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A Whiff of Memory

10/09/20 14:06:31


At the beginning of his classic novel, East of Eden, John Steinbeck writes of memory: "I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers... what trees and seasons smelled like, how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of odours is very rich”. 

I thought of Steinbeck’s words over the past weeks. It was evoked by the scent of spring, the sweet fragrance of the jasmine tumbling off our fence. Jasmine takes me back to my adolescence when life was rich with hope and love. My earliest scent memory is, however, not of jasmine but of my mother’s babka. Today the freshly baked aroma of a babka not only makes me salivate, it stirs my soul, it reminds me of the security of childhood, my mother’s sunny kitchen in Bulawayo the special spot in the garden near the bougainvillea where I would relish each mouthful. 

During these strange lock-down days, many of us have turned to the consolations of memory, the reassurance of a less complicated past, the illusion of idyllic Covid – free times. There’s been a frenzy of baking and eating those comfort foods. Food has a way of assuring us that there are things that don’t change – like the taste of our favourite dish. 

We’re at that time of the year when food and memory merge. It’s no coincidence that each of our festivals has a special food – matza for Pesach, cheesecake for Shavuot, honey cake for Rosh Hashana. On Rosh Hashana there are not only special dishes we eat but also symbolic foods; the most well-known for us Ashkenazim is the apple dipped in honey. The Sephardim have a wider array of foods, virtually a smorgasbord of symbols or as they’re called in the Talmud simanim. These include leeks, beets, carrots, dates and pomegranates; a play on Hebrew names of the foods indicates their wishful significance. Thus, pomegranates are accompanied by the blessing: “May it be your will, Hashem... that our merits increase as the seeds of a pomegranate”. Many Ashkenazim will eat carrot tzimmes and/or have the head of a fish on the table signifying our striving to be heads to “hold kop”, to stay calm and confident even in a Covid storm. It’s a challenge to keep your head when all around are losing theirs. The name Rosh Hashana, head of the year, as opposed to a new year conveys the same message of maintaining clarity, perspective and persistence. 

In the past many would place the head of a sheep on their tables. While most of us would probably find this unpalatable and a “yuk” factor, the sheep head would evoke its own associations and memory from deep within Jewish consciousness. The ram is elemental to the Rosh Hashana story, the story of the binding of Isaac is at the heart of the Torah reading on Rosh Hashana and is repeated throughout our tefillot. Having it on the table is thus a merging of memory and menu. 

Memory is so fundamental to Rosh Hashana that it’s actually one of the traditional names of the day: Yom Hazikaron, Day of Remembrance. We are the people of memory; we carry memory in our DNA. ‘All Jews who are at all conscious of their identity as Jews’ wrote the celebrated philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, ‘are steeped in history’. He reminded us that Jews ‘have longer memories, they are aware of a longer continuity as a community than any other which has survived’. The Hebrew word for history and memory is Zachor or Zikaron which is a key and repeated word throughout our Tanach or Hebrew Bible. You could say we sniff out memory at the slightest hint! Memory has ensured our survival and continuity. 

John Steinbeck wasn’t the first novelist to connect smell and memory. It was in fact the Jewish writer Marcel Proust, who has been called one of the world’s greatest novelists, who made the connection. The kind of memory where an unexpected scent evokes a recollection of things past is called “Proustian memory”. At the beginning of his epic novel (the first of seven), Remembrance of Things Past, he writes how the smell of madeleine cake (a small rich pastry) unleashed a torrent of memories: 

“I recognised the taste of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime blossom which my aunt used to give me... Immediately the old grey house upon the street where her room was rose up like a stage set... the streets which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine”. 

Now, while I have babka and not madeleine in my memory-bank, it’s the olfactory sense that will carry me into the new year. It’s been called the strongest of our five senses (and the loss of smell is alarmingly one of the signs of Covid infection) and I want to give it a “High - Five”! 

While every week I inhale the lovely besamim or spices at the end of Shabbat as part of the Havdalah ceremony, and many times a year I say the bracha over the fragrances of roses or jasmine, the scent of herbs or grasses (borei atzei / isvei besamim), it’s usually only once a year I catch the aroma of a freshly-baked honey-cake, or Caron’s delicious apple-challah. And I’m transported into a happy place. My wish for you and yours as we approach this weird Rosh Hashana, and the last Shabbat of 5780, is that your year be filled with the scent of serenity, imbedded with the aroma of hope and sealed with the sweet smell of good health and healing. 

Shabbat Shalom 
Rabbi Ralph 

Sat, 17 April 2021 5 Iyyar 5781