y Rosh Hashanah menu included salmon, which is how I wound up standing in front of the salmon display, choosing clean fillets of bright pink salmon neatly vacuum packed onto Styrofoam trays. Everything was fine — until I saw the fish heads.
They were right near the salmon, I guess because this was the fish section. And they looked like fish, I guess because they were. Salmon doesn’t look like fish, though. Salmon just looks like salmon.
As I stood there staring at the display of fish heads, I thought to myself, of course, I need a fish head for Rosh Hashanah.
I really should buy a fish head for Rosh Hashanah, I thought.
It’s a good thing they put the fish heads near the salmon, I thought. Otherwise I never would have remembered to buy one.
What a pity they put the fish heads near the salmon, I thought. Otherwise I would never have remembered to buy one.
Then I noticed I was not alone. Not only because of all those fish eyes staring fixedly at me. Because there was another woman next to me. She was also standing stock-still and staring down at the fish heads. I recognized the look in her eyes.
We stood there in silence.
Finally she said, kind of helplessly, “I just… you know… I don’t want to put a fish head in my pot.”
“I know,” I said soberly. “I don’t even want to put it in my wagon.”
The fish heads were $2.99. That sounded like a lot of money. I didn’t want to pay $2.99 for a fish head. I didn’t want a fish head at all.
Then I saw them — cooked fish heads. For $7.99. Which was even more money to pay for a fish head you didn’t want.
My friend Shana had told me that her husband bought her a cooked fish head as a Yom Tov gift. I had thought that was extreme. But not anymore.
You don’t have to put a cooked fish head in your pot. Only in your wagon. And on your table. And in your mou—
“I don’t even know how to cook a fish head,” I whimpered.
“You can put it in the oven,” she said suddenly. “I just remembered — you can put it in a pan, a disposable pan, covered, in the oven, and cook it like that. Then it doesn’t have to go in a pot.”
Side by side, we stared down at the fish heads. They stared back at us, daring us to give up. In unison, we each reached forward and picked a head. I put mine in my wagon. Far away from the salmon.
“Thank you,” I said to my kind and helpful savior. Then we parted ways forever.
I learned three very important things from this encounter:
- No Jewish woman is ever a stranger to another.
- With support, you can do anything.
- There are some experiences that are universal unifiers, like pain and joy. And fish heads.
On Erev Yom Tov I carefully pulled back the plastic wrap and shook the fish head directly off its tray into a disposable pan. I filled the pan halfway with water, covered it tightly with several layers of aluminum foil, and slipped it into the oven.
Somewhere, I knew, in another home just like mine, another woman was doing the same things. Under my breath, I blessed her with a good year, and that no matter what happens this year, she should always keep her head.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 510)
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