Like many people, I have a love/hate relationship with food. Mostly love, though.
Since I was a little boy I have associated food with happiness, and have long been a charter member of what my late paternal grandfather, Merril, called “the clean plate club.” Indeed, to the delight of chefs, moms and culinarily-challenged girlfriends everywhere, I always ate everything they served me like it was my job, and I wanted a promotion.
This practice, I have come to believe, is largely the result of a form of classical conditioning lovingly overseen by my maternal grandmother, Carola, with whom I shared countless meals, and who derived great joy when I ate everything she put on my plate.
To be sure, my Savta’s eyes danced the Charleston every time I dug into one of her delicious dishes.
From kugel to die for, to delectably fragrant meatloaf, chicken and matza-ball soup (always followed by apple cake and compote that made my head spin), she frequently decorated her dining-room table with a veritable constellation of homemade mouth-watering treats.
The best part, though, was that I could actually taste the love she made it with. It was my favorite ingredient.
THAT SAID, there is no time of year when I feel more conflicted – and guilty – about my blissfully abundant relationship with food than Yom Kippur, which has always served as a haunting metaphor for my grandparents’ chronic starvation during the Holocaust.
Despite all the love and joy that Carola and my late grandfather, Henek, ensured surrounded the food in their home, and the pleasure they took in my voracious consumption of it, I never told them that I often found it difficult to watch them eat, especially after a fast.
Of course, it wasn’t that I didn’t want them to enjoy their food. Nothing made me happier than when they ate. It’s just that whenever I watched them take a bite, the incongruity of the starvation that defined their horrific past, juxtaposed with the pleasure they took in eating a richly deserved meal, filled me with guilt and sadness.
It was a masochistic practice on my part that frequently surfaced well beyond Yom Kippur.
WHEN MY grandparents simply made blessings over wine and halla, I had visions of skeletal men, women and children huddled together, barely illuminated by flickering candlelight, in the clutches of the Shoah, secretly attempting to honor Shabbat by sharing a stale scrap of bread and a trickle of what passed for wine.
When I’d watch my grandmother indulge in her delicious chicken soup – always after serving everyone else first – I imagined a younger version of herself holding a rusty tin bowl, partially filled with filthy water and a piece of rotten potato or carrot, gulping it down, hoping for sustenance of any kind.
But for me, dessert always served as the cruelest reminder of their past and exacerbated my guilt more than any other course because it represented a gratuitous indulgence in the face of unimaginable starvation.
I would picture a deplorable amalgamation of elegantly and meticulously dressed Nazi henchmen carelessly laughing while overindulging like princes on liquor, cakes, strudels and sweets while my grandparents – and millions like them – were draped in rags, freezing and starving to death.
The thoughts and images were often searing, particularly at this time of year, but I believed them to be necessary for me to fully process and respect a past that I will never fully understand.
However, there is another side to this story. A better side.
DESPITE THE haunting thoughts that ran through my mind when my grandparents ate after Yom Kippur, I also felt a surge of great pride when they indulged to their hearts’ content, without a care in the world.
Every bite, large or small, was very much a triumph in my mind – a triumph of my family over a mercilessly evil enemy that failed to kill them by depriving them of basic nutrients and – perhaps worse – of their dignity.
To be sure, breaking bread with my grandparents after Yom Kippur was always a bittersweet experience, and a humbling honor.
THIS YEAR, as I listened to and read reports of the maniacal diatribes spewed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the 67th UN General Assembly shortly before the holiday, a temporary rage overwhelmed any sense of transcendental spirituality I was attempting to harness to properly observe this sacred day, which, for the first time, I spent without my beloved grandmother on this earth.
Every vile, hate-filled and erroneous comment that came out of Ahmadinejad’s shamelessly smirking mouth served as a slap in the face to my grandparents’ legacy – a legacy that must be respected, yet continues to be treated like target practice by hate-mongers who want nothing more than to deny them their sacred truth. Their justice.
However, before the rage consumed my mind entirely, and ruined a period requiring calm and reflective introspection, I did what Jews have done masterfully for millennia to survive tyrants who have sought our demise; I reminded myself that indulging in such hate will only weaken me, and instead, converted it into strength.
As I reflected about my life, what it means and what I need to do to improve myself and to honor my grandparents’ increasingly jeopardized history, the pangs of hunger only strengthened my resolve, and served as a powerful reminder of the endurance and power of the Jewish people.
Of my family.
WHEN I broke the fast, of course I thought about them.
However, instead of feeling guilt for the abundant and delicious food I had the luxury of consuming, for the first time, I ate each bite with unusual pride, as I pictured them both sitting by my side, dignified as ever.
Empowered by their legacies, I knew unequivocally that madmen like Hitler and Ahmadinejad will never succeed in denying them – and all Jews – our past, our present or our future.
That’s one lesson my grandparents, and other survivors, taught me in no uncertain terms.