Making Cabbage Rolls, Making Culture

Sharon H. Nelson

A longer version of "Making Cabbage Rolls, Making Culture" appeared in Other Voices 9:2, Fall 1996, a beautiful issue with food as its theme that used a quote from this essay on the opening page: Writing about food is writing about the women who prepare it, the rituals important to us, the communities we build and foster, and skills, recipes, and art we share.

My friend Karin tells me that after its Annual Flower and Vegetable Show, the Horticultural Society auctions the displays. We go late, stay for the awards. As usual, Nancy Lamont takes firsts in many categories, especially vegetables. Nancy is a devoted gardener, active in heritage seed programs, knowledgeable about organic procedures. There are several bags of Nancy's vegetables at auction, and I bid high enough to buy two. One contains carrots, leeks, turnips, chard, and herbs. The other is full of beans: green beans, yellow beans, and flat Italian beans. In addition, each bag contains a small but perfect head of savoy cabbage. Nancy's cabbages, like everyone else's, are still small. It has been a cold, wet summer. Everything is a month or more late.

The day after the show, I remove the outside leaves from the cabbages. They are beautiful, firm, and perfectly formed. I cannot bear to compost them. I wipe them with a soft, damp cloth and store them in a bag in the fridge. There are not enough cabbage leaves in the bag to make cabbage rolls. There are not really enough cabbage leaves in the bag to make anything. I make coleslaw from the elegantly crinkled savoy hearts.

Rosh Hashonnah, Jewish New Year, is fast approaching. Every year for this holiday, I make something stuffed. In almost every culture, something filled presented at a meal symbolizes fullness, plenty, plenitude. In almost every culture, there is a tradition of hand-work, of the presentation of dishes that take time, a precious resource, and extreme delicacy and care in preparation. These foodstuffs symbolize caring: the affections of the heart are echoed in the attentions of the hands; the heart's labour informs the labourer's art. For Rosh Hashonnah, usually I stuff red peppers with a rice and wild rice filling rich with tiny cubes of root vegetables and onions I have cut by hand and cooked gently with oil so that they hold their shape. This year, the peppers are late. It will be weeks before they are sufficiently ripe to offer the flavour needed for this dish. Rosh Hashonnah is early this year. The weather conspires with the Jewish, lunar, calendar for cabbage rolls.I scour my neighbourhood for cabbages to complement the small amount I have. There isn't a fresh cabbage in one of the seven vegetable stores I visit. One cool morning, I drive all the way to the farmer's market, pay a dollar a head for two cabbages, each one firm, crisp, and small enough to sit in the palm of my not overlarge hand. I roll the stuffing, a mixture of very lean ground beef, minced turkey, short grain rice, and onions sweated with a little olive oil and seasoned with salt, pepper, and thyme, into the cabbage leaves, which become small, elegant bundles, not more than two bites each.

Each roll contains not only care and affection for those who will be present but memories. As I do often, I think of my late friend Friema, with whom I spent so many holidays, and whose method I use for cooking cabbage rolls. [Bake overnight or all day in a slow oven; gentle cooking develops a mellow, almost sweet flavour in the cabbage.] Making cabbage rolls, serving them for the New Year celebration, will distribute around the table my esteem and affection for Friema, which remain despite her death; some of the practical results of our relationship, including some of the skills and techniques, ecipes and insights shared; and my sorrow for her early death, the pain of missing her.

I think also of my grandmothers and of my aunts, the women from whom I learned how to do this kind of work, and of the reasons women may do it. Long after the need had passed to stretch the meat or fish with starch, to use the cheapest vegetables, to fill up the young with bread stuff, these women continued to prepare traditional dishes, as women in many cultures do, for whom food is sustenance, ritual, art form, means of communication.

