For some Jews, the merest whiff of a roasting brisket or simmering chicken can evoke a flood of High Holiday memories. For me, it’s not brisket or chicken, or even the spicy aroma of a fresh-baked honey cake. Odd as it may seem, my magic key to the past is the sweetly acrid smell of silver polish. One sniff and I am at my mother’s kitchen table feverishly polishing the silver in anticipation of our High Holiday company. She would snag me from late-summer idleness, propelling me into the kitchen. The holidays were bearing down on her, the silver was dull. It was time to get to work.
And so it was for me this past fall. The Shabbat silver — kiddush cups and candlesticks — stays fairly bright from weekly touch ups. But it was long past time to tackle the tarnish layering the pitchers and creamers, the sugar bowls and serving pieces that are only pressed into service come the Holidays.
I rounded up the silver that had been ignored for the better part of the year. I also rounded up my son and daughter. They fussed initially, “Why do we have to do it?” but soon enough were happily smearing slippery pink paste, vying to see who could come up with the blackest polishing cloth, the shiniest silver.
As we worked I was struck by the similarity to what we go through with such intensity during the High Holy Days — the polishing up of ourselves. We vow to remove the tarnish of our faults so that others can see our G’d given shine. We promise to polish our characters so that we can become vessels for good.
Some pieces are easier to work on than others. My favorites are the children’s’ baby spoons. Two swift swipes and they are done, bright as the children who dipped them into countless bowls of oatmeal and strained fruit. How much tarnish can settle upon a child? Looking back, it seems so simple to keep little ones sparkling: love them; laugh with them; bathe, feed, and clean them and they shine with their own inner light.
It is a greater challenge to keep my children polished now. Not only can they speak, they do. Frequently. They have their own ideas about how their world should be structured. They sometimes let their mother’s polish, a loving amalgam of advice, discipline, and affection, trickle from their surfaces like beads of chilled water on a glass. And yet I know I must guard against seeing only the tarnish and not the sweet light that emanates from them.
Putting them to work on their Kiddush cups, I take up a fruit bowl from my grandmother’s sister. Long and low, it is shaped like a small halved melon and is festooned at each end with a cluster of grapes and leaves. As beautiful as it is, it is a dangerous piece. The grape leaves are sharp and I have cut myself more than once in a moment of carelessness.
Polishing it, I am reminded of a prayer our family recites each Shabbat “….Keep us gentle in our speech. When we offer words of criticism, may they be chosen with care and spoken softly.” Cloth in hand I think back to the times I have been too quick to correct, the times I have been anything but gentle. With the grape leaves, as with my loved ones, I have learned to ignore a little shadow of tarnish. It adds depth, distinction. The bowl is no worse for my reining in my polishing fervor. Neither are those I love.
My husband’s Kiddush cup, a gift from my mother, was the only piece of sterling we received when we married. In 1980 the cost of silver was hagh and my mother, among all those in attendance, could least afford the extravagance of that gift. My cloth slides easily against its simple curves. Because we use it each week, it needs little work; when I finish it, it gleams bright as it did on our wedding day 14 years ago. Would that all my dreams and expectations that I’ve carried with me since that day — dreams for my own accomplishment, dreams of how easy it would be to be a model wife, mother and daughter — be as unscratched as that cup. Rinsing the goblet in sudsy water I resolve once again to remember that dreams are won step by step and to concentrate on the present day only, as I hope for the future.
My husband and I purchased silver candlesticks for ourselves on our first wedding anniversary. They have seen us through many a Shabbat and I reflect with satisfaction on how our Sabbath ritual has evolved from a simple dinner and three brief prayers, to a joyous family meal, replete with blessings over the children and the inclusion of the Eshyet Chayil ( a Shabbat prayer of praise said in honor of a wife or mother) and a prayer honoring my husband.
When our children hear my husband read, “A woman of valor seek her out for she is to be valued above rubies”, or when they hear me recite, “Blessed is the man who reveres the Lord, who greatly delights in G’d’s commandments. His descendants will be honored in the land….” hopefully they will internalize the importance our tradition places on marriage and on appreciating one another.
The bulk of our silver comes from my grandparents. Their home was not steeped in Jewish ritual, but the ruach , the Jewish spirit, was always there. The pieces are heavy, ornate, difficult to polish. I think of my grandfather — committed Zionist, tireless fighter for civil rights, story teller par excellence, possessor of a contagious joie de vivre. What a tradition to uphold! Have I done enough to carry on his legacy?
My grandmother, when she was stronger, was the community’s balebost against whom all others were measured. The standing joke was that even her blintzes were made with hospital corners. I scrub a little harder remembering her standards, but ease up as I remind myself she sent us the silver not only as a housewarming present, but because she was “just a tad tired of polishing it all.” The greatest gift they gave me was their unconditional acceptance. I never had to be the best or the smartest or the prettiest to be loved. I only had to be. Drying the heavily wrought handle of a water pitcher, I say a silent prayer of thanks for having had two such remarkable grandparents.
I glance over at my son and daughter, hard at work on their small silver cups. My son’s was made by a distant cousin on my husband’s side. Its surface is etched with scenes from a pre-war village in Poland. The cousin perished in the Holocaust, his death a part of Hitler’s final solution. I gain a measure of satisfaction knowing this unnamed man has lived on in his work. His cup is a strong symbol that tyrants cannot so easily vanquish us.
My daughter’s cup, a gift from an indulgent aunt, is a contemporary footed goblet, washed inside with gold. It is a cup to be grown into, much like her Jewish heritage. I had her name engraved on it with a ulterior motives: that the cup will one day grace her own Shabbat table, that when she sips from it each Friday, she will savor in some corner of her soul memories of the Shabbat meals of her childhood.
My children’s shouts of “Haven’t we done enough, Mommy?” break into my thoughts. “Yes,” I tell them skimming over a spot here and there, “We have done enough. Let’s put everything back and go for some ice cream.” As we ferry the goblets and tableware from kitchen to dining room, I hope for a year of unsullied brightness. I know I hope in vain. Tarnish will creep over the fruit bowl and the baby spoons just as our day to day lives will be coated with an occasional veneer of impatience, frustration, and misunderstanding. Nevertheless, I take comfort in the knowledge that as Jews, we are given the opportunity to begin each new year with gleaming intent.
This essay was written years before I could even imagine my children off and living their own lives. That future has now arrived. My son and daughter live too far from home to help with spur-of- the-moment silver polishing. When they come for holidays the silver is already polished. Now, the scent of silver polish not only reminds me of my mother’s kitchen table, but of my own in days past as well. DBD
© 1993 Debra B. Darvick reprinted with permission of the author.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.