I recently saw the Yiddish production of Fiddler on the Roof in New York (go if you have the chance!). The depiction of Tevye was more nuanced than I remembered from the movie I saw as a child, and it got me thinking about where we draw our lines about tradition and what change we’ll accept in the name of family harmony.
My parents, particularly my father, were big on tradition, and while I might have chafed as a child at things like missing public school on Sukkot and Simchat Torah and not eating brand-name Oreos, I generally went along with the plan.
Upon joining my life with another, I learned that compromise about observance is not limited to marriages between partners of different faiths. My husband is culturally and spiritually Jewish and a fervent supporter of the Jewish homeland, but does not embrace as much religious ritual and synagogue services.
When our children were young, he met me well more than halfway, and our children attended religious school and celebrated holidays and their b’nai mitzvot with our families and friends. Now grown, both our children tend toward his less traditional approach.
For some years as my parents aged, they came to DC for holidays, and to honor them, my brother and I leaned toward the traditions of our childhood, though adapted bit by bit to what was also comfortable for our spouses.
Now, with my parents and older sister gone, our family traditions continue to evolve and also reflect the beliefs of our adult children. With both of them living in a series of different cities, and one of them mostly overseas since 2014, we face the additional challenge of often not being able to be in the same place. I’ve come to cherish time together more than anything else.
My line in the sand differs from Tevye’s, and appropriately, we all draw our lines differently. Our constant is a shared meal, though that meal also changes over time, blending a nod to the past, an acknowledgment of the present and a merging of our different perspectives.
If I think back to holidays in my childhood, large family meals were also a big part of our tradition. At each celebration, several dishes were always present: chicken soup with matzah balls, my grandmother’s fricassee and tzimmes.
It’s a simple dish—boiled beef bones and flanken, sweet potato and carrots, seasoned with cinnamon and sugar—but one that requires some effort and many hours to make. We don’t call a big fuss “a tzimmes” for nothing.
When I headed home for holidays as a young adult, I always knew this would be on the menu. It was the dish that my mother lovingly made and brought to her sister when she was sick with cancer, and which my aunt relished when she had little appetite for other foods.
Once my father had passed away and my mother aged, we didn’t have tzimmes for many years. It wasn’t in my repertoire, and I had all the excuses not to try: it took too long, it was too warm that year, my daughter was vegetarian, my husband and son thought it was too sweet.
A couple of years ago, I felt a tug and wanted to recreate the dish. I knew the basic ingredients, but I feared the recipe was lost due to my neglect. Luckily, my sister-in-law had gotten my mother to document her bare-bones recipe for my niece’s nursery school cookbook in 2002.
I tinkered a little with the sweetness (less) and the spice (more). I added in the additional step of browning the flanken and used silan (date syrup) instead of sugar. I found that by leaning in to the more Middle Eastern flavors I love, the dish began to resemble a favorite lamb tagine and was well liked by at least the meat-eating portion of my family. It was just different enough, without losing its essence.
We haven’t all been together for many of the holidays over the last several years, but we have been creative about a shared Passover with our kids in Florence, Italy, while my son studied abroad and a Yom Kippur in a small town in Scotland while my daughter studied there.
This year during Passover, we’ll be visiting our daughter in Cape Town, South Africa, where she moved last year. We haven’t ironed out the details of what this will look like to meet all our needs, but with an abridged Haggadah in my suitcase and some ingenuity shopping there, I know we will find a way to make a seder and festive meal—and celebrate together.