the 40 year-old borscht

A wonderful woman passed away last night. She was the mother of a very good friend. The funeral is in LA, so I won’t be going, but I was thinking about how we met while I was washing my beets just before.

My friend and I first met each other 41 years ago in Israel while we were both attending Hebrew University. That’s an astounding thought in and of itself. But at the end of the year, so it would be 40 years ago sometime this summer, I went to meet her when back in LA visiting my parents. My friend was staying in Israel and would be going on to learn in yeshiva (where he met ISHI and so became our shadchan, matchmaker, but that’s another story), so I went by myself to see her.

She lived in the Valley, which was not an area that I was familiar with, but that made sense, since I didn’t really know LA very well. She had asked me to join her for lunch. How could I refuse? Oh the kosher thing. She wasn’t really aware of the minutiae of keeping kosher; her son had just started going down that path on his own. But salad? Fine. Canned salmon? Fine. What about borscht?

I never really liked borscht. It was one of those products that we always had, in a jar, that made us Jewish in the ethnic kind of way. But–how can I put it nicely? It was not to my taste.

I bought it every year at Pesach time to have for my father who still enjoys a good bowl of borscht.

(Cue up the music.)

It was like our own developing sense of wine. I never knew from good wine when I was young. We had the proverbial (that only became such in America when they couldn’t get anything else but bitter Concord grapes, so what could they do?) sweet wine for the holidays and Shabbat. But I knew it wasn’t good. As we became slightly more aware of choices, we started our own great adventures with snobbery oenophilia. So why not borscht?

But this is like the clock in Julius Caesar–I’m getting ahead of myself.

Of course I could not decline. After all, she went to all that trouble! And so I figured with the sour cream, it wouldn’t be half-bad.

And it was also cold on a hot day. So it wasn’t half-bad. But the bigger thing was how important it was for me to put myself out that very little bit for her sake, for her son’s sake, for my sake.

And I saw that she was indeed a wonderful person, who put herself aside just enough to get past a husband who had breached her trust to raise two wonderful sons on her own. And because I knew how wonderful at least one of them was, I knew she had instilled in them the greatest value of them all–to see people for what they can be, for all that they can be, and not be held down by past limitations. And so my friend has this amazing ability to make you feel that you are the most talented, quickest, brightest person in the world, along with everyone else. And you just have to rise to the occasion.

At least when you’re with him.

So, as my beets are baking, and my gazillion other things are being prepared, I will think of how I have been able to raise the borscht to my highest level.

And if I find another recipe that is more intriguing, I will try that and bring out the best that I can.

And hope that the people I serve it to as as open to the experience as I have been shown to be.

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