My hands are tingling, for the last hour I’ve been wringing boiled dates through a white cloth. I wasn’t organized enough I used a tea towel. Maybe it would have been easier to squeeze two kilos of dates through muslin.
I am cooking up silan, a deep, dark date syrup Iraq Jews use as charoset for the Pesach seder. I remember my grandmother making it, delivering wine bottles of silan to her eight children. My two kilos, my one hour of hard hand squeezing, yields half a bottle of date syrup.
“Why do you do it?” My cousin asks me. “Work so hard?”
My memory is blurry like the date water. I want to remember what’s sweet. That’s why I am standing with date juice splattered on my arms, on my white T-shirt, and all over the counter. My sneakers stick to the floor. The sweetness is everywhere. I am determined to have my grandmother’s silan, not the store bought version, at my seder table.
I wring the dates until they are dry, rough and worn, until there’s no taste left, and I am left with half a pot of tangy juice. I boil it up, standing in strict attention, last year I almost burnt my labor. I keep aside the date water just in case I need to thin the syrup out. There is too much room for mistakes in this simple, two ingredient recipe of dates and water.
It takes a long time this simmering of date juice into deep dark honey. I think about my grandmother. She worked her hands hard. She loved it; the work, the food, us. Or at least I liked to believe she did. And I can’t help but wonder, if she had the opportunity to read and write and dream of life beyond the kitchen, what would she have wanted? Girls who grew up in the backwater village of Al-Uzair in Iraq were not schooled in her day.
I am the generation that likes to rewrite history, my grandmother was the generation that lived history. She didn’t fight reality the way I do. She embraced the work of her hands, she would not have been complaining about Passover, she would have been planning her seder. Instructing my grandfather, who would write the ingredients down carefully with a pencil and pen on the back of an envelope. I would drive him to Franklins supermarket and notice the care he took, checking prices and quality of the products. Happy to be buying, and my grandmother so happy to receive the food. In those days I didn’t think of their lives; their displacement from Baghdad to a refugee tent camp in Israel, penniless, with no money to buy food even if there had been full supermarkets. It was a recession, food was rationed, and plenty was from their previous lives.
Only now do I realize when you have experienced lack how much joy a simple supermarket shop can bring. How my grandmother did not complain about cooking and feeding us all for the gigantic seders she would conjure up, because her never-ending, antique dining table bearing her fragrant dishes, and the large lounge windows overlooking Sydney Harbour, bore witness to how far her luck had carried her, away from those tent camps. That you can lose everything in a life time and be blessed again.
So I like to follow her example. My grandmother blessed her life through her hands. This is the festival of dipping bitter herbs in silan, the work of wringing sweetness until my hands hurt. There can never be too much date honey or joy.