Dutch Bint Al-Sahn
Marzbahn was a quiet man, never speaking more than he had to, rarely expressing his emotions outwardly. Normally, this stoic silence was a boon for him and, though it did get him out of having to lead the prayers, it also meant that he was the only dry face in the crowd. Surrounded by family and friends, he stood behind his mother and sister, casting a dark shadow upon them and the hole that everyone was gathered around; a shadow that was only broken by the sun’s blinding reflection off of the small, scattered patches of what remained of the previous week’s snow.
Beyond the hole in all directions were rows upon rows of similar grey stones, some a part of his family’s plot, all bearing messages of comfort such as “beloved father/mother/daughter/friend/chef” or “May they ride their moped to heaven.” Marzbahn just stood there, staring at the oak casket, imagining what they’d put on his father’s stone. He realized that this wasn’t the time to make that decision but it was easier to make up silly engravings—such as “the first man to make Bint Al-Sahn in a Dutch Oven”—than it was to think about his father’s corpse, lying eerily still inside of the oak coffin that was being lowered into the dark, earthy hole. He could almost smell the bottom of the pastry burning as his father removed the oven from the fire in their back yard.
“God damnit. Not again,” his father would cry out as he wrenched the heavy iron lid off and laid it off to the side of their porch, setting a thin black smoke loose from inside the oven base as he sighed from the sight of another slightly ruined cake. As far back as he could remember, Marzbahn would watch him with varying degrees of fascination, trying to figure out just why his father kept trying to make the Bint Al-Sahn in such a ridiculous way. The honey cake was supposed to be cooked in a more controlled environment, something he guessed his father didn’t quite grasp considering he was used to Dutch-American cooking.
“Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba,” the rabbi began, snapping Marzbahn out of his honeyed memory. The Rabbi had begun the Mourner’s Kaddish, or prayer for the mourners, and, as per custom, Marzbahn joined in with the rest of the crowd.
“B’alma di v’ra chirutei, v’yamlich malchutei,” he began, before switching his mouth to auto-pilot in order to retreat within himself once more—or at least he tried to. But the choking prayer of his mother kept him painfully aware of his current surroundings. Instead of seeing his father staring into the black steaming cauldron with puzzlement and a touch of anger on his face, Marzbahn saw the strongest person in his life breaking down into tears. His mother had had a difficult few months, he thought. Four months prior to this, she had lost her father and soon after that, her mother.
She had never talked much about her parents while they were alive so Marzbahn felt no great loss. But he did see the loss in his mother’s eyes as they sat shiva on their carpet for her parents. Shoeless and wearing ripped garments, it was here that Marzbahn first realized just how strong his mother was. She had kept herself together throughout the entire week and within a month was already back into the natural swing of things.
Marzbahn had to leave to go back to his own home in Albany after the shiva period was over but he came back to visit often, the loss of his grandparents acting as a catalyst to strengthen his own bonds. It also gave him the courage to approach his mother about his grandparents, although it took him a month to get over his fears and approach his mother with the question.
It was snowing out when the two of them sat down at the table, hot tea in hand, the smell of cloves and cardamom wafting out of their glasses. They faced each other and sat in silence for a couple minutes, appreciating the soft powder that was covering the slightly burnt porch and their back- yard fire pit. Marzbahn turned to look at the door leading to the garage, listening cursorily for the clanking of the garage door, worrying that his father wouldn’t make it home safely from grocery shopping before the snow got too bad.
“Your grandparents were born in Yemen prior to WWII,” his mother began, taking a small sip of her tea before reaching for the milk and adding a couple extra drops to her tea. Trying it once again, she closed her eyes and exhaled a sigh of contentment before placing the glass back down. Marzbahn turned back to her, putting his worry away for the moment.
“I never pried much into their life in Yemen. Imma and Abba didn’t like to talk about it and they could be as stubborn as an ox when they wanted to be,” his mother said, her shoulders tensing. “However, as the war heated up, their stubbornness cooled just enough to admit that the tensions were getting just a bit too high at home.” Marzbahn took a tentative sip of his tea. His nose wrinkled from the bitter flavor and hoping to save his tea, he
reached for the sugar.
“With a few of their neighbors and friends,” she continued, “they
fled Yemen and ended up in the cramped quarters of a ship bound for the United States. They faced rough seas and cramped and diseased quarters before making their way to NYC. Since they left without too much money, their first residence was nothing more than a broom closet.” She paused to take another sip of her tea but instead of starting up again, she sighed and sat in silence for a couple seconds, her shoulders relaxing ever so slightly.
