From the moment 73-year-old Rimma greeted me at the door decked out in a monochromatic bright red outfit and matching lipstick, I knew we’d get along perfectly.
Rimma’s home, in a heavy, squat Soviet style apartment complex in Odessa, Ukraine, was the antithesis of her surroundings, neat and well-appointed though she was obviously not a wealthy woman.
But what she lacked in financial means, she made up for in her fashion choices, and the warm welcome she gave a stranger who was coming to record her family’s matzah brei recipe.
What would a young woman, born and raised in an observant Jewish home in northern New Jersey, be doing getting matzah brei tips thousands of miles away from an octogenarian in Eastern Europe? I was traveling as part of my work for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish humanitarian group that works in this part of the world to aid Jews in need and build Jewish life. My time with Rimma, forming a deeply personal link in the chain of connectedness between our people wherever they may be, was part of this mission, but on steroids.
Cooking with someone is an intensely intimate act — it is about active listening, learning about who they are, where they come from, and why they choose to prepare something a certain way. It’s also about the humility to taste something from an angle you never dreamed possible. Rimma was not just giving me a taste of “the old country,” she was proving to me that Jewish tradition was alive and well in a place many of us think it was extinguished by the Nazis or Soviet regime.
As she ushered us in to her home, where Rimma had carefully laid out all the ingredients for the beloved recipe in her small, well-organized kitchen, she wore a matching apron adorned with red strawberries. Another point for originality. She began assembling the dish, simultaneously speaking about her life and her love of cooking.
Through the translator I understood that Rimma, whose husband was Armenian, specializes in cooking Armenian food. However, since her husband’s passing, she only cooks those foods when her son comes in from Israel to visit. In fact, I learned that her whole family — her son, 4 grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren — all live in Israel.
And that’s when I realized we might both speak Hebrew. After three days of exhaustedly working through a translator and attempting to discern the Russian in the air, I began chatting with her directly, and her eyes lit up with a shared excitement. She continued her colorful commentary about her life in Hebrew — which I was thrilled to now understand, and she was just as happy to share.
As we spoke, I learned that on Passover, every year, she continues the tradition of her family to make matzah brei, but in their version they look like individual latkes. I found out that she’s a retired accountant, who now fills her time at the local JDC-supported local Hesed social welfare center, where she has spent more than 20 years both professionally and personally, including time as a homecare worker. It is here where she and scores of others care for poor, elderly Jews who might otherwise not have the aid they need to survive. Its global effort supported by The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, Jewish Federations, and so many others.
For the last 14 years, she has acted as a “Warm Home” host — a program where Rimma regularly hosts elderly community members to her apartment for socializing and discussions around history, art, and literature. She is also a talented soloist in the Hesed’s choir, and treated us to a rendition of Yerushalayim shel zahav (Jerusalem of Gold), which echoed down the halls of her apartment block. I wondered how often such a stirring melody lit up the otherwise dreary setting.
With the matzah brei fried and ready, Rimma insisted we sit down for a proper meal. In the tradition of Russian-speaking people, she proudly led me to a perfectly set table where she put out a spread of cookies, chocolates, tea and of course, homemade kompot, the traditional regional drink made of sweet fruits cooked in sugar and water. We sat and schmoozed over the meal and Rimma pulled out her accordion to play while we ate. As we sang along with Rimma’s accordion, I reflected on this surreal moment that would have seemed otherwise improbable six months earlier when I was ensconced in a career in lifestyle publications.
And yet, when I bit into the delicious matzah brei, I was immediately transported back to the familiar tastes and memories of my world, of past Passovers, where my grandmother would serve our family her own matzah brei. Of course, her version was more of a scrambled egg consistency than Rimma’s latke shaped tradition. But despite the differences, the dish was imbued with a taste of home a world away.
After three days in a foreign country, where I did not speak the language or know the local culture, there was nothing more comforting than this bite of food. But it was the woman who prepared and served it who made all the difference.
I’ll think of her now every time I prepare this staple Passover breakfast for my family in the years ahead. And when I do, I’ll hear the echoes of an accordion, and have visions of the golden city we recall at the end of the seder — next year in Jerusalem! — given new meaning by my friend in Odessa.