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Fresh Challah

By Sergio Troncoso

Drawings by Jorge Enciso

PDF of Fresh Challah 

As soon as I walked into the Royale Bakery on 72nd Street and Broadway, I knew I would get good Challah here. The air was heavy with bread baking. A worker in a stained apron scurried from the back of the store to the shelves against the wall. He carried loaves of Challah, steamy, soft, and shiny from a nascent glaze. Behind a waist-high glass counter were vanilla crescents, lemon squares, linzer törtchen, dandies, hazelnut spirals, chocolate-dipped sablés, and rugelach. I was in heaven, and I wasn't about to leave, so I sat down in one of the three small booths in front of the glass counter. An old woman, not higher than five feet, with a bouffant hairdo, her skin a creamy pallid except for the smear of rouge on her cheeks, shuffled toward me. Her apron seemed almost to snag her legs so that she might tumble forward, but she didn't. She asked me with a generous smile and a wink if I wanted a cup of coffee. I said yes and felt guilty for having sat down to be waited on by this woman whose bluish hair reminded me of my grandmother. She didn't seem to notice, and brought back my extra light coffee with, to my surprise, two pieces of rugelach and another friendly wink. I really was in heaven here.

*** 

Tomorrow would be Yom Kippur. I decided to fast from sunup to sundown and think about what I had done wrong over the past year, what I could do to make it right, why it took Yom Kippur to focus on my problems and fix them. Maybe I wouldn't even accomplish what might become clear in my head. Thinking rightly didn't imply doing the right thing. Aristotle had said that against Socrates, and I knew it only too well. Yet as I sat at the Royale Bakery and drank my coffee, which seemed to slither down my throat like a hot snake, I was happy and confident that whatever problems I had would soon enough be resolved, or at least better understood. I didn't really have crises as did some excitable people. I had mostly irritations that took the form of questions that wouldn't leave me, quite pesky disturbances that didn't keep me awake at night but did bing into my head at odd moments.

As I chewed on a sweet raisin of the rugelach, I thought about one thing that had perplexed me for some time. I wasn't Jewish, but in some sense, wanted to be. True, the woman I was in love with was Jewish. But that in itself didn't explain everything about how I felt. In fact, I wasn't exactly sure how I felt. And yes, I loved rugelach, Challah, kasha knishes, Passover tsimmes, and my favorite, matzoh ball soup. Yet I would also kill for mole poblano, carnitas from a Juárez bistro, my mother's flour tortillas, and asaderos from Licon's Dairy in Ysleta. It might be true, then, that my religious and cultural awakenings often had a culinary component, yet that just explained that I liked to eat good food.

In what sense, then, did I want to be Jewish? I could only explain that by explaining how I also wanted to be Mexican like my grandmother, Dolores Rivero. When I looked at my abuelita, her eyes downcast and weary, but always ready for a fight, I wanted so much to protect her. I wanted to make sure she didn't have a hard life anymore. Most of all, I wanted her relentless optimism not to be ever crushed by the evil in the world she had endured. She was tough, and she also knew how to hurt me, her toughest grandchild, the one with such a sharp tongue. So we understood each other only too well. She sometimes told me about her life on a Chihuahua ranch as a little girl, yet I could tell she kept many things from me. She spoke of her childhood as if there had been a real limit to how much one could burden another human being with, as if there had existed some type of pain still just too vivid to explain, too personal to say to someone you loved. So the stories she told me were always haunted with the fearsome of the unsaid, with what lurked so nearby at every turn that you could sense how lucky she felt to have survived her ordeals. Maybe she thought that this history would expose her as something less than human if she told me how bad it had been. Maybe she thought that she had lived a life so painful and so far away from where she was now that it was better to keep these ghosts buried in the past. Maybe she didn't want to reveal how others could be so cruel and treat each other like animals, and so she would keep her grandchild hopeful.

This was what I knew of my abuelita's life, from what she had told me to what my parents and their friends had said about her. She had grown up in rural northern Mexico in abject poverty during the social chaos of the Mexican Revolution. Several family members, uncles and brothers, died in the war. Those who lived were refugees for years, often short of food and dying of disease. I had the suspicion that my grandmother or my great-grandmother might have been raped when soldiers or gangs of armed horsemen swept through the Chihuahua plains. No one would actually say 'rape,' although I was told by my grandmother that there was no law in the middle of the desert, with a war raging around you and no one to protect you. I did know that my grandmother could and had in fact shot people with a rifle, and maybe that was the truth, that she had shot and killed someone trying to rape her. I also knew that as a child she had defended her mother from being beaten by her husband, that she had placed herself between the blows of her father against her mother.

