In a speech at Guildhall on 24 November 1992, marking her Ruby Jubilee on the throne, ‘she’ said: “1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an annus horribilis.”
Every year, as winter begins to recede, Pesach moves in to occupy my thoughts. First, there’s the question of who is coming and on which night. A caterer’s daughter told me that the reason we have two nights of Pesach is to accommodate the various sides of the family. It keeps everybody happy. Well — as happy as we Jews can be. But Pesach also brings back the memory of my first seder as a ‘new’ bride.
Having come to marriage late in life, I was finding the intricacies of running a Jewish home a bit tricky. One thing I discovered early on was the pressures women felt as each holiday approached. Many began preparing weeks before. Our Cousin Ruth would come back from Palm Springs a month early so she could do her cooking and baking. But the key to being organized was something my husband, a single father of three, had taught me. Like a mantra, he repeated that I had to absolutely, no. matter. what. — order the kosher meat in advance! (Unfortunately, I’m a serial procrastinator.)
There were, as well, those lessons I had intuitively absorbed from many years of watching my own mother. Rule #1: Nouvelle, shmoovell. Make enough food to feed no less than the thousands of Jews who escaped Egypt. Rule #2: Have a minimum of three starch-laden dishes. The only greenery required was the one leaf of lettuce on the seder plate. And Rule #3: Order whatever you like — a turkey, a veal, a prime rib. But no matter what you have, you still need to have a brisket. Just in case. I can still picture my mother in the kitchen, the night before. While peeling onions or baking her famous 36-egg sponge cake, and in between talking to herself, I could see her calculating in her head how much food she would need. By the hundredth count, she would turn to my father who was shlepping boxes of dishes and equipment up from the basement, declaring in that not-to-be-questioned tone of voice: “Favick, just in case, you better go to Saul and get a brisket. Just in case!”
Saul, my father’s best friend and the kosher butcher in Hamilton, was always there for us. However, this year, I was on my own. Stuck in the backwater of our nation’s capital. (Sorry, Ottawa!) No problem. I had enough time to put in an order with our kosher butcher. The call began did start out as well as a conversation with the butcher could.
“One large turkey…
No large turkey? Okay, I’ll take the medium.
A medium-sized prime rib …
No medium? Okay, I’ll take the large … And give me a brisket……”
Clouds began to gather overhead. Then the dreaded words ….
“No brisket?… What do you mean no briskets? … How could you run out of briskets? It’s Passover. Whoever heard of Passover without a brisket?”
I couldn’t believe it. Ottawa. Our nation’s capital. Jews have been here since the middle of the 19th century. That’s a hundred and fifty years of briskets at Passover. You would think they would have gotten the hang of ordering enough briskets at Passover. And anyway, we’re less than two hours from Montreal. Next to New York, it was the Jewy-est of cities in North America! Brisket central. It’s not like we’re living in the Yukon. (I know in my heart of hearts that Jews there had enough briskets for Passover.)
My husband, who had been keeping his distance during the skirmish tried to interject a note of calm … “There’ll be enough food…What are you worried about?”
Husbands! Besides not knowing how to load a dishwasher properly, they just don’t get it. My identity as a newly-minted Jewish mother was at stake here. I had 25 years of catching up and I was failing – dismally! My parents would be there! The kids were coming. There had to be a brisket.
Perhaps he was right. Wasn’t there always more than enough food in our house? Whoever heard of a Jewish house running out of food? Every year, my mother would end the evening the same way: “Next year in Yerushalayim. Oy, we have so much food, we could have had twenty more!” I tried to convince myself it would be all right.
The next day found me at the JCC for a UJA meeting. As business wrapped up, talk naturally turned to – what else? – Pesach preparations. The committee chair mentioned she had already picked up her second order in as many weeks. My stomach tightened. I asked her, trying hard to keep it light, if perhaps she had been hoarding briskets.
“But I only bought two!” she replied plaintively.