“Suffice it to say that their early days here were difficult,” she said, tapping her cup, “but they got through. Eventually, I was born and we had a mildly bigger apartment. But they were difficult people, trapped by tradition and steadfast in their beliefs, rightly or wrongly. I wish I had kept up communications with them after college but, well, what can be done?” She finished drinking her tea and Marzbahn looked deep into her brown eyes, realizing now where her strength came from.
Sensing the end of the prayer coming, he turned his attention back to his own words. “Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu v’al kol-yisrael, v’imru: amen.” Silence settled over the crowd, save for the occasional sniffle and bird chirping in the trees that lay beyond the final row of gravestones. Marzbahn’s mother was the first to break the silence.
“I guess it’s time then,” his mother choked out, walking over to the pile of dirt and grabbing one of the shovels. His sister followed suit and the two of them dropped the first shovelfuls of slightly moist dirt onto the casket. After a couple more scoops, the two of them passed off the shovels to the next two mourners. This continued until everyone had placed at least one shovelful of dirt into the hole. Marzbahn and his mother, silent as a grave, took the shovels in hand once again and finished filling in the hole. The rough wooden handle of the shovel rubbed against Marzbahn’s soft hands, reminding him of the pain he felt with each scoop.
With the service finished, Marzbahn silently slunk away down the road. He felt that the best way to process the day was to just walk for a while. He turned out of the graveyard and onto the sidewalk of the main road. He now realized that they had lucked out; not a single car had passed by during the service. Not even the nearby gas station was disturbed. Marzbahn reflected on the less than ideal placement of these two structures but not much could be done about it; it was just part of the growing pains of a town as small as Park Ridge, NJ. Old sat next to new, historical sites and shiny new banks butt up against each other, both vying for the same space and attention, both hoping to stay relevant in an ever-changing world.
Marzbahn took a deep breath and felt the cool, late winter air flow down his throat. He closed his eyes and drank in the sunlight as he mean- dered down the sidewalk. When he opened his eyes again, he had found himself next to a chest high wooden fence and a sign that said, “Home of the Historic Wortendyke Barn.” During his many years of living in Park Ridge, he’d never had much time to visit the Wortendyke barn but much like the graveyard, he always noted just how peculiar it was to have such an old building sitting next to a row of modern, white houses and gas stations. The barn was old, older than the town itself, and it still stood, silently passing judgment on all the cars that just drove right by, never noticing its brown, windowless exterior.
But today, it had at least one visitor to acknowledge it. As Marzbahn walked under its steep, low hanging roof, he felt its chipping, rough wooden slats and wondered how something this fragile had the strength to survive hurricanes, major snow storms and its ever-changing surroundings. As he made his way to the front, the small patches of slowly melting snow crunching and sloshing under his feet, he felt two small grooves in a burnt patch of the wall. Marzbahn recalled the textures of his porch, which after repeated missteps and abuses, became decorated with circular burns. Over time, however, these burn marks became less and less common and one day in his senior year, his father stopped making the marks completely.
“Marzbahn!” his father called with excitement.
“Grab the honey from the cabinet, will ya?! I think I’ve finally done it.”
“Mm,” Marzbahn replied before throwing open the screen door and running inside, closing the screen door behind him. Grabbing the honey, he rushed back out and ran into the screen, sending it crashing to the ground. This had become so routine that the one or two times that it didn’t happen, Marzbahn’s sister came rushing downstairs from her room wondering if everyone was alright. As he brought the honey to his father, Marzbahn saw the inside of the steel oven that his father held so dearly. His eyes widened and he inhaled deeply, letting his nostrils fill with the sweet smell of a true pastry. For the first time, he would be able to taste his father’s Bint Al-Sahn instead of charcoal slathered in honey. As he tried the first bite, he was struck by the slightly earthen flavor that complimented the sweet and flaky dough. He couldn’t help but smile and his father smiled back, wider than he had ever seen him smile before.
