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The Dough That Binds Us

Carrying on my grandmother’s baking traditions has connected me to my family—and to Judaism

Micah Siva
June 28, 2022
Courtesy the author
Courtesy the author
Courtesy the author
Courtesy the author

There’s no arguing that my grandmother, Eva Epstein (née Freedman), commanded attention. She was always done up with curls, a hearty dab of rouge on her cheeks, bright lipstick, and her favorite jewelry. The heart of her household, she was often found with a handmade apron—bearing a phrase like “kiss the cook,” or bedazzled with rhinestones—tied around her waist and on top of a shiny new outfit, sipping sugar-free lemonade while mixing dough, frying schnitzel, and simmering chicken soup over a hot stove, making enough food to feed an army.

She was the stereotypical Jewish grandmother, and I loved every bit of it. She would fill our plates with mountains of food long after we announced that we were stuffed, questioning our love for her if we didn’t have “just a little more.” She’d bring us homemade goodies like her famous cinnamon rolls and mohn (poppyseed) cookies as a carry-on in-flight to visit us.

Eva was a firecracker. She was a first generation Canadian, the daughter of a Ukrainian immigrant who had fled the pogroms and made her way to Canada in the early 1900s, to live on the prairies of rural Saskatchewan. Eva was one of four sisters (including her identical twin) raised by Freda, a fearless mother, who made a name for herself trading furs to the Hudson’s Bay Company. My grandma met and married my grandfather Louis and they spent nearly 70 years raising a family together and caring for their grandchildren.

Every summer, from ages 7 to 11, my sister and I were sent as unaccompanied minors to fly and spend 10 days at “Camp Grandma and Grandpa” just outside of Vancouver. At the time, I understood it to be a holiday for my sister and myself, but now realize that it was a much-needed respite for my parents. During this time, we would embark on a whistle-stop tour of Vancouver, eating our way through the city and my grandmother’s overflowing freezer. We would pick raspberries from a local farm, cook the berries into a sweet and sticky jam, mix and scoop cookie dough, and use thimbles to indent them into thumbprint cookies, rolled with crushed walnuts, and filled with the raspberry jam we had made the day before. My sister and I would sit at their kitchen table and cut into tender fried chicken schnitzel (her signature dish) and dig into Grandma’s mashed carrots and potatoes. We would eagerly bite into perfectly rolled challah buns, polishing off the meal with homemade fudge and sugar bagels—or nothings, as we called them.

It was in these moments, when I would watch my grandmother hover over a hot stove, with a tea towel (or shmatte) over her shoulder, apron on, and not a curl out of place, that I knew she loved me, and she showed me exactly how, in her own special way.

If I ever saw my grandmother with a book, it was The Pleasures of Your Processor by Noreen Gilletz; her copy had yellowed pages and a tattered binder. This was not just a cookbook. It was a treasure trove of family recipes, secrets, pressed flowers from her garden, and most importantly, neat cursive writing on nearly every page with additions like “a bissel of” this or that to give the recipes her own twist. After she passed, I was given this book, and as I flipped through the pages of her culinary musings, her presence jumped off the pages, especially in the margins, and always between the folds of dough.

When I brought my (now) husband to meet my grandma for the first time, I wanted to share my love in the best way I knew how. Together, the three of us kneaded and folded dozens of kreplach, or soup dumplings, into neat triangles, as she shared her memories of growing up in the Canadian prairies while pinching our punims in between the folds.

It wasn’t until I read about the Five Love Languages (at the recommendation of my rabbi before getting married) that I came to understand why my grandmother fed us as if it was our last meal on earth. The book outlines five languages that one may give and prefer to receive in any relationship from physical touch, words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service, and receiving gifts. After reading, I came to the conclusion that there were not just five love languages in my grandmother’s heart, but her own unique, sixth love language of feeding. Among the many things I inherited from her (including my physical stature and love for a good bargain) is my love language of feeding others. Eva instilled her love of food deep within me. I have a constant, revolving door of leftovers going out of my kitchen, challah runs, and meals shared with friends new and old.

After my grandmother passed in 2018 (shortly before Rosh Hashanah), I was living in London. Based on the timing of her passing and the upcoming holiday, I was unable to fly back in time for the funeral, which in Jewish tradition, must be done within 72 hours. Given the proximity to the High Holidays, the timeline was shortened even more. Within one phone call, my heart had broken into a million little crumbs, and I was alone, on a different continent to pick them up. Without the closure of shiva with loved ones, I wondered how I could honor her.

My coping mechanism? Knead, roll, fold, and shape kreplach through streaming tears, while reflecting on the lessons she taught me, and how her legacy lives through my food, and brings me closer to Judaism. Because of her, I learned the meaning of love within the folds of kreplach, in the twists and turns of a challah, and between the pointed corners of hamantaschen. I have carried on the tradition for my family, shaping, baking and proving dough in efforts to keep her memory alive. It was through her dough that I came to celebrate Jewish holidays, and what set them each apart. Each holiday had its own special dishes and treats, from Freda’s round challah, to bread-based poppyseed hamantaschen, and to apple cake dotted with apricot jam. It was these pieces of dough that connected me to my faith, and helped me to honor the strong women who came before me.

The Recipe

Potato Kreplach

Potato Kreplach

Micah Siva is a trained chef, registered dietitian, recipe writer, and food photographer, specializing in modern Jewish cuisine. Through her personal blog, Nosh with Micah, she shares Jewish-inspired, plant-forward recipes.