Grandma answers ocean of questions about traditions

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As a teacher of English as a second language, Rosalie Sogolow asks her students to write down their life stories.

"I encouraged them to use their life experience as a vehicle for language acquisition," said Sogolow, who is principal of the ESL program for seniors at Jewish Family Service of Santa Clara County.

At one point, her students, mostly Russian immigrants, started asking Sogolow questions about her own life.

The Saratoga resident said those questions "forced me to look back at things that I'd forgotten. Now there's nobody left to ask. I decided that if it was important for them, it was important for me to do the same thing for my grandchildren."

What resulted was a book, called "Empty the Ocean with a Spoon: Growing up with the Customs, Traditions and Superstitions of a Jewish Home." The book is a virtual cholent of personal memories, interviews, Jewish stories, and answers to questions. One, for instance, concerns why Jews wear wedding rings on the fourth finger of the left hand. (It was believed that a vein ran from the finger directly to the heart). Sogolow previously edited "Memories from a Russian Kitchen – From Shtetl to the Golden Land."

In her new book, Sogolow covers Jewish holidays, marriage and childbirth as well as vacation traditions, bubbemeysas and folk remedies.

The book was written in part to answer questions like the ones emanating from her oldest grandchild as he recited the blessing over the Chanukah candles for the first time.

Like most 5-year-olds, he was full of questions. He was intrigued that his grandmother had grown up without TV but had celebrated Chanukah. Sogolow realized then that her grandchildren might like to hear her stories.

"It's only from the perspective of being a grandmother that it would even occur to me to write down these things."

"Empty the Ocean" is peppered with enduring Jewish traditions like smashing the wine glass at a wedding.

It also reveals lost traditions like carps in the bathtub. Leo Rinsler, a retired engineer from New York, recalls a time before gefilte fish came in jars.

"When my mother made gefilte fish for the holidays, she went and bought a live carp…We kids used to play with the live fish in the bathtub for a day or two until she was ready for it. And then she would put it on the sink and give it a klop over the head with her rolling pin. I can still see it. When she cut it in half, each individual piece would continue to jiggle around a little."

Sogolow, 60, grew up in Chicago in the '40s and '50s, close to her Russian immigrant grandparents. The title of her book comes from a Yiddish saying her grandparents used to recite to her.

"If I got too impatient about something, I was told, 'You can't empty the ocean with a spoon,'" she writes in her introduction to the book.

Sogolow says she wants her grandchildren to know about their great-grandparents.

"I want them to know a lot of the things that I learned growing up, a lot of the values that I learned, just being around my grandparents, the way they were considerate of each other, the importance they placed on being good human beings, the importance of family. To my grandparents, the family was the most important thing. The love that family members had for each other was something that would sustain the family in good times and bad."

She writes of how her generation must pass along family and cultural traditions. "Listening to some rabbis discussing the early Jewish immigrants who crossed over to the golden land, I heard it said that the first generation tried to preserve. The second generation tried to forget. And the third generation wants to remember. I belong to the third generation. More and more, I see myself and my generation as a link – a bridge from the old to the new. If we don't remember, and pass on what we remember, how can we expect our children and grandchildren to hold that connection?"

Passing on traditions, she says, is a matter of Jewish survival.

"We wouldn't have any Jews left if we didn't pass on our tradition and our heritage. How could we as a people survive if we didn't maintain our traditions? If we forget about them then we've lost the essence of who we are as a people."

Sogolow, who is a member of Temple Emanu-El in San Jose, has a broad view of Jewish tradition.

"Everybody does it in their own way. It's just important to do it. That doesn't mean we have to be religious. Judaism is cultural. I observe tradition but I don't follow all the strict rituals. I consider myself a good Jew anyway because I always felt in order to be a good Jew you need to be a good person."

If Sogolow wrote her book in part for her grandchildren, it has been well received. Her oldest grandson was so proud of her book he gave a copy to his teacher.