When we were kids Grandma Rosie always cooked a big vat of chicken soup when we visited. I still remember the mouth-watering aroma, and the wonderful taste rolling across my tongue, and the warmth it produced in my stomach. Funny how those experiences of so long ago stay with you.
One day, when I was six years old, instead of being seated at the dining room table, I wandered into the kitchen while Grandma was ladling the soup into bowls. As I came in, I saw her depositing one little drop of milk into one of the bowls. I asked her why she did that. “Oh, it’s just an old habit of mine,” was her answer.
Seven years later, as I prepared for my Bar Mitzvah, I asked her about it again, this time adding that surely, she knew it was against the kosher laws, because Jews are forbidden to eat meat or poultry at the same meal with a dairy product.
She shrugged. “What’s one little drop of milk in a big bowl of soup going to do?” she said. I noticed she didn’t make eye contact with me when she said it. She added, “And I do it only to my bowl of soup, nobody else’s.”
She sighed, thought for a moment, and said, “Nobody else would want me to do that to their soup. Like you said, it wouldn’t be kosher.” She paused, then, “Herby, darling, do me a favor, okay?”
“Sure, what is it?”
Don’t mention this little habit of mine to anyone, okay? After all, you know I have this strange habit, but the whole world doesn’t have to know. All right?”
“Sure, Grandma, but why do you do it? You’re Jewish, aren’t you?”
She laughed, “Of course I’m Jewish, Herby.”
“So, Herby, what are you learning in school these days, tell me.”
Her changing the subject like that made me think she had reasons she didn’t want to discuss, so I dropped it. But it increased my curiosity. I figured, what the heck, it’s a weird habit she has, but maybe all old people develop strange customs at some point.
When I was seventeen and we were visiting Grandma, Mom told me to go into the kitchen and carry the soup bowls, one at a time, to the table, so Grandma wouldn’t have to. I saw my grandmother as she was carefully depositing one drop of milk into her bowl, just as I had seen her do when I was a little kid. Except that now, her hand shook so that a second drop fell into the soup. She clucked her tongue and shook her head. This strange habit of hers bothered me. Why on earth did she insist on putting one drop of milk into her chicken soup? It started to really drive me crazy with curiosity. I felt I just had to know why.
# # #
A friend of mine and I had joined the Naval Reserve when we were seniors in high school. This involved taking a two-week training cruise once annually plus meeting once every week for additional training. The meetings were held on Thursday evenings in Jersey City, close to the Hudson River and the Colgate soap works. After having graduated from high school, I worked in Manhattan. I would take the Hudson Tubes to Jersey City after work on Thursdays to have dinner with Grandma before attending the Reserve training session. And I would sleep at her house and go to work from there the next morning.
One cold winter day, she put out two bowls of chicken soup, one for each of us. She went to the refrigerator, brought out a container of milk, opened it and tried to pour a drop of milk into her bowl, but her hand shook so that it was difficult for her.
I said, “Grandma, let me do it for you.” She let me have the container, and I started to open it, she said, “No, wait, Herby.” She hesitated, then, “Herby, darling, put the container back in the refrigerator.”
When I sat back down at the table, Grandma looked at me very warmly, and I noticed her eyes brim with liquid. She said, “Herby, you’re the only one who knows my secret, my strange habit. I know you’ve wondered why since you were a child, and you kept your promise and never told anyone about it. You’re a good boy, Herby.” She thought for a moment, looked at me and corrected, “Sorry, I should say ‘a good man,’ because you are a young man now.” She stood and said, “So, let’s have our dinner and then I’ll explain it all to you.”
After dinner, we went to the living room and sat on the sofa. She told me to listen, because she was going to tell me a story. She said, “I was a little girl when it happened. It was a little after one o’clock in the morning and we were all asleep, my father and mother, my older sister and younger brother and I, when we heard loud banging on our door. It was frightening to be awakened like that in the middle of the night. My father got up, grabbed his bathrobe, put it on over his pajamas and answered the door. I got out of bed and peeked out at the door. There was a man in a suit and leather coat, accompanied by two other men in black uniforms. They shouted their instructions: we were to come with them as we were. No time to put on street clothes. I wondered, who are these people? Why such a hurry? Are they the police? What crime could we have committed? As you can imagine, it was terrifying for a little kid. More so, when I saw the looks on my parents’ faces.”
