Shabbos With Sarah
My daughter is in a boarding school outside of cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, and the first Sabbath I was in Israel, we traveled to Jerusalem. I was committed to being there, held up in some sort of gorgeous old space near the old city, for the period from sun down to sun down, with her. We toured the city with a retired diplomat who was stationed in the Hague for 5 years and was dropped on the edge of the famous food market in central J’lem. On a Friday before Shabbat, I can think of no place other than there were you feel the pulse of life ripping through your heart, your soul. I was drawn in a few yards by the vivid color of tomatoes and the aroma of open barrels of spices. I retreated, though, concluding that my safety took higher priority than tomatoes. We hustled around as many J’lemites do on Friday afternoon; stores shut down around 2:30; proprietors wish you “Shabbat Shalom” as they turn the lock behind you. We ended our rushing about in a cafe with books and wine and small souvenirs filling bags set down simultaneously as our weary and happy girl/women bodies. She had a hot cocoa and I had a cappuccino. A man on my left elbow passed over some small pastry he wished to share. We were probably blood-relatives; I feel everyone there is a brother, a sister. I was pure contentment. We were all Jews cozily drinking together before the queen of Shabbat gallantly rode through town. We returned to our 24 hour shelter in long, happy strides in a mother-daughter love bind, preparing to prepare for Sabbath’s onset. Quickly we showered and pulled wrinkled fancy clothes out of our backpacks, darted down 4 flights of worn marble stairs and fell into the damp, ancient streets of J’lem as the magic of dusk hugged that city of joy and anguish. We pranced down the streets and across a wide crumbling field to finally approach the walls of the Old City. I knew the alleyways well 25 years prior, and it flooded my memory cavern after I stepped through Jaffa Gate. To the right is the Armenian Qtr and straight on the Arab Market. A man called out to us: “do you want me to be your husband” and we giggled. No fear in our strong souls. At that moment, I decided to go through the market into, into, into the bowels of the old city to reach our destination of the Western Wall. Sarah said she wasn’t sure she was allowed there, and I told her it was OK. I felt, as we walked one stone step after another, down, down, down towards our destination, a sadness and warmth dancing between us, towards us, and out from us. I told her: “that man is a shopkeeper, earning a living,” “that child, he’s going home to dinner with his family,” another lowered his head and said: “good Shabbos,” another raised his and said: “good Shabbos.” I told my beautiful, Sarah, these are people like you and I, and unless they have a gun on our heads, we have nothing to be afraid of. Tears spilled from my eyes when I touched the Western Wall, yet I’m not sure why. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.
An intensive series of events, for me:
(see contributor David Lerman to learn about Restorative Justice)
The six of us sat under the arbor in the moonlight until every last detail was ironed out. Lunch was planned for around one o’clock the next day. Some would go to the market early in the morning with the list we continued to revise until closing our bedroom doors for the night. Not only had all courses been determined, but the sequence of preparing them was finely tuned because stove space, pots and pans were limited. Everything about that kitchen was pleasantly idiosyncratic and I knew from years of professional cooking, that this would be a challenge I looked forward to.
The menu: wild mushroom and saffron risotto that I would prepare (using saffron I brought from home) and then the golden Bresse chicken with olives that Rose would do for the main course. Those would be followed by the requisite salad and cheese courses, stinky and unctuous, and finally, dessert. The first had to be tarte Tatin, the classic upside down apple tarte made famous by the Tatin sisters in 1889 in a small town in central France. We struggled to come up with an appropriate baking pan, when at last I spotted the dog’s big and dented water dish. “That’s perfect!” I proclaimed and through gales of laughter, we appointed Laura to scour it clean as we knew she would do it impeccably. We decided to finish the whole event off with a chocolate cake and a bottle of champagne. That would be the lunch for the special guests from Toulouse and our friend’s big birthday bash, which is why we were there in the first place.
The next day came quickly and I awoke to the sound of low voices and footsteps below my bedroom window. The car doors opened and snapped shut on our VW rental. It motored over courtyard stones, past the 12th century barn and Grandmere’s 18th century villa and idled while the faded, teal blue wrought iron gate automatically and slowly opened like a large woman gesturing to her brood to run along, while reassuring them she’d be there when they returned.
I drifted back to sleep and they drifted back through the gate in no time. Sensing their jubilance, I bolted down the stone stairs to grab the image of the three women walking towards the terrace, arms weighted with sheer plastic sacks carrying their procurements. The stunning little chocolate torte was immediately brought out for previewing while croissants were pulled from bags and coffee rapidly distributed in mugs set on the long terrace table under the grape arbor.
