A (gefilte) fishy holiday tradition

These days we associate it only with Passover Seders, but gefilte fish was a traditional Ashkenazi dish at other Jewish holidays too, including Rosh Hashanah. I’m reprinting a recent email from Miriam Harel, who like me grew up in the Hashomer Hatzair socialist-Zionist youth movement in New York. Unlike me, Miriam moved to Israel, where she lives on Kibbutz Haogen near Netanya, works as a therapist at  the Adler Institute in Herzliyah,  and has three grandchildren. She is author of a book on therapy with children.

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By Miriam Harel

I have memories of carps swimming around in my grandmother’s bathtub in Brooklyn (I vowed never to take a bath in her house again) and the old grinding machine locked to the table with a vise and the long, long ritual of homemade gefilte fish with a carrot slice on the belly of every gefilte. Hours and hours of work cutting, grinding, rinsing, boiling, waiting till cooling, and all the rest.

What the fish symbolised I’ll never know, but I do remember “May you be the head of the fish and not the tail,” with visible fish heads eyeing us on the holiday table.

I would have imagined that this day of long arduous labor was some kind of religious ceremony, and gefilte was symbolic of the devotion of our grandmothers to the tradition of their own mothers and grandmothers to suffer through and then provide this to their eager families on holidays, each with the seasoning of his origins — the Polish more sweet gefilte, and the Hungarians more peppery like all else.

Never in my life did I attempt the feat of soaking, killing the carp with a blow to its innocent head, cutting, boning, grinding, boiling, cooling. I watched my grandmother Malka in amazement and awe but never would I attempt this. There was always someone selling it at some food market or some chaverat kibbutz who did this as a specialty… except for this year.

I went to all the possible places in this immediate area. The local supermarmarkets tried to talk me out of it: Oh, come on. You don’t still want THAT? Some salmon, maybe St. Denis? I was offered bottles of Manischevitz gefilte pickled in something sinister and God knows how long it has been on the shelf.

Gefilte fish jars in a Miami deli

I tried the Russian specialty stores who offered me caviar and herring, and the little shops who shrugged and referred me to some Yemenite woman who makes amazing Chreime harif harif [spicy Middle Eastern fish].

I started thinking of travelling to Bnei Brak [an ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv suburb]. Seriously. Are you nuts? I thought to myself. The young people in the family don’t eat it. It looks weird to them, especially with that red stuff, and is a nondescript color and doesn’t look like schnitzel or anything nice.

The end of the gefilte era is like the end of a thousand-year-old fixed tradition that originated in Germany or France with the origin of Yiddish (gefilte means “filled” in Yiddish) — fish stuffed with all kind of fillings so that it would go a long way like other bread puddings of the poor in Europe.

I was about to give up when I came across the ready-food take-out store of Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon.

There was a whole counter full of packed plastic boxes with six pretty little gefiltes lying side by side in their own juice or yoich as they
say in Yiddish. I was so happy to see them again and respectful of Mishmar Hasharon for holding onto this tradition.

Probably no one under the age of fifty will touch them, but they will be there. As always. My comfort fish, resonating with images of Brooklyn and my grandmother.

Shana tova to all.

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Note from Ilana: The era of gefilte fish may not be dead, just ready for reinvention. My husband Sam has adapted his family’s gefilte fish recipe to use fresh wild salmon, which our local fish store grinds for us. To complete the Bay Area foodie transformation, he serves it with a wasabi creme fraiche. The result is light pink fish balls with light green wasabi drizzled around it… even our friends who hate (jarred) gefilte fish love it. 

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4 Responses to “A (gefilte) fishy holiday tradition”

  1. Nicholas Says:

    I want some of Sam’s!

  2. thewordmavens Says:

    really funny (and true!) we wrote about how some families love gefilte fish on any holiday –and others say “Pesach only!” Shana tova!

  3. bratschegirl Says:

    Oh, your recipe with the wasabi creme fraiche sounds sooo tempting! Would you consider sharing, maybe in another post here?

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