She paused, then, “Well, you’ve had history lessons in school, you know about the Holocaust, what we Jews call the Shoah. You’ve seen movies, television series about it. I won’t go over the details.” She looked at the floor, and took a deep breath. “I can’t go over the details. Too painful. I’ll just get to the point as quickly as I can. So, we were shipped off in cattle cars to death camps.” She looked down at her hands, shook her head, then continued. “Like I said, it’s too painful to go into details; it hurts too much to remember. I’ll just say that somehow, I survived but I never saw one single member of my family again. All murdered.” Her voice broke at this point.
She straightened her back, took a deep breath and continued. “We were liberated from Auschwitz-Birkenau by Russian troops as they advanced against the Germans. I spent time in a Displaced Persons camp set up by the Allies, and finally a Jewish-American family adopted me. I was very glad for that, but, you know, never again to see my father, my mother, my brother and sister, my uncles and aunts, my cousins, knowing they, they…” At this point she broke down in sobs. I moved closer to her and put my hand on her frail shoulder until she stopped crying. I felt sorrow for her, but I also felt a burning anger, a desire to kill.
She wiped her eyes, looked at me and managed to smile. “I’m okay, Herby, I’m okay.”
She inhaled deeply, held her breath and finally expelled it in a long sigh. She looked at me and said, “So, you must be wondering why I told you this story now.” She cocked her head. “You’ll see. Just listen.”
“Herby, those Jews who were murdered by the Nazis… Millions of them were religious and believed in God and followed His rules. They thought God would save them from destruction, they prayed for Him to save them. They expected a miracle. But they were horribly murdered, after being starved, beaten, humiliated. So, why didn’t God save them? They weren’t evil people. So, why?”
I said, “I don’t know why, Grandma. Does anyone?”
She looked at me with love softly beaming on her face. “No. I don’t know the answer. No one knows. But, now, think of this: Most of the survivors had once been faithful Jews, had obeyed God’s rules the way you obey a father’s rules. You want to please your father because you love him.”
I interrupted to add, “And because he can punish us.”
“Yes, true. That’s why the upright are often called God-fearing.” She nodded. “But they say that God is our Father in Heaven and loves us, His children. And we say that He is all-powerful. Yet, He allowed this terrible, terrible thing to happen to us. It’s a mystery, they say. We can’t know God’s reasons, they say. Our intelligence is much too limited.” She nodded, looked directly at me and continued. “You know how you could be standing right next to an insect or a worm crawling on the ground, and that insect or worm has no idea that you exist, let alone the reason you do the things you do. It’s like that with God. We have our five senses, but, like the insect crawling right next to our foot, even if it climbs on our shoe, we don’t have the capacity to physically detect God’s existence. We certainly are not able to understand His motives.
“So,” she continued, “ ‘what happened to the survivors’ faith in God after this calamity?’ you might ask. I’ll tell you: Many of them held fast to their belief in God, saying that God gives us free will; we can do what we want. We can obey the impulse in us to do evil, or we can fight it and instead obey the impulse to do good. God won’t stop anyone from doing evil, because He gave us free will. It’s only afterward that He punishes the crimes of evil people. Okay, so many people still had that faith in God.
“On the other hand, many, so many, survivors lost their faith completely. ‘There is no God,’ they said, and still say. Funny, isn’t it, how different people react so differently?”
“What about you, Grandma? Do you still believe in God?”
“Yes, Herby, I still believe. God is good and he wants us to use our free will to do good, not evil. There are things we won’t do because we have a conscience, people say. I think that what we call conscience is God whispering to us, warning us. I’m telling you this, Herby, to explain why I have this silly habit of putting a drop of milk into my chicken soup.”
I was confused. What did this chicken-soup thing have to do with the horrors of the Shoah? Grandma saw my confusion and said, “You know, Herby, I’m about to explain it to you, but now that I’m about to do that, to put my reasoning into words, I feel ashamed, because my reasons are so childish.” She frowned. “But no matter, I’m going to tell you anyway.”
She looked down at the plum-colored carpet for a few seconds, then, “I don’t know if you remember this, but a long time ago, when you were eight years old, your father told you never to eat candy within an hour of dinner time. He said it would spoil your appetite for real food.”
“Right. Sure, I remember. He was worried about my being too skinny. And I never disobeyed that rule, because I knew he was right.”
