My memory of my grandfather singing the kiddush far precedes my understanding of its meaning. The Hebrew words poured from his mouth, set to a hymn of his own making, silencing everything: the rattling of dishes in the sink, idle gossip, the chaotic energy of our chosen street corner.
His voice has been absent from our Shabbat dinner table for nearly two years now. To fill the void of his passing, my father likes to tell the story of Grandpa Maurice and the woman in the elevator. We’ve heard it a dozen times before, but my father—a man, like his own father, hopelessly devoted to his armchair and a rotary of belly-baring white T-shirts—is a gifted orator. So we listen.
The story is unconcerned with empirical details, as most of my father’s “oral histories” are wont to be. The year was uncertain, but it was most definitely a time in which “they” worked harder than “we” do now, and my father had to walk 5 miles to school, yadda yadda. At the time, Grandpa Maurice owned and operated two children’s stores in Philadelphia. The stores were called Children R Us; the ‘R’ was forward facing so as to avoid legal action, while simultaneously duping customers into thinking that they were shopping at a (considerably discounted) Toys Я Us enterprise. This was the type of loophole Grandpa Maurice had grown deft at maneuvering.
A man of great taste and swagger, Grandpa Maurice spoke five languages fluently, chief among them Arabic and English. I’m convinced that had the legal team of Toys Я Us come after him, they’d leave more than slightly buzzed and scratching their heads over how they wound up enjoying dinner and a cigar with the very man they had planned on sabotaging only two hours earlier.
For nearly 10 years, my grandfather, father and his younger brother David made a daily 110-mile commute to Philadelphia from Midwood, Brooklyn. I imagine the three of them, sitting pinched in the bench seat of a blue and white 1990 Chevy Astro van. Together, they weighed a combined 825 pounds. At this point in the story, my father might pause, allowing us a moment of silence to reflect on the smell within the van. It’s a well-known fact that Grandpa Maurice believed gas should be freely passed, no matter who it hit in the face on its way.
My father would park the van in a discounted lot on Market Street and together, always together, they’d ride the elevator down to ground level. This is how they found themselves, three tubby Egyptian men, riding the “stand-up coffin” with two female strangers. The space was so tight that “Uncle David was practically corkscrewing the lady in front of him,” but not tight enough that Grandpa Maurice abandoned the cigar that hung from the corner of his mouth. After he realized that moving his arms was too difficult, given the circumstances, Grandpa simply let the cigar dangle from his lips, inhaling from the left and exhaling out of the right corner of his wet mouth. With a gold chain suspended from his bronzed neck and the opaque aviator sunglasses that he wore everywhere but outside, Grandpa Maurice looked like the Middle Eastern incarnation of Tony Montana.
The air in the elevator became clouded with smoke.
“Excuse me, sir, do you mind?”
One of the women pivoted the 10 degrees the elevator would allow to face my grandfather. Blue in the face, she continued: “Sir, there is no smoking in the elevator. Sir.”
My grandfather inhaled deeply, and with an accent thicker than the smoke itself, proclaimed, “Lady, your perfume, it’s keeling me! But I don’t tell you nothing.”
He punctuated the sentence with a purposeful exhale, filling the coffin with the hazy fruit of his labored breathing.
I’d acclimated to the smell of my grandfather’s cigar smoke, having lived with my grandparents throughout my childhood in a home that stood squarely on Bedford Avenue. It had a modest front yard, which, at the time, had struck my three siblings and me as vast and green. The focal point of the house was the kitchen, its floor tiled in white linoleum. Snack drawers abounded, and the freezer was always stocked with meat-filled kibbe, potato burekas, allspice-coated chicken, and mini eggplants stuffed with heshu—a mix of meat and rice that also filled hollowed out zucchinis, peppers, onions, and carrots—so that my grandmother might stage a 30-person dinner at a moment’s notice, something she did often.
The defining characteristic of the kitchen, however, was its smell. I’d grown so accustomed to the stink (or reeha, as my mother called it) living with my grandparents, that it took a Sunday morning visit from a cousin to remind me that the kitchen smelled like a chicken that had fallen prey to a busy road.
“It’s Grandpa Maurice’s foul,” I remarked, defensively. Foul medemes, a popular Egyptian fava-bean-based dish, was a favorite of Grandpa Maurice’s, a salty relic of his youth spent in Cairo. It was a Sunday morning testament to a time that he had finally come to love, with the distance of 60 years and 6,000 miles.
I’m convinced that had Grandpa Maurice not been so fixed on electronics and children’s clothing upon immigrating to America, he might’ve seen the economic opportunity in introducing foul to the masses. It seemed easy enough to make; I would often watch Grandpa Maurice prepare it. His muscular 6-foot-2 frame arched over the stovetop, he’d sprinkle this and that into a simmering pot, pinching and poofing his long fingers like a proud magician.
As far as Grandpa was concerned, “If the foul doesn’t smell as bad going eento the pot as it does coming out of you, you’re doing it wrong.” A delicate balance of cumin, parsley, garlic, tomato sauce, onion and—the crown jewel of the pantry—olive oil, foul medemes was easy to flub. But when executed correctly, the dish had the ability to unite even the most hostile of families around the table.
