There is a beautiful Yiddish expression, Ein mama dergreykht mer vi a hundert lerers, which translates as “One mother achieves more than a hundred teachers.”
I was my mom’s (OBM) best pupil. I loved to learn from her and she loved to teach me. Our time together was priceless but as her health began to deteriorate, she made it her mission to be remembered.
At our seder table, beige, processed, congealed fish balls scooped out of a vacuum sealed jar were a no-no. As Passover preparation began each year so did my mother’s laborious, odiferous journey to prepare the quintessential Pesach food, also endearingly known by our family and friends as “Chia’s fish.”
My mom and the fishmonger at our local Pick N Save were on a first–name basis. She was prudent and would repeatedly call him up week after week until he “gave her the best price on fish.” Occasionally, I would be the lucky one to pick up the ground whitefish, trout and pike and my mom always insisted I keep the receipt. I could never understand why it was so important that I give her the receipt, but it became crystal clear after her passing. When we were cleaning out her desk, we encountered the Gefilte Fish Chronicles: a collection of typewritten cost analyses of each patty of fish. The pages are humorous and capture my mom’s wit: “Overcharged this year so patties are sky high.” Or “mischarged me for pike – best price yet!” Sadly, also among the comments is “Too sick this year. Doctored the jar. Ick!”
The year prior to my mom’s passing, she enlisted me to help her make the fish. I knew then that she was not doing well and not only needed my physical assistance but wanted to teach me something that was so precious to her so I could continue this tradition for our family.
Before we would even begin, we had to choose which candles we would light. My mom seemed to believe that if we lit Bath & Body Works candles, the nasty fish smell that proliferated throughout every crevice of the house would disappear. We then filled a ginormous pot with water and added celery, carrots, onion, bones from the fish, fish heads, salt, pepper and only a LITTLE sugar (savory – not sweet!). Out came the wooden bowl and the special tool to mix the ground fish, eggs, onions, salt, pepper and matzoh meal. Once it was all incorporated, my mom showed me how to wet my hands and mold the mixture into small patties. We then popped it into the fish stock and waited. While it was cooling my mom asked me to go rifle through the shelves in the basement where the oversized Passover fish Tupperware was patiently waiting to be used.
I will always cherish the many things my mom taught me; “Chia’s Fish” lives on through me and my daughter. We will lovingly remember her each year as we get out the ginormous pot and wooden chopping bowl and get to work.
Robyn Eiseman of Mequon has been a Jewish early childhood educator and administrator at Mequon Jewish Preschool since 2003. She is chair of the BBYO Friends and Alumni Network Commission, co-president of the Milwaukee Section of the National Council of Jewish Women and co-chair of the Jewish Women’s Endowment Fund.