Although the days of my grandparents’ lives were more about herring than kichel, I have learnt from this cherished culinary combination that life is indeed both sweet and sour…
With a smidgeon, a superficial scanning of my memory, the very sensescapes of kichel and herring are never far away. Kichel, the generic term for “cookie” in Yiddish, is a thin sugarcoated baked cracker made of egg and flour that is cut and rolled into rectangular and diamond shapes. For centuries, this sweet delight has been eaten with chopped herring, the poor acrid relation of the fish family. This combination enjoyed a centrality and prominence in the communal and family life of Eastern Europe’s Jewish communities that was home for my grandparents, and having arrived on South Africa’s shores as anxious youths in the preliminary stages of the Second World War, this cold appetizer arrived along with them.
With memories wrapped in a hurt, pain and longing, so much of my grandparents’ world was premised on forgetting; on expending enormous amounts of energy into the mental walling off of the past, of conquering the impulse to reminisce, to recall and recollect; performing a permanent archiving of their emotional and mental recesses. Yet, as exiled Polish poet Czesław Miłosz remarks, the “landscapes and spirits” of your birthplace never abandon you, continuing to ooze from you, and ironically, the more my grandparents attempted to distance themselves from those contours, smells and sounds, the more distinct that world was illuminated; the more profoundly was awakened, to paraphrase Nadia Hashimi, not just the place they escaped but their “a thousand memories”. With this, the salty, savory, sweet sensations of kichel and herring, embodying the essence of a diasporic Ashkenazi existence, continued to accompany both them and me throughout our lives, both together and apart.
A geographical and emotional dislocation was permanently imprinted on my grandparents and herring’s astringent, slightly sour, rancid smell mixed with kichel’s baked sugary sweetness unfailingly evokes the rich sensory cosmos of which my Bubba and Zaida were both products, bystanders and active contributors. Even contained within these Yiddish utterances of Bubba and Zaida is a visual, aural, olfactory abundance and plenty that cannot be adequately conveyed. My Zaida embodied a “presence of absence”. In unwavering loyalty to his formal German education of social etiquette until his last breath, his lanky slightly slouching frame was always clothed in a thinning brown suit, a marginally lighter brown tie and polished leather brogues. Only hindsight reveals the sorrow and incongruity of this image that eluded me as a child – an overdressed, suited sad man, leather briefcase in hand, whose job it was to sell and distribute sweets, yet never finding or enjoying a sugary element in his own life. These images of him are colored in by the rural shtetl like smells and scents radiating from my 4 ft. 10 Bubba. Whilst dreaming of walking into a supermarket and buying canned asparagus, the gentle sounds of the Yiddish Oif’n Pripichok nursery rhyme were interspersed with the boiling away of tzimmes on the stove top. Amidst these sad faces, wafting aromas and yearning sentimental songs, kichel and herring was loyally alongside them.
Kichel and herring have always represented for me somewhat of the microcosm of the macrocosm. Although the days of my grandparents’ lives were more about herring than kichel, from this cherished culinary combination of the sweet and the sour, I have learnt that life is indeed both of these elements. Probably owing to the overwhelming scent it emits, all too often we solely recognize life’s herrings: our paralyzing fears, rejections and disappointments; our regrets, longings and missed opportunities; our myriad worries and unrelenting financial pressures, the violent ignorance we encounter, the all too ubiquitous loneliness we feel and both see and do not see, the unexplainable suffering we cannot not see, our deceased loved ones, and the “festering wounds” and sagging “heavy load” of our unfulfilled dreams. And with no consistency in the application of our principles, we passionately question our herrings without questioning the kichel of life, the sure connections we have, the kindness we meet, the wholesomeness that lingers after a stranger’s smile; the music that makes us believe, the meals we share, the family we confide in, the sports we experience; moments of meaning and understanding, the winter sun on our faces and the summer breeze under our armpits, the laughs we laugh.
And our very beings contain both of these ingredients, symbiotically waltzing between the two. Some days we are more kichel than herring, and unfortunately, we have all had days when we are the herring. Yes. We hold and we are many things at the same time. We are the big questions – the fragility of life, the irrevocability of death, of seeking meaning and developing relationships; and we are the small questions – the wrinkles and worries and concerns about personal achievements and flat stomachs. Yet my Bubba and Zaida bequeathed to me that to be human is to embrace them both and persist through the kichel and the herring, making worlds and lives and loves amidst the fragilities, instabilities and tumultuous tremblings of the times.
Whether kichel and herring will feature in the culinary repertoire of future generations I know not; but sure I am that its spiritual traditions will span centuries and forever be a part of our lives, one way or another…
Ashkenazi – refers to the Jewish communities that populated northern France, western Germany, Poland, Lithuania and Eastern Europe
Bubba – although of uncertain origin, this is a term of endearment and affection for grandmother
Shtetl – a small Jewish town or village in Eastern Europe
Tzimmes – an Ashkenazi stew typically made from carrots, orange sweet potato, prunes, raisins and root vegetables
Zaida – an informal Yiddish title for grandfather
Czesław Miłosz. 1980. Speech at the Nobel Banquet.
Nadia Hashimi. 2015. When the Moon is Low. William Morrow and Company.
Shaun Johnson. 2006. The Native Commissioner. Penguin Books.
Langston Hughes. 1959. Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. Vintage Books.