JOHANNESBURG (JTA) – When we still reserved seats at the seder table for Russian Jews denied Passover, my sister-in-law Shulamit complied, despite her tiny apartment.
Shulamit’s speciality was making people feel good. Around her seder table each year, apart from our family, were lonely and stray souls she found in the neighborhood.
She, like Moses, had succeeded in drawing water from a rock, extracting precious Passover and other traditional recipes from my mother and aunts. No one else could pin them down to exact proportions. It wasn’t that they had a Fort Knox attitude to their Cordon-Jew cooking; they simply didn’t know themselves.
Shulamit cornered them in their kitchens. Armed with measuring jugs, she watched what they threw in, recorded it meticulously and produced a family cookbook.
Today, with my contemporaries from South Africa settling in the four corners of the earth and the older generation of our women making their contributions to the Great Kosher Kitchen in the Sky, this family cookbook is my answered prayer book for the chagim.
Even as I write this, I feel a twinge of guilt at my irreverence. Shulamit would have chastised me, gently, for making fun of our dear departed. They were my blood relatives, yet they loved Shulamit best.
You had to love Shulamit. She radiated the essence of femininity, with modest Jewish womanhood, her beauty both without and within.
When my brother Tuvia was studying, she provided home-cooked meals on his arrival from work and quality time with their daughter, Mira. Shulamit would amuse the child, allowing her husband to pore over his books undisturbed as he worked toward his post-graduate degree.
Mira was the only child in our circle not left with a nanny during the day – the custom in South Africa. As a result, she was more advanced than her peers.
“The sun sets on the horizon,” emerged from the mouth of this 2-year-old. And when darkness fell, Mira named all her “guardian” angels.
Tuvia attained the degree to secure his promotion. He, Mira and a Shulamit with child celebrated by vacationing in the western cape countryside. Shulamit took along her emphysemic mother.
Before dawn the next morning I was awakened by a shrill telephone ring. Tuvia’s unrecognizable voice uttered two words: “She’s gone.”
It took an instant to realize that he didn’t mean his mother-in-law. It was Shulamit.
“No, no, no,” I screamed amid his explanation: “Cerebral aneurism ‘ … “unborn baby, too” … “Mom can’t take it, her cancer …” and “just come soon.”
It was a two-hour drive to eternity. I was oblivious to the majestic mountains guarding the lush valleys. Mira came running out: “Mommy’s gone to the angels.”
The funeral was enormous, a broken Tuvia sandwiched between my parents and Shulamit’s heartbroken mother clinging to her sons.
Shortly afterward her mother followed her to the place where all grief ends. Then my mother succumbed to her cancer.
Shulamit was 28. The sun had indeed set on Mira’s horizon, her legacy of learning from Shulamit.
Now, before each Passover, I scan the family recipe book. I have perfected “Ma’s Tzimmes” and know how to plan the seder. It’s under the heading “Seder for 25″ … Shulamit’s Seder.
We shall always reserve a seat for her at our table.