My celebration of Rosh Hashonnah is not only a celebration of food, of plenty, and of the women who have shared their art, their skills, and their knowledge with me. It is also political, an ancient politics: I refuse to acknowledge the hegemony of the Roman legions, to accept entirely the Julian calendar, the imposition of the Roman year and the Roman order. Many of my Jewish compatriots do not see this political dimension, do not see and do not wish to see their Judaic (religious) or Jewish (traditional, cultural) practice as refusal of militarist, imperialist culture. Generally, diaspora Jews try to get along quietly, cooperate with whatever government is in power, try not to draw attention to themselves. We are grateful not to face overt anti-semitism, institutionalized racism, state-sanctioned pogroms, crematoria. It is only fifty years since the failure of Hitler's Reich.

My celebration of Rosh Hashonnah reflects another kind of politics. In taking charge of the celebration, I refuse to acknowledge the hegemony of a masculinist order, to accept in its entirety a tradition that denies woman's spiritual capacity and refuses women participation in religious rituals. It is only a hundred years since western philosophers debated whether women have a soul.

Adeena writes to me from Malawi, where she is far from Jewish foods, Jewish roots, Jewish community. She suggests that we should discuss the Jewishness of our writing, not as a theological disquisition but as a review of the Jewishness of the texts and in the texts. I write her a long letter about cabbage rolls and Rosh Hashonnah, but I agree that the work she suggests is necessary; reviewers have ignored the Judaic and the Jewish components of my work for almost thirty years, and now Adeena's writing is receiving similar treatment. The omission from reviews and critical discussions of religious or cultural elements of our work means that these are deleted from public discourse and public view. The Jewishness of our writing and its links to Judaic texts and a long tradition of scholarly discourse are made invisible. Though the depth of women's discomfort within our own cultural communities, the breadth of our political critiques, our necessarily creative unorthodoxies, and the spiritual components of such writing often transcend the particulars of religion or ethnicity, they are omitted from public discourse. Our attempts to respond creatively to male-centred theologies and religious practices, like similar attempts of women whose writing refers to other religious or cultural backgrounds, are made invisible.

A Broken Vessel, my first book, was published in 1972. The title, like those of several of the books that followed, is grounded in Jewish theology and Jewish liturgy. In those years, I stuffed texts much fuller than one would stuff a cabbage roll or a ripe pepper, full to bursting against spiritual hunger and thirst. Was the word not the salve, the medicine, the amelioration for hurt and hunger and travail? Was it not the word that separated darkness from light, the deeps from the heights, chaos from order? Was not the word the divine creative principle? "Jerusalem The Golden", the first poem in A Broken Vessel, is full of Biblical references and of concepts and imagery from Judaic sources. In particular, it references the Song Of Songs and some of the interpretive and mystical texts associated with it. The concluding stanzas, like the title, refer to the Shekinah, the female principle, which is symbolized as a broken vessel.

I am the Rose of Sharon
the lily of the valley
the Shekinah, a broken vessel . . .

Yerushalaim is a Magdalena
a soldier's whore . . .

Adam, in the Image. . .
you are all
my lovers

In The Work Of Our Hands, Grasping Men's Metaphors, and Family Scandals, a series about the constructions of language, sexuality, gender, and culture, as in previous texts through the years, I have continued to use the Song Of Songs as background and reference. In Family Scandals, it serves not only as a referent but as an organizing principle. My text about adolescent female sexuality is set on Song Of Songs 8:8:

We have a little sister
Whose breasts are not yet formed.
What shall we do for our sister
When she is spoken for?

As a young woman, I was more acutely aware than I am now of how transgressive it is for a female to write about sacred things, let alone to speak of them in a secular situation, in a secular language, in public, outside the community - entirely male - of Jewish religious thinkers. When, in a secular work, a writer alludes to the sacred and uses sacred texts as keys and referents, the secular nature of the text excludes it from consideration within the community of discourse that occasioned it. Outside that community of discourse, the text may remain mysterious and its content ignored. Writers who produce works of this kind risk exclusion on one hand and invisibility on the other. Women writers who do so transgress doubly the orthodoxies of our communities, by using sacred material in secular context and by profaning it with our womanhood.