As a young girl, my grandmother had been locally famous for her strength. Not only was she tough-minded, but she was also physically tough. She could sling a 50-kilo sack of beans over her shoulders and toss it with ease into the back of a grain truck. I knew that working men would be embarrassed to be around her, because she was actually stronger than they were. She could probably beat the crap out of some of them. I also knew that she had a sympathetic heart, perhaps a bit too vulnerable for her own good. She fell deeply in love with a man who is hardly spoken of in my family. She had three children by him, he promising to marry her at every turn, while she did her best to raise three babies alone, in the middle of nowhere. My mother told me she did not have a single pair of shoes until she was a teenager. I was also told that many men, seeing that my grandmother had children yet had never been married to anyone, assumed that they could have their way with her, that she was available for the taking. Bad assumption. That was when my grandmother first learned to shoot a rifle.

When she was older, probably in her forties, Dolores Rivero met the man I would know as my grandfather. He was a good man, quick with a smile, loyal, and even tolerant of my often demanding and headstrong grandmother. I loved my grandmother (and, of course, my grandfather), yet I knew she was hard to live with. Maybe it was due to her difficult life, or maybe she already had that incredible will that was ready to die rather than be defeated. In any case, she would do what she would do, or else. She ran her household with an iron hand. My mother and her siblings were put to work to help pay the bills. My grandfather handed over his check to her willingly and maybe also out of fear, although I also knew he kept a small personal stash of money for his beer and cigarettes. Yet my grandmother was also loving and needful. She would stack the record player with her albums of polkas and corridas --her favorites were from Los Coyotes del Rio Bravo-- and start twirling around the living room with my grandfather in tow on an afternoon so hot you thought your skin would melt right off. Her house in El Segundo Barrio in downtown El Paso was always full of neighbors at night. All sorts of people came over to see her and sit on her porch and smoke cigarettes. They would talk about God. They would laugh until the desert night got too cold. They would ask her for advice on their problems, and they would always find something in her that kept them happy and alive. I loved those nights. I remembered hearing about a great faith in God and about what was important in life and what didn't matter. I remembered her saying over and over again to keep fighting for what was right and never to give up on life even if others despoiled it. When she died, only a few months after my grandfather's own death, I felt alone in the world for the very first time. But then I remembered what she had said and what she had done, and I decided to fight for what was right, to have a critical faith, and to defend others who had the courage to better themselves.

When I looked at my grandmother, this was what I would see. I would see someone who had a great spirit to live, someone who found meaning in life despite, and perhaps because of, the pain of her life. It was not, of course, that she desired this pain and trial, but more exactly, that her character survived and superceded the history of her life. Somehow, by meeting the pain of history with flinty courage and skill, she at once created and became her destiny. My abuelita had a character that pushed her forward into willing what she thought was right. It was never an easy road, yet her willfulness was always self-imposed and was a method of creating her self. Of course, this almost guaranteed that she would run up against many obstacles. Many thought that my abuelita was just plain stubborn beyond belief.

But those who got in front of my grandmother misunderstood her and, really, misunderstood what it was to be willfully right. Many of my grandmother's would-be challengers simply didn't like the idea, and reality, of a willful woman. These people were sometimes just selfish or openly evil. They were accustomed to getting their own way, and when they clashed with Dolores Rivero it was a terrible clash of wills. But my grandmother was more than just plain willful. When people wanted to abuse or destroy others, my grandmother would defend the weak. When a man wanted to puff himself up at somebody else's expense, my grandmother would deflate the braggart. She wouldn't just be contrary. She would try to be right. How did she find out what was right, in her own mind? She began with self-worth. She always told me that you would not achieve self-worth by putting other people down. I saw that she achieved it by respecting herself, by improving herself, and by criticizing her own faults. This open and constant look at her own self was her way of developing internal standards for her willfulness. She started with her belief in God, she tested her good actions from day to day, and she gained a sense of what was possible, what was stupid, what was unjust, and what was a real achievement. Yes, my abuelita was willful, but she also developed a sense of when and how you were right.

I knew that my grandmother never confused her sense of righteousness with selfishness. She never tried to dominate somebody, even if she could, simply because no one would stop her. Instead, her open look at her self made her at once fearless and quite vulnerable. If she knew her own demons, if she could conquer them, then she expected others to face their own fears too. Repeatedly she would give herself up. She would offer a helping hand. She would inject herself in an argument to say what everyone had been avoiding. She would put a fire under somebody's butt, somebody who could take it, and push him forward to conquer his fear. Or she would empathize and laugh with you in the middle of a disaster. It was not only this strength of will but also this great, hard-edged kindness that I remembered the most about her. Just after she picked you up after a terrible fall, she would push you to get going again, to never give up.