The days during the week in Domaine Beausejour unfolded in a pattern. Some would elect to drive to the market for bakery while others were showering, reading, doing laundry or dishes, flower rearranging or morning stretches. After breakfast, while lunch plans were created, the first bottle of wine of the day was uncorked. We drank wine by the shopping cart full. It was very cheap and very local. The French call it ‘terroir,’ to describe the experience of tasting the minerals of the soil, the history of the region, and the integrity of a tradition. Inside, our kitchen looked like an impressionist oil on canvas hanging in a museum up in Paris - Gauguin’s Still Life of Fruit and Lemons. The walls were stucco and the floor was smooth, earth-toned ceramic tile and the lighting was very soft. Small stone windows like portholes provided views of distant vineyards and the cathedral on top of the nearby town.
Our friend dreamed up this birthday celebration. It was his 60th and enjoying the company of close friends with excellent food and a bounty of wine makes him the happiest. In June of the previous year, he traveled first to Paris and then to Toulouse, before venturing east to Beziers on the western edge of the Mediterranean, where the madam of the domaine would collect him at the central train station. He was driven down narrow country roads, to small lanes cut through rich grape-growing soil and finally through the gates to the worn and regal walled property that fourteen of us would make our way to the following June. The two settled the details for the two-week rental in the courtyard.
While in Toulouse, he was hosted by the parents of a ‘young and stunning’ French student he befriended at Columbia University, his place of year-round employment. He discussed this lunch with us intermittently during the months preceding our arrival and we vividly understood his desire to return the hospitality they extended him during his short stay in their home. The enthusiasm we had for the preparations was our gift; the uncomplicated addition of the cake and champagne would be a surprise befitting the gentleness of the days we were spending together.
In the illusive way a traveler burrows into a new destination, we dispersed from the table after each long repast and settled into activities that provided an interlude of quiet and aloneness. Some of us swam and sunned or read and eventually dropped off for a nap. I enjoyed walks on the roads which were only two feet wider than the miniature cars that rarely passed by. I threaded my way over hill and dale in the intense early summer warmth, breathing deeply the aroma of wild herbs and fruits releasing their new-bud scents. The only sign of humanity was the one and occasionally two pairs of men, standing over old grape vines discussing, I could only presume, grapes.
By the time I returned, which wasn’t always easy because I knew one beautiful road would lead to another, everyone was awake and dried off and reclothed. I shook off my solitude and rejoined the group. In a few moments, wine flowed, dishes clattered and serving platters were layered with slices of tomatoes, cheese remnants, cooked potatoes and olives while the long table was wiped clean of twigs and newspapers, cameras and books. What lay ahead were hours of languorous dining with conversation rich with familiarity. During evening meals, as the dark settled in, someone tended to the candles stuck in a jar of stones, adding in a fresh taper that would be melted down and replaced at a similar hour, the next night.
On this day it was especially important to ‘relax’ for a short time, even though we were already very relaxed most of the time. We jested about the pressure ahead; real French guests were coming for an afternoon visit and in this part of the world, it’s all about the food. I was tense, which contrasted comically with the vibrant potted flowers like silly, round and colorful faces surrounding me, as well as the sun-glistening pool and the sweet and lazy golden retriever sleeping under the table I seemed stuck to. There was little prepped up to that point and I knew from experience that this would be a pleasant challenge. After the others flopped into lawn chairs with books, or rushed to shed clothes and slide into the pool, Laura stood close to the table I still hadn’t moved away from, holding vases of flowers that needed attention. She hadn’t yet shifted even the slightest towards the kitchen to obtain fresh water, when we heard the familiar sound of the gate opening behind the thick bushes that gave us our privacy. She froze mid-gesture. Hmmm, who is coming into the compound, who could that be, a worker for the family fields, routine maintenance, OH MY G-D, IT’S THEM!
We rose and dragged ourselves towards the premature arrivals and pseudo-enthusiastically exchanged greetings. I was pressing myself into playing host. Pierre walked with a cane and was escorted by Micheline, his sturdy wife, to the table where each sat down. Our host joined them. In the kitchen, my mind, hands and feet moved to the pace of a 64-piece marching band. I sprung into executive chef mode, in the context of a beautiful, lazy afternoon. Sinking into my first task, I stood at the huge, homey kitchen table trying to roll pastry dough so soft and creamy with fresh butter and just barely enough gluten to hold the mass together which eventually turned out the most succulent pastry crust I had ever experienced. In frustration, I glanced up and out the French doors which let in the only substantial light. It was mid-day and the floor tiles were already warm under my bare feet and I noticed that everybody was busy either working on lunch or waiting for lunch. For an instant, I watched our friend at the table with the guests and knew he was at once trying to allay our pressure and make everyone feel comfortable while we continued to mount the lunch-time meal.
