Potato Kugel – A Holiday Story

Cool. Not Cold.

That was how her hand felt on his fevered cheeks. It was the soft touch of her delicate fingers that had wiped the tears from his eyes before anyone could see them. Before his father could see them. She had spoken of faraway things and of the wondrous sights she had seen on her travels. And she had spoken of everything… including a grandmother who lived in Rochester.

For all these years, it had never crossed his mind to go visit Sarah Cohen. But today, he was thinking about this woman he had never met but one whose blood flowed in his veins through his now dead mother.

It was not usual for Harold to be sentimental. In fact, outwardly, he was as calm as ever. It was just that grief did not bow to logic. And to be fair to him, he was indulging in a reverie, not an act of mourning.

Just then, his phone rang. It was his boss.

“Hey, Harold, let us go grab dinner together,” Jake’s jubilant voice spoke from the other end. “You know, we haven’t really had a chance to talk.”

Normally, Harold would say yes to such an invitation. But not today. Today was an important day and he needed to dedicate it to something other than a relaxed evening with his colleagues.

“I must decline,” he said as politely as he could. He was still getting to know Jake. He wasn’t entirely comfortable with him yet. But as an employee, he wanted to show the proper degree of respect to the man. Besides, he knew his boss was brilliant and that working under him would be a great learning experience.

“Oh come one,” Jake tried to convince his newest hire. “It will be fun.”

The urge to say “I don’t believe in having fun with my superiors” was strong. But Harold managed to respond instead with, “I have personal business to attend to. I will dine with you another day, sir.”

And without waiting for the other man to say anything, he cut the call. He wondered if he had been rude. He would apologize later.

He had never observed Yom Kippur.

But even in Tanzania, Amelia had.

However, she had been Jewish. Harold was not. She had once said to him jestingly that as the son of a Jewish mother, he would always be a Jew. But at the same time, like the dutiful wife of a rational scientist, she had raised her son away from this part of his heritage.

After all, religion had no basis in science.

But Harold missed his mother’s legendary potato kugel and cheese blintzes with apple sauce. To his mother, these had been bitter-sweet reminders of home, a nod to her upbringing, and her preferred dishes to break her fast with.

For him, these had been the special delicacies other children in his class did not know about. These had been his and Amelia’s secret. And sometimes, in a magnanimous act of generosity, they had allowed his father to partake of their bounty as well.

Harold wondered if his emotions were getting the better of him yet again. It was something that had been happening a lot lately. He had often wondered if losing his mother so suddenly had permanently damaged something inside him.

Rationally, he knew that was not the case. But it did feel like the ground had stopped being firm under his feet. It did feel like the sky was further away than it used to be. It did feel like the sun was not warm enough anymore.

It probably wasn’t.

At least not in New York. But he would never experience Tanzanian warmth on his back again. New York was all he had left.

And only half of it. Because he was half Amelia and half nobody. After all, his father had eventually left them for the sake of his career. And Amelia had chosen to stay because the little village outside Zanzibar had felt like home after all this time. Besides, she didn’t think she had any other. Her family had cut ties with her for marrying an atheist scientist with no regard or respect for their customs.

It would be a lie if he pretended that he was welcome in America. His accent was strange. He was more tanned than most people around him. And yet, he did not belong with the people he most identified with. Because he was white. And at the same time, he was not. His privilege was a curse sometimes.

He swallowed roughly as he considered his decision again.

There was no logical reason for him wanting to observe Yom Kippur. He was reasonably certain he would not be comfortable in any synagogue. He also knew he needed to spend the evening and the next day in prayers.

And he needed to ask for forgiveness from the people he had wronged.

Fortunately, for Harold, that list was short. But most people on that list were gone; taken apart and crushed by the angry shaking of the earth and the helplessness of the homes that had no longer had the strength to protect their inhabitants.

Uneasiness enveloped him as fear, remorse, and sorrow surged through him.

However, within moments, he clamped down on these emotions.

The evening passed in remembrance and meditation.

He did not know what tomorrow would bring.


