook, although I suspected that it was one of the Canadians. I often wanted to ask, hoping for an invitation, but I never worked up the courage. And I never mentioned how she, or maybe he, enhanced and made our Shabbatot so perfect.
My mother’s soups were never corrupted by bouillon or any artificial additives. They were always pure as they warmed the heart and the soul.
She made borscht, a vibrant deep purple creation of fatty flanken, which bore no resemblance at all to the jarring red liquid that most American Jewish minds conjure up when they think of borscht. Of course you would never ever contemplate putting sour cream into my mother’s hearty beefy beet soup, with its hints of lemon and sugar and wisps of egg whites swimming like tiny unmelted snowflakes throughout the powerful liquid ambrosia. I have never tasted borscht like Mom’s since she left us over two decades ago. Believe me, I have tried, and failed, to make it myself. I confess that I do not have her abundance of gifts. When Mom died, she took her soups with her.
It was on July 15, and our family was celebrating the fifth birthday of our eldest granddaughter, Adiel, who had come from New York to spend the summer with us in Herzliya. The celebrants had gathered around the dining room table, which boasted a beautiful real whipped cream birthday cake, to sing “Yom Huledet Sameach.” And just then the phone rang.
It was a nurse from the rehab center in Kfar Saba, where, we all knew, Mom could not be rehabilitated. The person calling heard my thick American accent and asked if I would understand the Hebrew message that she was about to deliver. I indicated that I would, and she told me that Mom had gone to “olam ha ba.”
The celebration was over. It was our son-in-law Matt who volunteered to share the sad news with Dad, who could not hear without the hearing aid he always refused to wear. Hence he did not yet know the news. Dad was seven years older than Mom. He thought that she would be feeding him soup on his deathbed. This was not to be.
Mom’s soup making had stopped long before that July day. Her weaning from the little Herzliya kitchen had started when she suffered a broken hip crossing Rehov Sokolov. Despite the talents and skills of Dr. Muhammed at the Meir Medical Center in Kfar Saba, her hip was too shattered to allow her ever to stand and peel vegetables, adding water and spices and almost always meat, and then watching and stirring the pot until the soup was ready to serve.
It was not a simple process. It was more than met the eye. It was not without effort, and she simply could no longer do it. I suppose that at that time, she realized that her life was heading for closure. My sister and I also could see the signs, but our father could not. He assumed, incorrectly as it turned out, that he could never live without her.
Mom was strong and brave and thoughtful throughout her life. When a neighbor or friend or relative was sick, it was Mom who would create a big pot of her wonderful, healing brew, and rush to the bedside with it. There were those who walked this earth claiming that Mom’s soup was more curative than any medications their doctors prescribed. Jewish penicillin, which came in more forms than I can recall, included hearty mushroom and barley, stick-to-the-ribs split pea, and a huge assortment of other varieties that never disappointed.
Today, as the icy blasts of wind once more howl outside our windows, and the remnants of the last leaves of autumn fly past, I think, again, of my mother, her love for us, her family, and our own love in return. I think of imbibing a tempting hot bowl of her freshly made soup. Perhaps cabbage soup would be perfect now, sweet and sour and restorative. Or vegetable soup, loaded with freshly stewed onions, tomatoes, mushrooms and, for Dad, slow-cooked beans.
I think also of the Herzliya Cemetery where Dad joined her at last, and which today is covered with welcome rain, instead of the fierce cold we endure in New Jersey. I long to tell them our family stories and to wish them, yet again, to rest in peace. If only I could.
And I think of the two of them, sitting at the kitchen table in their cozy apartment on Rehov Ruppin, when their lives were calm and loving, playing gin rummy after embracing a simple lunch of fresh Israeli bread, dipped into the purity and miracle that was Mom’s soup.
Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was!