You could call it the latent Jewish mother gene. Ever since getting married, I've been amazed by how satisfying it is to feed people.
It started with my husband. I didn't expect much difference between cooking for one and cooking for two -- but at his first exclamation of, "Yum, this is delicious!" I was unable to rationally explain my profound feeling of satisfaction.
That was only the beginning. A few months later, at a friend's house, a child gobbled up some salmon I had prepared, and I was nearly bowled over by the force of those previously-hidden Yiddishe-mama genes. A child enjoying the food I made? Every one of my cells swelled with joy, and I could barely restrain myself from leaning over the table and lovingly encouraging her, "Eat, bubele, eat."
I used to be normal. I cooked and ate without much thought, occasionally experimenting with new dishes or being surprised by an unlikely culinary success. As a university-educated woman, I had more interesting things to think about than what to make for dinner. It's marriage that brought out the bubbe within me. Out of nowhere, I've become a person who calls friends for recipes and frets about whether the kugel is crisp on top. I don't quite recognize myself -- but the deep satisfaction I feel when a guest takes a second helping is undeniable. What happened?
Swallow and Savor
At a Shabbat dinner recently, I had the chance to view this phenomenon from the receiving end. As is often the case on festive occasions with numerous guests, the wife of the household was everywhere at once, running back and forth from the kitchen to the dining room with soup and fish, chicken and potatoes, serving food and clearing the table and herding children with great energy and humor. At a certain point (as also generally happens), one of the guests urged her to take a break. "You've been working in the kitchen the whole time," she protested. "Why don't you sit down and enjoy yourself?"
"In a minute," answered the hostess, as she headed to the kitchen to bring out the next course. And she did sit down -- at least until someone needed ice, or the salads needed refilling, or the juice spilled, or she had to replace someone's fork. While we enjoyed the delicious meal, she hardly seemed to eat at all. It didn't seem fair that she took care of everyone -- without even a moment to relax and appreciate what she'd created!
A few weeks later, when my husband and I hosted a celebratory meal in our home for a newlywed couple, I began to understand. I had never been responsible for such a large or elaborate event, and I fussed over every step of the process. How much soup do people really eat? What's the most efficient way to serve each course? What should we prepare for the guest who doesn't like fish? I spent an unfathomable amount of money on groceries, peeled more potatoes than I could count, and spent an entire day chopping and frying and stirring and baking with hopeful anticipation.
I didn't need to eat. The success of the celebration was its own reward.
From the time the first guests knocked on the door until midway through the celebration, I was too busy to notice much of anything. But in the middle of the party, as one of the guests gave a blessing to the new couple, I suddenly paused in the doorway and took it all in. It was our home that was radiating this positive energy. All these people were enjoying the atmosphere that we had created. Eating was the furthest thing from my mind. I hadn't put in all that hard work in order to savor a tasty piece of chicken. All my efforts in the kitchen were geared toward giving: facilitating the guests' participation in a beautiful environment, ensuring that the new couple was treated elegantly, and providing an opportunity for people to connect with each other. I didn't need to eat. The success of the celebration was its own reward.
Suddenly the Shabbat hostess' behavior of a few weeks before did not seem so strange. Her deepest pleasure came from knowing that her guests were happy, and that she was able to provide. While the guest's vision of the meal stopped at herself, the hostess' vision encompassed everyone's enjoyment. How astonishing to realize that giving is more satisfying than receiving!
I never imagined I had so much to give until we hosted the celebration at our home. Once I experienced that taste of giving, I was already looking forward to the next opportunity to do so. Despite all my hard work, the celebration left me energized. True giving does not lead to depletion and exhaustion. Rather, it is empowering, since it reaffirms our abilities to nourish and provide. After all, only a person with something to give can care for others.
Beyond this, Judaism teaches that our innermost soul is a reflection of the Creator, who brought reality into being only out of a desire to give. Giving is a Divine attribute, and when we give to others, we recognize that same Divine ability within ourselves. No wonder we cluck, "Eat, bubele, eat."
So I guess I'll stop being so surprised at the emerging Jewish grandmother within me, and I'll continue to seek the perfect recipe for kugel. And if a guest should ever suggest that I sit down and relax, I'll just smile. Even if the food is delicious, I'd rather serve than savor it. The taste of the meal is gone the moment it's swallowed… but the taste of giving lasts forever.