Sample Story from New Mitzvah Stories: My Mother's Gefilte Fish

by Noa Baum

from New Mitzvah Stories for the Whole Family, from the award-winning Mitzvah Stories Series from Reclaiming Judaism Press

Some grandmothers are really good at telling stories. Mine wasn’t, but she made the BEST gefilte fish in the WORLD! I was born and raised in Jerusalem. My maternal grandmother, Mina, my Savta (grandmother in Hebrew), came from Poland and settled in Tel Aviv.

Although my Savta Mina lived in Israel for more than fifty years, she never had the time or means to learn the new language, so her Hebrew was mainly a mixture of Yiddish sprinkled with German and Polish. Perhaps that was the reason she never told stories, but let me tell you, my Savta made the BEST gefilte fish in the WORLD!

OH! I loved my grandmother’s gefilte fish! It melted in your mouth like butter and was so sweet! She made gefilte fish only twice a year: on Rosh Hashanah and Pesach (because it was such a time-consuming, difficult task, long before food processors were invented).

The secret to good gefilte fish, my Savta always said, is...the fish.

“The fish has to be fresh.”

Not just supermarket-wrapped-in-cellophane-fresh. We’re talking FRESH, as in still swimming.

In order to get the best, largest fish, you must go to the market very early, at least three, four or even five days before the holiday. Otherwise you’re left with the scrawny ones, and it’s more work to clean several small fish than one large one.

***

So, days before the holiday, my Savta Mina is up before the sun, and since I’m with her on all school vacations and holidays, I am up with her! We walk the five long blocks of King George Street in Tel Aviv to the market: Shuk Ha’Carmel. Down the main market street and then turn to a sloping side street where the asphalt is glistening black, water runs along the gutters on both sides, and the air has that unmistakable stench of...fish. This is Fish Street with stalls and shops on both sides solely devoted to all manner of kosher fish.

My Savta goes to Yuda’le.

“He has the best!” she says, and as she exchanges morning greetings with him, I go to the back of the store where along the entire back wall stands a gigantic, dark water tank. I press my face against the glass until my nose is completely smooshed flat, and I stare. Soon, big, wide-eyed carp appear from the black murky waters, pass by staring at me with that amazed-glazed look, and disappear back into the darkness.

A moment later—there they are again! Materializing out of nowhere, appearing and disappearing again and again. It’s magic!

My Savta points to one and says:

Dieze, de groisse. That big one,” in Yiddish.

Yuda’le takes a net and fishes out “that big one.” The fish flip-flops hysterically, desperately trying to jump back into the water, and just when it looks like it will hit the ceiling, Yuda’le quickly puts it in a large plastic bag, dumps in fresh water, ties a knot at the top, and hands it to my grandmother.

And that’s how we walk back home—me and my Savta and the fish dancing like crazy between us in a large plastic bag. When we arrive, she goes straight to the green tiled bathroom, fills the bathtub with water, and dumps that fish in. That’s where it will live for three, four, sometimes five days, because you see, the fish has to be FRESH!

I loved that bathroom with that fish! It never ceased to fascinate me. I would spend hours there, my chin on my arms, leaning on the rim of the bathtub, staring at that fish going back and forth, back and forth in its trapped world. I loved staring very hard, without blinking, until the walls of the bathroom dissolved, everything around me becoming blurry green and....there I was on the back of my Magic Carp!

There I was, the Queen of the Seven Seas diving into bottomless oceans conquering the world with my Magic Carp!!

There I was, making up stories for hours on end in my blurry green world...

But every story comes to an end. Mine was always the same: a Yiddish-speaking giant with a flowered apron pulled out the plug...the water was sucked away, the ocean was gone, and my magic fish was whisked away to the kitchen...

This was the part I really hated. From the kitchen comes the loud WHACK, and I know that I will never ever see my Magic Carp again. I closed my eyes and vowed:

“I will never, never, NEVER eat gefilte fish again!”

This vow usually lasted about...two hours. Because, my Savta made the BEST gefilte fish in the WORLD! It melted in your mouth like butter, and it was so sweet!

