It was the second day of Passover, 2020, when we customarily make my Bubbe’s matza pancakes for our holiday lunch. Yet there was no smell of my grandmother’s pancakes frying in the house. My mother was upstairs, running a high fever, isolating in her bedroom with COVID-19.
Like many a millennial, I had taken refuge in my parents’ house, along with my husband and two young children, when the pandemic struck. We returned to the “Beit Av,” what the Torah refers to as the biblical home — literally, “house of the father” — but it was my mother’s kitchen that sustained us. As I navigated the new virtual world for my work as a rabbi, it was easy to let her do all the cooking. The food she made was always delicious, and I was more accustomed to takeout than meal prep. My contribution for the household was to handle grocery deliveries, often stumbling on new time slots late at night as I doomscrolled.
Somehow, while raising five kids and working as an art therapist, my mother had always made time to cook from scratch. For last year’s Passover, she’d already made the chicken soup and matza apple kugel before she got sick. Halfway through the brisket process, she developed coronavirus symptoms, so I was tasked with removing the meat from the oven and “slicing” it. This must be done sparingly, I would learn. When I served it on the first night of Passover, it was more like brisket mush.
We still wanted to make Bubbe’s matza pancakes the next day — partly because all of us were yearning for a feeling of normalcy. The holiday already was feeling a little strange without the usual invited guests. But with my mom’s high fever and low oxygen levels, there was a deeper sense of anxiety in the air; we had no idea what each new Passover day would bring.
It was up to me to come through with the pancakes. Yet the only ingredient I could remember was the cottage cheese. I went through cookbook after cookbook, sifting through a pile of tattered covers, handwritten notes, and loose pages. After an exhaustive search, I resorted to passing a cookbook under my mother’s door. After a bit of back-and-forth conversation muffled by the door between us, she returned the book, confirming the right recipe was in that well-used volume. But it was the one for “matzo-meal latkes.” And “cottage cheese” was scribbled next to the ingredient list.
The pancakes I made were not as fluffy as those we’d savored in years past, but at least my toddler seemed to approve. I embarked on another culinary adventure on the third day: matza brei (fried matza). This turned into a soggy mess, but was mostly rescued by a generously distributed strawberry-jelly topping.
My 2020 Passover experience didn’t lead me to a sudden culinary awakening — I didn’t turn into a balabusta. Thankfully, my mother recovered from the virus a few weeks later, having spent almost a month in bed.
I’m very familiar with the laws and rituals of Passover. But it wasn’t until last year, when I awkwardly attempted to re-create our family recipes, that I realized how much the flavors of this special holiday have always been an essential part of my religious experience, whether it was my mother’s homemade sherbet or the matza crackers dipped in chopped liver made with my great-great-grandmother’s sturdy tool — a single curved blade with a strong metal handle.
I hope to enjoy my mother’s cooking for many years to come. But I know it’s my turn now to learn to make Bubbe’s pancakes — the right way — as well as the rest of my family’s favorite dishes. I’ve already digitized the recipes. And this Passover, I’ll be shadowing my mother in the kitchen as a willing apprentice for the first time. I may not be a born cook, but that doesn’t mean I’m chopped liver.
Rabbi Yael Buechler is the Lower School Rabbi at The Leffell School in Westchester, New York. Send comments to email@example.com. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.