When I was living in Jerusalem, in a three-room apartment with six other girls, I used to come home from the seminary late at night. Isolated, lonely, unwilling to admit how much I missed my family, I would cook. It started simply: my roommates refused to use the kitchen. They were too happy at school, too involved in their studies. If I wanted to eat regularly, something they often neglected, it was up to me to make it happen. I had never really cooked for myself before, though I'd been helping my mother prepare the family meals for several years. When I made my own meals at home, it was generally by throwing something in the microwave. But in Jerusalem I didn't have the option of eating someone else's leftovers, or using a microwave, and it only took two months for me to tire of ramen. We had a sink, a stove, and a countertop, nothing more sophisticated - so when I decided that I wanted to eat something other than instant noodles, I had to cook for myself, from scratch, for the first time.
At first I didn't really enjoy the process. After all, I was in class twelve or more hours a day. I didn't have time to wait for my food to cook before I had to eat it and fall into bed. But after a few days of cooking in the evenings, other girls would drop by while I chopped vegetables or waited for the water to boil. First it was a few, one at a time. "What are you doing?" they'd ask. "Can I have some of that? It looks good." Slowly I started to learn names. Slowly, in the evenings, despite our exhaustion, there would be three, or four, or five of us gathered around a rickety card table, laughing and talking as the smells filled the room, wafting into the corridor and gathering even more faces. I started to make giant pots of soup that would simmer all evening, bake three or four cakes in a batch, and watch the girls start talking to each other in the overheated, crowded, messy kitchen. The cooking and eating of the food became a ritual for all of us, a way for us to ignore our feelings of loneliness, alienation, isolation. It brought us a strange, immediate intimacy with these strangers we'd been thrown together with by our mutual choice to live in a foreign land.
But in some ways, it wasn't the ritual of the gathering to eat the food that calmed me most. I found that the process of making the food, the slow routine of chopping vegetables, the rhythm of bubbles popping to the surface of boiling water, was itself calming to me. While I was spending my days lost among the rabbinical voices of the Talmud, the evenings were full of a gentler music. Instead of the black and white of the page, my nights were riotous with tomato red, cabbage green, butter yellow, chocolate brown. The colors and textures of the food reminded me that there was a world outside the seminary walls. I loved the weight of a loaf of bread in my hand, telling me that the ascetic and intellectual pursuits of my day were still dependent on something so purely and lyrically physical.
I started taking walks in the morning through the quiet streets. If I woke early enough, I could walk to the white walls of the Old City and watch as the sun turned them pink and gold. Sometimes I'd even skip morning prayers and walk to the Israel Museum instead. I found watching the rich colors of the paintings to be a prayer of its own. At lunch, instead of choking down the quickest meal I could find and returning to the windowless study hall, I would buy a piece of fresh bread and some cheese from the small market on the corner and eat them in the empty lot nearby, reveling in the fresh scent of the crushed grasses that left stains on my modest skirts. And in the evenings? Well, in the evenings I cooked.
You see, cooking had awakened a new hunger in me, one to experience the world in all its particular glory. Maybe, I thought, the seminary wasn't the right place for me. Maybe I belonged in the museum. Maybe I belonged on the street. Maybe I even belonged in the kitchen.
(The end of the story, insofar as there ever is an end to a story in real life, is that I left seminary after my first year. It wasn't so much a rebellious phase as an act of desperation: I'm not nearly as religious a person as my parents hoped I would be, and it was time that I found my own path. Now if only I knew where that path was leading . . .)