Without the Magic Carp swimming in the tub, life in the bathroom is very boring, so I inch my way across the hall and peer into the kitchen. There is my Savta cleaning the fish. With a large knife she scrapes off those sticky, stubborn scales, and then she slits open the fish’s belly, scooping out with both hands all the bloody, gooey, slippery insides. You would think that she’d just dump that into the garbage, but no! Not my Savta!

She stands there carefully examining all that gory mess in her hands.

I say: “Ichsa! (Hebrew for yuck!!!) Savta, what are you doing??!!”

“Ach, you never know,” she says, “could be like that...nu, what’s his name, that Yankl.”

“Yankl? What Yankl?”

“Nu! The one from the story.”

My face lights up. I love stories!

“Story? What story?”

“Eh! Who remembers? It’s a maiyse (a story)!”

And with that, she dumps the fish’s insides into the garbage, wipes her bloody hands on her apron, and with a wistful voice says:

“Ach! But he had mazel (luck)!!!”

And that was it! That’s how my grandmother told stories...

***

I never learned how to make gefilte fish like my grandmother. But I became a storyteller and found the story about “that Yankl”:

Yankl lived in a small shtetl (village) in Poland, and he was famous! Why was he famous, you ask? I’ll tell you. He was famous because he was so poor that his family was always hungry, and his children walked barefoot in the coldest days of winter.

But no matter how difficult the days, every Friday Yankl always bought the biggest fish in the market to celebrate the Sabbath. The merchants in the market thought he was mad.

“Yankl!” they said, “with the money you’re spending on one fish, you could feed your family all week long!”

To which Yankl smiled his big, warm smile and said: “Ah! You may be right, my friends, but you tell me: what is the point of living all week long if you cannot receive the Sabbath with joy and generosity like a Queen?”

So that was Yankl! His family hungry all week long, but for the Sabbath, the Queen, there was always a joyous celebration at his home, to which he would invite every poor and hungry beggar to join them for the Sabbath feast.

Not far from that shtetl lived the landowner, the porets, Lord Filtz. He owned land, barns full of grains, stables full of horses, and a large mansion full of beautiful things. He was a very wealthy man but quick-tempered and closed-fisted. If anyone in need came to his door, if anyone dared ask for some charity, or even a little loan, his answer was always the same: “Ahmmm....NO!” And he’d slam the door.

Oh, there was not a stingier man in the entire country than that porets!

One night Lord Filtz had a very disturbing dream: A large hole appeared in his dream, opening up in the middle of the earth, and coins of gold and silver were being sucked into it. In his dream he heard a terrible, hissing voice:

“Someone will inherit you before you die!”

“AAHHH!!!” he woke up screaming and covered with sweat. This was his worst nightmare, to lose his precious possessions!

“Someone inherit me before I die!!” he cried. “Someone will put their filthy hands on my possessions? Not as long as I breathe!”

Determined not to let the dream come true, he set about to protect his possessions. He ordered new fences around his estate, new guards to patrol his property night and day, and new locks on all the cupboards, drawers, and chests in his house. That night he went to bed content, thinking: “Now my possessions are safe. No one can touch them!”

But the minute he closed his eyes, a rather disturbing thought occurred to him:

“What if while I’m lying here snug in my bed, someone is lurking out there in the dark, trying to break into my barns? Conspiring to rob me like in that horrible dream?”

In panic he ran through the house, out the door to the barns.

But all he found there were his guards. Everything was locked. Nothing was
touched.

He returned to his bed.

But a minute later, another disturbing thought seeped in:

“What if while I was out running to the barns, someone sneaked in here? Someone could be lurking in the dark inside this very house, trying to put his hands on my crystal cups, my porcelain dishes, my silver and gold! Oh, my precious things!”

Trembling, he jumped out of bed and ran all over the house, lighting the lamps, checking the cupboards, opening drawers, lifting carpets, pulling bricks from the walls (to check his secret hiding places). But all was well. Nothing was touched. He blew out all the lamps, locked and closed everything, and returned to bed.

But not for long. The minute he closed his eyes he thought: “What if while I was checking the house, someone was out there, trying to break into my barns?”