The courses eventually rolled out of the kitchen and were casually served and enjoyed by our guests, and ourselves. Sweating and tired from the intensity of an hour of nonstop movement, I felt myself seeping into my seat. I still played my part in the shared host role, but it was mitigated by and infused with the graciousness of our visitors. Micheline and I were seated next to each other which provided an opportunity to convey a shared insight. Half listening to the dialogue around me, I said, in part to her and in part to myself: “nothing stays the same,” to which she replied: “nothing stays the same.”
Finally, after several hours, Lynn and Rose scurried off to the kitchen prepared to grab the champagne and chocolate cake and carried it back outside with candles flickering in the summer sun, so that the moment which described our being so bound together, could be fulfilled.
I started going to Paris a few years into my obsession with French food. In those days I was reading cookbooks whenever I had the chance; in between diaper changes and making dinner for my family, folding sheets and packing lunches.
One night I was logged onto my old computer in my bedroom after the kids fell asleep. I was escaping real life in fantasies about Paris: the markets, the chefs running here and there, the pastries like Tiffany jewels and the cheese menageries. I had one of those thoughts you think back on and wonder what life would be like if that hadn’t occurred to me: “why go some day, why not go now?”
I planned my first trip that evening and like many cooks, the experience launched me into 10 years of nonstop cooking, and mostly the classics: winey beef stews that simmered all day, classic puff pastry baked cracker crisp for a tarte Tatin, bittersweet chocolate terrine swimming in strawberry coulis, potatoes cloaked in cream covered in bubbling gruyere cheese.
Each year I returned to Paris in January after the retail season tapered off in my job selling spices. And each year, I arrived in anticipation to meet more chefs, market venders and shopkeepers. On this trip, my third, I decided to hold up in my quarter, the seventh. An American friend who lives in Paris said it’s called “seventh heaven,” and he was right. It was heaven. Small and quiet, bordered on the west by the Musee d’Orsay and streets lined with little gem art galleries next to shops frequented by the quarter’s residents.
On one day of this trip, I planned to have dinner at a favorite spot of mine, Chez Josephine on the Rue du Cherche Midi in the 6th. I was well rested after a nap and really hungry. Behind the laced curtains of the mid-1800’s restaurant, I dined for 5 hours! It was there I swooned over a Grand Marnier soufflé for dessert. It is an ethereal and highly technical creation. The waiter laid it ever so gently down in front of me, then went to get a shot of the orange liquor as an accompaniment. I didn’t know what to do, drink it or pour it over the masterpiece. This was a high point in his extended service to me: “drink it, of course,” he said with the arrogance of a very well-seasoned waiter, eyeglasses lowered on the bridge of his nose. I love those kinds of responses in Paris. They warm my heart rather than turn it cold. Honesty like that is refreshing.
After settling the bill, I emerged into a magical night. It was snowing airy stark white flakes that slowly lowered to the ground where they instantly disappeared. I looked in every direction, and saw nothing but white. I was excited. This was going to be a beautiful walk ‘home.’ I wound through peaceful streets down to my quarter feeling so content with life at that place and time that I was inspired to do what I did next.
Just as I arrived at my hotel, I thought: “tonight is the night for jazz.” I grew up on Ella Fitzgerald, Dave Brubeck, Lena Horne and others. My parents threw parties where good food and vibrant conversation flowed, but it was the music I loved the most. Years later, whenever I visited my father at his home or opened the door to his car to join him for an evening out, jazz was playing so soothingly, so welcomingly. But he and I didn’t get along easily and the night before he died, after an argument over the phone and the last time we would speak to each other, I realized how alike we actually were. That night in the club, I planned to surrender to all those strained years.
I was determined to make this happen. I had seen only a few people out in the night during my return to the quarter, and in front of me a man walked quietly to his next destination. I asked him about a jazz club and he directed me to travel first left, than right and I’d be there. I was touched by his kind tone: “oh, you just want a glass of cognac or something?” For him, this wasn’t an opportunity to pick me up or to intrude on my plans; it was an opportunity to answer a direct question, directly.
I arrived at the corner establishment where through the etched window I saw silhouettes of closely knit figures in sultry lighting shifting to rich jazz sound. I entered and paid the 20 euro cover for the only seat left, and a glass of cognac. I took out my leather-bound pocket notebook, a fountain pen and pack of cigarettes and set them down on the round table in front of me. All around were groupings of Parisians. It was smoky and the air was super charged with a collective human beat. I said to myself: “dad, this is for you,” and there I sat, alone, through American standards played by superb musicians comfortably crammed into a corner space while the crowd ate every succulent note like it was dark chocolate mousse.
After about an hour, I was satisfied and ready to leave. During my walk back to the hotel, I felt triumphant that my dad and I just came full circle together, in Paris, ‘round midnight.