A Hanukkah fakelore memory for 2019

Current LABA Fellow Rokhl Kafrissen recalls a late winter shabes memory of a dinner that never happened and a tradition that never was, but should have been. 


I admit that I’ve fallen into a rut. So much of what I write these days is polemical and issue driven. Polemics get clicks.

Personal confessions also get clicks. But then a lot of strangers on the internet know your darkest secrets. And once they know your secrets, they think they know you. So I don’t share too much about my personal life. But it’s almost Hanukkah, the twilight of the year, the end of a decade, even. For once, it feels appropriate to let myself indulge in a little sentimentality. So, I’m going to do something a little bit different. I’m going to tell you what happened on December 21, 2001, the night of Shtumer Shabes.

I was in social work school at the time, working at our clinic dedicated to issues affecting elderly widows and widowers. One of the things we learned in clinic was that surviving partners will often have issues around eating. They might end up buying too much and have lots of spoiled food in the house, or, conversely, they would stop buying food altogether and lose the will to eat.

In many cultures, it’s customary to bring prepared food to mourners. It’s not just a kind gesture or allowing for the debilitating effects of grief, though those are certainly important factors. But something much deeper is happening, even if we’re not aware of it. When we bring a mourner food, it recognizes that eating with, and feeding someone, changes us on a cellular level. And the longer you’ve been sharing food with someone, the greater the effect.

Sharing meals isn’t just tied to the release of insulin, but it also affects cortisol and adrenaline levels. Sudden and prolonged changes in these levels can even have an effect on the expression of genes. Many scientists now consider dramatic changes in eating patterns a kind of physical trauma. Emotional blows engender physical wounds. 

What’s worse, this kind of trauma to one person can have a physiological effect two generations afterwards. There’s a whole new field of science around this called epigenetics. One of my professors referred to it as ‘the haunted body.’

During the clinic on widows and widowers, I was paired up with an elderly woman from Poland named Sonja. She had survived the war, but lost her first husband. She remarried in a displaced persons camp in Germany, like many other survivors.

Sonja was very old. I was never exactly sure how old, because she was evasive about it, but she had to be at least 90 when I met her.

Before the war, Sonja had been a dancer in Warsaw. When she got here, she taught dance at Camp Kinderland and other progressive Jewish summer camps. In the 1960s, she started teaching Israeli folk dance at the 92nd Street Y. When I asked her where she had picked up Israeli folk dance, she told me she hadn’t. She just did the dances she knew from Poland and changed the hand movements a little.

Sonja understood the value of living boldly. Sometimes she would tell me, “survival isn’t for wimps”. At first, I thought she was referring to what she had to do to survive the war. Much later, I realized she meant that outliving your own world was itself a kind of death.

I ended up hanging out with Sonja, even after the semester was over. One day she called me sounding much more serious than usual. First, she said, she was getting married. I knew she had a gentleman friend named Harry, but I didn’t realize it was so serious. Then she told me she was having a dinner party on Friday and that I was coming. I thanked her for letting me know.

She hustled me off the phone so quickly, I realized she hadn’t told me what I was bringing. I just assumed the dinner party was in honor of her engagement to Harry. I thought it might be nice if I brought some champagne. When I called her back, though, Sonja told me not to bring anything. Not, oh, bring whatever dessert you like. No, she instructed me, very seriously: I was not to bring anything.

When I went up to Sonja’s apartment that Friday night, something seemed off. On my previous visits, the apartment had always given off cozy cooking smells, like a hug waiting at the door. This time, the only thing I smelled was a hint of weed creeping out from the far end of the hall. I waited uneasily for Sonja to let me in.

This was the peak of winter and the sun had gone down hours before. Sonja led me in and my eyes took a moment to adjust. The apartment was in shadow, and flickering candles were scattered about. I suddenly remembered it was Friday night, the beginning of the Sabbath or Shabes, as Sonja called it. I had grown up with a vague idea of Yiddish, but never heard anyone speak it. Shabes was a foreign country, and Sonja was my tour guide.       

At the dining room table three place settings were laid out, with beautiful fine china plates and silverware gleaming in the candlelight. Two unlit sabbath candles were waiting near the table.

Sonja had been waiting until I got there to light the candles. You’re really supposed to light them before the sun goes down, she told me, but it was more important that I be there when she did it. At that time, I knew almost nothing about traditional Judaism, having grown up in a very assimilated home in the suburbs. It was the time I spent with Sonja which awakened me to Jewish life, as well as its mysteries.

