As my kid peered over the counter, straining to see into the mixer bowl, I had a moment that I hope I will always remember. “Egg chemistry is amazing!” I commented, as he asked what cream of tartar did and we read the label together. Then, as the mixer churned faster than I could ever do by hand, we saw soft peaks and medium peaks pass into stiff peaks. We were ready to drop globs of this air-filled sugar mixture onto the baking sheets, ready to turn egg whites into crunchy meringues.
It’s after Shavuot. There’s Winnipeg’s glorious spring all around us, as well as the remains of a delicious lemon custard pie (like key lime pie, if you’re wondering, but with lemons) in the refrigerator. Since some of the Shavuot dairy desserts use egg yolks, we were left with the practical gift of the whites and the magical meringues that followed.
I live with a science professor and twins who won their school science fair this year, but I wouldn’t call myself good at science. However, moments like these, whipping egg whites with one of my kids, make me think back to my high school chemistry teacher, Tuvia. Tuvia grew up in New York and settled on a religious kibbutz in Israel. He had an impressive beard and was probably in his 40s when he taught our Grade 11 class of North Americans, living on secular Kibbutz Beit HaShita in 1989-90. He had limited access to supplies or facilities when it came to doing experiments. I got the sense that teaching our class took time out of his regular work schedule. Even so, he captured the joy and neat magic of how basic chemistry worked.
Due to a sickness that caused a lengthy absence, I was behind in his class. I got to visit his family at their kibbutz with another classmate or two. From what I remember, I sat at his kitchen table to do make-up work. His wife offered us snacks. Kids played outside, running through the sprinklers on the well-tended paths, surrounded by flowers.
Tuvia offered us a good grounding in chemistry but also a window into what an Israeli religious kibbutz settlement looked like, simply by inviting us home to help us catch up on our schoolwork. This was something our year abroad program wasn’t offering. More than 30 years later, that memory is a valuable one. Tuvia, if you’re out there in our “connected by Jewish geography” world – thank you for being such a good teacher.
On social media at this time of year, it’s common to see lots of weddings and other celebrations. Family picnics, parties and graduations fill up many people’s schedules. My household’s not immune: this month, we’ve got a big school play, three birthdays, an end-of-year elementary school event, a milestone wedding anniversary and more. I joked with a friend that it’s like somebody pushed a “GO” button. Everybody’s running around like crazy.
Many people (likely extroverts) get a lot of joy from the big occasions. Turns out that I’m one of those people who can do without the big events. The pandemic reminded me that, if I had to avoid gathering in large groups forever, I probably wouldn’t mind. There’s a lot of pressure to “return to normal” right now, even though COVID still exists. But, even if it didn’t, I am one of those who didn’t really find “normal” large social events all that easy before.
The gift that I’ve received instead is this amazing joy in the small things every day. In sitting outside in the shade, watching one kid construct mysterious imaginary fairy worlds while the other one doggedly coaxes along things he has built, like his solar rover. I loved starting our garden, where we all dug in the earth together, tucking in our seedlings and seeds, and feeling such hopeful enthusiasm for what will grow and for the growing season’s potential.
We have lots of specific, prescribed blessings in Jewish tradition to help us find that everyday gratitude and joy. There’s the brachah (blessing) for seeing a rainbow, for a thunderstorm, or even for seeing a king. I don’t always remember the blessings at the right moment, but, in the end, I’m not sure it matters. The prompt to recognize these things, express gratitude and sense the wonder of the world is still there.
Along with making meringue magic and planting in the sunshine this past weekend, I heard some hard news, too. One friend from university, a single mom who lives far away, age 49, is facing a new diagnosis of lung cancer. Another faraway friend, dear to my heart, is soon to enter palliative care and hospice. This bad news just about derailed me. There were moments to cry. Yet, I grasped hold of the sunshine, the airy bits of sugar and egg, the time weeding and digging in the earth, and, instead of tears, two kid drawings and a note filled with love went out in the mail today to my friend entering hospice.
Very few things are as tidy as basic math or chemistry problems. Food chemistry, like making meringues, is just about the most predictable experiment I know. Those recipes are like the ritual prayers for seeing moments of wonder. To me, recipes, like their religious ritual equivalent, perhaps express a purely rote way to acknowledge wonder in the everyday. I am holding onto that recipe for wonder with both hands as I head forth through this warm season of celebration. Sometimes, a “recipe” for complete healing after surgery removes cancer or a prayer for a peaceful send off to Olam HaBa (the next world, the place some believe we go after death) is all we can do. In the meanwhile, it’s a good time to eat those crunches of sugar and air – but only after we clean the dirt from our fingernails and race through the sprinklers to another summer day.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.