This is what Sunday mornings sounded like when I was growing up: garlic crackling in a pot (Grandpa liked the cloves crushed), onions slowly becoming translucent, the familiar din of aluminum peeling back from its tin can, and the background hum of Al Kahera Wal Nas News (Live! From Egypt!) on the television.
Once the spices settled into the onion, making the mixture soft and brown, Grandpa would lower the flame to a simmer and pour in the tomato sauce and fava beans. The last thing he wanted was for the beans to overcook, causing the dish to liquefy completely. He wanted the foul to bubble, and I’d watch as Grandpa returned to the pot periodically, a cigar suspended from his lips as he stirred the foul gently. Over time the fava beans softened, their reddish-brown color bleeding into the stew.
The kitchen might have been my grandmother’s territory, but the cast iron pot on top the stove, it was understood, was Grandpa’s corner. I assume she must have enjoyed seeing him humbled over such a weak fire. Barefoot, always, it seemed, dressed in basketball shorts that fell down to his knobby knees and a white ribbed tank top, Grandpa looked stronger and more agile stirring the pot than he did on the basketball court, his second-most-prized corner in the new world he’d created for himself. I’d often catch him testing the foul, spooning the boiling liquid stew into his mouth without so much as a wince.
I realized I’d never seen him sweat, this man, who feverishly opposed air conditioning. According to Grandpa Maurice, it was a waste of money, an unnecessary luxury, his children and grandchildren’s inability to withstand heat an unfortunate westernized flaw.
“Please, Grandpa, turn on the A/C!” We’d beg. Grandpa would pretend not to hear our cries, and when we persisted, he’d blow hot air into our faces.
“You think we had A/C in Cairo?” he’d laugh.
But isn’t that why you came to America?
Of course, I’d never ask this aloud. This was my grandfather’s right as an immigrant, and up until the day he no longer had the energy to, he reminded us of our privilege. We could grow up and transform our own homes into meat lockers if we wished, but when at my grandparents’ home, it was understood that we ate, drank, and blew in each other’s faces when things got heated.
Once the foul had reached its desired consistency, Grandpa Maurice would add a single hardboiled egg to the mix before shutting the fire. Then he’d carry the pot to his leather recliner, which bore the imprint of his athletic frame even in his absence. With a bag of Aladdin pita bread, Grandpa would shovel the foul from the pot straight into his mouth.
“Come,” he’d call out to anyone within earshot. “Have some foul, rohi.” I recall the pleasant hint of lemon, the warm way the foul slugged down my throat, obvious notes of cumin and garlic. But what I remember most is the smell. Not just of the foul, which was dense and pungent, but of my grandfather, who smelled of stale cigars and tanned leather, unapologetic in his love of these simple things.
Months after a terminal stomach illness claimed Grandpa’s life, (“too much of that spicy food,” my grandmother had said) I set out to make foul medemes (recipe here) on my own. My husband, a man of Egyptian descent whose love of food and cooking at once intimidated me and made him feel like home, had never tried the dish. (He had tried foul, of course, but never the way Grandpa Maurice had made it.) Where my memory failed me, I consulted old texts from my grandfather, half sentences in broken English. I scrolled through weeks of old messages: blunt requests for olive-green cargo pants from Zara and black basketball shorts (“don’t spend too much”), photos of him smiling and toothless on our porch, his face framed by Ray-Ban aviators he’d sweet-talked off my face on my last visit, and finally, a laundry list of ingredients and directions for how to make foul medemes for “Prince Zouk,” the nickname he’d given my husband.
I shut the A/C and turned the fire up, reading the old texts as I chopped, pinched, poofed, and stirred, finally bringing a spoon of the boiling liquid to my lips. Unsure of when to lower the heat on the stove, I heeded my grandfather’s advice and resorted to my nose. I didn’t wait for the stew to cool; instead, using a pocket of warm pita, I shoveled a bite from the pot straight into my mouth.
Eat it hot, Grandpa’s final text had read, and pray you have baby.
The taste was all there, satisfying and energetic. The smell, too, I was sure, had danced its way into the halls of my apartment building. But something got lost between now and the preserved memories of my youth. My apartment, neat and tidy and colored in varying shades of white, was comfortable, and spacious enough for a couple. Quiet, too, the only sound emanating from an automatic Glade spray can, a periodic puff of Pure Vanilla Joy filling the room every hour or so, working overtime to mask the smell of cooked beans.
Tell me the story of Grandpa Maurice and the woman in the elevator, I asked my father. And for a moment, I, too, was blue in the face, choking on laughter and the thick plumes of my grandfather’s cigar smoke.
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Esther Levy-Chehebar is a Brooklyn-based writer. She is currently at work on a novel loosely inspired by her Syrian Jewish upbringing.
Esther Levy Chehebar is a Brooklyn-based writer. She is currently at work on a novel loosely inspired by her Syrian Jewish upbringing.