“Never? You’re forgetting something. By the way, another reason for that rule: he wanted to protect your new grown-up teeth. But one day, no connection to candy, he gave you a spanking because he knew you knocked a boy’s tooth out in a fight, and his mother had come to complain.”
“Yeah, but the other kid started the fight. And not only did I get a spanking; he walked me to the boy’s house and made me apologize to the other kid in front of that boy’s mother.”
“Yes. Well, how did you feel about that?”
“How would anyone feel? I was angry, very angry.” I pictured that scene of so long ago and remembered I had felt a burning hatred for my father for subjecting me to that, but I decided to withhold that information from Grandma. The hatred, of course, weakened in a few weeks and finally disappeared.
“Of course, you were angry. You suffered an injustice.” She grinned and said, “Do you remember what you did to get even?”
I had to smile as well, thinking about it. “Yes, I remember.” I chuckled. “Every day for months, maybe a half year, I purposely went to the candy store, bought a chocolate bar or a box of licorice, and ate it about a half hour before supper time. Pretty dumb, right?” I stopped talking and thought for a moment. Then I said, “Grandma, what the heck does all that business about me and candy have to do with milk in your soup?”
The old woman’s eyes moistened. She sighed and said, “The way you secretly defied your father? Well, that was kind of like what I did.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Look, Herby, you ate candy before mealtime, disobeying your father’s command. Right? Even though it did him no harm and for sure didn’t benefit you?”
“Yes, but I finally got tired of doing that. And I realized I didn’t really want to have sweets before supper anymore. I didn’t enjoy the food as much after eating candy.”
Grandma looked at me without saying a word, as though she were waiting for me to say something else. Things started to click. A little light went on in my thick skull. I said, “Wait. So, you’ve been putting a drop of milk in your chicken soup all these years to show God you were angry with Him for allowing the Holocaust?”
Grandma nodded and admitted, “Yes, Herby dear. Jewish law says we are not to eat meat, including, of course, chicken, at the same meal with milk or any dairy product.” She paused, looked down at her hands on the table and wrinkled her brow. “So, I was showing God, my Heavenly Father, I was angry with Him for letting my whole family be destroyed.” She started to weep.
I put my arm around her shoulders. I said, “Tell me, Grandma, do you think God really cares about that, about that drop of milk, I mean?
She turned to me, eyes glistening, and said, “I don’t know.” After a pause, “Probably not. He has more important things to worry about, I’m sure.” She smiled.
“You know, Grandma, all the Torah says about this is that we should not stew a kid in its mother’s milk. Period. That’s all. We now know that this practice was a pagan Canaanite religious ritual. The Canaanites believed that stewing a young goat in its mother’s milk and spraying the stew on their animals and fields would promote fertility in their crops and livestock.”
“Are you serious? Did they really think that? And do that?”
“Yeah, they did. I’ve read about it. And, of course, we’re not supposed to imitate their pagan practices. But, you know, besides that reason, I think there’s another reason: a mother’s milk is for sustaining life in her baby, right? So, using a mother goat’s milk to cook her dead offspring, seems cynical, unfeeling, and really sinful. It would be like adding insult to injury. But besides, that, Grandma, we’re talking about chicken soup. Well, chickens aren’t even mammals, so including chickens in the ban doesn’t make sense. Anyhow, nowhere does the Torah say we couldn’t eat meat at the same meal as milk, or cheese or ice-cream.”
“So, how come…?”
“Much later,” I explained, “the rabbis, who are mere humans, decided that if we were not allowed to mix meat and milk at a meal, that would certainly keep us from boiling a baby goat in its mother’s milk. That’s what they called ‘building fences around fences.’ Extra prohibitions to make sure we don’t even come close to the central forbidden act.”
She looked down at the carpet, deep in thought. Then she looked at me and said, “So, Herby, maybe my childish behavior, breaking the kosher laws, didn’t mean anything?”
“Did it mean something to you?”
She thought for a moment, “I thought I was sending God a message, just between Him and me.”
“I’m sure He got the message, Grandma. He understood your motives. But just like my father would have understood if he had found out I ate candy before supper, he would be angry for a while, but would forgive me. After all, I’m his son and he loved me.”
Grandma smiled, turned toward me and gave me a big hug. She then stood, smiled and said, “Come, Herby, let’s eat!” She added, “And no more milk in my chicken soup.”