About two months ago, I began visiting Fania, a Hesed client in her 90’s (it’s not polite to ask exactly HOW far into the decade she is!) who I was told hadn’t left her communal apartment or komunalka (a hold over from the Soviet days when multiple room apartments that were owned by one family were divided up by the state and re-distributed by room to multiple families) for several years.
After being evacuated to Central Asia during World War II, she returned with her husband (who was seriously injured and rendered an invalid after 9 months on the front), to the apartment in Odessa’s historic city center where her family had lived for over 6 decades. She worked for years in one of Odessa’s largest sanatoriums but her life became difficult after her husband’s death when both she and her daughter began to suffer from poor health and complicated financial problems. Her daughter is currently in Israel receiving radiation and chemotherapy for advanced stage cancer.
Fania is housebound and has difficulty getting around the one room of the communal apartment where she’s made her home. If it’s an “unlucky week”, she spends days at a time in bed (a couch layered with thick tapestries to keep her legs and feet warm which is a challenge even in the hot summer months because of her poor circulation).
Three weeks ago, however I showed up for my usual visit and was surprised to find her on her feet and dressed.
“Today, we will make sweet Jewish Borscht and kasha with mushrooms!” she proclaimed excitedly, in a high pitched voice I barely recognized. Was this the same woman who regularly bursts into tears when recalling periods of suffering in her life?
We made our way down the crumbling staircase of her building, Fania clutching onto the slightly loose bannister and taking slow, deliberate steps to lower herself onto each step, out into the street-for the first time in years-and across the road to the small grocery store where she instructed me in beet selection and barked at me to be sure to make sure the shop girl was weighing our potatoes correctly.
Choosing the right beet is a serious process- size is the least important factor. In fact, she explained, the smaller the beet, the sweeter the taste. “Leave it to the potatoes to absorb some of the sweetness.”
An hour later, after the borscht had come to a perfect simmer, I learned another important fun fact: the garnish is almost as important as the selection of the hearty root vegetables- a sprinkling of dill atop a dollop of sour cream is the piece de resistance of any borscht, my adoptive babushka assured me as she ladled several large scoops of smetana atop the steaming red stew.
While I was concerned to have this woman on her feet so much when her health is so poor (I worried she’d fall or that her knees would give out from standing in the kitchen chopping up vegetables and stirring the broth), I was pleasantly surprised to see the way that she rose to the occasion when she felt that her motherly/ grandmotherly skills were needed.
She had to rescue me, a poor, unskilled American cook who, without her benevolent grandmotherly guidance in the kitchen, might never be able to properly her Jewish husband and future family. Someone needed her so she set aside reality for a few hours, forgetting that she spends most of her days in bed or wrapped in a blanket warming herself in the communal kitchen. I realized that, unknowingly, I had given her the opportunity to give of herself- something that she hadn’t had a chance to do in years.
Fania often repeats the expression “starost ne radost (старость не радость)” ,which essentially means: getting old is no fun. These utterances are usually accompanied by a long sigh or a labored shrug of her shoulders. But on that brisk November afternoon, for the first time in our two months together, there was only “radost” (joy).
PSA: YOU TOO can learn to choose the best beets for borscht…and many other things…by applying for the JDC Entwine Jewish Service Corps http://jdcentwine.org/jsc