Once again he jumped out of bed and ran to the barns, but on the way he worried:

“My crystal cups, my porcelain dishes, my silver and gold!” So he turned back and ran to the house. But when he got there, he panicked: “What about the barns?”

All night long he ran back and forth, checking on his possessions, and in the morning, he was exhausted! It went on like

“I must find a way to keep things under control,” he said to himself. “There must be a way to keep everything in one place where I can keep an eye on it.”

And then he had an idea: “I will sell and invest!”

He sold everything—the barns, the horses, the silver and gold, the crystal cups, and porcelain dishes. Then he went to the capital city, and with all the money, bought one enormous diamond, the likes of which had never been seen before. He had a special pouch made for this diamond, and he clutched it in his hands.

“Ah! Now I can keep my fortune with me at all times,” he cried, his heart filled with joy.

Now he was a happy man! Everywhere he went—the pouch was with him, safely clutched in his hands. When he ate and drank, the pouch was clutched in his hands. When he slept, the pouch was clutched in his hands. He never un-clutched his hands.

One day, in the beginning of autumn, he was walking (since he had sold his horses and carriage) from one end of town back home and had to cross the old wooden bridge that connected both parts of town over the river. Now, I know you may find this next part hard to believe, but this is the way the story is told:

Just when he came to the middle of that bridge, a wind began to blow! But not just a soft autumn breeze. It was a full force gale wind! Dark clouds covered the face of the sun.

The water in the river turned gray, and the wind whipped up fierce waves that rose and hit that bridge.

Lord Filtz tried to go back, but couldn’t. He tried to go forward, but couldn’t!

The old wooden bridge creaked and groaned, rocking violently from side to side.

The wind grew stronger and wilder. He had to hold on to the rails with both hands or he would fall into the raging river! “Aahhh!” he screamed, as the pouch flew from his grasp. In horror, he watched it disappear in the stormy waters below.

That afternoon Yankl and his wife Leah were in the market. One of the merchants came running up to him and said:

“Yankl, a friend of mine caught a fish so big no one wants to buy it. You’re his last hope. Please come take a look at it!”

Yankl took one look at that fish and said:

“Now that’s a fish fit to receive the Sabbath Queen!”

“But Yankl!” whispered his wife at his side, “it’s too expensive! And so big!

Who will finish such a fish?”

“Leah’le”, he said, “there are enough hungry people in the world to help us finish the fish!”

“But Yankl…!” she pleaded.

But Yankl had already paid for the fish and was walking through the market inviting every poor and hungry beggar to join them for the Sabbath feast

What could she do? He was crazy, but he was still her husband.

So with tears in her eyes, she put on her flowered apron and began the tedious task of cleaning that fish. With a big knife, she scraped off all those sticky, stubborn scales, and then she slit open the fish’s belly. With both hands, she scooped out...the biggest diamond she never dreamed could exist! The jewel filled the entire house with dazzling light.

When Yankl saw that, he smiled his big smile and said, “You see, Leah’le! God does not forget those who receive the Sabbath like a Queen with joy and generosity!

Indeed, it was a joyous celebration at Yankl’s house that night! All the beggars rejoiced in his good fortune. After the Sabbath, he sold the diamond, and with the money—why Yankl and his family lived in prosperity and happiness for the rest of their days.

May we all be blessed with such good mazel!

BUY NOW: New Mitzvah Stories for the Whole Family, Juicy, provocative stories by 43 leading authors, storytellers and educators. Includes a free study guide. Edited by Goldie Milgram and Ellen Frankel with Arthur Kurzweil, Batya Podos, Peninnah Schram, Mindy Shapiro, Danny Siegel and Shoshana Silberman

"My Grandmother's Gefilte Fish" Author bio:
        Noa Baum
, born and raised in Jerusalem, lives in the Washington, D.C. area. Noa was an actress with the Jerusalem Khan Theater, and received an MA in Educational Theater from NYU. She is a winner of a Parents’ Choice Recommended Award, a 2014 Storytelling World Award and numerous Individual Artist Awards from The Maryland State Arts Council and The National Storytelling Network. She has presented at the World Bank, the Mayo Clinic, The Kennedy Center, United States Department of Defense, and universities and communities worldwide.

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