When I was a kid, my family did not keep kosher. The closest we got was the story my mother told about how, when she was growing up, her father once yelled at her as she poured a glass of milk to go with her BLT sandwich: “We don’t mix milk and meat!”
Still, my mother always used a kosher chicken when she made chicken soup. “It tastes better,” she said with a shrug, and she made amazing chicken soup. It was mostly for holidays, like Rosh HaShanah or Passover – big, extended-family meals that came out in a thousand courses.
Each one of them started with soup – and noodles, too, unless it was Pesach, when we had matzah farfel instead. Kneidlach were best when they were hard as rocks; my family wanted nothing to do with soft and fluffy matzah balls! When my bubbe was alive, there were always kreplach, too – chopped, spiced meat and dough, a cross between ravioli and a knish. God, they were good!
It was all heaven in a pot.
Every once in a while, my mother got it into her head to make Shabbos dinner. To her, that meant the whole shebang: brisket and roasted potatoes, challah, candles, wine. And it always started with soup. Homemade chicken soup. In the midst of running around – dealing with kids and carpools and family and home – she would stop, pause for a minute, and return to something that had traveled down through the generations, a symbol and sanctification contained in a pot of soup.
As a kid, I didn’t have a huge connection to Shabbat, and that held true even as I moved into my adulthood. Even so, when I moved out of my parents’ house and into my own apartment, sometimes I wanted to feel connected to something older and deeper than just the passing of weeks and the rushing of time. On those nights, I would take out a pot and begin to prepare soup.
These days, for me, Shabbat is less about soup and more about, well, Shabbat – more about celebration and community and prayer. For my family, though, the soup itself was the divider. It was special, out of the ordinary, a ritual that separated the everyday from something fine and rare, connecting me to family and tradition and love. The soup was Shabbat, in the same way that going to synagogue and being part of my community is now. It was the symbol, the sanctification of the moment, the pause – for breath and rest and peace – that welcomes in the holiness of Shabbat.
I still make my mother’s (and her mother’s and her mother’s mother ad infinitum) recipe for killer chicken soup, using the recipe as it was given to me by my bubbe. I’ve found that the important thing, though, the essential thing, is to make it with someone – your kids, a friend, your mom, someone. The important thing is to talk about stuff while you’re making the soup – cutting things, skimming things, watching it simmer – like life and God and Shabbat and justice and how you’re feeling and love and memory. These add a particular flavor to the soup that cannot be had in store-bought items – even kosher ones.
As the soup warms for dinner, we light the candles to welcome in Shabbat. We say a few words over bread and wine – to remind us to be grateful for all that we have, all we’ve been given.
And let us say: Amen.
See Stacey's family recipe, including her bubbe's original instructions, on her blog.