In Defense of Not Writing #24: Making Brisket

This column explores the myriad ways we can — and maybe should — engage with our creative process beyond actively writing.

I made brisket for the first time this year. In fact, just a few days ago. Though Jewish on my mother’s side, my family isn’t one to celebrate the holidays beyond Hanukkah. And even that we keep to its barest bones: maybe making some latkes, at most lighting the candles every night. My mother grew up attending Hebrew school and Synagogue, but had a less-than-ideal experience with it all, so made the purposeful decision to not raise my brothers and I the same way. And to only ever celebrate in a way that feels comfortable to her.

As I’ve gotten older—and after going to a college where, for the first time, I was surrounded by other Jewish people—I became increasingly interested in learning more about Judaism in a cultural sense. I wanted to know about all these new holidays and traditions I was hearing about, and I wanted to experience a Shabbat dinner for the first time.

Naturally, I began to resent my mother for seemingly not being accepting or excited about her Jewish heritage. I came home demanding we change the way we’d been doing things for years because I saw what my other peers were doing. I categorized them as “real Jews” in my head, and myself as just some sort of wannabe. My words stung, and I sharpened their edges with the hope of hurting my mother. I couldn’t believe how she could walk away from such a large part of herself.

Eventually, I began to connect the dots, of course. And even wrote about coming to terms with her religious trauma that influenced the total lack of any in our household. I stopped blaming her or demanding recompense for her actions. I could go on about how I got to that point, but I’m not sure this is the place for it. All that needs to be known is I was angry at her for a long time because she was protecting herself, setting up boundaries that were necessary for her well-being. I looked at what others were doing around me and immediately diagnosed it as a lack. Instead of approaching her with an open heart, open mind, and hearing why she made the decisions she did. And I never once considered I could do my own thing, have my own routine.

Which is where we get to both the brisket, and the writing.

The brisket was my bridge. About a week before the first night of Passover I texted my mother to see if we could do a big meal together—her, my dad, my partner, and me. I told her I would make everything and bring it over, that I just thought it’d be nice for us to at least dine as a family. Honestly to my surprise, she said yes. She wrote back: “No formal stuff, ok?” I asked if she meant “like all the prayer stuff?” To which she responded yes. And I, having only really been to two or three Passover Seders my grandmother held, and knowing they go on for hours before you can eat anything of substance, said, “That’s absolutely fine.”

So this Wednesday I woke up early, got my brisket in the oven to slow cook, and went about making some accouterments. By myself, since my partner was at work, I loaded the blue dutch oven with the piece-de-resistance, the two salads (one without lemon, since my mother’s sensitive stomach can’t handle acidity), the chocolate tart, and various other tools I’d need into my car and headed over to my parent’s house to complete everything else.

Together, my mom and I finished the matzo ball soup and latkes. We set the table and she told me about a Passover dinner in which she was reduced to tears because her extended family couldn’t speak English and accidentally told her she couldn’t have the baby doll her mother promised she could have if she got through the Seder. We laughed, listened to music, walked the dogs. When the time came, my brisket fell apart with the merest touch of pressure. It was sweet but sour, spicy from horseradish, and a real testament to patience. The soup’s main flavor was salt, which we didn’t mind. And the carrots and latkes and salads rounded everything out. We didn’t say any prayers; we simply ate together.

Lately, I’ve been feeling extra lazy with my writing—which tends to happen after I experience a big high. In February, I had three exciting publications. And besides making some small adjustments to my memoir manuscript, I haven’t written anything new since (besides this column, in all its irony, being the one thing I do indeed consistently write).

I was feeling defeated when a friend of mine reached out. Amongst other things she told me: “I’ll regularly go like 3-4 months without writing a single sentence. You don’t need reasons/excuses to write how you write! It’s such an accomplishment to even figure out what works for you, so you should feel proud/comfy in that.”

She’s right, of course. Absolutely right. This isn’t the first time I’ve brought up how deeply I compare myself and my process to others. And it clearly shows up in other aspects of my life—like when I decided I wasn’t Jewish enough because I didn’t do things the way other people at my school did, rather than just accepting that my family’s way of doing things was perfectly fine on its own.

So, Passover. I already had bread today and I’m going to keep having it. But we had a lovely dinner that my mother kept texting me about the next day, and I like to think it helped her see we can build our own routines and traditions, too. I’m not saying I’ve made a revelation through brisket. This constant competition is something I will continue working on (in therapy), but I think the more talk about it, the more I will hear myself. And perhaps the more I will listen.

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