That always seems to be the case, since I became a pastor three years ago. With work and family holiday preparations reaching a simultaneous crescendo, some things inevitably slip through the cracks. This year, a must-do still remains: the baking of my mother’s signature holiday cookie. Christmas just hasn’t happened unless we enjoy some of those tender crescents, plump with walnuts, raisins and cinnamon.
Back in the day, my mother used to bake them by the hundreds. Before I was old enough to be of any help, she would choose a day early in December, and pull a baking all-nighter. After tucking me in, she’d set to work, and I’d fall asleep to sound of her heavy rolling pin urging the dough into a thin sheet across the Formica table. Sometimes, I’d wake in the middle of the night to hear muffled conversation coming from the kitchen. My mother’s brother lived next door, and conveniently, always happened to notice the night the lights were on. He’d come over – just to see if everything was OK, of course – and they’d chat into the wee hours, with Uncle Milly sampling each batch as it came out of the oven.
If there was anything unusual about the tradition, it was the name of this prized treat. Mom always called them “Kelmar Cookies.” As a child, I just took it at face value, but as a teen, finally asked about the odd moniker. Turns out, she had gotten the recipe decades before, from the wife of Mr. Kelmar, the man who owned the dress factory where Mom sewed piecework for many years.
Apparently, our family’s Christmas cookies were Mrs. Kelmar’s rugelach.
In the years since that revelation, those cookies have offered unexpected food for ever-deepening thought. For a while, I just enjoyed what seemed to be the “rightness” of the fact that a mainstay of our Christian holiday had Jewish origins, that our “Christmas cookie” was likely the sweet featured at the Kelmar family’s Shabbat or Hanukah celebrations. With time and understanding, though, also came concern: that my family and I were guilty of some cultural appropriation, even a bit of pastry-based supersessionism. I wished that I knew how to find the Kelmar family, to thank them for that recipe, and apologize for ever passing the cookies off as our own, or neglecting to share the story of their ancestry.
And how easy it is for us as Christians to do similar things in our teaching and worship! I know I’ve cherry-picked my way through a psalm, surgically extracting just the right portions for a liturgy, rather than using and appreciating it in its entirety. We might annually showcase those few trophy passages from the book of Isaiah – Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term – but neglect to help our congregations hear the words with the ears of those for whom they were written. We may interpret scripture in ways that subtly extract Jesus himself from his Jewish context, or characterize him as an opponent of his own religion.
Who knew pastry could start such a conversation? These days, I try to be more forgiving of my family’s cookie kleptomania. What if it were more a case of what Krister Stendahl called “holy envy,” seeing something admirable in another faith, and wishing that it could somehow be reflected in your own? Stendahl believed that leaving room for this envy was key to religious understanding. At a time when we often hear shrill voices using religious differences as a way to divide and exclude, perhaps a little envy could go a long way.
The ingredients are in the house; one day soon, I’ll pull out that big rolling pin and get to work. And I’ll give thanks for my mother, and for Mrs. Kelmar. May the memory of each be a blessing.
The Rev. Luanne Panarotti serves as pastor of Pleasant Plains Presbyterian Church in Staatsburg, NY. She has one husband, two kids, one dog, and five cats.