I stood with Sonja at the dining room table and looked around for the other people. “Where’s Harry?” I asked. Sonja glared at me and I realized this was not an engagement party.

Then she motioned to me to sit down. Sonja and I were at either side of the head of the table. Between us, a third place setting waited in front of an empty chair. Sonja asked me if I knew what day it was. December 21st. Yes, she said, but what else? I thought for a moment. Solstice. The shortest day of the year. For the first time since I got there, Sonja smiled.

I must have looked exasperated because Sonja began to explain: “What you must understand is that our calendar follows the night sky. It’s the Christian calendar which serves the sun.  Our week won’t start until three stars are counted. Our holidays follow the moon. Shortest day, longest day, these are irrelevant to Jewish time.

But in Zambrow [a town near Bialystock, Poland where Sonja was born], there was one exception. Wintertime, the Shabes before the shortest day of the year, all of the widows who hadn’t remarried observed a holiday of their own. No men, no children, no married women. The widows shared a Friday night meal at the home of the last woman who had lost a husband. It was called shtumer Shabes.* Aside from the blessings, they ate in total silence, and all of their deceased husbands were invited to join. It was considered a sign of respect, as well as a request that the deceased husbands intercede in heaven for the wives they left behind, that they should find new husbands who could take care of them or at least help provide for them.”

I gathered that the third place-setting was not for Harry, but Sonja’s deceased first husband, Wojtek, of whom she had often spoken admiringly.

Being young and dumb at the time, and intent on acting out the role of comforting social worker, I took Sonja’s hand. “Well,” I said, “it seems as if Wojtek has already blessed you with Harry.”

Sonja gently removed her hand from mine. “This is not for Wojtek. This is for the second one, Itche Meyer.”

Sonja rarely spoke about Itche Meyer. He had owned a newspaper kiosk in Times Square. An American relative bought it for him when he and Sonja arrived in 1948. He and Sonja had lived in this apartment for decades until he died sometime in the 1970s. But that was all I knew.

“Rukhele,” Sonja said, “I am what the rabbis calls an isha katlanis, a black widow.”

A split second of nervous laughter forced its way out of me before I could cover it with a cough. Sonja’s attitude toward rabbis – and anything that she perceived as too religious – was usually at least mildly sarcastic.

She ignored my fake cough and continued.

“An isha katlanis is a deadly woman, a wife who has already killed two husbands. The rabbis** believe such a woman may not be allowed to take a third husband because it would be like murder.”

I pointed out that the Nazis, not Sonja had been responsible for Wojtek’s death. And hadn’t Itche Meyer died of a heart attack?

“Itche Meyer died of a broken heart” Sonja said. “He was a good man. I thought I could learn to love him. But he was a terrible teacher. All he could do was love. Until I started to hate him for loving me.” Sonja stood up and placed her palms on the table.

“Tonight, I invite him home for shtumer shabes. I must know that he forgives me and that I’m not a murderer. My marriage to Harry hangs on his blessing.”

“But Sonja, I’m not a widow-“

“It’s America, he’ll understand.”

“But how will you -”  Sonja cut me off. 

“I will light the candles and make kiddush and then we must not speak another word.”

Sonja lit the candles and quietly said the blessing over them, then over the wine. She lifted an embroidered cloth off a plate to reveal three bagels on a plate. She lifted two and said another blessing.

A simple meal followed, with gefilte fish from the jar (I could see into the kitchen) and a thin chicken broth. Sonja bustled about silently dishing out food, making sure to give the greatest portion to the place setting in front of the third, empty seat. It was physically painful for me to just sit there and not say anything, especially after what Sonja had just laid on me.

Just as I was finishing my second bowl of soup, our silence was broken by three loud knocks on the door. My heart jumped out of my chest and my spoon clattered noisily against the soup bowl. Sonja lived in a doorman building where all visitors and packages were announced via intercom. I looked over at Sonja, but she was calmly sipping soup. I started to ask a question and she shook her head. What question would I even ask?

When she decided the meal was complete, Sonja silently led me to the door and kissed me on the cheek. As I walked out into the hall, I almost stepped on a bouquet of white roses sitting on the ground. I bent down to pick them up. A card attached to the bouquet had two words written in pencil: mazl tov. I turned to hand the flowers to Sonja, but she had already closed the door.

*silent Sabbath

**Yevamot 64b