He was not even sure she would be there.

He had tried to be considerate about the timing. It was almost dark. But he had had no other options. He had been unable to bring himself to attend an actual service. And he was sure that in all likelihood, fasting was simply not enough to successfully observe this high holiday. There was very little he could do to remedy that situation.

And that was why he was here.

Nervously, he knocked at the ancient looking door again.

Ten seconds later, a wizened woman opened the door.

“Yes,” she said softly. Her hair was completely white and there were more lines on her face than he had ever seen on anyone.

“I… I…” He swallowed roughly before continuing. “I am… here to meet Ms. Sarah Cohen.”

The woman looked at him for a long moment. Her warm, chocolate brown eyes, seemingly covered with a milky haze widened in recognition.

“You are her boy,” she said plainly, as if it was an everyday occurrence to see her long lost  grandson after the death of her daughter, whom she had not seen even once after her marriage.

“I am,” Harold answered quietly. “I came for Yom Kippur.”

The old lady smiled.

“I do not observe Yom Kippur,” she said.

“But you are Jewish,” Harold said before he could stop himself.

“I don’t believe in God,” she answered. “No mother can after what happened to Amelia. Your father did have the last laugh, I guess,” she added bitterly.

“I have come to ask for your forgiveness,” Harold said quietly.

“Come in,” Sarah stepped aside to let her grandson in.

She led him to the living room.

The little coffee table was littered with old-fashioned newsletters. Some of them like the City Newspaper and The Rochester Post were clearly community newspapers, but there were other magazines like The Nation and Reader’s Digest as well.

The room itself looked like a memorial of the sorts. Among antique books, matryoshka dolls, papier mache handicrafts, there were pictures of family members he had never met. And in the corner, he noticed the edge of an unfinished quilt and a woolen sweater abandoned carelessly with the knitting needles still stuck in.

He could tell no one had touched them in a long time. There were dust motes on both items. And Sarah Cohen did not seem to care.

“You don’t need my forgiveness,” she said to Harold, placing a glass of water in front of him.

“I believe I do,” the young man said, ignoring the glass of water. “I was unable to save mother. I was unavailable to you in your hour of grief. I was a careless son to her. And a thoughtless grandson to you.”

“Why are you doing this?” the old woman asked tiredly. It had taken her the entire year to come to terms with Amelia’s death. Even though she had not seen her daughter for more than three decades, the pain had been so sharp.

And now this child of hers, a miracle, a blessing… He was reopening all those wounds. Sarah searched the strange boy’s face for traces of her daughter. The boy’s lips were thin and grim-looking like his father’s. His hair was jet black, unlike Amelia’s light brown mane that had made her so attractive to the neighborhood boys. His face was angular, severe even, with its chiseled edges and those arched eyebrows.

But his eyes.

They were hers.

Looking into them, Sarah could swear her daughter was right here. She could smell her favorite perfume. She could hear her crystalline laughter. She could taste the broccoli garlic quiche and potato kugel she made every Yom Kippur.

“Did my daughter ever make potato kugel for you?” she asked him.

“She did,” Harold said, a smile lighting up in his eyes, even though his words were choked.

“Then she remembered,” Sarah said with a dreamy look in her eyes which were starting to moisten. “I used to make it on the high holidays. And it was the only thing she could help me make. So since she was four, she and I made the kugel mixture together.”

“I… she asked me to help her multiple times when I was a child,” Harold confessed. “However, I thought I would only ruin her efforts. I… I didn’t realize she would be okay with that.”

He expected his grandmother to get upset at that.

But her response surprised him.

“It is never too late for atonement,” she said serenely. “That is what Yom Kippur is about. Come with me to the kitchen.”

Two hours later, Sarah ate a traditional feast with her grandson for the first time in her life. And she drank in every shy smile, every one of his long winded sentences, every time his eyes moistened and he hid it within a moment.

As for Harold, the meal tasted of homecoming.

Who knew absolution could come in the form of the humble potato kugel?



Note: Featured image taken from Tikkun Magazine

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