When I was about ten years old, sometime in the late 80s, my mother made a kugel—a casserole of wide egg noodles and sweet custard—for a Passover Seder. She served it in big wedges that collapsed slightly on the plate, revealing tender, pink-tinged slices of apple. Their sweet-tart flavor, combined with the creaminess of the custard, came as a wonder. When the other kids scattered across the house to look for the afikomen, the hidden wafer of matzo that ends the holiday meal, I went straight to the kitchen to look for more kugel.
It wasn’t until years later that I learned that this kugel was exactly the wrong dish for this holiday. In addition to breaking kosher laws by introducing dairy into a meat-based meal, its noodles broke the cardinal rule of Passover: the prohibition on leavened foods.
My mother couldn’t have known any of this. The blond daughter of Midwestern Episcopalians, her religious feelings tended toward Southern California-style spirituality—toward meditation and Hindu chants and teachers like Sri Satya Sai Baba and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. But when she married and had kids with my father, a lapsed Jew from Bladensburg, Maryland, she decided it was important that we learn at least something about our Jewish heritage. My father certainly wasn’t going to take on that responsibility. In his mind, organized religion came close to being the root of all the world’s evils. Though he felt connected to his people through their culture and a certain wry, absurdist (and slightly embarrassing) sense of humor, he wasn’t about to join a temple or teach us about the Torah.
My mother took the opposite view. She loved all forms of religion and was just as happy when I went to Catholic mass with my best friend as she was when I attended the Hindu “Sunday school” that she enrolled me and my siblings in. For her it wasn’t important that I believe in one particular idea of God (or gods), but that I embrace a broad view of the world and whatever forces might have created it. And so, in addition to Christmas and Easter, my mother made sure we had Hanukkah candles and bagels with lox and Passover Seders. And that kugel.
And it worked, at least to some extent. My truly un-Jewish first name (and my love of Hindi chants) notwithstanding, I grew up believing that I was Jewish. I invited friends over for seders, sang the Hanukkah prayer at my high school’s “winter holidays” celebration, and checked out the occasional book on Judaism for class projects on history or religion.
It wasn’t until I went to college that I realized how wrong I was. Here were the real Jews, the ones who lived and breathed the religion. They observed the prohibitions on work and using electricity on the Sabbath; they ate in the kosher section of the cafeteria, clustering in the corner of the dining room that felt off-limits to the rest of us. And many of them didn’t recognize me as Jewish because, after all, I am only Jewish on my father’s side, and for most sects Jewish identity is passed through the mother. I continued to celebrate the occasional holiday meal with a couple of other friends who felt similarly ostracized, but I also started to think that maybe my more observant classmates were right: if theirs was the real Jewish culture, maybe I wasn’t really Jewish at all.
Then, just a couple years after college, I found myself engaged to a non-observant Jew from a very observant family. Josh’s parents kept kosher, he attended Hebrew school three days a week for most of his childhood, and his oldest sister was even studying to become a rabbi. Though he was in the process of embracing his own atheism, Josh had the same inherent sense of Jewishness that my father had always shown, a relationship to the culture that was so intrinsic that it had almost nothing to do with religious observance. After years of feeling like an outsider, I loved that Josh could choose his connections with his identity. Inspired by his example, I decided to give my Jewish side another shot by reconnecting with the part of the culture that I had always known and loved: the food.
I looked for that kugel. My mom couldn’t remember where the recipe had come from—in fact, she couldn’t remember the kugel at all—so I turned Josh’s mother who introduced me to versions I’d never seen before. She happily invited me to help her prepare holiday meals, and in her white and yellow-tiled kitchen I started to learn about the kugels her family loved. There were savory potato kugels and farfel kugels, made from a form of matzo, both of which would actually work on the Passover table. There was her aunt Ester’s noodle kugel that called for a combination of margarine, sour cream, and cottage cheese, and Jerusalem kugel that combined caramelized sugar with ground black pepper for a sweet-spicy treat.
With each dish I learned to make, I thought about my family, remembering things about my father’s relatives that I hadn’t thought about in years. I thought about my dad’s childhood in Maryland and the stories he told me about his grandmother’s delicate chopped liver knishes. I remembered the summer evenings at my grandparents’ house when we’d sit on their screened-in porch listening to cicadas and eating turkey sandwiches from a nearby deli. And I remembered all my great-aunts and great-uncles who I used to see once a year during family reunions, the grey-haired ladies from Philadelphia who wore oversized, flowery bathing suits with little ruffled skirts, and the old men with more hair in their ears than on their heads who would lie around the pool in Atlantic City and make jokes with Yiddish punch lines.
As Josh’s mother taught me to cook Jewish foods, she also began to teach me about some of the more religious aspects of Judaism that I didn’t learn from my family. I learned the rules of keeping a kosher kitchen and the rituals of Shabbat dinners and holiday prayers, and slowly I started to understand and feel comfortable with many of the elements of the religion that had previously seemed so foreign and foreboding.
I still believe in the religious lesson that my own mother taught me—that every idea that has given people hope and faith is worthy of celebration. I don’t pretend to know what’s out there in the universe, but I believe in something, and at the same time, I’ve learned to claim my father’s culture for myself, to explore Judaism on my own terms.
Eventually I found a kugel recipe so delicious and decadent and eggy and sweet that it actually lived up to that perfect version from childhood. I added apples to it, which not only solidified my memory of the dish, but also recalls both the Rosh Hashanah custom of dipping apples in honey (to symbolize a sweet beginning to the new year) and my own family’s tradition of serving baked apples for birthdays and holidays.
Now I make kugel for every Rosh Hashanah I host as well as for breaking the fast at the end of Yom Kippur, which Josh and I celebrate whether we take time to fast and go to temple or not. Every time I make it, I think of my mother and the gift she gave me when she decided to try to hold onto a little bit of our father’s culture for us. I hope to be able to do the same for my own daughter, a sunny, curly-headed eighteen-month-old who will get to eat kugel for the first time this year. I expect it will be one of her favorite dishes too.