This vulnerable self-confidence that my grandmother possessed, however, was sometimes fraught with danger. When she criticized herself, she was harsh. When she gave somebody a second chance, maybe somebody who didn't deserve a second chance, she opened herself to severe disappointment. But she always believed that you could rise up, from whatever terrible starting point you were at, and improve your position if you were willing to be honest about it. Sometimes opportunistic strangers did take advantage of my grandmother's openness, but at least they never did it for very long. I knew that her trust was shattered a few times, yet she never became insular or hateful. My abuelita fought against her own bitterness so that she could trust someone else again. I never understood where she could find that reservoir from which she would deliver herself to kindness again. But I believed she knew that if you never opened yourself up to these disappointments at all, you could never trust anyone. You hid from yourself. You became less than what a human being could be.

When I looked at my grandmother, I saw sympathy toward others, never pity. I saw a willingness to help others determine themselves, never control. This was how she created her destiny, why a community formed around her without her asking that it should, and ultimately why she was able to die in peace. So when I said I wanted to be Jewish, this was what I meant. In the Jewish community, I often saw people I could identify with, those who reminded me of my grandmother. I wanted to defend them and keep them from evil in the world because I could see myself as the same type of person. I wanted to make sure good people, those who opened themselves up to push themselves beyond where they were, those who had the character to overcome what others might throw at them, these people, I always believed, should win in the world. In that sense, then, I wanted to be Jewish, and I wanted to be Mexican.

I knew very well that in many respects I could never really be Jewish. My mother wasn't Jewish. I had not converted to the Jewish faith. Even if I did, I would probably never understand what it really meant to be Jewish. How could a non-Jew ever comprehend 5,000 years of history and culture, the struggle against countless oppressors simply because you were a Jew, the meanings of the Torah? So, truly, there were many ways in which I could never be Jewish. In my imagination, I thought, all the disparate strands of my life might come together one day if it were discovered that my ancestors were really Spanish Jews expelled from their homes during the Inquisition to, among many other places, New Mexico. I did not research this, but maybe I should.

I also knew very well that not all Jews were Jewish in the sense I was describing, nor were all Mexicans like my grandmother. Many did not struggle against others, and against themselves, with a character that would not give up to defeat but that, instead, created human progress through self-respect and self-criticism. Maybe what I was really thinking about was not ultimately Jewish or Mexican at all but, somehow, deeply human. I knew that this humanity was not the niceness toward anything human that 'humanity' nowadays connoted. The humanity I described was not some blind acceptance of whatever was done. My humanity was hard-edged. It was more like a challenge to better yourself by making yourself vulnerable, to engage in making standards by asking yourself questions that just might unmoor you, to defend others in their self-determination because you knew how explosive life could be if you did push yourself in this way. You gained respect for life by knowing what was possible when you were truthful and critical toward yourself. There was nothing hidden from you. You knew exactly your own good and your own evil. You developed the courage and the stamina to keep improving yourself the more you lived such a good life. I believed you finally developed the courage to live with yourself, but this was anything but a complacent acceptance of what you did. Living with yourself was throwing up a gauntlet in front of you, because only this would truly respect living.

The best I could do now, I thought after many years of being away from home, was to remember my abuelita and remember what she taught me. I could at least try to meet her standards by forcing myself to struggle hard, just as she did. I could remember how easily it was for her to identify with others who struggled too, who understood that the heart of life was this struggle. I could remember how she would meet friends I brought home, friends from another side of the world, and how this poor Mexican woman could easily identify with them, after a few hours of coffee and raucous conversation, as if these strangers had been her grandsons and granddaughters coming home. I could remember how my friends would ask about her, years after they met her, how they could not forget someone who reached so quickly, and yet so sympathetically, into the core of who they were.

***

The old woman at the Royale Bakery finally brought me a round raisin Challah enough for six and a fresh plain Challah that was smaller than the first. She had convinced me that I should take the second one too so that I could eat it before dinner. Later I was glad that she did. I also bought a half a pound of rugelach, although it really became over three quarters of a pound after she dropped extra pieces into the box for free. She asked me if I lived around there, and I said that I did, about ten blocks away. She told me she was always happy to see all the new faces at the bakery particularly during the high holy days. Then the place would bustle quite unlike the rest of the year. It wasn't that she didn't like the regulars who stopped in for their Challah every Friday. She simply enjoyed seeing the stream of new faces. She waited for them. Then she knew the high holy days were near and she would soon see her grandchildren.

"Fresh Challah" originally appeared in Hadassah Magazine. Copyright 1999 by Sergio Troncoso.

Listen to Sergio Troncoso talk about his novel, The Nature of Truth, on National Public Radio: NPR Interview on Latino USA. Click here for discussion questions.

Other essays: Terror and Humanity, Why Should Latinos Write Their Own Stories?, and A Day Without Ideas.