Partly because of years of public work as a feminist writer and organizer, I have become accustomed to being viewed publicly as transgressive. It has become the normal state of my life, as normal as understanding that for a woman to speak at all, and especially in the first person singular, is transgressive, regardless of what she says. After thirty years, the feeling of being constantly at odds, transgressive, a transgressor, sits less heavily on my shoulders than it did, though it never ceases to be a burden.

After thirty years, not only I but the world has changed. There are now Judaic Studies programs in universities, and women not only learn in those programs but teach. This has not made much of a difference to those concerned to preserve orthodoxies, those with professional positions and vocations for the work of interpretation and exegesis of sacred texts. Such secular materials as mine, however spiritually informed, are of no interest in such quarters, and may be considered blasphemous.

Women writers are caught on the horns of a dilemma just as Jewish painters are caught on the dilemma of the prohibition against graven images: how does one celebrate, delineate, make present, reflect upon, mirror, and create images that pertain to the spiritual components of a religious tradition without accepting the confines or reproducing the biases of existing orthodoxies? Such orthodoxies define women as constitutionally unfit and incapable of participation in sacred rituals or their discussion. That is why Adeena and I and other women whose writing contains such components will have to examine our own and each others' work, explain the resonances of the lines, the references of the images, the meanings of the symbols. The poems are like cabbage rolls, delicate bundles we create and fill with meaning. They are sustenance, ritual, art form, means of communication. Often they are also spiritual exercise and spiritual exorcism, the expression of the spiritual in the physical, secular spaces we inhabit.

Thinking about these matters provokes me to consider explicitly a host of ideas that have lain dormant. I am a woman, and in the process of considering the Jewish and Judaic content of my writing, I realize that my womanhood is intimately and inextricably entwined with Jewishness. The only way I know how to be a woman is to be a Jewish woman. My only experience of womanhood is as a Jewish woman, a woman in a culture in which women are valued less than men. I am a Jewish woman also in a Christian culture in which Jews only recently, in my lifetime, have been exonerated by a pope from deicide, the charge that marked Jews for the whole history of the Church.

While I am writing this, a message comes from Africa from Adeena.

And the Zohar states, (a la Rabbi Simeon) "I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valley" (Song of Songs 2:1). "I am a rose of Sharon" -- this is the Assembly of Israel, which stands in for RADIANT BEAUTY. "Sharon" -- because SHE SINGS (and praises the supernal King). {{{well never mind that part}}}

"Sharon" is derived from SHARAH, in its meaning "to soak, water" to transmit (as in divine influence). "I am a rose of Sharon, . . .refreshed by being watered by the deep river, the source of rivers". "A rose of Sharon" -- a rose from that watering place [from which] the rivers go forth without cease for ever.

Adeena does not want me to digress into cabbage rolls. She responds to my pages of cooking talk with a theological text while I write - again and again and again - yet another version of The Raw and The Cooked (Levi-Strauss), The Sacred and The Profane (Eliade), The Dynamics of Faith (Tillich), and if Karin is correct, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (Durkheim). I am as easily seduced by scholarly discourse as by cabbages.

From California, Nanci Rossov has sent me a book about the Buddhism she now practices. From the Outline of Buddhism, edited by Y. Kirimura, I learn that

The Lotus Sutra teaches that the mind and all phenomena are "two but not two," and neither can be independent of the other . . .

Miao-lo developed the principle of the inseparability of body and mind, or matter and spirit, based on T'ien t'ai's explanation. Funi of shiki-shin funi is an abbreviation of both nin-funi ("two but not two") and funi-nin ("not two but two").

In other words, while recognizing a superficial distinction between physical and spiritual phenomena, it denies any essential separation and instead grasps them as two integral phases of a single entity.