“Dianne,” I wailed. “Ottawa was only allotted four!”
We laughed, albeit nervously. We wished each other a happy holiday. Both of us left with thoughts unspoken.
Ten minutes later, in the change room, I ran into the usual regulars. After the customary pleasantries, talk turned to – yes, you guessed it – Passover. Never one to let a story go – at least to anyone willing to listen – I recounted for anyone within shouting range, my brisket dilemma. One woman, Reta, shared her own story of heartbreak. As she had done every year for more than twenty years since moving to Ottawa, she called her usually accommodating butcher in Montreal. To her surprise, he begged her to wait until after the holidays. He could get her anything then, but not before Passover. He was in tears. “The butchers are very temperamental this time of year,” he added. Feeling sorry for the man, she said it was okay. She would stick to turkey. But, she informed me in a whisper, if I still wanted a brisket, she knew where I could buy one. Last time she checked, they had some left. She gave me the address, we wished each other a Chag Sameach and ran off
I rushed home and relayed the news. My husband had learned one thing during our still fairly new marriage. It was useless to argue. I taped post-its all over the house – down the stair banister, through the dining room and leading up to the phone – reminding him to call early the following morning. I simply could not handle the possible rejection.
The next morning, 7:00 a.m., with one day left, he learned that yes, a brisket was available. And yes, we could pick up the brisket that morning! But we had to come that morning … later they couldn’t guarantee. Afraid this madness would continue into the high holidays, he insisted I leave immediately. Still sleepy and in my sweats, I ran over.
I entered the shop and gave my name. Wordlessly the butcher disappeared through the swing doors into the backroom. I waited with trepidation. I saw a familiar face in the shop. Both of us pretended we were just there casually. The butcher re-appeared, a nondescript package tied with with twine in his hands. Seconds later, I had the brisket. No words had passed. It was wrapped and bagged with no identifying marks. I paid — don’t ask — and left.
I ran over to Loblaws to pick up my original meat order and shop for what I had missed the first two trips! I strolled, I shmoozed, chatting with people who were there for the same reason. It was a great time to catch up. I was euphoric. After all, I had a brisket in my trunk. Hey, I even had time for a class at the JCC. A necessity, knowing the eating that would follow in the next two days.
I spotted my husband in the exercise room.
“Did you get the brisket?” he called out.
With this, every Jewish male in the room joined in.
“You found a brisket? Today? My wife’s been searching everywhere……Where did you find a brisket?… Have you ever heard of such a mishegass? … How could you have a Passover with no briskets? …Weeks before we tried but we couldn’t get a brisket!!!” I tell ya, it’s a crying shame, a shande!
Reta re-appeared, happy to add to the escalating levels of pre-Pesach anxiety. There had been a brisket spotting. Minutes earlier in the change room, she had repeated my story to another member who had recently been through similar brisket tzures. However, knowing the right people and exerting the necessary pressure, she was able to secure two briskets. She had kindly volunteered to give me one. There she was, on her way home, no doubt to cook her brisket. I went over to thank her. Of course, she regaled me with how she had procured hers.
I rushed to my exercise class, remembering again how much food would soon be ingested. While struggling with the equipment, there came a familiar voice from the far corner. “Bruria, I heard you had trouble getting a brisket.” All hell broke loose. Everyone had a brisket tale to tell. Vu den?
“By the way,” someone asked at the end of class. “How are you making the brisket?”
I froze. I had never cooked a brisket in my life!
A couple of nota benes:
My father informed me that in Hamilton, they ran out of kosher turkeys.
My American cousine told me that a relative on her husband’s side could no longer even show his face at their kosher butcher because he had acted on behalf of the butcher’s wife in their divorce.
Saul z”l gave me a great recipe for the brisket. Years later Cousin Ruth gave me another recipe and it’s been a family fave ever since.
(This is an amalgam of several articles which appeared in several Jewish publications.)