After my son was born in 2002, my recovery from the C-section was brutal. But one neighboring family on our street in Hamden, Connecticut, was particularly kind: They offered food, handmade cards, and sympathetic ears. After I got better, our personal connection remained.
When the baby was a toddler, these neighbors invited us for the first evening of Passover—my first Seder.
I don’t remember much about the Seder, except for one thing: It was also the first time I tasted gefilte fish. Our hostess and her mother, a Holocaust survivor, had made it. It was utterly delicious, and it fed something within me that I could not name.
I’d been curious about gefilte fish since I was a teenager.
A descendant of Protestant farmers, I was baptized as an infant and attended Presbyterian and Methodist churches as a child in the Midwest. After my parents’ divorce in 1981, when I was 11, my mother stopped taking my brother and me to church; a sermon against divorce had been preached and for her this was the last straw. The three of us moved a few years later from Brookings, South Dakota, to Rochester, New York, where I would eventually graduate from Brighton High School.
Rochester had a lot of things that Brookings didn’t have: great bakeries, schools offering plenty of foreign languages, and a large Jewish community. The handful of Jews in Brookings—including my first Spanish teacher, my parents’ most hospitable friends, and my best friend—had played important roles in my life. It felt as though something special connected us. The move to Brighton excited me because, with so many Jewish kids my age around, the connection promised to deepen.
On a visit with friends to Wegmans, the local supermarket in Rochester, I wandered into the Passover aisle—another thing that didn’t exist in South Dakota. What, I wondered, were these jars labeled “gefilte fish”? I couldn’t remember anyone in Brookings having mentioned such a thing. As I stood there mystified, one of my friends found me.
“You don’t want to eat that, Anna,” she said, steering me in the opposite direction. “Not from a jar, anyway. You ought to taste how my grandmother makes it. Now that’s gefilte fish.”
I never did taste her grandmother’s fish. Did this friend forget? Did she rethink and conclude that our relationship could not bear the weight of gefilte fish? Maybe she didn’t realize how much this offhand, passionate remark fascinated me. I know I never reminded her.
I sought out cookbooks from the public library and learned that gefilte fish was made by grinding fish, cooking it, and serving it cold. But gefilte fish wasn’t just about the recipe: There seemed to be a one-to-one correspondence between eating gefilte fish and being Jewish. If you ate gefilte fish, you were Jewish; if you were Jewish, you ate gefilte fish. A piscatorial covenant existed, sealed with horseradish.
I, for one, wanted in. The Jewish kids seemed freer than I was—freer with their emotions. They could, if they needed to, be angry or loud. I wanted to be free as well, free from Protestant Emotional Deficiency Syndrome. I felt required to behave all week long as though I were in Methodist Sunday School, compulsively shoving anything resembling anger or drama under the rug. The key to this freedom was gefilte fish—that much seemed obvious to me at the time—but the opportunity to try it didn’t come along. I never told my Jewish friends that I wanted to try it—that would have felt like an admission of how much I wanted to try the rest of their lives—and I didn’t dare buy jarred. My friend was right. It did look disgusting.
I never became Jewish—I’ve been an Episcopalian since graduate school—and I never tried gefilte fish until that first Seder with my neighbors.
Once I finally got a taste for it, though, I wanted more. Soon after that, my husband, son, and I moved to Wheaton, Illinois. During our time there, we didn’t receive any Seder invitations, but my craving remained. Every time I passed the kosher aisle in the supermarket, I would see the fish in the jar and be tempted, before remembering my friend’s warning: It was homemade or nothing.
We eventually moved back to Connecticut, but to a different town. Having fallen out of touch with our Seder hosts, I got an idea. I had cooked many dishes by now and was curious: Could I—an Episcopalian—make gefilte fish on my own?
I decided to try. I posted on Facebook about it, hit the stores, made the fish, and called my husband and son to the table. My husband appeared with his usual promptness; our now 11-year-old son, who had heard there was cold fish for dinner, had to be ordered.
I said a blessing, then dug in. My son held his plate up to his nose and sniffed.
“Don’t eat it by itself,” I advised. “You have to have horseradish.”
I cut another piece, spread horseradish on it, and paused.
“What is it?” said my husband.
“I can’t eat it,” I said. “It tastes like cat food.”
All three of us lost it. My husband dropped his fork and pushed his plate away.
“It tastes terrible!” I wailed. “How could this have happened? I went to so much trouble!”
I wanted to blame Facebook for enabling me to crowd-source gefilte fish because it would be too painful to blame not being Jewish. I thought I’d try making it again, to try to get it right. But I never did.
Last year, a different friend, a former supervisor from my grad-school days, invited us to her Seder.
“I wonder if there’ll be gefilte fish,” I said to my husband as we drove up the Merritt Parkway.
“Well, you can wonder, but for God’s sake don’t ask about it,” he replied. “What if she’s not planning to make any?”
“Yeah, Mom,” our son, now 13, chimed in from the back seat. He had only one memory of the stuff, and it was definitely not a fond memory. “Whatever you do, don’t ask for gefilte fish!”
When we arrived, we were greeted by our hosts and sat down at the table. We opened up On Wings of Freedom. I listened, and listened some more.
Would that anyone in need might come and share our Pesach!
Then, without warning, along came the following sentence:
In every single generation every single one of us is obligated to view ourselves as though we had gone forth from Mitzrayim.
The words on the page went blurry, as though I had been struck. I looked up, searching the faces of the others for a sign that they were seeing and hearing as I was, but those faces were slipping into darkness, and then a noise, as of a rushing wind, filled my ears.
To view ourselves: I was being called to view my life anew, and my very liberation hung in the balance. This seeing would not be an afterthought. This seeing was essential. I had been told all my life to love my neighbor as myself; that command rested on the assumption that I loved myself in the first place. The Haggadah assured me that I could. I would. I did. Its radiant call to view myself as though gone forth did something that over 40 years of wandering all over Christendom had not done. It enabled me to stand up on my own two feet and shine, a star in envisioning.
My life, like lives everywhere, mattered.
The Seder went on. The meal was served, and with it, gefilte fish.
I ate, and saw myself free.
Previous: Hillary Clinton’s Gefilte Fish Email, Explained
Born Winner Asks TSA if It’s Cool to Fly With Canned Gefilte Fish
Related: How to Make Gefilte Fish That Your Guests Will Actually Want to Eat