Marzbahn pushed this memory out of his mind as he made his way to the front of the barn. The snow, which really only remained under the overhang, wiped off his shoes onto the stiff grass. He gazed up at the barn’s fourteen-foot-tall doors and let himself be transported back to a simpler time. Back to when the land was just a few Dutch farms next to each other and the smell of manure and wet wood permeated the air. Back to when there were trees and fields as far as the eye could see and birds chirped from atop the barn, which was probably painted red, and a soft wind rustled through the pine trees behind the barn. Everything felt slower and tasted, well, he couldn’t quite place the taste, but could only describe it as the flavor of the old world. The sound of close families and the smell of burnt wood floated through the air and brought Marzbahn back to his backyard. He and his father sat bundled up by the fire, not more than a week prior to the funeral, and were just talking. They sat on opposite ends of the orange pit of flames in fold out chairs that were too comfy for their own good.
“You know son, I’ve always secretly hated the winter,” his father said, poking at the fire with a stick, sending sparks floating lazily off into the sky.
“Because it’s almost impossible to do any comfortable outdoor cooking.”
“Heh, I guess. But you’re doing it now, aren’t you?”
“Yeah but it’s not the same,” his father said, rubbing his arms. “I want to be able to enjoy the cooking, not feel like I’m stuck in a freezer, slowly turning into a Popsicle. However, I promised you some Bint Al-Sahn and Bint Al-Sahn is what you’ll get dammit!”
Marzbahn looked at his father, who was blowing onto his hands in between pokes of the fire an attempt to keep feeling in his fingers. He looks down at the fire, watching the flames lick the black, charred exterior of the oven. “Hey Dad,” he said, his voice rising in pitch.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you this for a while but why did you always insist on using your dutch oven to cook the Bint Al-Sahn?”
“Well....” His father stopped and set the fire poking stick down. He looked at Marzbahn thoughtfully, his piercing grey eyes getting serious. After what felt like an hour, he started talking again, slowly at first. “Well, it’s because of your mother actually. After we had dated for a while, I wanted to take the relationship to the next level and to do that, I had to convert. I knew that my parents wouldn’t ever let me though. We’d been living here ever since it was New Netherlands and by marrying your mom, I’d kind of be turning my back on much of that history. But I loved your mom, so I stuck to my guns and went against my family’s wishes.” He paused, letting the sound of crackling wood fill the air. Marzbahn looked at his father and saw the pain that he had been shouldering. His father’s blond hair fell on his face, covering his eyes and hiding the difficulty of his telling of this story. Marzbahn was about to tell him it was alright to stop before his father lifted the hair from his eyes and continued.
“I didn’t know this until after the wedding but my parents essentially disowned me. They said that if I was going to reject part of my heritage, I’d have to reject all of it. So here I was, history-less and with only one other person in my life. Instead of losing everything though, I gained a new culture through your mother’s family. But I still resented my parents and I couldn’t just sit back and let them rob me of my past. So, I decided I would combine two of the things that were dear to me—your mother’s favorite desert and my favorite method of cooking. It took two decades to do but I finally accomplished it. Too bad I couldn’t stick it to my parents fully, they died before you turned two. Still, I did what everyone thought was impossible.” He chuckled somberly. “And God am I proud.” Tears began to run down his cheeks and Marzbahn, noticing the shiny streaks reflecting the firelight, stood up. He walked over to his father and embraced him in a tight hug. He poured his entire heart into the hug, squeezing for the decades of hugs that his father was robbed of.
Suddenly, the sound of a passing car shocked Marzbahn back to the modern world, robbing him of a small bit of what the past had to offer. He looked at the bright blue sky and saw that it was undulating and that the light was reflecting oddly. He placed his hand to his cheek and felt a small track of water, slightly colder than the rest of his face. It was then that the flood gates opened, chilling his cheeks and creating salty rivers. He rent the sleeve of his suit jacket, the rough brown fabric tearing easily, and it was then that he felt a soft hand on his shoulder. He turned to see his mother standing there, tears in her eyes still as well. Marzbahn realized that he no longer had to stay strong, that it was alright to be loud. He flung his arms around his mother and began to wail, the grief hitting him harder than he ever thought it could.
“Come,” his mother said through choked back tears, “we still have some of your father’s Bint Al-Sahn left. We can say goodbye when it’s gone. Let’s go home.” She held Marzbahn at arm’s length and stared into his deep grey eyes. Tears glistened again in her eyes before she turned the two of them and started walking towards his sister, who was standing by the welcome sign. Marzbahn looked back at the barn and simply wondered what tragedy had allowed it stand so tall.