Proustian Brisket

S. Chu, and J.J Downes, two well-regarded research scientists, wrote a paper in 2000, entitled, Odour-evoked Autobiographical Memories: Psychological Investigations of Proustian Phenomena. Their title tips a beret to Marcel Proust, the French writer, who wrote what is widely regarded to be, at seven volumes, the longest novel (and least read novel), In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu).

There is one part of his novel that is quite well-known and oft repeated. Proust romanticizes the deepest pangs of memory about the smell of a madeleine biscuit after soaking in tea. Chu and Downes define the Proust phenomenon as ‘the ability of odors spontaneously to cue autobiographical memories which are highly vivid, affectively toned and very old’. 

The Proust phenomenon was in full effect on Wednesday at the Stern house. The aromas of brisket and garlic and onions interplaying with matza toffee, melted chocolate and sautéed liver were utterly twisting my brain around into my oldest memories and some not all that ancient. It was like being on a Disney ride.

For instance, there is the distinct bouquet of the brisket.  I am remembering a Passover seder of my childhood, when I was maybe three years old. I recall being jammed together with lots of people in my grandmother’s Pittsburgh apartment. It’s very warm in her small space. But it’s not just a warm temperature. It’s a family warmth, a sense of home and connection. In my soul it becomes a touchstone experience, a mythic moment defining what it means to be a part of a larger whole.

I’ve used the same Passover brisket recipe for the last 40 years. The recipe is on an index card in my mother’s scrawling cursive. The recipe is her mother’s – my grandmother’s brisket. It’s not just a recipe – it’s an algorithm that gets entrée to my heart.

So, you see, the Proust phenomenon bounced me from one moment in Newton right into a crowded Pittsburgh apartment in the late 50s, a location filled with love, wide open and without limits.

Sometimes it feels as if we are, each of us, a smooth stone, skipping across the endless expanse of an infinite sea. Where we are in any given moment changes all the time as we move through space and time and memory.

The seder is filled with Proustian phenomena! The parsley dipped in saltwater, the haroset, the matzah itself! These are all purposely part of Passover. Each olfactory experience puts us somewhere else in a memory of another time.

Every Jew at a seder table is a kind of time traveler, bouncing between earliest memories of childhood and adolescence. And if we concentrate, we can travel beyond our individual memories to a collective memory, joining our thoughts and memories together in an infinite tapestry of thought and time, of devotion and wild success, of birth and death and rebirth.

Passover is that moment reminding us with all senses that life is transitory. One moment we are slaves, the next we are free. Only don’t forget; the Exodus doesn’t end with our freedom – the story just begins there. The rest of the story, as Paul Harvey tells us, is where to find the real action. And it isn’t pretty. There’s bad behavior, defiance, disappointment, betrayal, death, and even redemption. We’re not done: the road stretches out before us.

That’s our heritage. That’s the surface upon which our smooth stones skip and careen. This life is a composite of our individual experiences as well as of those who came before us. And we are building new moments, new memories, right now: with our family, our friends, our community.

There’s so much more to our story than right now! There’s an ancient history below our feet even as we reach toward the Heavens. That’s our Passover promise: to reach way past the confines of our homes toward each other, and beyond that.

And all that from my grandmother’s brisket.

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach


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