Mrs. Chaipul is actually a wonderful cook. When you run the only kosher restaurant in the village of Chelm, you have to be. But her lead sinker matzah balls are never going to change.
The recipe had been in her family for generations, passed down from mother to daughter. Every year, the men in the family joked that the secret ingredient was building mortar. Jaw-breaking matzah balls were one of the afflictions that the family suffered. At one seder, Mrs. Chaipul’s grandfather claimed that if Solomon’s Temple had been built from his wife’s matzah balls it would still be standing. These remarks were greeted with stony silence.
During her first year in Chelm, Mrs. Chaipul, a widow, was too busy opening the restaurant to prepare for her seder, so Shoshana Cantor, the merchant’s wife, invited her to dine at her family’s table.
It was a sumptuous feast. When the soup came, Mrs. Chaipul was surprised to see that the walnut-sized matzah balls were actually floating. She picked a spoon, lifted a matzah ball, exercised her jaw and bit.
When you’re expecting a rock and instead your teeth sink into whipped air, it comes as a shock. She sat there with the spoon held in front of her mouth for quite some time.
“Is everything all right?” Shoshana Cantor asked. “Is there enough salt?”
“Interesting,” Mrs. Chaipul said quietly. And then she added so as not to offend her hostess. “Quite tasty.”
By the end of the seder, Mrs. Chaipul was disheartened and confused. Had her family been wrong for so many years? Or were the villagers of Chelm misguided?
She took her concerns to Rabbi Kibbitz. He was no help. “Kabbalah I know,” he said. “But cooking?” He shrugged. “I eat what’s in front of me. Too much, if you ask some of the villagers.” Then he laughed and patted his great stomach.
Mrs. Chaipul set the questions aside and went back to her restaurant.
A year flew past, and Passover was fast approaching.
Shoshana Cantor stopped in to invite her to the seder and said, “I understand that your restaurant will be open this year.”
Mrs. Chaipul grinned. “Yes, of course. It wouldn’t be Passover without the famous Chaipul knaidel. I missed them last year, and I thought that I would give them away this year to make up for my mistake.”
Mrs. Cantor’s eyes widened. “You’re giving away free food in a village of Jews? You’ll go broke.”
“Well,” winked Mrs. Chaipul. “The matzah balls will be free, but the soup will still cost.”
It was pouring rain on the second day of Passover, and still the line for Mrs. Chaipul’s restaurant snaked out the door. Fortunately, she had anticipated the crowd, so she had made six kettles the size of washtubs full of matzah balls.
The restaurant was crowded, elbow to elbow, tighter than the shul on Kol Nidre eve. No matter that it was cold and wet and bucketing down rain outside. Inside, they were warm and cozy, glowing with anticipation.
The soup was sweet and savory, rich with the snap of parsnip and perfectly peeled slices of carrot. It was, in the words of Rabbi Kibbitz, “Good enough to cure even an uncommon cold.”
And then it was time to eat the matzah balls.
They were as big as ripe apples, and heavy. It wasn’t so easy to get such a large knaidel onto your spoon. Some children had to use two hands.
Ow! It hurt. It was dense, like damp clay. Your teeth got in, and it tasted all right, but it was hard work, like sawing firewood with a nail file. After two minutes you began to have second thoughts, but your teeth had sunk in so deeply that they were trapped, and there was no choice but to go on. At fifteen minutes your jaws began to ache.
At last you bit through. The flavor was good, robust, but it went on and on and on. You nodded, and smiled at the neighbor whose face was not six inches from your own. And then you chewed some more.
Suddenly, young Doodle, the village orphan, burst into the restaurant. He had forgotten that there was free food and had been wandering through the village looking for someone to tell his news.
“Mrs. Chaipul! Rabbi Kibbitz! The dam on the Bug River has burst! And a flood is coming.”
There wasn’t time to think or plan. A stampede raced out of the restaurant, though the village square, to the banks of the river, where the high water dam that they built and maintained had broken.
A wall of water was rushing toward their homes. In minutes, it looked like Chelm would be washed away and drowned, forgotten in a deluge like the village that Noah and his ark floated away from.
No one could speak. Partly because they were in shock, and partly because they were still chewing. The villagers were so upset they hadn’t even bothered to put down their bowls and spoons.
Mrs. Chaipul, who had been too busy serving to eat a bite, broke the silence with a command.
“Throw your matzah balls into the river,” she shouted. “Aim upstream from the break in the dam!”
The villagers did as they were told. Matzah balls went flying. They were caught by the current and washed into the hole where they became lodged. More and more matzah balls flew into the river, landing with loud sploshes until the gap in the dam was almost sealed.
Still, water was dribbling through. It could break at any time.
Again, Mrs. Chaipul spoke. “Spit your matzah balls into the river.”
Spit? Such a thing! Everyone looked at Rabbi Kibbitz, who shrugged, and then spat.
Partially-chewed pieces of matzah ball flew at the dam and stuck fast. The water crested and receded, and not even a dribble leaked through.
The villagers cheered!
“Mazel Tov for Mrs. Chaipul’s famous knaidels!”
Mrs. Chaipul beamed and kvelled.
Then, much to her surprise, Rabbi Kibbitz kissed her on the cheek and whispered into her ear, “Delicious, and good exercise too. You should never change that recipe.”
What could she do? She didn’t.