I have placed this quotation on the first page of a manuscript on which I'm working, The Sound Of Grieving. It appears above a quotation from the Siddur, the Hebrew prayer book, that introduces the reading of the Song of Songs:

That for the sake of the Song of Songs, which I have read, and learned diligently -- which is most holy, . . .that this hour may be an hour of compassion,. . .may the reading and the learning of this Song of Songs rise up . . . and be accounted as though we had comprehended all the wonderful and fearful mysteries which are sealed in it in all their details, and may we be deemed worthy. . .as if we had performed all that it is incumbent upon us to achieve, whether in this form or another, . . .with the words of our mouth in the time of our deliberations and with our hands in the time of our labours.

Thus I come full circle, from the Song of Songs in A Broken Vessel to the Song of Songs in The Sound Of Grieving, from the words of our mouth in the time of deliberations through The Work Of Our Hands in the time of our labours, an integration of language with labour, the deliberated word and the deliberate work as communication, ritual, sustenance. There is a confluence, a congruence, a conflation between making food and making poems, between the work of our hands and the words of our mouths, for "the mind and all phenomena are 'two but not two,' and neither can be independent of the other". If to write poems sometimes seems a little like whistling in the dark, to publish them is to reach out, not for comfort or praise, but for recognition of the poems themselves, the fruit of labour and deliberations, gifts of language and insight to a prospective community of readers. However private and personal the enlightenment achieved by sages, the records of their spiritual journeys are gifts of insight offered to a community. However private and personal women's labour or in what isolation we may sometimes prepare food, the preparations and products are gifts offered to a community. Like the texts and spiritual journeys to which they relate and which they often reflect, traditional foods and holiday preparations make a purposeful statement within a community and about it. When women are confined by theology to private practice and private space, the spiritual dimension is expressed via the incarnations of everyday life. Women's rituals have been more closely involved with the choosing, preparation, and distribution of nourishment and of special foods than with theological discourse or the rituals prescribed by theology for a priestly or a masculine class, but holiday treats in fact are holy day preparations. Women do not cook to eat alone. Our rituals are the rituals of communication, communion, community.

Humans are communal animals, despite what propagandists for sociobiology may say. We do not perform important rituals or celebrate alone. Though in theory it may be possible to separate theology from cultural practices, it is impossible actually to do so. The deeply sexist world-view that was part of the founding cultures of many religions is transmitted with the imagery and symbols that appear in art and texts. When women participate in religious or cultural community events, we experience tension between the need to jettison what is misogynist and sexist and the need to enter into community. Women of diverse backgrounds and religions experience this tension. Although we wish to preserve the traditions, the recipes, the rituals, the ways of doing things we have learned and to which we respond emotionally, we can see that many of these practices, based as they are in sexist beliefs and stereotypes, not only compromise our feminisms but offend us in our very souls.

The myth of the artist as a lonely individualist is a recent invention. That myth has alienated artists from the communities for whom they do useful work. It has served also to exclude from recognition as art work traditionally done by women, much of it impermanent, literally eaten up and worn out. Theories about art and artists that refer to the inspiration of the lonely genius are as limiting and wasteful as the gender stereotypes they mirror and perpetuate. What was once delineated as "woman's sphere", and which for so long was devalued, remains culturally devalued. Successful women hire others to do "women's work". Successful women are successful in men's worlds, in men's terms, and, like men, are "liberated" from what had been traditionally "the female sphere". Our world splinters, dis-integrates, as half its culture is lost.

Writing about food is writing about the women who prepare it, the rituals important to us, the communities we build and foster, the skills, recipes, and art we share. Often food is integral to women's art and women's culture, the cabbage leaf in which we roll our creativity, the physical in which we incarnate our spiritual life, the care-fulness with which we offer sustenance, "in this form or another. . .with the words of our mouth in the time of our deliberations and with our hands in the time of our labours." As one of my friends, glancing at a page of my handwriting, once asked: Is that a poem or a recipe?

Sharon H. Nelson. 15 March 1999.